I just might be the photographic antichrist.
Earlier today I was searching through seven years of images, all of the same kid, in preparation for a book I’m making. I’ve got eight hard drives sitting in front of me, and during this process I stumbled across a variety of older images that prompted me to reflect. Maybe not such a good idea……
The images were everything from documentary snaps, weddings snaps and portraits. Just like everything else in my digital life, folder names, image titles, all changed over the years as I learned “better” ways of conducting myself in the electronic world. So, certain folders were filled with surprises, both good and bad, and I heard myself say more than once “Wow, I forgot about that.”
Well, something else happened. I found these images. All those years ago I was plodding along as a wedding photographer doing documentary on the side, a practice I found never worked that well. I wanted it to work, it just never did. The weddings were fine, it was the documentary part that took on the limp, damaged feel of someone with not enough time.
And then kids came along, by accident really. “Hey, do you shoot photos of kids?” my neighbor asked. “NO, I don’t photograph kids, sorry.” “Great, I’ll bring them over,” she said. That was it. One shoot. Changed everything. Soon, I was a “kid photographer” a title that strikes a cringing fear in anyone in a “serious” category of photography like documentary, photojournalism, fashion, editorial, commercial, advertising, product, still life, fine-art, conceptual, experimental, etc. Suddenly my wife was introducing me as “my husband the kid photographer.” Gone were the days of “my husband the super-cool, studly, macho, documentary photographer who travels the world and pours himself into his projects.” Gone. The “kid photographer” intro, in most cases, was like casually mumbling, “I have the Hanta Virus.” People would flee in search of more interesting to people to drink their warm, foamy beer with. “Hey honey, that guy works in the dead-letter department at the Post Office, let’s go talk to him.” Me, I found a sick fascination with this, and used it to my advantage making proud announcements for no reason at the hippest of events or parties, just to see the cool people run from my path. “Hey, you wanna see me make balloon animals?”
But you seen now I have the golden opportunity, the 20-15 hind site to look back. I look back on these early days kid snaps and I marvel. You see I was still pure. I wasn’t REALLY a kid photographer yet. I had inherited the title, but I was still pure in that way that comes with first experiencing something. I didn’t have packages, pricing, online crap I didn’t need, business cards, letterhead, newsletters, promos, stock sales, blah, blah, blah. I was just a guy with a camera aiming it at strange kids. All locations were still new. People would call, I would answer. A plan would be made. I would go and shoot. I had no style in mind. I had no preconceived ideas as to what kid snaps were supposed to look like. I had ZERO tricks up my sleeve like “I’ll shoot backlit,” or “I need such and such an image.” It was so simple. It was so pure. And it was so much fun. It was so damn good. And then it all began to change. It all began to be molded, shifted, squeezed, controlled and manipulated by the simple IDEA that I was now OFFICIALLY A KID PHOTOGRAPHER. “Damnit, you’re a kid photographer, why don’t you act like it?”
The mass exodus of photographers from other genres had yet to descend on the poor unsuspecting kid market. Digital cameras had yet to land in the hands of every parent in the first world, and there was ZERO expectation other than “make something interesting that pleases me…the kid photographer.”
The work was good. The work was simple. And then it wasn’t anymore. It’s not that the work got bad, or I stopped being able to make good images of kids, in fact I went on to make many pictures I consider good even recently, but the forces around me began to change and I began to conform. Sales and profits became a larger focus. Margins, print prices, workflow, online marketing and promotion began to take up more time than the actual photography. It was supposed to be this way right? You get good, people find you and you build a business. Yes. That’s right. But as I sit here all these years later, looking back, I have feelings that flow contrary to this learned behavior.
I’ve spoken about this before and each time I do I brace for the fallout. Can we work as artists and make great work. Yes, I used the word “artist” but more to see if you were sleeping. Can we as photographers work and make great work? Short answer. “I’m not sure.” The deadly part of all this is that I see what happened to me happening to many, many other photographers. I meet a young snapper and their work is pure, it’s original and it feels good, and suddenly they find success. In many cases success today comes with IMMEDIATE COMPROMISE. You hear things like “Well, I used to shoot film, but now the client wants digital.” Or, “Well, I used to take my time and work this way, but now I have to have images in by the end of the day.” What I’ve learned is that “convenience” is DEADLY when it comes to photography. If you are allowing CONVENIENCE to dictate your imagery you are on a path that is heading in the wrong direction. CONVENIENCE is based on ease, and that folks is going to get easier. Easier doesn’t always translate to “better.” More people do it, more people think they can do it. More people think they can tell you how to do. Less people pay attention.
Last night at dinner, a casual conversation and a photographer explains where he was working on a recent project. He talks personally of his personal work. “Were you on assignment?” “Yes, a self-assignment.” There is no speech required. Those words come with the meaning of working on a self-assignment because that is where the real work is made, and that this simply would not have happened had he actually been on assignment, something we are all trained to believe is how we should work. I reflect once again on these photographs of kids and I had nothing but warm regard for how I made them and what they meant to me both at that time and now all these years later. My wife no longer introduces me as a “kid photographer” so I’m struggle with a new title that creates the same shock and awe. “C-student” might work, “Recipient of a Class-C misdemeanor” but that might strike a bit TOO much shock and awe. All I can leave you with is the idea that we don’t really have time to screw around. We, as photographers, have to shoot for us. There is no other way. “Yes, but we have to pay the bills.” No, you don’t. You just convinced yourself of that. You can do it, and pay the bills, but you can’t then complain of not making good images. I know cause I did just that. I don’t anymore. For me, there is no better feeling in the world that working on something I believe in and finding success at the purest level. When I look around me at the creative world, at places like literature, photography, art, I see the best work being done, the last working, by creators with a clear mind without limits. When we find commercial success, often times, this comes with boundaries, limits, requirements and expectations that simply don’t allow for moments of greatness. I just finished reading a book, a book by an author I truly admire. He talks about being hired to create a project then coming to realize he can’t complete it under the requirements of his position. He is fired. Then he creates the book I just read. I think beneath this little story is the story of truth, of purity, of working without questioning your motivation and rationale. We simply do what we feel we have to do and not what we think we are supposed to do.