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?
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.
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.