fine art photographer
A shot from Nyari's current series, Geisha Ink. Courtesy of the artist.

Reka Nyari’s Transition from Commercial Photography to Fine Art

Like many New York photographers, Reka Nyari‘s career started on the other side of the lens. Though the European transplant originally came to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, she turned to modeling post-graduation in an effort to save some money and travel the world. In 2004, she grew weary of her nomadic lifestyle, Nyari moved back to New York and turned back to her craft. Though she had always envisioned herself a painter, her camera skills were indisputable – friends suggested she focus on photography, and Nyari applied much of what she learned as a model to developing her own practice. While working in nightlife in the trendy Meatpacking district, Nyari was meeting scores of fashion industry execs and models. Through these contacts, she put together a book of stylized editorial fashion portraits and took to posting these images online on photo-sharing sites like Flickr.

As her Flickr following quickly amassed – Nyari boasts that her following reached over 10,000 fans in just a matter of months – her first commercial jobs trickled in. From a gig with DC Comics to shooting the latest lingerie line at Kiki De Montparnasse, Nyari quickly built up a portfolio of fashion and commercial clients. Since then, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Juxtapoz and Vogue Latin America; her commercial clients have included RADO Watches, Makeup Forever, Casa Dragones, and Nexxus, among others.

While Nyari brandished her skills as a commercial photographer, she also spent time developing her fine art photography. Rather than stick solely to paying work, Nyari made it her goal to continue developing fine art series that she could sell to her personal contacts and collector base. As her portfolio continued to develop, she realized she would benefit from partnering with a gallery to bring her work to the marketplace. After sending her book to multiple galleries, Emmanuel Fremin gallery in Chelsea agreed to give her a shot. On the heels of a successful week-long first run, Nyari became a permanent fixture in the gallery’s roster. She’s worked alongside the gallery, in addition to a number of international galleries across Asia and Europe, to continue to show her work. She’s also published a series of books, including the highly successful Femme Fatale: Female Erotic Photography, published by Tectum.

Here, Nyari shares how she balanced commercial work with personal projects, and what drove her to ultimately decide to abandon commercial photography in favor of a full-time fine art practice.

reka nyari
From Nyari’s book, “Femme Fatale,” published by Tectum.

Reka Nyari’s Early Career Influenced Her Fine Art Practice

NM: Tell me a little about your background as an artist and photographer.

Reka Nyari: I always loved taking photos but I thought I would be a painter because I associated being a painter with being an artist. When I arrived in New York, I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts and went into the fine arts curriculum, but I also dabbled in film photography while majoring in fine arts and painting. When I graduated I was living in a tiny apartment and I didn’t have space to do anything on a massive scale. So I started doing photography because I felt like I didn’t need the space to make it work. I thought I would use those photographs as references for my paintings. And I showed my friends some of my photos and they were like, ‘Why are you painting these, they are amazing!’ And that was an ‘aha’ moment for me, that I could be an artist as a photographer. Once I crossed that mental block I had, I realized I loved photography so much more, it fit my personality and I felt so creative and free. There’s such a beautiful social aspect to photography.

NM: Tell me a little about your modeling work. How did it shape your photographic eye?

Reka Nyari: I traveled with my camera. I lived in Asia and Europe and it was good for traveling but I felt a need to create and be behind the camera. Being a model was valuable for learning what not to do when I work with models and subjects I know how to make them comfortable and at ease. Shooting is a collaboration between the two of you so bringing out the best in your subject is important.

NM: How did you transition out of modeling and back into the art world?

Reka Nyari: I modeled for like three years before I quit, and I wanted to come back to New York and pursue art. I came back and worked in nightlife on weekends and taught myself Photoshop and studio lighting. I spent the next few years intensely working and learning. I was always shooting artistic stuff, but I started making money in fashion, and portraiture and working for different labels.

NM: How did you find yourself getting that work?

Reka Nyari: I think I was really good with people and maintaining contacts. Being in nightlife, I was meeting all these fashion people. Some of the people I was working with ended up being some of my biggest clients. In addition, when I first started shooting back in 2004, I was posting my work online. Flickr was where I was getting a lot of following; in fact, my first clients were through Flickr: DC Comics booked me to shoot some of the characters they designed, and that was my first paying gig. Later, I booked a campaign for RADO Watches and Kiki de Montparnasse lingerie. What was great was that I was pretty much going and learning at the same time.

NM: How did you approach your business at that point? Did you devise revenue streams, or did it all just sort of start happening?

Reka Nyari: It kind of started happening. In the beginning, I was happy to do any job. I was trying to figure out how to make money on my own. I didn’t say, ‘I only want these types of clients.’ Throughout the year when I was working and shooting, I figured out what I loved doing the most, what I’m best at, and got to a point where I decided I’m not going for what pays the most but for the things I enjoy doing the most.

NM: How did you find consistent work?

Reka Nyari: I don’t know if I thought about it too much, the work was coming to me and I think it was coming to me through the contacts I made. Flickr was one of the first sites that brought me a lot of work. People were looking for photographers there back then. Once I had clients, they would recommend me to other clients.

NM: Are you still taking on commercial work?

Reka Nyari: My income now is 95 percent fine art. It’s definitely a transition from when I first started shooting. At my first shows, I wasn’t really selling. It’s taken me 10 years to make money as an artist, which is amazing. I prefer to do personal projects and make money that way, versus taking on commercial work. I still do some commercial and editorial, but with what’s happening with my career, I don’t have any time for it. I still shoot creative editorial, or when a fashion project comes up, I work with those clients. But my fine art career is pursuing me a lot more in the last few years.

reka nyari
From “Late Night Sessions,” an early series of photographs. Courtesy of the artist.

Transitioning to Full-Time Artistry

NM: When did you decide to make the transition to working predominantly as a fine artist?

Reka Nyari: When you’re a photographer, you keep shooting and working and don’t have time to step back and analyze your work and what you like and haven’t liked because you want to keep working. Then I got pregnant and we had a kid two years ago and that was an amazing break for me to really assess what I was doing. I wasn’t taking assignments and just looking at what I was doing. So I got back to work with a different sense of clarity. You don’t need to get pregnant to get clarity, but for me personality wise I didn’t necessarily take the time out to say, this is what I’m going to pursue.

NM: Once you decided to work mostly on fine art, how did you make the transition?

Reka Nyari: I was always shooting a ton of fine art work, but my commercial work always got priority. I spent 8-10 hours a day shooting commercial work. So my fine art was on the shelf. I wasn’t thinking about it. When I got pregnant, I put a small amount of attention into the projects I shot and believed in, I sent them out and wrote about the work. Instead of showing my images, I spent time writing my artist statements, I sent out the work to galleries, and posted it online, and started getting press on the pieces. I got shows and I just had to put in the time and energy and effort into my fine art.

NM: To that end, you’re great about getting yourself press. What’s your strategy?

Reka Nyari: I think having a presence online is great. I’ve been lazier now than before, but I used to post a lot on Instagram, Flickr, Vimeo, Facebook, and Behance. A lot of different magazines and people would see those and contact me for interviews. People look for interesting work online and it’s a great way to get connected. In New York City, meeting people and going out to events and talking about your work is definitely beneficial.

NM: How did you inevitably start working with Emmanuel Fremin?

Reka Nyari: I was approaching different galleries and I put together my series that I wanted to show. I sent it to him and he suggested this the first time we do a test run. It worked out well as I ended up selling a ton, so on my end, it was fantastic. I honestly feel like in this world you have to be able to take risks. If you don’t you don’t go anywhere. Emmanuel decided he really liked my work, and they wanted to work with me. They’re my number one in New York. I have a gallery in Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, and I’m constantly looking to work with different galleries all over the world. I’m constantly expanding and working towards showing more work.

reka nyari
Copies of Nyari’s book, “Femme Fatale,” have sold out and are currently sold as a collector’s item. Courtesy of the artist.

Success a Working Fine Art Photographer

NM: It sounds like you have been able to manage your career rather successfully even without gallery representation. Why do you feel like its still an important thing to have?

Reka Nyari: I think any artist who wants to make it as this point needs gallery representation and I don’t think you can make a name for yourself selling prints out of your living room. I sell work online all the time, but people look at your exhibition list and what you’ve done and this is a formal way of being successful and drawing a higher value.

NM: Has working with a gallery allowed you to raise your prices?

Reka Nyari: When I first started any kind of pricing factored in my production costs. Now, if I make 100% of the sale, I can give a better break, but with galleries, you’re factoring in shipping and paying for customs, plus giving a commission. In the beginning, I was pricing to sell and breaking even. Prices are gradually going up, but I want to keep them in a range where people can still buy them.

NM: As an artist with quite a bountiful range of contacts, how important is it that artists take time to build their networks?

Reka Nyari: Very important. I think you might as well be working towards making great advances in your career and selling pieces instead of having someone do it for you. Keeping in touch with people from the beginning. I still have the same list that I started when I first started shooting. I still have a list of 15,000 email subscribers. You never know who’s going to come in and buy your work.

NM: You’ve also published a book of your work which is something that a great many photographers work toward. How did that come about?

Reka Nyari: The publisher (Tectum) approached me because I’ve been in a number of different photo books. They originally approached me to be part of group photo book on women that were shooting erotic art photography, and I sent them a bunch of my work and they said they wanted to do a solo. We had a deadline of 6 weeks to do the layout and design, but it sold out 5,000 copies in a little over a year. Now it’s a collector’s edition.

fine art photographer
Nyari’s “Geisha Ink” was shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

NM: Where would you like to see your career move in five years?

Reka Nyari: I would love to be doing this, creating art and having amazing shows and I loved to be in major museums and galleries around the world. Have my pieces in major collections. I love to be known for doing what I do, my art. There’s definitely more specific goals but I’m working on a few different books that I love to get published.

NM: Any words of advice for emerging photographers?

Reka Nyari: I think there are more people online than before, the whole industry has completely transformed into the Instagram model. I think it’s important to present yourself in a positive light and show your work. If you’re an artist and nobody sees your work, then what’s the use? You have to put yourself out there. Keep doing what you do and make sure people see your work. Social media and photo sharing sites can be really good, and entering online contests can be really beneficial. Try coordinating a show, even without a gallery, like having a show in a local coffee shop. Doing anything that exposes your work can be beneficial.

Visit Reka Nyari’s Orangenius profile.

About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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