Lose The Shackles And Find Your Niche

by Dale Dauten, Chicago Tribune
August 29, 1999

“What is it about us, the public, and what is it about conformity itself that causes us all to require it of our neighbors and of our artists and then, with consummate fickleness, to forget those who fall into line and eternally celebrate those who do not?”
—Ben Shahn

When you hear people say, “I still haven’t found myself,” it’s tempting to reply, “Have you checked the sofa?” But no; no wisecracks allowed; it would denigrate something honorable, the noble longing,

The Search.

Too bad that the one thing most often missing from The Search is actual searching. Work, home, work, home: It’s a voyage of non-discovery, pacing the deck of a moored ship.

What got me thinking about finding one’s niche was speaking with Steven Gross, a wedding photographer in Chicago. I had heard he gets $4,600 for photographing a wedding, and I wanted to learn just how it is that he’s worth that much. Well, the first thing I learned is that he no longer gets $4,600; he gets $5,600, plus expenses, plus the costs of the prints. And he’s booked up the rest of this year and much of the next. Half of his assignments are outside Chicago—Seattle, New York, San Francisco, the Bahamas. And he now books assignments for 11 associates around the country.

So what makes him so special? The first thing you notice is that his pictures are exclusively black-and-white. Artsy black and whites. The whole Brassai, Cartier-Bresson feel. “Instant nostalgia,” Gross calls it. Lots of shadow, lots of detail, close-ups of gifts and hats and veils and, most of all, emotions. With the exception of a few group for-the-record shots, all are unposed.

Most weddings are run by the photographer, pose after pose, as if they were photo scavenger hunts. Ironic that the wedding is centered around the production of a wedding album, and yet such albums are always a disappointment, not quite right, not quite real . . . plastic fruit. But Gross is more of a journalist, slipping around the preparations and the festivities, taking so many photos that the participants have to forget about the camera. He doesn’t run the wedding, he chases it. The result is a set of photos that romance the wedding, that reveal the emotions instead of just the clothes. (You can see what I mean at www.RealLifeWeddings.com.) And it’s all because Gross loves weddings and loves black-and-white photography.

How did he bring the two together? “It was an accident,” Gross tells me. There’s that word again: accident. The history of ideas is just a long, banana-peel hallway. He was a commercial photographer, doing corporate work, when he would occasionally be asked to do someone’s wedding. All photographers get asked that question, but most consider such work beneath them. And why not? Gross refers to the typical wedding as “firing-squad photography”—”line ‘em up and shoot ‘em.”

But Gross had his thing about black and white. When asked “Do you do weddings?” he would respond, “Do you want black and white or color?” Nearly all would say “Color, of course,” and he would refer them to someone else. But those who were left were mostly artists, graphic designers or art directors, the sort of people who weren’t receptive to being herded into photo opportunities, the sort of customers who welcomed off-beat shots and weren’t afraid of emotion. And thus Gross built a reputation that put his work on “Good Morning America” and in Esquire magazine.

So let’s add this up: Gross 1. took a genre that his fellow commercial photographers disdained, 2. rejected the traditional approaches and 3. turned against what 95 percent of customers prefer. Three negatives make a positive.

If you want to find what’s right for you, sometimes it’s enough to figure out what’s wrong. Sometimes it is enough to turn your back on professional prejudices. Usually you have to disdain the majority.

Oscar Wilde could have been speaking about Steven Gross and other niche-masters when he said, “A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”