What is the relationship between sacrifice and success? How do we know when we’ve achieved it? In our latest editorial - Aaron Stern, photographer, creative, cultural storyteller, reflects back on his decades long career and taking note of the elements that have brought him to this moment in time. In his own words, it’s hard to measure success when it comes to something artistic. “It’s not a sport.”
At the age of 40, George Orwell said, “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”
I’ve only ever wanted success in the hopes that it would lead to something else. Lead to meeting more people— who I’d want to sit at dinner with and not look at my phone. Lead to traveling for a purpose. To a place I’d want to take pictures in. Hopefully it’d lead to another book about said place. So the cycle could continue. Until I can’t hold up a camera to my face any longer.
I had momentum going into 2020—
Paris Photo in November 2019 PhotoSaintGermain gave me a gallery in the 6th to curate a show. No budget beyond the space. So I used all my miles for the flight. Stayed at a friend’s apartment that was out of town.
I’m at EWR. Waiting to board a flight to CDG. An oversized trench is draped over my right shoulder. Hiding under it, is a large tote. It holds framed bubble wrapped prints. And a stack of my new zine, Vapors.
It’s warm in the terminal. I’m sweating because it’s warm. With half the show under my arm in a tote, in my carry on, checked luggage. On top of getting caught smuggling art into France, I’m concerned about the time I’ve put in working on the exhibition. Will anyone come to the opening? Buy anything? Will it lead to something? Who am I going to eat dinner with?
I had a strong opening night. Friends and familiar faces came by. Several curators— MEP, Jeu de Paume etc. The rest of the week was quiet. I sold a few pieces to two New Yorkers I already knew. Sold some books too.
I wouldn’t describe it as successful. But the experience of curating a show during Paris Photo, softened my mental self beat down. A very big small win.
I needed to get back on a plane to New York. Hide the oversized tote under my trench again. Smuggle the work home into the US.
It led to showing my own work at Perrotin in New York. During the December holidays. Sold a few prints and books. Paris also brought a new book with a great Berlin publisher, Kominek.
March 2020. Covid wiped me out. We’re tired of talking about it. Rightfully so. If 9/11 was an inflection point in society— the pandemic was it’s bookend.
The book got pushed. And then we didn’t want to release it, if no one could travel. Then I got sick.
Over a decade of my life. Invested in a career making pictures and books. Marching toward something. Only to be upended. Everything stalled. Friends moved away. Spread out all over the world. I lost touch with others. The community I had built dissipated. And my career felt like it had landed at JFK, but we were stuck on the tarmac. This is a difficult thing to process. To come to terms with.
What does failure feel like? I’d say, it consistently feels— shitty. But it’s difficult to measure success or failure for something artistic. It’s not a sport.
My doctor recently told me when it comes to my health—focus on small wins. His advice made me think about this column. When faced with the many failures throughout my career—I’ve always tried to find a silver lining. Like a small win. To get me out of bed the next day. Keep at it.
But how does failure look? You might ask. Maybe like Daido Moriyama’s book, Paris 88/89.
I bought a copy of it in Paris, when I was there for Polycopies— during Paris Photo in 2015. It’s a book fair on a barge on the Seine River. I went alone. Worked my table alone. Sold a few books and prints. Similar outcome as PhotoSaintGermain. But I put myself out there. To fail yes. You could flip the pretend scoreboard against me. But I was out there.
Paris 88/89 was about Daido moving to Paris. Finding a gallery. Establishing a life there. But he didn’t speak French. Made no friends. Didn’t get to show his work. So he found a space on his own. Made prints and hung them. But in the end, it was a failed attempt at a life there. An experience he’d do over again.
It’s one of my favorite art books. Because naturally, he went on to be massively successful. Prolific. But he also, like many of us, took a chance. Creatively. Curious about what about what life might look like in another city. What if. And reading his story of failure, in a small nicely printed zine like object, is what I like to pull off the shelf and look at. When I get home from another beating.
As a photographer, I felt like I had to constantly be thinking about myself. The work I was making. How to promote it. How to sell myself to get commercial commissions? What did the work mean? Why was I making it? How will it stand out? What’s my perspective? Where’s my arc?
So much self reflection— I lost focus on what was important outside of my work. Several relationships imploded. Sometimes wanting things, like success— it can make you insane. And ugly. “It’s too much to ask of the world to care about you. And that is a hard thing to let go of too.” My friend Daniel said to me recently.
The life I chose to lead, or chase, took me to incredible and strange places. There have been accomplishments. Published books and editorial work. Reviews and interviews in the New York Times, Paris Review, New York Magazine. Exhibited in galleries. But I traded settling down in my 30s for a career of mid success. My peers and friends found families and partners. In 2023, I thought I’d be further along in my career. And my life.
Who I met along the way helped form my point of view. I learned how other creative people worked. Which helped push me to put myself out there more. Because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Looking back on the 2010s made me think of a Richard Serra book signing. The Strand in 2014. I took a portrait of him afterwards.
Serra said he never would’ve made it as an artist without his friends. He needed them to reflect off of. Jasper Johns, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, Philip Glass. I remember hearing Spielberg, George Lucas, Scorsese and Brian De Palma say the same thing in the Spielberg doc.
Serra made me think of the people in my life. And how they’ve zig zagged in and out. In 2011, I asked my friend Camille to take a portrait for a V Magazine story. She’d only recently moved to New York from Paris. We met in Washington Square Park. It was July. Humid, hazy. It was late afternoon. She said she wanted me to meet her friend after. Another photographer and filmmaker.
Camille had a silk blouse and jean shorts on. And when I turned back around they were off and underneath was a bathing suit. She jumped into the fountain. I shot one roll of 120 Portra NC on my Hasselblad.
Her friend arrived shortly after. I took a portrait of the two of them together. And left. Developed the film. Made a select to use for V. Never looked at the rest of the roll of 120.
The portrait helped lead to my first commission at Vogue. Ivan Shaw, the then 25 year sitting photo editor, saw and liked the photo and gave me a shot.
Several years later I met a photographer named Robert Nethery. Or Bobby to me. We quickly became close friends. He was someone who always gave technical advice with zero ego. One of the few people who can’t wait to show you a reference, painting, obscure film or picture he knows you’d be excited to discover.
When I was editing my book, I Woke Up In My Clothes, I was looking for the negative of the Camille portrait. And when I found it, at the end of the roll— was a picture I took of her and her friend. Bobby. I had never put it together. Neither had he.
Maybe I’m New York centric— but this kind of thing happens here. Only here? Maybe yes. And because it does, the city plays a significant role in the survival of my creativity. There’s a magnetism that exists. Lives intersect.
MATTE partner, Matt Rowean commissioned me for this project. We sat next to each other at an agency 15ish years ago. Where we received a post-college education. It’s a New York thing for him to ask me to write this now. To help celebrate his own agency’s ten year anniversary.
It made me think about something I read in Jimmy Buffett’s recent obit. In a 1999 interview he said, “when I found Key West and the Caribbean, I wasn’t really successful yet. But I found a lifestyle, and I knew whatever I did would have to work around my lifestyle.”
For Matt and me, New York is that place and way of life. Where 9M people share a certain sensibility. We have both been building our existence around the style of life here.
I asked twenty or so friends how they’ve survived creatively. They all said the same thing— having a community of other creative people. To collaborate with. To share ideas. To simply be around.
What I’ve realized is— the best part of making pictures, books, showing work etc… is sharing in the process with the people in my life. The friends I bounce ideas off of. Making dark room prints with the people over at LTI/Lightside.
Chatting with the owner of the lab where I process my film. Taking prints to the framer. Hanging the show in Paris and at Perrotin with friends.
Today it feels as if everyone is selling you something. Social Media feels like a modern day home shopping network for advice. How to be a man. How to succeed in fashion. How to love yourself. Get ready with me. Follow my makeup routine. Take my masterclass in writing, acting, drawing, filmmaking, photography, editing, cooking, baking, pilates, yoga, boxing, jujitsu, amazon affiliate seller, bitcoin miner, NFT whatever, crypto trader, house flipper, car flipper, sneaker and playing cards. How to be an artist.
I have no advice. I go to bed most nights thinking it’s probably time to move on. Do something else. Then I wake up. Talk to my friends, the people I get to work with, the love in my life, and family. And decide to keep at it a little while longer.
I can only say what has worked for me. To survive creatively. Having a routine. Being resilient. Getting out and seeing art at home in New York. And wherever I travel. Regularly. Making plans with other creative, intuitive, thoughtful people. Hearing their ideas. What they’re working on. And remembering that the process of making whatever it is you make, and sharing in it— is the best part of it all