Ted Kawalerski: The lure of the river

Making a 20-year passion flow to profit

By Martha Blanchfield

Photographer Ted Kawalerski’s new 60-image exhibit at the Beacon Institute in Upstate New York showcases his 20-year love affair with the Hudson River and life among the people who live along its shores.

When he began to photograph the river in the late 1980s, Kawalerski viewed the it as a personal project rather than a commercial endeavor. “As a resident of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., on the Hudson River 25 miles north of Manhattan, photographing the water and its surroundings was a natural,” says Kawalerski. “I would shoot whatever inspired me, and work on this project as much as my schedule allowed. There would be days, even weeks, when I could not break from my clients to pursue the river project, but I would always return. The pursuit became a creative escape where I could explore my photographic interests without boundaries.”

Navigating Kawalerski’s river
The Hudson River extends from Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks to Lower Manhattan, a distance of 315 miles. Kawalerski’s collection of images, a 50-50 mix of landscapes and portraits, captures the essence of life in such river towns as Croton-On-Hudson and Tarrytown in New York and Jersey City, N.J.

“The images are gritty and show life the real way, which is not always beautiful. Each captures the essence of being in the moment at the site. The  Hudson River area is most often portrayed in a romantic and pastoral genre, and even though this is the pervasive context, there is a parallel reality of industrial and often decrepit shoreline,” comments the photographer.

Kawalerski often visited with each subject several times before lifting the camera. The result is a collection of stories told through the eyes of those who invited him into their lives. An important feature of this body of work is that it’s portrayed only in black and white. “I did not want to replicate any romantic painterly styles; after researching the photographs that had already been made, I discovered that there were very few collections of  black and white images. On a very basic and intuitive level, this approach always seemed right,” says the photographer.

©Ted Kawalerski

"Halloween Boxer" was made during a Halloween parade in Tarrytown, N.Y., where, along with Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., is the Halloween capitol of the world.

Going commercial
“I feel it can be to a photographer’s advantage to maintain personal photography projects along with commercial work, and this helped inspire me,” says Kawalerski. As his Hudson River collection grew, he began to consider ways to share the photographs. Two obvious outlets were publishing them in a book and launching an exhibition. “When I started the work, I did not intend on making the Hudson River photos a commercially profitable endeavor. I was shooting for the love and passion, and was fueled by the positive comments and response received when I showed images to others who had also had a love for the river. My advice to anyone in a similar situation is to allow the passion to lead you and let your eyes be the guide. Shooting without restraint or guideline can be liberating, and may even give you your best work.”

A successful veteran commercial photographer who doesn’t need to rely on income from books or fine-art prints, Kawalerski admits that before fully committing to spinning the Hudson River project into a commercial endeavor, he did a significant amount of market research. “I looked into what had been done before. There are many books featuring images of the Hudson River, but in my opinion, most over-romanticized the subject. What I photographed was the grit and real life. It’s a view taken along the river’s line that captures pastoral at the north end and Manhattan’s flurry to the south, the grand to the grime, and everything in between. There is great diversity along this stretch of river in America and I tried to capture that.”

©Ted Kawalerski

Randy King is the owner of King Marine in Verplanck, N.Y. When you walk into Randy's office, you feel like you are entering a movie set. It's a crusty old place that is the nerve center of this interesting raconteur.

He continues, “Taking a solid, well-organized and comprehensive personal project and converting it to a commercial project takes diligence, business skills and contacts. Not every project is worthy of reproduction for the masses. I was fortunate to have a successful commercial career that allowed me the freedom to pursue personal work for many years.”

But merely having the time and freedom to be creative is just one side of the equation. For commercial success, Kawalerski stresses the importance of constantly cultivating new business and continuing to build rapport with existing clients. “I have noticed that now more than ever the photography market is run by people who are constantly changing jobs. This changeover, combined with rapid shifts in technology, is truly making it more difficult for photographers to not only break through the noise, but also to stay at the top of the list. Photographers need to engage in public relations and marketing, and I view this promotional effort furthering the Hudson River as a key component to help me stay ‘top of mind.’ I would recommend to anyone several years into their photo career to start exploring additional avenues within the market.”

A personal project’s commercial viability
Kawalerski knows it can be hugely gratifying to see a personal project come full circle to become a commercial success. But it’s another thing to strategically plan and execute the project as a tactical component in an overall marketing plan. Seven years ago he decided to stop viewing his Hudson work as “therapy” and a hobby, and began shaping it into an entity to help advance his reputation in the industry. He became more focused on the overall body of images and more systematic in shooting. “I came to look at things a bit differently,” he adds. “Not only did the collection of images need to stand on its own, but I now viewed this work as a piece in my overall marketing mix; the Hudson River project became more than a vision from the heart.” With vision and direction, he soon landed an exhibition at the MV Gallery in New York City in December, 2007. It features 38 works and a show titled “Top to Bottom: The Hudson River.”

A second win came five months later when Kawalerski approached the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. “The Beacon is a world-renowned environmental research institute with some of the foremost authorities monitoring river ecosystems, engaging scientists, engineers, educators and policy experts,” says Kawalerski. “The institute will exhibit 60 images from the Hudson River collection to further its mission to be a global center for scientific and technological advances in research, education and public policy regarding rivers and estuaries. The photographs are not ‘eco or activist’ per se, but they’re a perfect complement to the work of this establishment.” The exhibit at the Beacon Institute in New York runs through March 1, 2009.

Framed for success
Kawalerski shot with Nikon F3’s for over 20 years. He now uses Canon digital SLR cameras. “Over the years I probably made hundreds of images of the Hudson River. I built a darkroom in my house along the river and would immediately make prints for personal record,” says Kawalerski. “At one point we somehow lost all the negatives. Luckily the original prints were safe in an off-site storage facility.” Following the tragedy, Kawalerski had each photograph digitally reproduced using a drum scanner. Today, Kawalerski shoots with a Canon EOS-1D Mark III and carries a range of lenses, including a 16-35mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm and an 85mm f/1.2 lens. He makes prints on an Epson Stylus Pro 4800. Back-up image files are placed on external Western Digital hard drives housed in a storage facility.

A hallmark of Kawalerki's style is full-framing—no cropping. This in-camera precision makes darkroom work fast and productive. Over the years, Kawalerski has used nearly every format of camera, but points to early work with a particular body as cementing his methodology. “Since I first worked in a large commercial studio and I used 8X10 view cameras, I learned to scrutinize every point, from corner to corner. I learned to slow down and truly examine what I was photographing. This has greatly influenced how I shoot,” he says. Roughly 60 percent of the images in “Top to Bottom” were photographed with a film camera. But he’s a fan of digital capture, too: “I love digital because it allows me to immediately view, process and edit.  I use Photoshop for minor corrective touches such as dodging or burning.”

©Ted Kawalerski

This is the remnant of a Scotsman's fortress called Bannerman Castle—built not as a home, but as an arsenal for his immense collection of weapons. Public access to this island has had a small window of opportunity, curtained by Native American and Dutch settler's fear of resident spirits and goblins, and then restricted since 1900 for more contemporary safety reasons.

Even with enviable present-day commercial success for his Hudson River project, Kawalerski still looks at this endeavor as an ongoing personal pursuit. “The only difference is that I am more strategic in my approach to this and other subjects started as a personal project. I have had the great fortune to display at two galleries and I am exploring the collection’s progression, most likely in the form of a book. As a photographer, there are many avenues to consider if you wish to spin a personal project into a commercial pursuit. For success, plan on a thorough market assessment and look at competitive products. Bring a quality body of work to the market and offer something that will interest a target audience. Don’t forget to cultivate every contact you can and remain open to critique.”  

About Ted Kawalerski

Ted Kawalerski is a New York City-based photographer who has worked on assignments for corporations, graphic design firms and advertising agencies for more than 30 years. He regularly travels worldwide for clients such as Harris Corporation, Liberty Mutual Group, Praxair, Chevron, Ernst & Young and many others. He resides in Sleepy Hollow, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester County. What started off as a personal passion remains a personal passion, but Kawalerski has found a way to where he was inspired to begin his exploration of the wonders of the Hudson.

About the Beacon Institute
Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, with offices in Beacon and Troy, New York, is a not-for-profit environmental research organization engaging scientists, engineers, educators and policy experts in collaborative work focusing on real-time monitoring of river ecosystems. It aims to make the Hudson Valley a global center for scientific and technological innovation that advances research, education and public policy regarding rivers and estuaries.

Beacon Institute gallery hours: Weekdays 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturdays 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (second Saturdays of the month until 8 p.m.); and Sundays 12 p.m.–5 p.m.  For more information call (845) 838-1600, ext. 16, or visit www.bire.org.


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