How to create your ideal artistic life
It sounds like Jackie Ranken and Mike Langford are living the dream.
Partners in life and enterprise, they run photography tours and workshops in New Zealand and around the world, win awards, publish books and prints, get interesting commissions, and judge and speak at global events. Best of all, they still love pushing themselves to improve.
Is this an unattainable dream? Not at all. Just before heading to Japan and western China for five weeks – and just after Mike won Travel Photographer of the Year at the 2019 Philippine Airlines-Travcom Travel Media Awards – Twizel-based Mike and Jackie share their advice on creative conversations, investing in yourself, and using awards as a marketing tool.
One and one make three
Theirs is a complementary partnership. Mike focuses more on travel and commercial photography and Jackie on fine-art work – and their different ways of working create chances to learn, says Jackie.
“Mike will go out with an idea in his mind about what he’s going to do, whereas I get out of the car with the camera and respond to what’s there.”
“Mike will go out with an idea in his mind about what he’s going to do, whereas I get out of the car with the camera and respond to what’s there. Mike taught me a lot about seeing shapes and understanding how to put things together,” she says.
He chimes in. “I’ve picked up creativity from Jackie. The equation we’ve worked out is that one and one make three. Together we’re much stronger than we are individually.”
They produce quite different pictures while photographing the same subjects. The results have formed the basis of three Symbiosis exhibitions, where, as Jackie describes it, “the shots sit side by side and have a conversation”.
Works by Mike Langford and Jackie Ranken capture Jackson Bay Wharf, from their Symbiosis II exhibition.
Being able to let go of your ego, and be influenced by others, pays dividends, she adds. “It’s best to open up and learn as much as you can and let the work speak for itself over time.”
Pricing your work
It’s healthy to retain a little ego, however, when you’re talking money. Mike says, “We both find it difficult, putting a price on ourselves – artists get embarrassed about it. But just do it.”
Jackie advises writing down your rates on a piece of paper, so when people ask you, it’s already set in stone. Joining an organisation such as the NZIPP (New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography) gives a sense of becoming a professional.
Their main income comes from running small-group photography workshops together, through their Queenstown Centre for Creative Photography. At first, clients would ask them for written notes – but rather than distribute a sheaf of papers, they wrote field guides that people could take out while shooting. It’s paid off, says Mike.
Photographers Jackie Ranken and Mike Langford.
“That’s become quite a passive income. We’ve sold more than 6000 copies, and they’re self-published, which means we get more profit.”
It’s vital to refresh your skills. Jackie enjoys using encaustic (hot wax) techniques to turn her prints into 3D artworks, and playing with multiple exposures and intentional camera movement.
If you love what you do, you’re motivated to stay current, says Mike. “I went out this week and photographed a lenticular cloud. I’m looking at this, thinking, ‘There’s a way I can capture this that communicates the beauty of it,’ so I went out and made lots of mistakes. Then I did a lot of reading and study on how to make it better.”
Use awards as a marketing tool
They're both Grand Masters of the Australian and NZ Institutes of Professional Photography, and their CVs feature long lists of awards. “Entering awards offers a challenge to make something fresh,” says Jackie.
“You find your own voice through working, through making lots of photographs. That’s helped us to grow, regardless of whether we win.”
Though winning still makes a difference – especially in the early stages. Jackie counts winning Australian Professional Photographer of the Year for the first time as a professional highlight.
“It changed my pathway in life. It helped me to believe in myself, that I could be more than a country photographer doing weddings and teaching at the local TAFE [education provider].”
Photos by Jackie Ranken (below) and Mike Langford (above) show differing perspectives on an abandoned couch in New Zealand’s high country.
Mike describes entering awards as their marketing tool. “Most of our clients are keen amateur photographers. If they see the people running a course are at the top of the game, they tend to invest in us.”
They’re both Canon Masters, an arrangement through which they trial new gear, and run workshops for the company; in return Canon uses their names and photos to market equipment. It was particularly helpful at the beginning of their careers, explains Jackie, when photography was moving away from film, “because we had knowledge [and equipment] others didn’t”.
Photos by Jackie Ranken and Mike Langford (above) show differing perspectives on an abandoned couch in New Zealand’s high country
Build a client base, then get selective
When they moved from Sydney to Queenstown in 2004, Mike says they “did everything we could just to earn a buck” until they could raise their prices and be selective. They developed their own products (photo books, workshops, etc) instead of relying on other people for work.
“If you want something to be successful, you have to have several incomes – you can’t rely on one.”
Today, approximately 90 percent of their work is self-generated. “If you want something to be successful, you have to have several incomes – you can’t rely on one,” says Mike. “But the most important thing is you like doing what you’re doing, because if you don’t like doing it, you won’t do it very well.”
Jackie Ranken’s image of a monastery in Ladakh, augumented with hot wax, is one of three images that won her the creative category in the 2019 NZIPP IRIS awards.
Make the work and look ahead
It’s tempting to keep tinkering with work, trying to perfect it – but having closure is important in order to begin the next project, says Jackie.
“Once the work’s on the wall, it sits there to speak for itself,” she says. “If nothing sells from the exhibition, well, that’s OK, if it does, it’s alright, but it’s not the reason the work’s exhibited. It was exhibited just to have its day, and then for me to move on.”
“As long as we had enough, we were pretty happy. Being healthy and having each other is important.”
This year it seems they’ll barely be at home, thanks to tours to Ladakh (India), Turkey and Scotland, and talking at a conference in Britain.
Jackie’s keen to develop a small artist community in Twizel – perhaps an art market and a gallery space. It's a busy life, but immensely rewarding, says Mike.
“Money’s not our driving force. Even in the past when we had to generate a certain amount, we were never money-hungry – as long as we had enough, we were pretty happy. Being healthy and having each other is important.”