Two Days Away


“Time off” is a strange concept.

It’s odd to me that many people spend decades in jobs they might not enjoy or respect. This has been the human story since the beginning of jobs. Think about the person who had to leave the cave to gather firewood when they KNEW that right outside that safe, stone cavern was a dazzling range of animals who loved nothing more than to dismember you, lap up your entrails and use your shinbone as a toothpick. I’ve had some horrific jobs over the years starting with my first job ever, picking up nails. Imagine an expanse of land that ran from one edge of the horizon to the other, located at 8000 feet with unpredictable weather and its own assortment of angry and dangerous animals. Bucket in hand, staring at the ground, hour after hour….picking up nails. I got a penny apiece. I was promoted to “tractor greaser” which also proved to be less than ideal, and over the next few decades I made my way though hot tub installer, fragrance model, model-model (for one day), bouncer (for about an hour) and even on to newspaper photographer at a tiny paper where I shot, printed, edited, shot halftones and did paste up. This last job was as bad as any of the others.
My current job is the best job I’ve ever had. My title still has “photographer” in it, but I rarely do any photography for my employer. I do…different things, and those things change from time to time. This job is challenging, fast, fluid but also puts me in fun places with interesting people. I’m fortunate. I think I get two weeks vacation a year, but I’m not really sure. I don’t take a lot of vacation. In fact, in eighteen years of being with my wife I don’t really think we’ve gone on a real vacation. Like where you go sit somewhere warm and get fat. We aren’t really vacation people, but I wish we were. I think about it a lot. I know plenty of people who take two or three trips a year, just traveling, or surfing or hiking or laying buy a pool. I keep thinking I’m going to do that, but I also know I probably never will. For me there is just far too much to do. I’m trying to stop feeling this way, but it’s more difficult than I imagined. I’m 46 and I have an incurable disease. Nothing like reality to bite my vacation pondering self in the ass.
I was recently in Santa Fe and had just been stung by a bee. Standing there hanging out with some friends and someone says “Hey, full moon June 2nd, we should go to Chaco.” Now, the easy thing to do is chew on this idea for a few days, find a reason not to go and then politely bow out. Instead we all said “Okay, let’s go.” And we did. I actually didn’t make the full moon, had to leave the day before, but it was still damn bright and I got the point. I drove my fully loaded vehicle across roads not fit for man or beast and backed it up to a campsite and pitched my tent. Now, before I go any further I need to let you know that before I left Santa Fe I turned my phone off and place it in the front pocket of one of my leather “Dan Bags.” I loaded a roll of TRI-X in my Leica M4 and twisted on the 50mm.
Two days later I was terrified. EVERYTHING normal in my life, EVERYTHING routine in my life was dangerously close to falling off the edge of a cliff and disappearing forever. There were moments when I thought about walking into those hills and not coming back. The idea of a telephone, or talking to anyone, or emailing or posting something was ALMOST completely erased from my thought process. I never took a shower, or cleaned myself in any comprehensive manor, and was covered in a fine layer of sweaty grim. And I was positively content, so much so that I realized why I don’t take much vacation. Too dangerous. Too suggestive. Of course it’s all BS because life on the outside is BRUTAL. It’s just the mind game
Now, to be fair, I was with several incredible artists, inspiring people who make things that I want and need to see. Fire, conversation, physical activity, history carved in stone and elements front and center combined to create a unique scenario. Icy rain on a sunburned back. Shooting stars.

Ten to One

Completely unrelated image, but for anyone taking offense to this post….have a beer. Relax.

I recently had dinner with a friend who is a “creative.” My friend makes things for people, creative things that blend several disciplines. As usual, we got to talking about work, about jobs and the industry. Probably not a good idea….He gave me the lowdown on a recent project, a complex, multi-layered piece, which is the backbone of what my friend creates. He has a long track record, a good education and much work to prove these things. The kicker…..the total fee was $2500. This got us talking even more and my friend went to his office and retrieved a similar product only THIS product was from a job he did in 2001. Same multifaceted, layered piece only better. The design was better, the materials were better, the images were better and the overall piece was just better. The kicker….the total fee was $20.000. Now you might be having convulsions after seeing that fee but people that is how it USED to be. Not always but often. Was this fee inflated? Perhaps, but what if afforded, ultimately, was better work. And what it afforded was for the creative group to be, well, creative. I find a fair number of people today who never knew this kind of arrangement, or fee for that matter. Today, we have a different story. In today’s creative world, budget is often times the number one concern, and speaking only from the photographic angle, the actual work has become far less important. Far less important typically means far less good. But, many clients are not looking for great work, they are looking for inexpensive, temporary images. I’ve heard clients refer to online images as being “mature” after two-weeks of life. So the mentality is, “Why spend money and make something great when we are going to replace it in two weeks?” Consequently, photographers, designers, etc are finding themselves having to do, literally, ten times the number of jobs for the same amount of money. This method of work typically doesn’t lend itself to making great work. And, the artist is so busy searching for the next job, or balancing several jobs at once, they don’t have the time that allows for critical thought needed for creating lasting work that matters. Because this has been the reality for a while now, what I’m finding is an entire generation of young creators who not only don’t know the possibilities of real budgets and times, they are simply thrilled to be getting work at all. Wait! For those of you thinking I’m bagging on the whipper snappers, save the hate mail. I’m only 42 and I might be the same way if I was 25. This is a very difficult position for anyone. Is it right to tell a 25-year-old “Don’t take that job” when you see them taking a commercial photography job for $2500 that requires to them sign over their copyright, spend three days in post, something that ten years ago might have fetched them a $15,000 or $20,000 fee? I don’t know anymore. A few years ago I would have said, “Yes” to saying “No.” But again, today, I see so many people who are seeing a $2500 fee and saying “Wow, that’s great.” People who have never been paid a “real” rate in their entire career. Oh, this is probably a good time to mention video, motion, hybrid, fusion, or whatever else you want to call it. Ouch. But what is churning in the background, what is truly important here…..the quality of the ideas and work. People tend to get touchy when I talk about this. I don’t see current work being better than it was ten years ago.

There are a lot more people doing it.
There is less grain.
There is more sharpness.
There is a lot more talk about it.
There is a lot more promotion going on.
There is a lot of new things that are supposed to be making it better.
There is more technology.
There are more viewing options.

But the concepts, the thought, the ultimate image…well, I’m not sure. Everyone wants to believe we are better today, just like we want to believe we are better informed and best of all, more efficient. But, I’m writing this on a plane with a pen and paper, YES A PEN AND PAPER, because when I write this way it slows me down and makes me think.

Do I write as much? No.
Do I write faster? No.
Can I send it out immediately? No.

But maybe that is the point. You’ve heard the expression, “speed kills.”
A few days ago a young photographer said to me, “I love the darkroom but it just takes too long to make a print.” I said, “Well, why do you think collectors value them so much?” You could see the light bulb going off. I’ve brought this idea up before, in mixed company, and there is always the person who gets ultra defensive, the premature aging lines around their eyes drawing down as they blast me for being a lazy, slacker who doesn’t want to work and wants everything to be like it was “back in the day.” No, sorry. I’m just old enough to have known something better. That’s all. At some point, certain things will return to a likeness of what they were, at least for CERTAIN people who have the sack to actually force these things to happen. And, I know how much more creative many of the younger creators will be when they get a taste of how good they can be given the time and access. This will take some doing. Clients. Clients aren’t stupid. If they can get ten things for the price of one, they will.

How great would it be to have some type of financed foundation that sought out great creators, gave them the time and access they needed to actually work in a way that produces a lasting impact? I imagine a space, New Mexico of course, out in the sticks, off the grid, except for water, where the artist could go for six months to a year and create, finish, dream, etc.

So, my flight is angling down toward the ground, so I must go. We have everything at our fingertips today, but what we do with it, well, that is what counts.

The beer shown at the beginning of this post is no longer available.

Why Me?

Something funny happened today. I was somewhere, doing something, and ran into another photographer. In case you haven’t noticed, our economy isn’t that great at the moment. Oh, you knew that? Sorry. Just checking.

Well, I hear from a lot of other photographers, from all over the world actually, and most of those I speak with today are not doing that well. Things are slow. Business is down. Jobs are not coming as frequently, and the email/phone life lines are fraying near the edges.

This person I ran into shared the same reality. Things were slow. “Nobody is working.”

I told him that there were people working, but that something interesting was happening.

The people who are still working are those photographers who know how to say “no.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Those people who will do any job that comes along, in any style demanded,” I said, “Those people are dying on the vine.” “They are dying because there are too many of them, and they have no distinctive style, so if they fight for a decent rate they lose the job because they have nothing of value to offer.”

I firmly believe if you are a good photographer, and you offer something that the “digital body, 24-70, on camera flash” photographer doesn’t offer, you will find work. BUT, BUT, BUT, you have to be willing to say “NO” when a bad job comes along.

The moment you cave, the moment you compromise your objective, it is over. Even if you “win” in the short term by securing a shoot, in the long term not only will you lose, but you make it far more difficult for other photographers to survive.

And, by taking these puny jobs, you are, chances are, not creating any memorable images, and are not getting better as a photographer. In essence you are falling into a trap of mediocrity where thousands already live.

I was asked a party on Sunday about losing my online archive due to the host company going out of business. “What are you going to do?” I was asked. “Well, I’m going to start over,” I answered. “But, I’m going to do it very differently this time,” I added. You see, I lost tens of thousands of images online. I still have them, just not online, so I lost my immediate access to them. I’m going to do this archive thing again, but this time, instead of 30,000 images, it will be closer to 3,000. And, they will all be of a certain look and feel.

You see, I know what I want to do as a photographer. I know what my best work is, and I know what kind of picture I NEED to make from here on out.

The best photographers I know, ALL OF THEM, have a immediately recognizable style. Immediately. How many of us can say that? How many of us allow the client to dictate the details? How many allow ourselves to enter the great vanilla dreamland of middle ground when it comes to our images? How many of us live lives of quiet, photographic desperation because we are not doing what we KNOW we should be doing?

My guess. A lot of us.

Well, time to change people. Ain’t no time like now.

But don’t fret. Instead, imagine the endless possibilities. Imagine the freedom. Imagine picking up a camera, your camera, and shooting your pictures. This is the way it should be.

We are the creatives. We are the image makers, and with that comes inherent power, a power to persuade, a power to influence and a power to educate.

When we fall short, when we settle, we let ourselves down, and everyone else.

Making this jump is all about education. It’s about working together, as equals, and not from a position of desperation, but rather a position of passion and desire.

Day Three: Dynamite

“I’m putting something together,” he says.

I’m not following.

“Go wake up Aunt Amy, she is waiting for you.”

“I’m putting something together.”

He collects an electronic thing, a headset and a book. I’m thinking he will McGyver this into a small plane, a lie detector or some other odd device.

He then needs a moment to sprint around in a circle for no particular reason. LIke heat value blowing off excess pressure. Maybe I can install a pressure value on his tiny, veal neck to make this easier.

I now see him flash by outside in his blue Batman outfit. The animals in the yard scatter for their own protection.

We wake Aunt Amy up. We sneak in, this he understands, but then he starts talking at full volume.

A quick pee and he is ready for more, for anything, for everything.

He has found the small stones in the yard, the same stones that EVERY kid loves for only kid reasons.

“I wanna go to the beach,” he yells. “Sometimes I don’t know.” “Know what?” “I don’t know.”

“I going to be a fireman submarine.” “What does that mean.” “The fish can’t see us, and when there is fire underwater, I will have a giant hose.” “I’m just going to look out for the fishes.”

Makes sense to me.

“Do you think they will offer you benefits or just a fat salary.”

“I don’t know.”

He will probably refuse the pay. More of a humanitarian style endeavor.

If I listen carefully I can hear the air whining off of him at high speed. He will burn bright, then ease into a nice 5 hour nap on the ride home.

“Hey Knucklehead.”

“Hey poop head.”

“Hey knuckle sneeze head.”

This is guy talk. Simple, yet direct. More complex than it seems.

“Poop sneezy head.”

“No spitting!”

“I wanna watch Toy Story.”

“I wanna watch Meet the Press, you wanna watch that?” Blank stare.

“Hi buffalo.” “Hey buffalo head.” “What are you digging for knuckleburger?” “

“Hey knuckleburger booger head.”

Again, we dive deep into the complex history of male bonding, verbal dance.

Another eight hours of this and I will have to, once again, release him into the world. I will have to verbally spare with clients, my wife, my family, but it won’t be the same. The nuances of 3.5 can’t be faked.

“It’s raining it, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.”

Hey, let me teach you another one.

“There once was a man from Nantucket…………”