Beginning a Career
What does a career actually begin with? With the first exhibition of one’s own or a first publication? A profession does not begin with a specific event, it is rather a long and winding process. The most important thing is to make the decision to begin this process. Depending on your personal preconditions, you first have to develop self-confidence and independence. My first groundbreaking decision was not to take the last exam of my studies and to focus on a career as a freelance artist. This initially meant finding a source of monetary income that was compatible with the actual creation of art. I started a job as a warehouse clerk and quickly decided to take the night shift so I could spend the day making phone calls and sending out press releases. I now planned to spend 9 months of the year this way and dedicate the remaining 3 months entirely to creating art. This I wanted to keep going for a maximum of 5 years. If I hadn't been able to gain a foothold in the art scene during that time, I probably would have started retraining.
Networking in Arles
The hub for the beginning of my career was the Rencontres d'Arles festival in Arles, France. Founded in 1970, Rencontres d'Arles is a summer photography festival that has made a name for itself as a springboard for photographic and contemporary creative talent worldwide. Arles was the hotspot to network. Thus, I was able to exchange ideas with many artists and establish press contacts. Before that, I had met Ursula Moll when I won the Kodak Young Artist Award in 1996. That same year, she called me and invited me to the big dinner, together with the then head of Kodak, at the Place du Forum in Arles. There I also met Burkhard Arnhold from the in focus gallery in Cologne. He too went to Arles every year to build up a network and maintain contacts. He liked my eleven-pinhole camera pictures of trees and so in 1998 I asked him to cooperate with me. Thereupon we developed an exhibition concept about images of trees. This is how my first group exhibition at Burkhard Arnhold came about. That was a great stroke of luck for me. The most important contact I made there, however, was the German photographer and Hasselblad Award winner Manuela Höfer. She ran a photo gallery in London and also became aware of my eleven-pinhole camera pictures. With that, I had my first gallery owner in London.
In Arles, I learned that there was an even better event for building an international network, called Meeting Place in Houston, Texas. This event existed solely to connect producers and distributors of photography. Photographers were given the opportunity to present their portfolio in order to be signed by a gallery.
I signed up for such a portfolio review session and booked a flight to Houston the following summer. I had already paid off two-thirds of the airfare when the attack on the Twin Towers happened on September 11. This initially denied me the opportunity to travel to the USA. In spring 2002 it was finally time and so I emptied all my savings accounts to take my last money with me to the United States. I went all in, full risk, to take advantage of this opportunity. When I arrived in Houston, I immediately realized that I had made the right decision. After each conversation with the organizers, I felt an exhibit or article was in the realm of possibility. This feeling was surpassed during the review session when a gallery owner of the jury said to me, "Hey, you the guy with the filmstrips, sit down! I wanna see it!" Although my portfolio consisted of only 10 cardboards and a photo book and was thus far from the jury's actual requirements, the gallery owner told me, "You are done! You do not need anything else, I will manage you." Actually, each photographer was supposed to put a note to the jury member of their interest. Everyone wanted to go to Anne Tucker, a curator from the museum in Houston, and to John Morgenstern, an important collector. Everywhere I placed a note, I was accepted. On the 3rd day, the gallery owner Martha Schneider came to me and said, "You don't have to go through all that procedure anymore, you've made it, you better come have breakfast with us!" This was a great honor for me, as we photographers were not normally allowed to dine together with the jury. It was there that I met Melissa Harris from Aperture, among others. Another gallery owner also wanted to sign me. However, he reacted rather cholerically to some of my questions, which is why I decided not to continue working with him. Unfortunately, from a financial and business perspective, this was a big mistake, because this gallery owner is now extremely successful in New York and makes millions in sales. Nevertheless, my time in Houston was overall a complete success and probably the decisive springboard for the start of my career.