In this interview, Chris Verene discusses taking your time, recognizing your strengths, and realizing what matters as an artist.
You attended college and grad school in Atlanta. It’s the cliché to move right away to New York or Los Angeles if you want to be an artist, but you took your time with that step.
I did not know I would move to NYC and I didn't make plans to move, so I wasn't taking [my] time; I thought I would live in Atlanta, GA forever. I was happy there and I felt that the music scene was part of my identity. What I did do after grad school was try to get my art known in NYC. I did not plan to need to move there; I just assumed that my art could be there and that would be enough for success.
What I did in '96 and ‘97 was to fly to NYC on a credit card [and] stay with friends. I [took] boxes of my art around to galleries and curators, showing it to anyone who was willing to look. This is how I got my first show. Then, two years went by before I considered moving to the city. I also went to the Maine Photographic Workshops, which helped me figure out what I wanted to do about grad school.
I’m going to flip the question and ask why you’ve stayed in New York this long.
Now that I am established here, there [are] not many other places my wife and I could find work besides NYC. My freelance work in photography is all based on contacts made here, [and] my teaching job at College of Staten Island just doesn't happen in many other cities. The music I play and all my friends—that is all based here. It has become a personal and career hometown that just can't compete with other places.
Your website states that you waited years before showing your work to members outside of your family and friend circles. Why did you choose to not push the work sooner?
I just didn't think it was necessary. I didn't think the work was ready—it takes me a long time to develop new work—and there are only 2-3 new pictures per year. I always like to wait and not push my work until it seems to be more than ready. People don't have time for half-baked work straight out of art school. They want to see something mature, for the most part. There are exceptions to this, but the first time I put work out there, [I like] for it to already feel mature to me.
What stage in your career would you consider yourself right now?
I could quote the Guggenheim fellowship about this: “Often characterized as ‘mid-career’ awards, Fellowships are intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”
I'm at "mid-career". I have a fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). That's kind of a milestone for me.
Congratulations on becoming a fellow. If fellowships are considered to be characteristics of a “mid-career” artist, what accolades would you suggest an emerging artist concentrate on? Or better yet, what were some of the steps you took to get you where you are?
I think an emerging artist should try to get people to come visit their house or art studio to see their work in person. After that point, they should try to be included in group exhibitions. Look for exhibitions that have work similar to your own. Try to find and contact the people who sponsored the show.
Don’t concentrate on an elaborate website or maybe don’t put up a website that focuses on your art if you are a new artist. Think of the work as it could be best understood, which is usually not online—not that some art really [isn’t] great online, so that’s another category.
At this point in your career are you able to fully support yourself as an artist?
I was living off my [documentary] work and freelance work from around 1998-2003. Around 2006, I was looking for more concrete work and I started teaching full-time in a community college in 2008. In 2016, I lived from my teaching work. I was in the Whitney Biennial in 2000; that's about the middle point of surviving from my work.
You’ve been teaching for some time now. I always felt that adjuncts taught as a “best of both worlds” situation: it’s steady enough in regards to income while being flexible enough in regards to time, but that’s not the case here. What has that done for you to be a full-time professor (and in some cases running the photography department)?
Most adjuncts are way underpaid for the work they do, and they don't get paid to have office hours or participate in any way with students outside of class—sometimes that's the most important part of college. I love to teach and a gig like CUNY demands that you exhibit your work and be recognized in your field. Full-time profs work hard, but they live on an academic calendar, so there [are] lots of breaks. Kind of like how college students balance time in school versus time on their own.
In a 2010 interview for The Morning News, you described your works “as a letter to my family and close friends.” How has that experience been to get a broader audience (collectors, museums, critics, etc.) engaged in your work? Were there difficulties when you initially showed the work?
I have been very fortunate to have gallery representation and museum support from early in my career. I don't know if I saw any “difficulties,” because my career was managed by Paul Morris Gallery (who co-founded the Armory Art Show). I make the work for my first audience, which is the people whose lives appear in the work. Then the second audience gets to see it, in books and galleries.
Right, I suppose what I mean to ask was: how do you communicate/push the work? Another artist with similar subject matter could garner no interest while you’ve been internationally recognized. Your works are in the collections of major museums. You were even the first photographer to be awarded the Pollock-Krasner Grant.
I don’t have any special secrets about how to push the work. In the ‘90’s I walked into galleries in NYC with pages of slides and portfolio cases on a roller cart. I was refused [on] almost every occasion. I was nominated for the Pollock-Krasner in 2002, as they were in a phase where it was by nomination only. As of today, in many categories, that [grant] is open to all people; no nomination required.
I think the goal is to find someone who believes in your work and will promote it for you. If it’s really great, it will get recognized. “Another artist with similar subject matter”—this is a fictional idea. I don’t suggest measuring yourself against the idea of another artist with similar subject matter. It also assumes this work is as good as your own. It might not be good at all, but has “similar subject matter.”
I want to discuss the books you’ve published: “Chris Verene” and “Family,” not in a conceptual context but rather a practical one. The artist book is itself its own medium and can reach a larger target market than the photographic print. Those who can’t afford an image, or may have no wall space to hang one, can rationalize collecting books. It can also be reproduced in a larger number than a print without devaluing it. Did you find that marketing your books was a different terrain than with your prints?
I did not do any marketing. The Twin Palms Publishers offered both books as a whole project, where I made the book and they published and distributed the book. I don't think I made any significant money because the books [were] very expensive to produce. If there is a way to spend more to make a book more archival, more [classy], more fancy, then Twin Palms will take that option. That is partly what that company is known for: the best photography books in the world. The money makers in art photo books are people like Taschen. They do big runs of popular topics.
Generally, I love art books. That's how I can collect art. I recently donated most of my books to The College of Staten Island photo program. The book form is what I love for my own work because most anyone can see a book, but lots of people miss museum and gallery shows.
For artists young in their careers, so much energy is put into developing their practice, but also promoting their work. You're well past that stage; you're represented by Postmasters Gallery, your work is in the collections of various museums, and you're a college professor. Is marketing still something that you personally focus on or is that left to your representation?
I think artists should focus on making their work. Promoting the work is not always a strong suit for the artist and it can be very disheartening. It's ideal if the artist can find someone else to do the promotional work, or possibly the artist can do this via a social media personality. However, the social media presence is quite a lot of work as well and can be distracting from actually making art.
Do you have any advice for other artists, like an “I wish I knew then what I know now”?
I wish I knew then that feeling grateful for what I have in life is very important. I wish I knew then that some of my art dealers would die (Pat Hearn, Daniel Reich, Colin DeLand, and Byron Cohen), and I wish I had appreciated them more while they were alive.
I wish I knew then that being happy and enjoying daily life is way more important [than] getting success or money in the art world. I wish I knew then that sexism and racism and class privilege in the art world were part of its foundation and that artists are struggling in this structure and may not even know it.
I did think the art world would collapse after 9/11; it did not collapse. Maybe it will not collapse during the new Fascist regime with Trump, Pence, and Ryan in Washington. Maybe artists will save the world in this new era.
What are you concentrating on right now, Chris?
I am practicing drums to play with some of my bands: Bach on a Hook and The Rock*A*Teens. I am working on a video for my wife, Ani Cordero. It's a Black Lives Matter themed music video in Spanish. She is a World Music artist. I used to play drums for her and now mostly work as a producer for her projects. I am always looking to go back to Illinois to make more documentary work. I think this spring I will go to make more pictures and videos. I have been adding video to the overall process of documentary photography. I am currently a Fellow at NYFA and I'm always looking to apply for other grants and so forth.
Hey, it was great talking to you. Thanks so much.
Chris Verene is a documentary photographer who has been shooting three generations of his family since the ‘80s. His works have been collected by institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the High Museum of Art, and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Verene was the first photographer to be awarded the Pollock-Krasner Grant. He is the Assistant Professor of Photography at the College of Staten Island. Verene if represented by Postmasters Gallery.
This article has been edited since its original publication.