Growing up in a small Florida town famous only for waterski shows and baseball spring training, Chris Knight had no idea he would one day become an internationally published photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, People, MSNBC, ABC, Ocean Drive, GQ and others.
The 30-year-old photographer and ambassador for Pentax brand cameras made a name for himself when he abandoned the conventional path and chased after his dream to become a professional photographer.
Now a photography instructor at not one — but two NYC schools, we had a chance to catch up with Chris between lectures to get some insight into what it really takes to make it in a creative field.
I grew up in Central Florida, in a town called Winter Haven, where I wanted to grow up to be a movie director. I ultimately thought ‘I don’t really think that’s reasonable’, so I decided to go into something a little bit more practical. I ended up studying broadcast journalism at UCF, the University of Central Florida. After I graduated, I realized that the state of broadcast journalism wasn’t really what I wanted, so I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I was waiting tables and I was bartending, and I was given a camera for Christmas. It was probably the most important Christmas present I ever got, my first camera, which is right after I graduated college.
I fell in love with photography instantly — it was instant addiction. I was just obsessed with it. There was this internet community called Model Mayhem which was starting up around the time. I used that to meet people and build, I guess, the foundations for photography. I thought that the only way to make money in photography at the time was to do fashion photography, so that’s what I figured I must do.
I saved up and I packed my bags and I moved to South Florida. I lived in Miami and assisted other photographers for several years, really tremendous experience, really great learning experience, very hard, very, very valuable. I was ultimately given the opportunity to move up here to work, and I took that. I’ve been in New York for about the last 3-and-a-half years.
I didn’t really have a studio, but I tried to make a living. Doing any kind of work in a creative field is hard. You will run through a stretch of time where you have some pretty difficult struggles.
I’ve definitely had those months where it’s the 3rd or 4th of the month and you haven’t paid rent and you’ve got $6 in your bank account. You don’t know when your next job’s coming in and you’ve got a loaf of bread and a jar peanut butter. You really start to question what it is you’re doing. I’ve had those, I’ve had those multiple times. I think either we give up or we work through that. Being able to work through that strengthens the resolve. We don’t ever want to go back to that and it motivates you to work harder, I think.
I believe that there are 3 components to being successful. One of them is ability or talent, or whatever you want to call it. The other two anyone can do at any time and that is attitude and a work ethic. Talent may get you in the door, but work ethic and attitude are what keep you around.
Actually, the ability of being able to take a photograph is 10 percent of what a photographer does. The other 90 percent is dealing with people and contracts and the back end, the front end, and so forth and so on. What you’ve got to do is not be a jerk, be pleasant, be nice, be a good person. That took me a while to learn. Obviously being stern when you have to be, but overwhelmingly trying to be a good person, and trying harder than everyone else.
I was never the most talented, I was never the smartest, I never had the most money, but I knew when other people were sleeping, I was willing to work. That’s the core of success. Work ethic is the one thing that I really try to hammer home with my students. There are a lot of very successful people out there who have a medium amount of talent. There are fewer people who are immensely talented who have a bad work ethic.
Punctuality, punctuality was the most important lesson, and being a stickler for being on time. I found that in the professional scape, if you are on time you are late, so you’ve got to always be early. I’ve got no tolerance for lack of punctuality, because all being tardy shows — especially if you’re habitually late — is that you don’t appreciate or value the other persons’ time. I learned it a very hard way when I overslept for a job, that was incredibly time sensitive, by about 10 minutes. I ended up missing the boat and it caused a tremendous amount of problem.
We were shooting in another country and we were shooting on a boat that required we leave the harbor by a certain time. I overslept. That caused a slew of problems with the crew and the time and the boat, which we were supposed to shoot on, left without us. It was a domino effect of problems.
That and communication. I think most people are afraid to get on the phone with people. You don’t have relationship with someone over text or over emails. The relationships you have with people are face-to-face or they’re voice-to-voice.
Oh, I had multiple, multiple, multiple times that I wanted to give up.
When I was assisting, it was a tremendous time commitment and I was doing 80 hours a week and making … Let’s say this, I’ve had jobs where I’ve made more by noon than I had made in an entire year of assisting. When you’re faced with that and you’re faced with the struggles of being able to feed yourself or pay for rent, I wanted to give up so many times and at least take up a job waiting tables or something to supplement income.
The guy who I was assisting was very hard on me and said, “You can’t.” I owe him that. He was a very big part of saying, “You can’t do that.” I think part of it was he didn’t want to lose me as a full-time assistant. He was right. Committing to it 100 percent, although it was difficult, I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have that.
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience and I think when I was assisting, the photographer that took me under, he said, “One day you will pass this on.” I really believe in passing on the idea of, the ideas that we have and the things that we know. It does no one any good for yourself or for the other people.
A friend of mine and I were talking and he said something that I really agree with. People who are doing work at the high end are doing work that’s better than the old masters in sheer virtuosity. Because we’ve just learned so much about how to do things and how to create things and it just really elevates the standard of what people expect from photography. That’s what I love about teaching, I love the idea and the concept of elevating the standard and people learning, who genuinely want to learn.
Saying, “Don’t give up,” is obviously the really cliché answer, but that’s the one that resonates with me. Everyone struggles and you feel like you’re doing it alone, but the rewards are so great when you are able to have a job that you are involved in what you love.
Most people aren’t afforded the luxury of being able to have that and work in a career that they love. I think one of the reasons is that they give up, they take the safe route. There’s nothing wrong with that, because it is a safer option, it is an easier option, but it’s ultimately a little bit less fulfilling.
Generationally there’s a lot more people out there coming up who are seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment from the work that they do, and that’s wonderful. But they also have to recognize that it is going to take a lot of hard work and it is not an easy road.
Wil is the Creative Manager at Celebrity Expert Marketing, and you should follow him on Twitter. He also grew up on the small town streets of Winter Haven.