Robert Farber has built a lifelong career as a successful fine art and commercial and advertising photographer by understanding the importance of diversifying your business.
Farber never meant to become a photographer. In fact, the artist’s initial pull toward the art world drew him to painting. “I grew up thinking I would become a painter, I had my own studio in my parents’ basement and everything,” Farber recalls. “My parents, however, thought that going to school for art would be a waste.”
Instead, Farber got a technical degree and spent his spare time tinkering with canvases and cameras. Though he had no formal training as a photographer, Farber rather liked the way his photographs turned out – he was using the wrong film, and the prints often appeared grainy, but his photos frequently looked like – well, paintings. “They appeared ‘off’ somewhat, but I had a really positive response to them,” Farber says.
Taking his photographs to outdoor art shows in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, Farber drew interest from a publisher who approached him about doing a book of nude photographs, an area which Farber had been particularly interested in exploring. Because of the softness of his photographic style, the publisher saw Farber’s images as a progressive yet tasteful approach to the human form. In 1976, Images of Women was published by Amphoto U.S., and Farber’s commercial and advertising photography career was accidentally kicked off. “After I got my first paying gig as a photographer, I decided that was it,” he says. “I was a professional photographer from that day forward.”
Following the release of Images of Women, Farber was approached by fashion and beauty advertising executives and magazine editors that appreciated Farber’s stylized nudes, and thought his perspective would translate well for high-end fashion and advertising photography. “They came to me because they liked that sort of painterly style, and the backdrops with which I shot my nudes,” says Farber. “Creative directors often said to me, ‘If you can put a model in this location, I’ll give you an ad for a fashion magazine.”
From Fine Art to Commercial Work and Advertising Photography
Despite having a successful and flourishing commercial and advertising photography career, Farber didn’t give up on his fine art. In fact, the artist says the two mediums often went hand-in-hand. “Whether it was commercial and advertising photography or fine art, I always shot with my look and style in mind,” says Farber. That allowed him to continue expanding his portfolio, which was often so enmeshed with photos for work and photos for pleasure that potential clients rarely noticed that there was a difference. Instead, they came to Farber because his images were artful, captivating, and reminiscent of a lifestyle a consumer may long to obtain.
Approaching his career like a business, Farber understood early on the importance of partnerships to promote and expand the reach of one’s work. Forging corporate sponsorships with Nikon, Minolta, Canon and more, Farber was able to reach a diverse set of audiences. “They were using my images to promote their products, but they were also promoting me,” Farber says.
That forward-thinking approach also led Farber to develop his own website when the internet was just getting started in 1994, a move that snowballed into Farber’s launch of photoworkshop.com. The website, dedicated to helping aspiring young photographers get their careers up and running, was an instant success both with artists and industry heavy-hitters who wanted to advertise on the site. “It was really the first educational photography website ever,” says Farber. “It was totally 3D with online chat rooms, photography workshops, and photo studios and interviews with other photographers. It helped a lot of people learn the more technical marketing side of photography in the digital age.”
Today, Farber maintains a fine art practice, while also continuing to profit off his commercial and advertising photography. Many of his most iconic fashion photography images—which often picture infamous fashion figures like Iman and Gia Carangi—are some of his best-selling fine art pieces, and he’s published many Robert Farber books on photography. Here, Farber dishes his best advice for getting and maintaining a portfolio of profitable commercial work while staying true to your roots.
NM: What has driven your commercial success?
Robert Farber: When it comes to photography, and I did it commercially, it doesn’t mean that I changed what I was doing, or in other words, the style of how I shot my photos. I applied what the people liked about my own fine art work to the commercial version, i.e. the painterly style. When I started to become a commercial photographer, I kept my fine art work moving forward, and they fed off each other.
NM: How should artists approach their career?
Robert Farber: I intentionally approached my career as a business, and I’ve always told people that’s the best advice I can give for starting your career. Getting involved in the poster market, stock images, anything that generates royalties, and corporate sponsorships, magazine ads and exposure, I always knew that all of these things would elevate my career, while allowing me to live off my artwork.
NM: What do you suggest artists do to get their careers off the ground?
Robert Farber: For people who are just starting, it’s a matter of social media networking and publishing and getting your work out there. Get printed in magazines, editorials, interviews, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. All of these gigs amount to exposure, and that will ultimately be a driver for your career. It’s a form of networking that generates income in the process, and it also lends credibility to your work when you appear in magazines and editorials.
NM: How did the internet change the way you marketed yourself?
Robert Farber: My website started in 1994, and I got it going because I saw how important it was going to be. Social media is so important, especially if you’re a visual artist.
Robert Farber’s Advice to Aspiring Photographers
NM: What should your portfolio include?
Robert Farber: Your commercial work should have the same feel as your artistic work. It’s great to mix in your own original fine art images. They want to see that you have a unique vision, and if they give you an assignment or commission, that you will apply that perspective to the job.
NM: Do you work with agents? Should artists prioritize finding one if they want to get more work?
Robert Farber: In the beginning, you’re better off dealing directly with a client or editor so you can get feedback on your work. This allows you to get a response to your work directly, which is great for developing your style and your vision. It’s great to have someone that wants to represent you, because they have a lot of leads. But if you want to depend on that, you have to get a feel for your own work first.
NM: How should an artist-agent relationship work?
Robert Farber: I’ve always had a lot of different agents handling a bunch of different things, but you have to oversee it because you’re not as important to them as you are to yourself. Likewise, agents can do things for your career that you may not be able to do on your own. For example, they’re better at negotiating. Whatever expertise you can obtain from working with an agent is what makes the relationship so essential.
To find out more about Robert Farber, visit his website.