The Business of Art — Props & Perils of Giving It Away

The cat’s out of the bag — I’m 77 years old, so there are lots of people in this world who know more than I do. But I’ll risk their derision and buck the tide and share a little wisdom I’ve gathered along the way.

One of the wisest things I’ve learned is to be unselfish in my artistic endeavors. I’ve always been willing to give my photos and words away when they would be helpful in a good cause. And I never lost a dime for it.

I’m reminded of Nancy Brown.

A former New York fashion model, Nancy became a leading beauty and lifestyle photographer after she left the runway. And, wow, was she successful, with clients like Revlon and thousands of photos on file with top-flight stock agencies.

Nancy Brown

It was with some trepidation that I bought Nancy’s book, Photographing People for Advertising in the late 1980s. I wanted to improve my portrait photos of the people at Ananda Village. But, gosh, was it “spiritual” to learn from a photographer whose clients were working to keep the world of samsara stocked with shiny baubles?

The portraits I took by following her methods were beautiful. Shortly after I made them, Swami Kriyananda said in a talk he gave during Sunday service, “We can take the methods that people use to make money in the materialistic world and apply them in spiritual ways.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Nancy had qualities that I greatly admired.

Her methods were simple. For her studio portraits she most often used three 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of foam core board, a small white, tiltable artist’s table, and three modestly powered studio lights. I loved that she could make beautiful photos with simple gear.

She was completely unselfish about sharing her methods — unlike many second-level photographers who wouldn’t tell you boo unless you paid them a hefty fee. When I ordered a book directly from her, she signed it with a warm greeting.

She was endlessly creative. She bought many of her clothing props at thrift stores. Many of her stock models were friends and neighbors. She would do anything to get the shot — hang over a high balcony, wade waist-deep in pond water, and bend, stoop, reach, kneel, or run to get the right frame.

In my 52 years as a writer, editor, and photographer I’ve had ample opportunity to gather a mental catalog of the qualities that make us successful as artists — that make us happy and pay the bills. During a recent spell as a very, very neophyte videographer, I watched dozens of YouTube videos in my efforts to learn the tricks of the trade. I was tickled, once again, to see how many of the most successful filmmakers were open-handed in sharing their advice and methods.

People often mock artists who’ll work for minimal or no pay as unprofessional losers. But I’m not so sure this view is the correct one. I have a client who couldn’t afford to pay me when we began working together. Gradually, they were able to pay me a modest hourly rate. As they’ve grown, they’ve been very scrupulous about increasing my fees accordingly. My advice, if you’re asked to contribute your labors or accept minimal pay is to find out, before accepting, if the client is a genuinely good guy or just a stone-cold user, in which case you should walk away as quick as your legs will carry you.

On the main Ananda Garden site I recently told a story about Motown singer Smokey Robinson and his miraculous instant recovery from heavy drug use. See “What Is That Light? Touching the Spirit of Christian Art.”

I love another story that Smokey told. I’ll let him tell it in his own words, and leave the interpretation to you. It’s from a series of short video interviews with Oprah Winfrey — you can find them on YouTube by following this link.

Growing up in Motown, we have and we always have had, the Motown family. We were not only stable mates at a record company, we were family.

We had a policy at Motown whereas you never, ever had a lock on an artist. All the producers and the writers could go to an artist with a song and say, “Hey, do you like this song?” And if the artist said yes, the producer or the writer was able to record that song on that artist.

Photo: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. (Click to enlarge)

That’s why the competition was so stiff. And we had so many hits because Berry had a saying that “competition breeds success.” And even though we were competing against each other, it would be nothing for us to go into the studio and help one of our competitors with a song that they were working on, with an artist that we were working on. Any of us, we all did that for each other.

I’ll use “My Girl” for an example. Were it not for the Temptations, I never would have written “My Girl.” When they came to Motown and we signed them up, Barry said, “Hey man, I want you to get some hits on them.” I said, “Okay.” So I started to work with them. I had a nickname for them, I called him the Five Deacons because they had a very gospelly sound. I could take them in a little room and say, “Hey man, you guys sing for me,” and they would sing “ooooo” and shake the room. So I wrote “My Girl” for David Russell’s voice, for the Temptations, for them to sing. And the Temptations were so creative in making up the background vocals, “hey hey hey,” and all that “oh whoa” and all the stuff they’re just singing on “My Girl,” they made it up themselves.

It turned out to be an incredible record, but if it wasn’t for the Temptations I probably never would have even written “My Girl.” So, no, I don’t wish I would have kept it for myself ‘cause they’re the ones who brought it out of me. I’m not the one who brought it on. And plus I always was so happy whenever I got a hit record on one of the artists because they were brothers and sisters, and if I could do something to enhance their career and make things better for them, that made me happy.

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