Monday, November 21, 2011

Ian Summers Interview

Photo ©2010 Tom Kosa
Ian Summers: Raconteur, Career Coach, Motivational Speaker, Workshop Presenter & Artist
Ian Summers is a busy man. From art director, to creative director (The Black Book, Leber Katz Partners and Random House), to poet, journalist, think tank operator, teacher, and publisher, Ian has amassed a wide range of experience in the creative arts. He has written 14 books, lectured on creativity and had solo shows of his paintings. Since 1987 he has helped thousands of people navigate the uncertain path of success through following one’s passion.

Ian, how did you go from art director and creative director to Heartstorming, and for that matter, what is Heartstorming?

I started out as a high school art teacher right out of college. Loved it, but had serious doubts about whether I was a fraud. I had not made much art that I was proud of. So I went off to Europe to expand my experience as an artist.

After a few months in Paris doing sidewalk Mona Lisa’s for donations, I saw an ad for an art teacher at the American School in London. What a time to live in London. The Beatles. The Stones. My classroom studio was located just a block from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and Regent’s Park. I loved teaching art in London. I showed paintings in the same gallery as David Hockney who had just come back from months in the States working on a series of etchings called Rake’s Progress. We stayed in London for almost two years.

My wife became pregnant and we decided to return to the States on the condition that we live in New York and I would paint. But NY was expensive and I needed a job. How I found one is another story, but I became an ad man.  It was the era just after Mad Men. They were my bosses. I became an art director without having the slightest idea what an art director did. I was a fast learner.

Within a year, I was invited to become a partner in a think tank called Farsight Group. It was there that I learned creative problem solving ‘systems’ from my mentor, George T. Land.

I was 33 when I became a Creative Director at one of Leber Katz Partners divisions. I worked there for three years on Seagram’s, Vantage cigarettes, some fashion, and my favorite client The Netherlands Tourist Office. I was making a decent living and I was working a minimum of 14-hour days. Yet there was an emptiness. Something was missing and I was depressed.

After a couple of years at LKP, I received a telephone call from one of the publishers at Random House. I thought he was asking our agency to pitch the account. Instead he made a pitch to me to come work at Random House as an executive art director. It was the best job I ever had and led to a third career in publishing. A couple of years later, I started my own publishing and book packaging company. There was still an empty feeling.

“Follow your passion” can be great advice, but it can also be a long road to nowhere.  You are passionate about following your passion, but can you share some thoughts about the pragmatic side of the journey to success?

I was a talented creative problem solver for most of my career.  And that led me towards an understanding of the emptiness. Looking in at my career from the outside people assumed my life was working. It occurred to me that problem solving worked from the outside in. Most of the problems I solved came from the outside. My job was to make the problem go away and to replace it with a solution that sold more widgets. I wasn’t taking good care of myself physically, emotionally or spiritually. I was tired and depleted. I was a human doing; not a human being. 

Suggested Read...Ian's very personal experience in looking at the question "Why Do You Exist?".

What does “creativity” mean to you?

Creating is the antithesis of problem solving. It is about manifesting rather than making something “go away”. It works from the inside out. The definition I have been using for about twenty years: Creating is causing what you love or what matters to come into being,

It takes dedication and hard work to make art.  When I love my dream or vision enough, energy flows. It is kind of like tapping into abundance.

Part of the emptiness was that two of my greatest passions were not present; my love for teaching and my love of making art. I have found that when I am creating from my heart, I have all the energy needed to manifest. The more I learn about the creative process the better I am at teaching.  And the older I get the more I have to give. The aging process hopefully brings some wisdom and there is nothing I like more than sharing what I have learned. I have two careers going at the same time:
I paint and teach most every day. I am gifted. (I’ve never quite said that before, John) I give what I have learned. I receive in order to give. If a few days go by without creating, I feel those old fears and wounds trying to come back.

There is a tendency for photographers to associate creativity with the creation of original imagery, and yet to thrive in today’s photography world I believe creativity has to be applied to the business end of things as well. Can you comment on that?

I believe that creativity for photographers must include the intention to create images that make the world laugh and cry; images that evoke the full range of human emotions. I believe that great artists vacuum clean the universe for stimuli. Artists believe that the creative process is about synthesizing. The more we have to synthesize the greater our chances are of bringing something new into being – an innovation.

Yes. It is possible for a photographer to apply their own brand of creating towards making more opportunities appear. In other words, to manifest whatever they are looking for in business. Live the creative life!

Another way to answer these questions is to make the answers seem infinite. In creating pictures some photographers attempt to look towards other photographers for inspiration. Go to museums. Read books. Look at painting. If that is the only place one looks, the variety of information to synthesize is limited. Photographers must look at everything and to apply what they have learned about the world and life to everything they do.

BTW, I sign most of my correspondence:

Manifest Love,

You have worked with a lot of photographers. Is there a common thread that most of us shooters tend to fall down on?

Most photographers fall for the popular advice to specialize. Yet many photographers come into this business because it encourages them to make pictures of many subjects. The popular advice tells us to choose one thing and to do it well and to do it for the rest of your career. Come on folks. Most of you came into this business wanting to make pictures of a wide variety of subjects. Yet photographers choose to do this OR that. I believe it is time to do this AND that AND that AND…  To manifest love by encompassing and manifesting your many passions.

As a stock photographer ideas are my lifeblood, and every so often I realize I have used up all of my ideas! Luckily I have, so far, been wrong about that realization. Do you have any tips you can offer for the next time I run into that block?

Make clusters or mind maps of all that you love. Add what you love about what you love and what you love about what you love about what you love. Look at places, people, things, activities, etc.

What if you wrote the most important passions on index cards? Then turn over two at a time. Ask yourself, what is a such and such photograph? Force fits your passions together. In other words, vacuum clean the universe. You will never run out of ideas.

“Specialize” is one piece of advice photographers hear over and over, and yet you seem to have a different perspective. Can you delve into that a bit with us?

The following happened in San Francisco. The Workbook sent me on a speaking tour of major markets. The audiences included photographers, illustrators, reps, art directors, designers, etc. The subject was creativity and I was pondering the Error of Specialization.

There was a man in his 40s seated in the front row. His arms folded across his chest as if to say I dare you to get through to me. He turned on me. I was afraid I would lose the entire audience of almost 150 people.

He said angrily, “This is a crock of shit. I want to work with people who know everything there is about what I am working on. There isn’t any way I would hire a generalist. If I need a food shot, I want to work with someone who lives and breaths food photography.

I tried to diffuse the inquisitor. I asked him whether he was an art director. He was. I asked him is he was a creative person. He was. And I asked him whether he only worked on one kind on account the past twenty or so years. He answered by rattling off a list of categories. And then I said something like, “So you are creative. You are probably better at working on food because you were able to introduce something you did on another kind of account. He finally agreed with me. And so did the audience. Maybe you were there. The Earth was still young. It was 1993.

The photography industry has gone through insane changes over the last couple of decades. For me the biggest change has been in the tools at our disposal and the fact that these tools eliminate the barriers between imagination and execution. The net result is that vision becomes paramount. How can we photographers take our vision to a higher level?

May I?

“Be who you is,
Not who you ain’t.
‘Cause if you ain’t who you is.
Then you is who you ain’t.”

If you choose to do this AND that AND that AND that find the thread that connects your work together and makes it uniquely your own. The thread is likely to represent your passions. Then market and sell the thread of vision rather than each category you work in. if you do this well, it will

I wrestle with my love of the still image and my impression that motion is taking over. Do you believe that still imagery continues to have a strong future?

You are obviously not alone on this one. Photographers all over the country are attempting to learn how to be filmmakers meaning learning the technology. It’s not the technology. It is all about learning how to tell differently structured stories. It is about continuity. Before learning the tech side, re-learn storytelling. Learn to make pictures that allow the viewer to participate. Read graphic novels.

I know of one top notch photographic novel being made by a woman in Brooklyn named Stevie Allweis. You can see her trailer at her Kickstarter site. The name of her project is Issness.

Search for some articles on storytelling and graphic novels at my blog

It seems to me that the primary task necessary for success in photography in this day and age, is to get one’s work seen. Do you agree, and if so, do you have any suggestions for accomplishing that task?

The changes in the traditional still photography markets make it difficult to be seen and to develop relationships. Photographers need to find alternative markets. Not instead of what they presently do, but as an addition. Members of my Heartstorming Think Tank Team teleconferences have been exploring the healthcare fine art business. The group invested in creating a company called, and we are doing amazing things. We are always looking for artists who believe that art may be healing, to visit GlowArtworks and contribute work.

What doesn’t matter?

Imitation. Repetition. Trying to second-guess the marketplace.

What is the most important thing?

Taking marketing and creative risks. Remember there will be mistakes. And that is good. I think it was Woody Allen who said, “If you get it right too much of the time, you must be doing something wrong.

All growth demands change. Change entails risk. And risk requires a temporary suspension of security.

I know you are passionate about painting, but do you engage in photography at all?

Most of my solo shows, although predominately painting, include some photography.
Abe Lincoln©IanSummers

What inspires you?

Change. Diversity. Gallery walks. The infinite number of ways to manifest love.

Photography as a career…optimistic or pessimistic?

Those who survive will be doing something new and different. I believe in people.

Ian Summers, Raconteur
Career Coach, Motivational Speaker, Workshop Presenter & Artist


Alamin said...


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Anonymous said...

The "why do you exist" link is broken.

John Lund said...


Thanks for the heads up...working on it!