What it Takes

Stormbelt Cover

This post just hit me out of the blue, but I think it is a very important read if you are new to photography or thinking you might want to make the jump to actually being a photographer. But before I get into this post I need to clarify something. When I say, “be a photographer,” I mean a REAL photographer. I recently read a wonderful description of the modern photography world and I realize I can’t describe it any better. I read the photography world described as two worlds, the one on Earth and the one in Cyberspace, and the two worlds DO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER. I think this is one hundred and ten percent true. This is how you can have someone with literally a million followers on social media yet the person remains entirely unknown in the “real” professional photography world. I know this comment and description will rub some people the wrong way but I can’t stress to you how real this situation is. The definition of “real” can be debated, but those in the industry, those working photographers, agencies, editors, reps, consultants and art buyers all know who is real and who isn’t. However, this is NOT to say that those in the cyberspace world aren’t working. Some are, but as we all know the playing field, industry and future of this business is VERY much up in the air. All I will say is people get jobs for different reasons. And yes, this last sentence should be read into….in GREAT depth.

Nevada California Border 2009, Stormbelt Robert Leslie

About a year and a half ago, perhaps a bit longer, through my Blurb duties, I met and was able to work with a photographer named Robert Leslie. Robert is a maniac in all the right ways. He is driven, really driven, and is also well connected through his years of work, travel and personality. Prior to meeting, Robert had found himself in Miami with a gig booked in California roughly four weeks later. In a subtle twist of fate he decided to drive to California, choosing to head across the southern part of the United States, an area that until this trip had escaped his prying eyes. Born in the UK, raised in Canada but based in London, Robert like many folks from other parts, had spent most of his US time in the larger, coastal cities. In short, his drive exposed him to an entirely different United States, one far from the headlines, glamour and style of the big cities.

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Robert made an edit from this first trip, and doing what photographers do, he made a small book. The book made the rounds, took on a life of its own and a tiny ember went from spark to flame.

Suddenly a merger was formed. Robert, myself and the Blurb super-crew decided to create something. A plan was hatched, a second trip devised and thus it began. “Stormbelt” was born.

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Robert made a second trip across the US, retracing his original route. His first trip had coincided with Obama’s inauguration and the second trip was roughly three years later and served as a bell weather or sorts. Robert made more images, recorded audio, created an original soundtrack and also shot video. He expanded on what he had done in the past because he knew that three years down the road he had a bevy of other tools at his disposal. Books, magazines, PDF’s, rich-media, etc. In addition to this he also connected with a few others who he thought might be able to shed some light on the story, asking them for essays which would help lend their perspective to this important look at America. He didn’t just ask anyone. He asked Edward Burtynsky and Cameron Sinclair.

For those of you still with me, you will begin to see what I’m talking about when I say “real photographer.” And people this doesn’t mean you have to like Robert’s work. That is personal, subjective. There are plenty of heavyweights who make images that don’t interest me. That’s okay. I happen to like what Robert does, for a variety of reasons, which I’m not going to list here. Think about this. A significant body of work already completed (1st trip). A multi-pronged attack plan combined with a merger/partnership with Blurb. A second trip across the United States. Essays from two heavyweights. Oh, and I forgot to mention the editing of work. The edit for the final book was done by Chris Boot of Aperture Foundation. And let me say this. If you are new to photography then you might not think twice about this last sentence, but let me save you from yourself. Chris Boot is a real editor, in addition to being a publisher. When I saw the edit he did with Robert’s work I was alone in my office fielding a barrage of emails from Robert. “Have you seen the edit that Chris did?” Robert asked. “No,” I said. A few moments later it arrived and I almost cried. It was both that good and also a reminder that I would not have been able to do what he did. THAT is what good editing does. It allows the work to become MORE than it actually is. Consequently, the book becomes more than it actually is, which is what good books do. Good books become living, breathing things that haunt our subconscious.

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Fast forward. The work is done. (And it wasn’t shot in a weekend and hyped as a “long-term” project.) The essays were done. The edit was done. The book was done. Now what? Robert did not relentlessly barrage the random world with his project. There was another plan. It was decided that we would launch the project at the Contact Festival in Toronto in May, which we did. With this came the media from Robert, from Blurb and from the kind folks at the festival. There was an exhibition with prints as well as a variety of multimedia from the project. And this was just the beginning.
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In 1992, after I graduated with a degree in photojournalism, my life consisted mostly of making pictures. I had few options in terms of marketing and promotion. I could do print mailers, but this was prior to email, texting, websites, social media, etc. In some ways it was a far kinder and more civil world, but that is another story. Robert did have these modern options, as well as the options of knowing people in the right places based on his years in the field. I hear so much hype about hype about hype that it drives me crazy. Again, within the REAL photography world there live the real players. These are people and entities like The New York Times, Occupy, Le Journal de la Photographie, , etc. If you follow these links you will see that Robert is featured in all of them. During this time, Robert was also doing interviews with the British Journal of Photography, and Polka in France and the French journalist asked if there was information on Stormbelt available in French. Robert replied, “I can do a French translation!” So he did, then Spanish, Italian & German in both ebook & print book, all before Christmas.

Stormbelt_Leslie 008 (VIDEO STILL)

Folks, this isn’t easy. This takes a level of pursuit and commitment that many people are just not willing to endure. You got 5000 “likes” on Facebook. Really? I don’t care. Sorry. I know that means something to someone, but in many cases, not really. What doesn’t get 5000 “likes” on Facebook? Inside the “real” photography world a significant number of people are vying for these same high-end outlets. So how did Robert do it? THAT my friends and Smogranch family is the question you should be asking yourself. Again, it ain’t easy, and the fact he did get placement in these outlets means that that ball began rolling YEARS ago as Robert was building the foundation of his business and frankly building the foundation of the ENTITY that is Robert Leslie. Yes, I said “entity.” That is a reality folks. You aren’t just your images, you are this other “thing.” This “thing” is really important and is what, in many cases, actually gets the right attention from the right people who work at the right place. You hear me?

Now, this is a real treat and a real inside look at how the world CAN work. I sent this post to Robert, before I hit “go” and said, “This is what I’ve got.” He wrote back with the following “conversation.” I being a blogger asked “Can I use that?” He said “Sure, go for it.” This is how ONE of these little connections came to be.

– ROBERT SPEAKING I was thinking there’s a great quote from James Estrin (NYTimes)….. when I saw him in Perpignan in September (I pitched him…yes…. in an elevator while I was there…)…. I was talking to him about 1000portraits, & he said, “No… there’s another project of yours yes..?” I said, Yes, Stormbelt.
The next morning we met for 5 minutes (….there was a line of 5-10 hopefuls with their portfolios….at his hotel…during his breakfast…..). He glanced at a couple of the shots & says, “you know, I remember this, we passed it around the office when you submitted it (in May at the time of the Contact exhibition) & we really liked it. I don’t recall the concept or story, but the images really stayed in my mind”.
I turned to him & asked, “Jim, isn’t that the important part ?”
He laughed & agreed.

These subsequent images are a smattering of the other outlets where Robert’s piece found a home.

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Now, I’m also including an audio interview Robert did with the World Photography Organization. This interview is part of the “premium” part of their site, which you can’t normally see unless you are a premium member. However, they agreed to allow me to use this film for this post. If you don’t know these folks, or know what is on that site then you should take a look. Their features are solid, informative and hit a range of people well beyond the standard photography site or organization.Sue Steward, WPO’s critic in residence, selected Stormbelt as the best Ebook of the year in her annual review of best photography books of 2012.

To see a slideshow and listen to Robert describe the project please use the following link.

Robert Leslie 3 – Small

I need to get back to my scolding self before I end this little piece. You want to be a photographer? Okay, great. Step one, learn how to make great photographs. Wait, don’t pick up your phone to text that out. Don’t sign on to Facebook to add that to your status update. Don’t tweet it either. In fact, do me a favor. Turn off your phone, your computer and pick up your camera. Go into the world and find something you FEEL something about. And I mean the REAL world not Cyberspace, the Discovery Channel or some other alternative universe. I mean outside the front door of the structure you are in right now. Go out and go feel. When you have found something spend the next few years really getting to know it. Study it with your camera and your feelings. BUILD something. After a while show it around and see if your feeling is felt by those looking at your images. If so, you are on the right track. And let me say one more thing. This isn’t something that happens quickly. It takes what we are all so horrified by today. It takes time. In some cases it takes years. In other cases it takes a master plan, two trips across the United States, essays and exhibitions.

I’m sorry but I’m putting the screws to photographers for a reason. We demand more. Being a photographer is about a lot more than the latest widget, the things that seem to dominate much of the modern industry. We are the storytellers, the holders and revealers of the truth and it’s about time something is said about the modern state of affairs. You don’t just say “I’m now going to be a photographer.” It’s about far more than that.

Let me end with this. Being a photographer is doable and something well worth pursuing. The odds of being a legendary photographer are not good. The odds of being great are not good. But the odds of making a difference in some strange way are very real. That’s enough. If you work with feeling your work can land in the place it belongs. It adds to what has been done and influences what is being dreamed up. Again, that’s enough. So this message goes out to the brave ones. Don’t be afraid, make the first step. Good things will follow.

26 responses to “What it Takes”

  1. Sean says:

    Wonderful post. Very inspirational, and spot on.

    I’ve been searching for something I care about to photograph for the last few years. Every now and then I trick myself into believing that I’ve found it but deep down I know I haven’t.

    But that’s OK. After reading this post I’ve packed my bag, made a flask of tea, and am off out with my cameras and a tripod to photograph something that I’ve cared about, but done nothing about, for quite a few years now.

    Looking forward to listening to the interview (and for better light today) but It’ll have to wait.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Sean,
      I’m not worried about you. From what I know, and what you have posted in the past, you seem to be on the right path. What was left out of my post…..”WHY do you even WANT to be a REAL photographer?” THAT is the real question!! HA.

  2. Thanks for posting this up, Daniel. Appreciate the honest look at things and state of affairs. Being a photographer is so much more than one’s equipment. As I’ve been starting to learn this past year, it’s about who you are and what images you bring to the table.
    I myself have started a potentially long term (roughly a year) project. Would like to talk to you about it sometime, Dan.

    • Smogranch says:

      Jonathan,
      In reality, it is nothing to do with your equipment. Never in 25 years of working as a photographer did anyone ask about my gear. That is outside of the general public asking “What kind of camera did you use to take that?” This in turn should be an indicator of who is asking about gear…..it surely isn’t photo editors, art buyers, etc. They want to know if you know the business, if they can trust you and if you will come home with the goods that will make them look good. Under budget!

  3. Eric Jeschke says:

    Great post.

    I think I have to take issue with labeling someone as a REAL photographer as defined here, however. Forget the cyber part of it. I’m thinking of someone like Vivian Maier. By my idea of the definition she was a “real” photographer, yet she enjoyed no commercial success during her lifetime. There are a lot of talented photographers out there like her. The part I agree about is the real world shooting, the passion and the commitment.

    This kind of goes back to the old definition of “professional” vs. “amateur” photographer. There are so many “professionals” making a living at photography but there is no soul to their photography–generic weddings, corporate, portraits. And so many “amateurs” doing amazing stuff. These labels are meaningless…

    • Smogranch says:

      Eric,
      We are talking IN the industry or OUT of the industry. Amateurs are working today, getting magazine work, small commercial jobs, etc, because they sign work for hire contracts, they sign their rights away, they burn discs and give images away for unlimited use for free. These are signs that someone isn’t a “real” photographer, but these things really don’t matter anymore. You can do these things and get work. You can also work in portrait/wedding and be a total amateur. There is not gatekeeper in those markets to tell the photographer, “You don’t know what you are doing.”
      Within the industry, if you take your work to New York for example. Just to get in the door you need to know someone and you also need to show some level of competency in regard to being a professional. This would eliminate most of the cyberspace photographers. One look at their site, and when I say one look I mean three clicks tops, the gatekeepers will know these are not real photographers regardless of how many followers they have. This same person could however get a gear sponsorship because manufacturers are only looking for people who put asses in seats.
      I don’t think Maier cared about being labeled anything, she just made good pictures.
      The question left out of my post is “WHY would anyone want to be a real photographer?” in today’s’ world? What is the benefit?

  4. LionelB says:

    There are a couple of interesting things about liking. The first (as you say Dan) is that we can appreciate quality when we see it, irrespective of whether the work sparks our interest. The second is that what we look for is something distinctive and individual — but then we ask that it should resonate with us. If we are honest, there is usually also a subtext that we want the work to appeal to “people like us” but not to those who are not “like us”. So liking (in the pre-Zuckerberg meaning of the word) is pretty messy and complicated. Any business has to pitch it right but what is said time and again is that those who chase the money usually trip over. Having said that, painters who churn out pictures of pet dogs and bunny rabbits are not going to starve any time soon, especially if the animal has a tear rolling down its cheek. They just have to learn to live with the embarrassment.

  5. Fredrik says:

    Your awsome, as always. This is one more pice in my puzzle to my future as a storyteller.
    Btw have you read the Magnum Stories book ? If not, I highly recommend it. It’s a book by Magnum, it has a background story of how Magnum came to be and every photographer has a litle story about themself and how they work and think. I’m hooked and I have only read like 1/8 of the book so far, love it !

  6. Harold says:

    What it takes; –Take Three
    Since I “sometimes” seriously over-think these things. The following is culled from approximately 352 different reactions to this post. I should begin with the fact that I am not a real photographer as described in this post and not likely to become one but will continue to take pictures because it satisfies my own creative muse. I think I get the points about industry and legitimacy and time; regarding documenting and making statements of truth so far as we see it.

    I really like step one. “Learn how to make great photographs” That should keep us busy for twenty years give or take.

    Here’s the part that really caught my attention. “The real photography world” I am taking that to mean the one NOT in cyberspace.

    Then, This “thing” or Entity that gets noticed. “…the right attention from the right people who work at the right place.” There are probably different strata and I would suggest that this hierarchy exists in other creative fields as well.

    To be sure there are lots of different types of photos being made by those who consider themselves to be professionals. What I take from this post is that you are making strong case for photography as an art-form that does not reduce the importance of photography to a thing that can be done by anyone who can purchase the latest bag of gear.

    • Smogranch says:

      Harold,
      Gear doesn’t factor in nor does it have anything to do with getting jobs. Never in my years of working as a photographer has anyone in the industry asked me what gear I used. It simply doesn’t play in the professional world. That doesn’t mean you don’t talk about the look you are after, which is influenced by what you are using, or you talk about the speed in which you need images, but gear is for amateurs, at least the talk of it.

    • Harold says:

      Yeah, I wasn’t really thinking the gear thing so much… but anyway. Christopher brought something up which in turn reminded me of how I found your blog, it was through Blurb. With all this digital online photo industry stuff I don’t see photojournalists hawking their wares, at least in my experience. What I relish are little clips like the one I saw recently with Bruce Davidson. He was talking about the thinking behind why this and why that which had nothing to do with gear or photographic technique. He was talking about slowing down and taking time to figure out what you’re looking at. I liked it anyway…

  7. Tom Randall says:

    You said, “This isn’t something that happens quickly.” Well, don’t tell that to Dane Sanders and their ilk. They want you to believe there’s a Fast Track to all of this. It’s easier to sell books and seminars to people who believe they’ll be tip-top pros by the time the seminar is finished rather than having them believe they’ve got to put in some time making mistakes and plodding along for a while. Any photographer I’ve ever respected (not so fast, Dane Sanders) has talked about photography as something that takes a very long time to master. I just can’t stomach any other message. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      Well, you CAN fast track a career, and a business but that doesn’t mean the photography being created is any good. I don’t know anything about Dane, so can’t comment on him, but I’ve said for years it’s easier to get work today if you aren’t a visionary shooter. The people shooting generic color content are getting work left and right. If you market and promote that, sure, you are on your way. Great imagery is another matter entirely.

  8. Chris Fuller says:

    As I read your post I thought about how much I had taken for granted because I was taking photographs with “likes” in mind. As a result I missed many experiences because my mind was in the future rather in the moment. Yet, occasionally, even in those days when my photography was slowly ossifying, I managed take an occasional “rogue” shot that had no social media goal in mind. It is only recently that I have discerned a pattern in those shots that is worth further exploration now that I have freed myself from mistaking Flickr and Facebook as media for constructive feedback. It has taken me eight years to learn this liberating truth and see real possibilities in my photography. But it was worth it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Chris,
      That is so interesting me to me. Really, the fact that the internet or social media is anywhere near your mindset is fascinating to me. It’s never crossed my mind, even for an instant when I’m trying to work, but I”m curious what the effect would be. If you want feedback on your work take your prints, or a book of you material, to someone with some merit and sit face to face. Entirely different story here. It can be painful, but the reward is often times really helpful. Online is like one long pat on the back.

    • Christopher Fuller says:

      Thanks for the reply. Quite honestly, it has to do with the overwhelming number of web sites that are the directed to this end and how much amateurs like me were willing to succumb to it. Believe it or not, one day I was on youtube and typed in “photojournalism” to see what would come up. I randomly chose your interview with Marc Silber. That was the first time I had ever heard about you. The way you talked about photography was very different from the majority of what is out there and it coincided well with the changes I was undergoing in my photography at the time. Then I found your blog, etc.

      Now I do not think about the relationship of social media to my photography at all.

    • Smogranch says:

      Chris,
      Ah, very interesting. I’m sure a lot of people think about it. Heck, I know they do. It’s modern life I guess. Maybe no different from someone in 1975 thinking about a museum director or art buyer.

  9. Mei-Chun says:

    Great post. You speak the truth. Thank you for that.

    I like to think a REAL photographer is like an “executive chef”. Any person with a camera or iPhone these days can “cook” a neat looking image…it’s “fast food” that can be tasty for the moment and packaged right for the masses to consume.

    I don’t use Facebook or Instagram any longer because personally I found them to be a big distraction on my journey to find the real photographer in myself.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mei-Chun,
      I’m in the same boat. No more Instagram. It was really messing with my head. These type of image has been so overhyped I’m not surprised people think they are really making great images. But, alas, in my opinion, about 99% of the time they aren’t.

  10. Don Denton says:

    The pushback you may get to this post is that your REAl world has ceased to matter, that the old heirarchies (sp?) don’t matter that online and likes are as real as anything. Of course, that just shows that some photographers don’t get it and/or want to get it. You can be a financial/popular (short term) success with out being an aesthetic/creative (lasting) success.

    • Smogranch says:

      Don,
      Not so fast. Those old regimes we like to think are dying and have been replaced are still there(art, fashion, etc), unless you speak about things like news and pj, and even many of those are still around, at least to some degree. I think likes are totally real….in the Cyberspace photography world. Ever had a magazine editor ask you how many likes you have? Ever have someone ask why a print is so expensive and your reply was “cause this image got a lot of likes on Facebook.” I see it all as one, long technology high we are all riding. If the masses and the tech companies tell us this stuff is important long enough, and often enough…suddenly we start counting likes.
      Hearing news anchors talk about what is trending on Twitter makes me laugh every time. You can see the confusion in their eyes as the foreign words tumble from their mouth. We are creating A LOT of short term, HIGHLY successful people and things, and very, very few long term, lasting entities. But, this happens to fit our collective attention span rather nicely.

  11. Truly great inspiring story behind what appears to be an awesome project. I am awed. Back to doing more pictures, more work, more travels, trying to put something together, hold my attention and patience for just long enough to make something worthwhile – Robert’s project is an inspiration.
    I just did a two month social media promote-my-event-photography experimentation to see if I could translate promoting myself (felt like a bit of me died everytime I did it) into any real-world jobs. Biggest result is really a total allergic reaction to social media.
    Work, work, make pictures, searching, obssessed, driven, work some more, no social media at all, and a thermos of coffee is my new formula. That, and a good blaster at my side.

    • Smogranch says:

      FBJ,
      I think social media can work, just like I think beginners can learn from using digital IF they are disciplined. It is rare, in my experience to meet anyone with this kind of discipline. Personally, I see social media as a physical addiction for a lot of people. That might sound dramatic but I see it as all too real. I’m going to write something up about this in the near future.

  12. Brendan says:

    Great article Dan,
    the instant gratification of “likes” or flickr “awards” is at first quite encouraging, but rapidly becomes valueless without any constructive criticism- unfortunantly this tends to never extend beyond the cliches of “great capture” or “what gear did you use?”.

    I like to see how projects evolve over time from an initial idea to a more rounded, researched and engaging endpoint, but that is really hard when you start out, right?

    Example – I’ve been in Vietnam for the past two months, and what I thought I would shoot at the start and get is way off what I am shooting now, and that’s kind of scary as I may come back with nothing, other than the shots in my mind that I should have taken in hindsight.

    Second point and in relation to your points about cybersapce- I’m a marine biologist by training and career, and the one thing I see with flickr, 500px etc etc is an almost darwinian, natural selection of images and image types by “likes”- it’s no wonder there is a homogenisation of images to a “group ideal”- and that makes it really difficult to hold your ground and take what matters to you, as it’;s going to be a long road!

    I should try and document (or being of a scientific nature- analyse) this “natural selection” in photography at some point, but it’s late and I’ll blame the Bia Saigon for rambling!

    • Smogranch says:

      Brendan,
      Most of the time you aren’t allowed to criticize online, hence the “great work” syndrome we now live with. Most of the people who are hot and heavy into the social sharing sites haven’t really had their work dissected, in person, or in front others, so if you say something as soft as “not sure this one works” you will either get castigated, banned or labeled a whiner. How many times have you seen an image that is below average with 500 shares, 500 likes and 500 comments like “cool,” “awesome” “fantastic shot,” and it’s a picture of a bridge in HDR. This is the online world we live in. IF you were to write, “Well, this photograph doesn’t really show a unique perspective or point of view, nor does it add to the history of bridge photography but if the photographer had moved ten feet to the right, cropped out the expanse of grass in the foreground and lessened the HDR effect it might work better. ” people would FLIP OUT. How dare you say this?

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