A few days ago I was asked to do another written interview. First of all, I’m amazed anytime anyone asks me for any information whatsoever. Puzzled really because most of the time I seem to have my own little deserted island point of a view. Crackpot, disgruntled, luddite, anti-technology, behind-the-times, all descriptive terms aimed my way over the past few years. But the reality is I love doing interviews, or maybe it’s the fact I just love to talk. From time to time that is. I can go for weeks without any communication with another human being, and I can be perfectly content in doing so, but get me rolling and I’ll talk your ear, leg and spleen off baby.
One of the interview questions began with a statement about photographers needing to be literate in video as well as still photography. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop right there. Hang on there a minute. Freeze. Now just one goddamn second. Hold your horses. Hang tight. Slow down there partner. Says who?
Now listen, I completely and totally understand why that question was asked and where it came from, but the truth is still photographers DON’T need to know video, or motion or whatever else you want to call it. We are teaching this idea to young and not-so-young people, the old “You need to know all of these things,” scenario because that’s the life we’ve convinced ourselves is “progressive” and “the future.” Still photographers need to know motion and design and illustration and billing and housekeeping and copy editing and how to rebuild a Chevy four-barrel carb. People it’s just not true, and I for one feel so sad for young photographers who are entering the workforce as a master of nothing.
Now listen, the odds of getting out of school as a master of something is a real stretch. It happens but not for most of us. School builds you a foundation, but then you hit the real world and get suckered into things like a conversation with a 70-year-old newspaperman who draws you toward a seemingly harmless conversation only to wait for you to open your mouth then unleashes a verbal tirade at you while the entire newsroom listens in. The real world punches back, and trumps your master with an uppercut of reality.
Here is your problem and mine. Still photography is really f****** difficult. In the entire history of photography there have been but a few true masters. A very, very few, and this is still true today even with 36 megapixel sensors and still cams that shoot HD video at blah, blah resolution and blah, blah, blah. Oh wait, that’s the OLD version, if you only had the NEW version you too would be a “filmmaker.” PAIN ALERT: PLEASE TAKE YOUR ASPIRIN OR IBUPROFEN NOW. You could work your entire life on still photography and never be a master. Sorry. You want the truth? I just gave it to you.
Another fact for you. When you, or anyone else, does two things at once, or three things, typically all three things suffer to some degree. Instead of doing ONE thing to the best of your ability you are now diverting your attention, focus and physical resources, not to mention your mental resources, to THREE tasks. Just think simple math. What is the result? Well, it’s easy. AVERAGE RESULTS. AVERAGE. Or…..perhaps a better way of describing this for you modern living types, we go from “photography” to “content.” Yep, the days of jack-of-all-trades ushered in that now famous expression of “go get me some killer content,”and ushered OUT at the same time were things like sustainable wages, in depth reporting, quality and personal vision. Ya, just a few things we tossed aside in our drunken stumble toward believing we all needed to know all of these things.
Yesterday, it just so happened, an old friend popped into my head, someone I haven’t spoken with in a long while, and I thought “Hey, I’ll look them up online and drop them a note.” Visiting their site I looked at a range of galleries, more to see what they had been up to than judging the quality of their latest work. But it became difficult to NOT judge the work because what came back at me was a shell of what this person had once been able to create. And then….at the bottom of the page….a “motion” tab. Good grief. How do I put this politely? It just wasn’t good. The motion “content” was sharp, and had our beloved shallow depth of field, but the story, the point of view and the message were paper thin. It looked like bad, 1986 MTV outtakes(but sharper and shallower). And I also noticed that the motion content was the same content being displayed in the still galleries higher on the page. PROOF. EVIDENCE. A BLOOD TRAIL. Multitasking in the field leads to average results.
What doing three things at once does is lessen the impact of all three. Look at how many films come from Hollywood each year. And look at how many are complete and total crap. The majority. And these are done by people doing ONE thing. Look at insanely good still photographers and their “success rate” based on how many images they make during a project and how many make the final edit. The “success rate” is PAINFULLY LOW, again because still photography is STILL really difficult.
But here is the rainbow at the end of this little fairy tale. Stop doing it. Learn how to politely say “no.” The ability to say “no” is the single most important aspect of being a modern photographer. And yes, you are going to get blackballed, slammed and threatened by people who are fearful for their job and people who have been told to blackball and threaten you. Go get a “normal” job. Don’t give them the satisfaction, or your valuable time and energy. Those people will be gone soon enough. Go find a way to make YOUR work. Not theirs. Their work is fickle, flawed and superficial. That’s not what you got into photography to produce right?
The only aspect of this I put on the photographers is their willingness to play along. I know WHY they are being asked. Just take one look at the newspaper world that back in the 1990’s decided it was time to give reporters cameras and time to give photographers notepads and everyone could do everything. If you didn’t play along you were let go for someone younger and someone willing to work for ten percent of what you were working for.(This is literally still happening on a daily basis.) What did the papers end up with? CRAP. COMPLETE AND TOTAL CRAP, which was in part what led to their downfall. Look at what happened with the first “Multimedia Revolution.” It FAILED and it FAILED MISERABLY, but yet here we are again trying to turn everyone into everything. Turns out, those multimedia pieces you worked so long and hard on, well, nobody really wanted those in the first place. What got more traffic than anything? A still photo gallery.
I think sometimes we get too clever. Hell, I KNOW we get too clever for our own good. Nobody asked me for my advice-I wonder why-but I’m going to give it. Just do ONE thing. Give yourself a self-imposed timeline and say “I’m going to do nothing but shoot motion for two years.” Or take the still route, whatever. See what happens.
I recently had lunch across from the owner of a MASSIVE clothing line. I was busting his chops about his company putting out job descriptions that merged four or five jobs into one, low paying position. He said “Look, these people that are coming to us aren’t particularly good at any one thing, they are just okay at a lot of things.” He was BEGGING for someone with depth and was having a difficult time finding someone.
Here’s my final nail in the little ramble. It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to resign ourselves to doing things the way we have been told it has to be. WE are the creators. WE hold the control.
Cheer up, go forth and make great stuff. It’s SO easy to get distracted by all things new, but when you look at the most important work in the history of photography what you see coming back at you is work created by people with an intensity of vision, not people who were multitasking their way through life.