The Pipeline

Earlier today I checked a news site I go to when I need to find something specific about this little world of ours. It’s a “clean” site. What I mean by that is that the site has a limited number of stories and tends to be more in depth rather than “quick hit” style. At the top, “above the fold” was a small, stills gallery titled something like “Best Images of the Day.” I thought “Why not?” and merrily clicked away. There wasn’t a single good image in the lot. Not even close. In fact, most of the images were what I would call subpar, uninteresting and not particularly well composed or thought out. At first I thought, “What a mess.” But then I realized it’s not the photography at fault, or even the photographer really, it’s the information pipeline that is to blame.
(Pipeline above not to scale…….)
The information pipeline, or content pipeline as some like to refer to it, is massive and is actually getting larger minute by minute. This is partly to blame for all the rights grabbing and image stealing that happens so frequently these days, and part of the reason social media sites are so keen on having the rights to whatever you upload. They need to fill the pipeline, and slowing down to actually find the copyright owner, determine a license and then actually PAY for an image is just far too time consuming. The pipeline waits for no man, or beast or foul for that matter. It’s kinda like the Matrix but maybe not as green. But it will kick your ass, that is for sure.

The best of the day isn’t always gonna be good. We gotta fill the pipeline, sometimes more than once a day, so you fill it with what you have on hand, and if that isn’t good well who cares because the next round is rapidly approaching and nearly all of what you see is forgotten.

Really good is really difficult. Perhaps good and the pipeline don’t have much in common. I don’t know anyone who cranks out good on a daily basis. And if there is someone who does they are a machine, flesh and blood on the outside, metal on the inside and should be turned over to the proper authorities. I think there is a moral in this story. The moral is relax. Don’t worry about it. Making something great is SO RARE, but it’s RARE for anyone regardless of how long they have been doing whatever it is they are doing. Look at me. I screw up most of the things I touch photographically. I’m gifted, what can I say.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been contacted by several folks who are searching for greatness, but they have all realized that scouring the web for good photography isn’t helping them. The pipeline is putting so much content in front of them it is not possible for them to consume it all. Everything begins to look the same. Then suddenly they find themselves making pictures that are someone else’s. When left alone they think of what other people have done, not what they need to do. Several of these folks have decided on a detox of sorts, cutting themselves off in a visual prison so-to-speak.

This situation isn’t new, but it reminds me of why I really enjoyed photojournalism school. We were given assignments, we made our pictures, we printed our pictures and then…..we had to stand in front of the class and defend our pictures. Sometimes it went well and unicorns floated in the rafters, while other times the room was left in smoldering ruins.(I got mad for having to shoot “color as mood,”which I thought was beneath me, so I found a dead, bloated, rotting dog covered in maggots which I chose to frame with a nice little macro lens. When the first frame went up the class shrieked and the prof was not happy with little old Danno.) What these sessions proved was that much of what I THOUGHT was so warm and fuzzyily good really wasn’t, and that I needed to see things from a variety of angles, not just my own.

So let’s keep “best” somewhere up above the rainbow.

It’s All Good

It’s all Good.

I’ve been around this photography thing for a while now, and I can’t ever remember a single moment when photographers were not asking themselves, and each other, “Is this a good time to be in photography?” It’s easy to want to compare one generation to the next. Was it better then, or worse, or now or later or never? And does it matter?
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I recently had a conversation with a consultant who said “I’m not sure why I keep hearing people say this is a great time to be in photography because it doesn’t seem that way.” This person was referring to the specifics of a certain genre of photography and to the business realities those photographers now face. Are there issues today? Ya, for sure, and serious ones that are threatening the livelihood of more than a few photographers. But haven’t there always been issues?

As I was waiting to get my tires rotated I began to really think about this. I looked around at the tire advertisements, the posters on the wall, the auto magazines on the table next to me, the mobile phone in my hand and the billboards outside the window and thought “What does all this really mean?”

What I do know for sure is that there are more photographers working and attempting to work than ever before. And the definition of photographer has changed, broadened and morphed into many different things. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do what I’ve done and have a career in photography from roughly 1990 to 2010. I did newspaper work, editorial, commercial, a TINY bit of fashion, a TINY bit of advertising, weddings and a ton of portraits, not to mention the steady stream of ill-fated documentary projects churning in the background the entire time. I can’t remember ever shooting for free, something that people get asked to do all the time now, but I’m sure I did. I was lucky on my timing, riding the wedding bubble from the beginning till a midway point when I pulled the ripcord. Weddings were my first real, consistent money. The first time I ever met with a client I walked out with a $4000 check, or roughly thereabouts. By the time I was done I was hovering around the $15,000 mark. I could have made more, but that price seemed to keep me in the clients I was fond of and my goal was to ONLY do ten shoots a year, something I stuck with religiously. I’ve turned down many more since I hung up my spurs, and I feel better passing these jobs to friends than I ever did accepting them, which is a very strange reality that speaks to many things I won’t bore you with here.
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I also turned down advertising jobs that ranged as high as $50,000 because as a friend put it, “These are jobs where there are more people behind the camera than in front,” and I knew how miserable I would be working this way. And I knew the production and creative fees should have been much higher, and even though $50,000 seemed like a lot at the time it actually wasn’t and would have barely been enough to cover my bases. And finally, I wasn’t an advertising photographer and was ill equipped to even think about doing jobs like this. These jobs were infrequent, but they offered a glimpse into another world. My point here is I had options and for whatever reason, the vast majority of the time, something came along. I like to think it was because of my work, my attitude, preparation, networking and luck, but I also know it is because other people helped me out. Other photographers, friends and clients who passed along my name or sent an email or made a call. Oh, and one final point here. Even at the pinnacle of my “career” I was still an unknown. I was going to say “nobody” but I won’t go quite that far. I wasn’t a superstar, top ten or even top fifty. I actually didn’t care about that, which is a problem if that is a goal.

Is this a good time to be in photography? Yes, of course, without a doubt, but I will answer one question with another. Is this a good time to be in the business of photography? I will sneak out with “yes and no.” Or maybe I should say “maybe.”

But there is another point I want to make. Even having a discussion about this is a first world, privileged discussion. A significant portion of the world lives in poverty and isn’t wondering about portfolio sites, or whether to go with Lightroom or Aperture. These folks are thinking food, water, shelter, so why don’t we put the debate aside and realize it’s always a good time to be in photography when we reduce it to what photography means to most people. Story. History. Evidence. Family. Stripped down into the study of light, composition, timing and theme, how can photography be anything other than fantastic?

It’s been a long while since I was excited about my own work. With my departure from the industry came a departure from frankly thinking about myself way more than I should have, a necessary evil at times when you are being judged on a shoot-by-shoot basis and when the world has seemingly become infatuated with the online popularity contest.

Today I love what you are doing far more than what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong, I have the best job in the world, but when I see someone else make a strong image, book, breakthrough or valuable creative failure I think “that’s very cool.” I get hit up on a daily basis to promote things and people and projects, and most of the time I really enjoy it. So I’m not really IN photography but it’s still a really good time for me to NOT be in it. Does that make sense?

There are certain things in this world that never get old. Honesty and humor are two at the top of my list, but also things I think are lacking in modern photography. When I think about the photographers I know who display humor in their work I think of how they, and their images, are beloved by almost everyone I know. When I think of the serious types I don’t find the same feeling or the same admiration from the masses, or even the same understanding, and don’t think the humorous types aren’t serious about their work, they are, but they know where it fits in the hierarchy of being human. I think this is a good reminder that we need to keep things like photography in perspective, and in some ways, like dating, the subtle approach is far better than the frontal attack. I don’t fault serious photographers for being serious. Each of us filters what we do through a set of parameters, allowing certain feelings to rise and fall to the top or the bottom.

There are few things in our history as powerful and preserving as the still image. Still images confront the viewer. There are no distractions, no sound, nothing moving and perhaps not even a caption to whisper in the viewer’s ear. Still images, good ones, are potent. You don’t need much. Just a tiny, tiny dose, and like acid they etch themselves on your memory and they don’t let go. When I make an image I feel is going to be solid I can’t stop thinking about it until I see the negative. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, and when I see an image by someone else that has all the right ingredients it actually makes me somewhat nervous because I want to stop what I’m doing and tell them “Jesus, you nailed it.”

So yes, it is a fantastic time to be in photography, but it may take a redefining of your position for you to agree. And if you don’t agree, then that’s okay too. When I think about photography now I think about things like voices, connection, water, paper, ink, humanity, film and the websites and books of many, many other image-makers, and I wonder why we even debate. Photography for me now isn’t the headline or the best seller. Photography is that thing that takes me away, that visual book I can reread again and again, and when people ask me about photography now I say “It’s a part of my life.” I wish in some ways that it had always been just a part, but we all take different journeys through this little rectangular or square way of seeing the world, of living the world, and there is no going back. And rightly so.

My Comment on the BBC: Who Dat

My comment on the BBC this morning. Question was about sports bringing out the best and worst in human nature.

February 8, 2010 at 16:50

In short, both, which is what makes sport so important.
The same could be said of politics, religion, etc. It is the emotion that brings out more of a truthful representation of the picture that human nature paints.
We all know, at times, it isn’t pretty. But this is something we must confront not deny.
I also think to really know sport, you have to follow it, and not just when a story exists that captivates the country, but also during those down times when nobody is paying attention.
Believe me, I’ve been a Saints fan for 25 years, and many of those years were spent living in Texas where life is all about the Cowboys and pledging allegiance to another team is like taking your life in your own hands. The majority of those years, there was NOTHING written about New Orleans other than articles by local media. They were one of the league’s forgotten teams. A media black hole. “The Most Disfunctional Team in the NFL,” according to one of the few stories crafted during these years.
Last night a journalist friend stopped by, a non-football watcher, and after sitting with me for five minutes said, “How do you know all this stuff, I thought it was just a bunch of big guys running around.”
I knew it because, at least in my mind, I’m a real fan. Who Dat!