The Creative Stuff Is Happening. Somewhere.
We’re all struggling with at least some aspect of defining our work, like figuring out what it means in the world and why it matters. I sat down for a free-flowing conversation with a couple of fellas who, like myself, kick-started our careers or had a stint in local media and have since moved on to a more creative focus. Here's some of what we discussed.
We’ve all been in Greenville for several years. We asked one another, what does creativity look like in a small city like ours? Or a creative career? Or the clients we deal with? Or the work we all love to experience? What’s “good”?
Andrew Huang is a content strategist at Brains on Fire, a branding and identity agency that’s built a name with community building. His LinkedIn byline says it all: “Pretty good at lots of stuff.” Before going independent, photographer Will Crooks was employed as a creative director with Community Journals. They're together a lot. They were basically wearing the same outfit the day we spoke.
I knew them both at that company: Andrew, an assistant editor with TOWN Magazine, I a journalist, and Will, a freelancer who’d ditched a career in accounting and was making a name for himself as a self-taught street photographer. Actually, I’d first met Will on the street when he’d asked to take what is still one of my favorite photographs of myself.
Our conversation began with a discussion of art-making and creativity in the digital age, the usual pros and cons. Everything’s cheaper: yay! But – uh oh – everything’s cheaper.
Jennifer: Does the digitization of creative work inherently devalue it? Andrew, you’re saying “no.”
Andrew: I’m saying it is a tool, right? So, use it for good, use it for bad, whatever. There’s a whole different conversation around the usage intent behind how you use what’s at your disposal.
I think that one of the nice things about access to digital media is that what you’re exposed to isn’t dependent on people who serve as gatekeepers for traditional forms of media like what shows up on TV, what shows up in publications, editors at publishing houses, what books get published, all that sort of stuff. The influence that gatekeepers have has certainly decreased.
Jennifer: Which is cool, even though the three of us have all played that gatekeeper role at some point.
Andrew: Sure. I think that’s not to say that there is no value in continuing to develop taste and to develop a sense of what is “good.” I think there will always be a place for that, but I think at least the rise of visual media creates an environment where what is “good” isn’t being determined by a select handful of people, which is great.
Andrew: I think the way that applies to Greenville, though, is when you’re talking about creative work within this community of ours, you have so much access to all sorts of influences. And I think it requires creatives within Greenville – within these smaller markets that are traditionally not as bleeding edge – to be a little bit more educated, be a little bit smarter about what creative influences they look at. I think the temptation is to just see what trends are going on nationwide, interrupt the gate.
Typically, their application takes place after the peak of that trend, right? So other people have already discovered this particular aesthetic look, vibe, whatever, and by the time it reaches us, or by the time it hits that sort of critical mass, it’s everywhere on social media, for instance. It’s already over.
So I think the task at hand for creators is to ask, are you replicating or are you really producing something? Can you further the conversation, or are you just adding to the noise? And I think that’s sort of the double-edged sword of digital media. You have access to so much stuff. There’s a temptation to also get lost in that stuff as opposed to innovating.
Jennifer: See, I feel like it’s sort of the opposite push. It almost makes me slower to pull the trigger on creative output, because of all that noise that you’re talking about. And because I’m wanting to make sure that it’s not just more of the same.
Andrew: I don’t know that that’s necessarily an experience that the vast majority of people have. I think you, having worked in media and having again served as a gatekeeper of sorts or whatever, I think your taste level is such that you are aware of the noise, and whether you want to add to that noise or not.
I think for the vast majority of people – this is the flip side of the democratization of creative influence – even though we have a background in media, anybody else can decide that they want to play in that field as well. They don’t necessarily have the sort of background or awareness that you and I might have.
Will: And I think it occupies such a bizarre space because you can start with the obvious parallel joke of “everyone’s a photographer now,” in the space that we all have these platforms with which we make imagery. But then I think on top of that, it’s like everyone’s a creator now – even though I don’t particularly care for that word, but I think it’s probably appropriate.
Everyone is creating narratives, visions, frameworks of things, and I think a lot of times, they are just applying and just creating more noise. But I think it’s also the flip side of that framework that suddenly everyone has these tools, and it’s like in some ways, it can make for more educated clients. I think we consume so much more content now that at least speaking from photo talk – like, the world of photography – that people get exposed to more voices.
And I think the flip side of all of this digital content, and all these voices and perspectives being flooded out there, is that if you look back to, like, traditional print media and sort of leading people like the New York Times magazine with Kathy Ryan as photo director and positions like that, you have this very interesting position now where there’s never been more different styles of photography used and “high end” magazines and products.
Look at the new Esquire and GQ and the reference points and the style points from a lighting standpoint and a technical standpoint; it’s much less driven by some singular perspective. So I think it’s weird to see almost, like, the gatekeepers of these traditional media adjusting to this world where trends exist… but then they also exist less in that there’s a global audience for a social media account, right?
And I think that helps creators in places like Greenville where you can create this very specific aesthetic.
Say you’re an artist, and you make these pieces that are super-specific, and no one or very few people in Greenville like them. If you have a way of distributing global, you can sell your prints online, sell your prints per country; you suddenly have this global audience. So if you create something that cuts through the noise, you can be super niche and not rely on just a really small market, which I think is a huge transformation for certain parts of the creative industry for people. And that you can finally live somewhere small but produce something that resonates with people in the largest cities, all over the world. But you don’t have to be based in any of those cities, which I think is fine.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I mean, what is it they say you need? Like, oh, I think there’s even a book or whatever where it’s like, one thousand true fans or something like that. Like, if you want to make something, whatever it is, you can make a living off of one thousand fans as long as you continue to be in conversation with those folks.
And being able to find those one thousand people anywhere is super freeing. Like for me, I like being in small places; I always have. But as we were saying earlier, I’m producing, for the most part, literary stuff, or words, and it seems like as soon as they go digital, the value drops. But at the same time, I’ve been able to make a living off of that from anywhere.
Will: Right, you are allowed that freedom of space.
Will: It’s like a trade-off in that space, I think. But then also I think it’s just that weird space, and I’m sure you can speak to that, Andrew. At least, I can speak to the photography side; there’s never been such a need for more images. Everyone needs images. I recently worked with a branding client who’s a consultant, and he has a full photography website.
Because even if you look at most modern website design, it’s very image- or graphic-driven, and people are moving away from certain templates. So it’s like that’s work I would never do in the past. People are trying to keep their websites relevant. People are working under these frameworks where if they treat their social media like an advertising channel, which it is, they have to invest in resources to produce content or plan content.
So I think we’re on this precipice where it’s how you position yourself. A lot of photographers who started in a different era think that photography is dead as a medium because the traditional, really large-sum jobs are less common. You can’t have these huge teams producing these things.
But now, it’s like Nike has twenty or thirty really small campaigns that are all targeting these super niche areas. And it’s like if you fit yourself in the right place, I think there are more opportunities even in small markets.
Andrew: I heard this joke once about Nike: If you haven’t worked at Nike, are you even an agency? They work with everybody.
Jennifer: Good to know. I’m curious, though. We’re talking about we’ve got this access, we can create whatever and live sustainably off of that, or at least, maybe be creatively fulfilled. So how does that come back to places like Greenville?
Because a lot of times, you can have these experiences basically in isolation. You can have your whole world and your niche interests and all this stuff and never talk to anybody here about that. But I’m just really curious about how does that stuff feed back, and how does it not just become this sort of looking outward, doing your thing? How does it make a difference here?
Will: Ideally, you engage in the community that you reside in, hopefully, right? I don’t necessarily believe in this model of like a hermit artist. If all of your influences and all of your fans or whatnot are located elsewhere, and you have just chosen to live in Greenville for whatever reason or any other smaller place, sure, you could choose to not to interact with the community you actually live in.
But, I mean, that sucks. What do you do with your actual life that you’re living? So I think from that perspective, it’s inevitable that your influences and whatever you absorbed from elsewhere start permeating through what you do in your day to day and your real life, what takes place IRL.
And intentional or not to varying degrees, I think those external influences have to show through at some point. I think that’s an inevitability.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, I’d like to almost speak on the flip side of it, which is like, I think even if you’re isolated in some way, you have an inherent influence on the perspective of the market. So simply by being a photographer based in a market or somewhere, you’re creating work that’s being seen on a larger scale.
Will: Or, you’re shifting someone’s perspective where you’re from. A fairly large percentage of that creative community will know you, or you’ll at least know of each other. And I think it’s like this weird follow back around where it’s you have this huge reach of social media outside of where you live, but then also in a weird way you have this reach of social media where you live.
And you sort of have this framework where you make a certain kind of work, somebody like Eli. And like he’s making really dynamic, interesting work.
Jennifer: Eli Warren.
Will: Yeah, in Greenville, South Carolina. I feel like I’m not a very social person, but you sort of find people that are likeminded and kind of gravitate into the space of other people kind of doing dynamic work. It doesn’t always happen, and I would say that, overall, Greenville could still use better venues for that.
And I’ve had a lot of people speak to me about that, because when I do my studio days where I just offer like free hour slots for people and it’s mainly just like conversational and portraits, it’s this sort of really nice space to interact with someone. A lot of the people who sign up are creatives.
So I think like there is a desire sometimes for there to be a crossover, because I think like within your maybe genre or field of work, you may know a good section of the market, but I’ll be the first one to admit that once you go outside of that, I don’t know that many people. Like back when I worked in editorial and we’d do pieces on open studios, I would scroll through the artists and I would know a handful of them, even though in total, I mean, it’s not that many people. I think there’s still a lot of struggle with crossover in Greenville in that the creative communities are a bit segmented. There’s sort of little sections of artists kind of doing their thing and they have their tight-knit group, and there’s little crossover.
Being a photographer, I have more crossover, simply because I photographed a lot of those people. So I have a professional reason to have interacted with them, which led to a personal reason.
Jennifer: I have the same sense. That there’s like this kind of visual artist, and then another kind of visual artist, and then there’re these generational divides. And then there are the writers.
Andrew: Sure. And I think it’s like a hard – I don’t know, like I don’t have an answer for how that space comes together, because I think it relies on several people who are very instrumental in their subgroups, putting together something together. Because if you don’t have that, it never crosses over, period.
Jennifer: Do you think it requires a physical space?
Will: I think it requires creating an event or a thing that has the very difficult task which is to have something of interest and value to a lot of different types of creatives. I don’t know, I’ve never seen it done well here. I’ve been to a lot of things that have attempted to, but it always still feels very like this is this kind of person goes to this kind of event, and that kind of person goes to that kind of art opening, things like that. I think any market suffers from that, though.
I don’t know if that’s just a Greenville problem. It’s like a tribalism issue: we all kind of form these small groups, especially, I think, in creative fields where people may tend to be less social in general or have just like a smaller group. Maybe that’s just being projecting myself onto creatives.
Jennifer: What do you think, Andrew?
Andrew: No new friends.
Jennifer: Haha. Yeah, I have a wait list. So, I guess what I’m asking is, if it’s not this organic thing, how do you think it can be more deliberate in an effective way? Of course, I guess the question then is, what are you trying to effect? For me, what I would just like to see is… more better stuff. I don’t know any other way to say it.
Will: I think you run into the challenge there where it’s like there are two ways people approach more better stuff, which is like there are groups like Tiger Strikes Asteroid, which brings art from artists outside of the market. And sort of stuff that isn’t necessarily sellable here, but just kind of as the idea of exposure. And they’ll probably murder me for butchering the eloquent way they put it.
Jennifer: I’m going to have to look that up. [Editor's note: I looked it up.]
Will: Yeah, it’s an interesting group. But I do think crossover means people bring something cool from elsewhere, or maybe it’s like a multimedia experience. Like maybe what you need is something that inherently has a component that would speak more to writers and a component that would speak more to the visual side.
But then you run into the issue of just, like, hodgepodge, which is like it feels like a thing that isn’t about anything. It can just start to feel like there are too many different things going on, so no one really goes because it’s like, well, it’s not really “my thing.”
Jennifer: I feel like themes handle that.
Will: I would think you need them, because what I see in Greenville is there exists formal arts institutes that are very old school and very old Greenville. And then you have very small informal groups like Tempo that are run by artists and that don’t have necessarily any funding, and if people don’t get together to make it happen, a meeting won’t happen.
There are not formal spaces for it. I don’t think – there is no organization to my knowledge in Greenville that feels equally representational from a standpoint of – people making decisions are from both ends of the spectrum. I think it is very segmented.
Jennifer: I’ll agree with that.
Andrew: Does there need to be some sort of like – does it need to progress beyond something that’s like niche and sort of segment? When you say “more better stuff,” more better stuff as determined by who, and more better stuff for whom?
I think that is maybe kind of moving back to what we’re talking about with digital media to begin with, right? That’s one of the wonderful things, is that you have such a diverse array of things that can exist now in that you can find an audience for them even locally.
Do all these different niches need to be tied in together in order for them to effect greater change? Or can all of these individual segments exist as they are individually but affect the overall health? Even without some formal interaction between each segment? Yeah. I’m not posing that question with an answer in mind.
Jennifer: No, it’s a good question. Because, as you were saying, individually immersing ourselves in whatever creative communities we’re in has an impact. And then if we do it collectively on a small scale, that’s obviously going to have an impact.