Meat and Candy: A Western Australia Story
It has been weeks since I first wrote this post. I’ve been sitting on it because I’m nervous that people will take it the wrong way, and it’s also very long. It’s also a bit related to another post I have ready, a post which is over 5000 words in itself. I have to say, there is something about Australia that has really been sticking with me. Australia has a style and feel that is very unique in my experience. It’s not that the country is perfect, not by any means, but I don’t think anywhere is perfect. There SEEMS to be a cohesiveness, or maybe I’m just naive. There is a pride as well, amongst the art crowd, photo-crowd, etc. Perhaps the size of Australia or the small population has something to do with this. Regardless, it’s a place I’ve been thinking about more and more which is odd. I have a sinking suspicion I’ll be back one day. At least I hope so.
Earlier this year Blurb asked me if I wanted to venture to Australia for a series of presentations, school visits, festivals and a few other creative industry here’s and there’s. I said “Sure, why not?” To most Americans, myself included, Australia represents the wildness of the unknown, the other side of the world and the lusty promise of adventure. Australia, and its wonderful population, alien landscape and quirky demeanor did not disappoint.
I know what you are thinking. “Wow, that Milnor is one lucky guy, getting paid to go to Australia.” Yes, you are in fact correct but there is a “but” you need to know about. Blurb moves at lightning speed. Being a technology company means the playing field changes on a daily basis, so this trip was NOT akin to a congressional junket to “Coruptastan”, or a boozy romp complete with escorts and backdoor, pork-belly deals. In short, the first three weeks of my trip were work. I saw nothing, did nothing and experienced little more than planes, cabs, hotels and conference rooms. This sounds like total bullshit, I get it, but it’s entirely true. I’ll give you an example because I smell a whiff of doubt. We did sixteen events in fifteen days in three different cities on the East Coast alone. Sydney, our third stop, is famous for many things, such as the harbor, skyline and beaches. My last night in Sydney I had dinner with friends of my wife, folks I’d never met before. We had a wonderful dinner and discussed a variety of topics, many of which revolved around Australia. “What did you think of the skyline?” they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” I replied. “What about the harbor, or the Opera House? they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see either of those things either,” I replied. “Haven’t you been here for five days?” they asked. “Yes but I haven’t really been outside yet,” I answered. “GET IN THE CAR,” I was told and during an absolute torrential downpour they drove me down to see harbor. Thinking about it now I remembering being outside, but I also remember I was teaching a photo workshop, so my head was involved in the teaching and not in the looking around. There were days where we did an event in the morning, raced to the airport, flew to another city then did six to eight hours of presentations. I’m the guy that does all the talking, so all verbal communication was on me. You will see by the length of this post I like to talk/write. I love doing it, so I’m not complaining but I can still see this little explanation causing me to look like an asshole. If the shoe fits….
By the time the first three weeks were over I was exhausted. I really didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I got off a five-hour flight to Perth. The “vacation” part of my trip had begun and I’d flown to Perth to meet up with two fellow photographers. These particular fellows happen to be brothers, twin brothers, and were old friends from my days of annual travel to the North Shore of Oahu for the winter surfing season. I was an interloper in Hawaii but my friends, Erick and Ian Regnard, also known was Tungsten, were very much a part of the global, full-time surf photography community. I hadn’t seen them in a long while but we had discussed connecting in Perth and “going into The Outback.” That was the extent of the plan. Getting off the plane I was a bit dazed but a homemade curry was placed before me and I think I remember eating like a saltwater croc. I also remember them having the smallest dish in the world and on that dish was the smallest dab of “hot sauce” I had ever seen. I was provided with the explanation that it truly was the hottest shit anyone has ever seen and if I accidentally used more than a pinhead amount I would have nothing left in my body approximately eight minutes later. Seeing as we had eight days of car travel ahead of us I skipped it.
Ten minutes after eating one of the brothers said “Okay, you about ready?” “Ready for what?” I asked. “We are leaving now,” he said. I abandoned most of my clothes and all my electronics, grabbed my Hasselblad, a bag of film and got in the passenger seat. And this is where things began to become a little surreal. We stopped for supplies and I got my first true glimpse of my traveling companions. We seemingly bought only two things. Meat and candy. Okay, four things. Meat, candy, beer and fuel to roast the meat. In a cloud of diesel our ute(suv) was headed north and into the unknown. We had a map and vague idea what we would encounter, but nothing specific. We didn’t know where we would stop, stay, camp or converge, but this was what made it so great.
I began to realize my head was in a fog and I didn’t want to stress about the photography. I just wanted to be an explorer and let the images come naturally, so basically the polar opposite of how I was used to working where the imagery was the driving force behind every move, every human gesture. There were HOURS and hundreds of kilometers of the kind of nothingness that is so nothing it actually becomes something vibrantly real. Snow white beaches with no tracks from man or machine. Sky blue water and endless dunes. The conversation was varied but we did solve every single problem facing modern photography and came to the conclusion there were only three REALLY important people in photography; Ian, Erick and myself. We asked if there were any objections to this thought. We heard none.
Eventually we turned east and headed into the great void of red, green and blue. The boys wanted to learn more about the Aboriginal settlements, and I knew so little about the culture and history I was also game to explore. We would simply find out where the communities were, drive in then ask permission to work. I think we were a bit of an anomaly. “This guy is from Los Angeles,” was like saying “Ah, this guy landed from a planet just beyond Saturn.” I don’t know enough about the Aboriginal situation to comment with any authority so all I’m going to say is that work remains. I see some similarities with the Native American situation here in New Mexico. It remains a live wire topic and not one I’m going to discuss here.
These trips, these opportunities are such a privilege, and luckily for me, by the time we turned east I was experiencing a major disruption in the foundation of being a photographer. Perhaps it was fatigue, the frustration or just a glimmer of outside hope breeching the void of my entrenched thinking. I made a realization out there in that wonderful bush. I realized I’d been missing the point of it all. I realized that I needed to continue to explore but not as a photographer, just simply as a human being and if I made images along the way then so be it. I realized that the only people who really care about my little snapshots, for the most part, are friends and fellow photographers. Sure, from time to time you make something memorable that might impact a larger audience, but that the truly important thing was my translation of the experience as a human. I realized the snapshots that mattered weren’t necessarily made of emulsion but rather speech, song, texture and interaction. I realized in some strange way the camera was keeping me from these things. I still haven’t figured all of this out, but I can tell you my life has been entirely different since returning with the dust of The Outback on my boots.
Before we turned east the brothers had managed to procure, of all things, a lobster, which was thrashing around the back of the truck like a wild dog. In the middle of absolute nowhere, in the pitch black and under the most sensational night sky I’ve seen, the brothers pulled off the dirt track and said “time for surf and turf.” The absurdity of it was like a warm blanket. I had already learned that two brothers from Mauritius know their way around the grill, so I had flashlight duty, flashing back and forth between the grill, the bush, the beer cooler. It was treacherous work but somebody had to do it. Before long we were exhaling through our noses as hot lobster became a roadside reality. A moment I will never forget.
Returning home, something I normally loathe, felt right. Most of my friends and family are moving so fast, and are so busy I was only faced with a few “how was it?” type questions where the person asking is already on to something else before you can formulate a response, so I kept the trip mostly as my little secret. I kept it inside and allowed my new realizations to burn and keep my creative fire alive. But there had to be a book. There always has to be a book with me, even if not a single other person ever sees what I’ve made. For me these books are therapy. Perhaps they serve as a sense of closure. I didn’t need or want anything large. There was never one second spent thinking this would be a portfolio or representation of anything other than a small voyage with friends.
I quickly decided on two concurrent themes, one with color, mobile phone imagery and the second with the black and white square. The title, well, that was obvious to me. I wrote a short copy block as an intro, chose a font that felt right and began to drag and drop my images. I probably spent a half hour making this book. 7×7, softcover, Proline uncoated. Done.
Books are like puzzles with the images being the jagged little pieces that on their own might seem fragmented and lost but when combine form a smooth and accurate depiction. I always think I know what I’m doing but books are journeys, just like The Outback. I pretend like I’m in control, but most of the time I’m one half step away from glory or one half step from doom. I don’t think I would want it any other way. This particular book is a reminder to me. It’s a reminder of many things, things like friendship, travel, understanding and a general reformulation of an agenda unchanged for over twenty years. In short this book reminds me I can’t go back. Ever.
Now, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, this book didn’t change my life. It’s not like that. Frankly, it’s not that good. This book is buried under about ten other books somewhere in my office. However, I will equate this particular book to Steve Martin’s character in the movie “The Jerk” when he is working the “Guess Your Weight” booth at the local carnival and he realizes the idea behind the booth is making money. “Oh, I get it,” he says. “It’s a PROFIT thing.”
Whatever it was that happened to me while in The Outback, revelation, mini-stroke, whatever, was like an internal sonic boom. The response to my “departure” from all things photography and all things industry was seemingly more traumatic to OTHER people than it was to me. Someone actually said “Oh man, I’m sorry to hear what happened to you in Australia.” This was a kind gesture, a friend looking out of me, but I had to say “No, no, no, this is a very, very good thing.” I explained that I’d seen a small splinter of light into my creative future, or someone had dosed me with acid, either way I felt like a secret had been whispered in my ear. Now, the brothers and I were all sleeping in the same tent, so it quite possible was Ian or Erick talking in their sleep.
Over the past few years I’ve seen the professional photography industry change. Certain genres have exploded and retracted, weddings and portraits, while others have almost entirely died off. This is not a popular topic, at least not in public, but I can tell you with certainty it really is a topic when photographers are together and speaking freely. The reasons for this are many. Mention this in public and you will quickly be labeled as “disgruntled” or “sour grapes.” I know because I’ve been called those things many, many times, mostly by younger photographers who never actually knew how good things used to be. I’m okay with this. Everyone WANTS it to be so good, so if you pretend things are then perhaps they will be. I don’t want to be a downer by saying this. I’m simply relaying what I see and hear on a daily basis, but here is where things get truly strange.
Since “departing” from the race I’ve made better work, had more opportunities(a lot more), better opportunities and far more control over my own work. I’m not entirely sure of all the reasons for this, but you simply can’t believe the difference. I have my theories. First, people are SICK of the relentless promotion happening within photography, sick of things like a photographer spending two weeks on a project then spending two years promoting it. Two, they are very respectful of someone who says “No, I won’t do that shoot/project because it doesn’t work for me.” The power of a polite “no” cannot be stressed enough. In short, not only has there been ZERO downside to NOT being a photographer there has been a completely unexpected upside. I say “no” to almost all of these things because I truly don’t want to do them, but there is a sense of relief from these people when I say “I’m not a photographer any longer.” It’s almost like they are saying “Okay good, now we can have a real conversation.” I’m going to give you two examples to support my point because I can hear the groans. First will be the gallery owner. I was at a party in Hollywood, and yes it was as Hollywood as you imagine. I don’t belong at these things-I’m the opposite of cool- but I went anyway. Gallery owner comes up to me and says “What are you working on?” I explain. There are now three or four other people listening to the conversation. Gallery person says “You should bring that by so we can look at it.” “No, it’s not ready,” I say. “You should really bring it by,” they said. “Nope, it’s not even close,” I replied. “You should still bring it by,” they said.” “I will see you in two years,” I said. The gallery person leaves and the other people listening in say “Do you KNOW who what was?” I said “Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact the work isn’t ready.” The second little event involves a museum director who I was introduced to. During the intro I noticed the director looking at the ground, and I realized he viewed me as another photographer probably looking to get a show or get something else from him. I extended my hand and said “I’m your new best friend.” He looked up at me and asked “Really, why?” “Because I have no interest in having a show and I will never ask you for anything,” I said. His reply was awesome. “Oh, so you mean I can make eye contact with you.” What subsequently unfolded was what I would describe as a relaxed, adult conversation. The same thing happened. This person, probably feeling surprised and relieved began to ask me about who I was and what I was doing. Suddenly this person is giving me names, numbers, other outlets and saying, “Tell so-and-so I sent you.” Perhaps these cases were anomalies, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to explain later why I think these are a good thing and what my ultimate dream would be.
Now, I’m sure voicing this reality will get me slaughtered by a variety of people. I can see their names and faces as I write this, but it is very important for me to say this. Someone wrote me a week ago and asked about how to make the jump to being a photographer. This person gave me the gist of their life and my response was, “You are crazy to do this.” “Why would you want to take something you love and make a business of it?” He had specific ingredients in his life that prompted me to say this. Note, I did not tell him not to do photography. In fact, I stated flatly I think photography is a GREAT thing, but making a jump into this industry with his specific ingredient set, at this time in history, is a risky business.
Personally, I think photography needed to change. There were simply too many untrained people jumping in, buying a Dslr, building a website and taking anything that came along. Plus, we all got really, really, stinking drunk on the technology and began to think the next generation would be the one that really made things right. The mistakes made early on, like 1997(giving it away for less than analog shoots because of perception digital shoots were less expensive due to no out of pocket cost with film and processing. Yes, this actually happened, and yes it was happening as far back as 1997.), with the technology are STILL being felt today and sadly they are impossible to reverse.
There was a second bullet point to my revelation in Australia. The second bullet point was about YOU not me. I realized that the vast majority of my friends who are photographers are compromised in their professional work.(It’s always been this way, to some degree, for most photogs with the exception of those who are so good the are left alone to make what they make.) Budgets, contracts, production, duration of shoots, usage, stock sales, have all been compromised to such a degree that the idea of making GREAT work, often times, isn’t even on the table.(This is where the deadly term “content” starts creeping in). I’m referring to the real photographers on Earth when I say this not Cyberspace photographers who are always doing well because that is how you gain followers. I’m talking about the people doing the real editorial, commercial, advertising, fashion, photojournalism, etc. And hey, there are people killing it out there, there really are, but there are not NEARLY as many as I would like to see. There are a lot of talented people sitting in neutral.
I think the problem is to make great work you have to battle SO HARD and SO OFTEN that it takes one of two things. One, you are already an established person.(Most of these folks are in their 50’s.) I know many of these folks who have been working full time for decades and know the agents, agencies, etc. They know the legit rules of the road and are respected. They are doing major campaigns for major agencies for rates that would stun and paralyze many up and comers. The Cyberspace photographers typically don’t know any of these people. Different worlds. The second group that lives on is the possessed. The people who say “f*uck everything else” I’m going to invest every moment of every day into my work and abandon everything single other aspect of my life. If you want to know the prototype, “Photo Alpha Male” research W. Eugene Smith. Rumor had it he passed away with $13 in the bank and a list of people who were unhappy with him. He drove everyone crazy while he worked and nearly drove himself to death making his images. In my opinion, what he received in return is the title of “most significant documentary photographer of all time.” And believe me there are plenty of “Photo Alpha Females” as well. Now, I’m going to add a third category here, but it’s a facade category. The third category of photographer who appears to be making it is the up and coming star, and this is what has been bugging me for quite some time. This category is touted in the industry pubs and social outlets as doing amazing work, and in some cases they REALLY are, but behind closed doors they are hanging on by a thread, but this little detail can’t be discussed because it would blow the facade. Case in point…last year I had dinner with one of these folks. I had never met this person, but found them very capable and very engaging. They had just had a COVER story done about them and their rise within the photo ranks. The moment this person sat down I knew something wasn’t right. They immediately began to divulge the realities of their professional life. Remember, I didn’t know them and was certainly not prying. “I hate what I’m doing.” “There isn’t anything in my portfolio that is actually mine,” they stated. Over the next hour they basically blew apart what had been written about them and their work. “I need to either start over or get out,” they added. I don’t knock or fault this person AT ALL. In reality they were in a position of power but just didn’t realize it yet. This type person is HUGELY important at this time in photo history. This is the person that needs to be empowered, not confined, but this little maneuver is a 9.9 on the degree of difficulty scale.
Before Australia I’d spoken with agency people, photographers, designers, illustrators and a bevy of other creative industry folks because that is my job at Blurb. I’m a link between these folks and the company. I work with people one-on-one, or in groups, to help them find uses for the platform. It is an incredible job that has given me a view of the industry I would have never had as a photographer. Many of these folks feel compromised, frustrated AND all on the same path. “I want to do less commercial work and more personal work,” or the “I want to make my personal work my professional work.” Right now, the ratio for most people is about 80% commercial to 20% personal. However, ask them which of the two is the better work and they will quickly reply “my personal work.” And here is the kicker….the clients say the same thing, yet the trend remains unbroken. Agency people complain about clients “trending” with silly mobile phone campaigns, photographers complain about getting work or how their work is treated, designers and illustrators want to be turned loose not held back, etc. AGAIN, I’m going to say this ONE MORE TIME because the haters will be fueling up reading this. There are people doing GREAT work, on their terms and finding financial success, which is all that matters because they are living proof of what is possible.
Driving through The Outback I began to wonder what would happen if I took one photographer, one designer, one illustrator, one writer and one agency person and said “Here is he concept, everyone needs to remain on concept, but what you do to convey this concept is ENTIRELY up to you.” “Work together but make PURE work based not on ridiculous parameters.” “Take your time.” What would happen? Everyone I asked about this said “Chances are you are going to get something spectacular.” (I just explained this post and this idea to a photog in his 50’s and he said “That is what advertising USED to be.”)
I left Australia dreaming of making this a reality. Now, I don’t think I can do this because the reality is I’m a nobody and I don’t operate in those circles, but my dream was to plant the seed in someone who can. One project at a time, a hand picked lineup of talent and a client who signs a contract saying “I will not interfere.” Probably a pipe dream here, but I have to say the thing that gives me hope is the response I get when I bring this topic up with photographers. The response I get is anger. I’m turned on like a pack of wolves converging on Bambi. This is natural, and a good thing because it tells me they are fed up. At SOME POINT something will pop, ping, snap or turn, perhaps like it did for me.
There is absolutely NOTHING better for me than to meet with someone who has been turned loose and set free. Whether it be an illustrator, designer, photographer or anyone else who has been empowered to be who they know they can be, not who their industry or clients are telling them to be. They exude an unrivaled energy. They are dangerous people. They really are. I want my phone calls and text messages and emails to come from happy friends who are still growing as creatives. I want those who are coasting because they found a niche to stand up and throw off the blanket of routine because photography doesn’t have time for this. I’m greedy. I want to be stunned by invention, risk-taking and friends with crazy in their eyes.
By the time we rolled back into to Perth my internal flame was glowing. I was SO jazzed to try and figure this out. I had dreams of how I could accomplish this, dreams that will remain private because I MIGHT be able to eventually accomplish one. The festivals I attended were SO good and SO inspiring I couldn’t sleep at night. I sat on this post for months because I was very, very nervous about posting it. I still am. But I realized that I can’t do what I want to do on my own. I thought if I write about these things, and at least put them out there, then maybe someone else will read it and say “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Hopefully this person is in a position of power. I don’t expect anything to change overnight. I’m looking only for an experiment. I will not be involved because I’m not good enough. I have a short list of people I would like to unite, but I don’t know them well enough to pull it off, nor do I have the track record to interest them, but I’m snooping for a go-between.
I just realized what a rambling mess this post is, perhaps the result of me having both Lyme Disease AND a kidney stone. However, mess as it may be there are at least three ideas here I’m going to break out into individual posts only because I know there are huge, waiting masses eager for my opinion. Wink, wink. I also want to remind you that although some of this stuff might seem negative I don’t see it that way at all. Through the murkiness of life there are flickering splinters of light. I know because I saw one while in the Australian bush. Now I need to turn myself and see just what the light was illuminating. I heard an interview with author Doris Lessing who admitted she felt that she had only had a light impact on a small number of people, but she continued to write anyway, which I think is the most important point here.
PS: I want to thank all the Australians I met during my travels. I wasn’t able to even scratch the surface of your wonderful country, but I’m coming back as soon as humanly possible. If you are in the photography industry in Australia and you don’t know Ian and Erick you really should reach out and introduce yourself. They are good people and also share a desire to make YOU the best possible photographer you can be because ultimately it helps everyone involved. Just beware, they only consume two things. Meat and candy.