11.16.2011

You're only as good as your last job...

The universe is a tricky place and plays by a different set of rules than transient beings like us would like.  I had coffee recently (when do I not have coffee??) with a very famous photographer who was bemoaning the fact that his work had gone from super-renumerative-award-winning-globe-spanning to zilch in an arc of about five years.  And he couldn't figure it out.  We talked about market changes, the death of magazines (we both cut our teeth in the heyday of editorial work), the move to a more and more granular set of markets and age-ism (the ebola virus in the room).

But as we picked our way through the seemingly chaotic vagaries of happenstance we both saw a pattern emerge.  We'd been resting on our laurels.  We thought that a great project, done for a "show" client would have infinite legs.  That, say, a cover of the New York Times magazine would be a client magnet for years to come.  Or that a bestselling book would cement business relationships, down stream.  I'm consistently guilty of presuming that local clients know my long history in the market and that it must provide for some future business traction.  

 It's rough when you hit the wall of reality and have to confront the fact that.......you are only as good as your last job.  And that everything technical you've learned over the years is losing value faster than your dollars.....

In swimming, competitors can brag and trash talk and walk through memory lane to their heart's desire but the real test, the only test, is that time on the clock and who touches the wall first.  Nothing else matters.  You can carry your old wins gracefully but they won't help you in this race.  They won't give you anything more than a psychological advantage.  Mythology doesn't trump "now."

When we have been in the business (or the craft) for a long time we have a tendency to believe that the things we were taught and the "best practices" techniques that we embraced are both objective and right. Above opinion and obvious.  But every new style is, de facto, a destructive technology whose sole intention is to kill off the status quo.  That's the nature of art, life and business.  We can admire what came before but we achieve by inventing the new. 

I am hardly above reproach and never infallible.  I had (have) a knee jerk reaction to everything new that comes slamming down onto the photographic pike.  I hate HDR.  I loathe all the silliness of iPhone-o-graphy and above all I wish I could freeze the market and the prevailing aesthetic right at 1995.  I was pretty good at that style and comfortably understood the business....

But had I stopped there I would long since have migrated into a less.....kinetic.....industry.  The fact is, I am only as relevant to clients as my last job and my last portfolio show and (here comes the coup de grace) and showing my greatest hits from yesteryear only reinforces, to potential clients that I am frozen in amber and not swimming at pace through the stream of current commerce and style.  Without constant course correction we might as well swim to the side and exit.  They may admire my old work but it may have no relevance to the projects in front of them today.

I am not saying anyone needs to abandon their core style or walk away from decades of experience but I am saying that it needs to be incorporated into an ongoing journey of discovery which includes shooting for  oneself, trying new technologies and showing new work.  Even if the work is in a style you've done forever there is a resonance that emerges which communicates the freshness.  We can never step in the water in exactly the same way we did the day before.  Life continually changes us and you can't help but reflect those changes in your current work.  It's not important to be trendy.  It's important to let the comtemporary "you" seep into your work and the only way you can do that is to work contemporaneously. 

My readers here don't need to be reminded that I pick up new cameras all the time.  Part of it is the barely subjugated hope that the new gear will deliver the power of a cult talisman and improve my work by its magic, but another part is my belief that technology and aesthetics are joined at the hip and move in a staggered lock step.  I've talked lately about "fluid or fluent" photography by which I mean that the technology and the interface of your chosen camera doesn't interfere with your seeing.  That it regresses and becomes automatic.  That's the promise of many of the new, smaller cameras.  You look at the screen on the back (or in the EVF finder) and see the image already brocaded and prepared.  Previsualized, if you will, for you, by the machine.  All that's required is selection and timing.

In a way, fluid practice is Zen practice, is mindful practice, is stream of consciousness practice.  It precludes setting things up.  It precludes the disruption to the creative process by affectation.  It is negated by spending time setting up strobes.  It's a direct reaction to the scene in front of you or the scene in which you also exist as a player.  The 2006-2010 small strobe fascination,  was a style.  It was a manifesto.  And now it's old fart.  The techniques of HDR will be incorporated into the tool kit of photographers but, as a recognizable style, it will join the ring flash and colored filter gels on the scrapheap of photo-art-history.  The current technique of using small cameras and fast lenses, and moving and responding rapidly will also cycle through.  But it will be the prevailing style for a while.  And then it will killed off by the next disruption.

This doesn't mean that older styles don't soldier on like Zombies on the Night of the Living Dead, fashion isn't instantaneous, globally.  But you can already see the sea changes.  Scott Bourne is all feverish about shooting portraits in the studio with, gasp! an Olympus Pen camera!!!!! Thom Hogan (the big Nikon guy) declares his love for the Pens. Every guy I know is rushing to buy a Fuji x10 or x100 or the Nikon or the Panasonic mirrorless camera of choice.  Images are starting to crop up all over the place shot in the new ethos.  Camera Minimalism is rampant...

And it's all part of the process.  But you need to swim your own race.  Training methods change.  The hard work doesn't.  And the hard work has always been the incorporation of change into your own art.
Finally, to all the people who will rush in and talk about the sanctity of style I can only offer up Picasso.  He mastered seven distinct and wonderfully different styles over the course of his career and was prolific.  More work.  Less resting on our laurels.  More output and more change.  Less talk about how we did it in the old days.  Not discounting the art but no one can live on laurel leaves....

Our existence always hinges on our ability to change....well.

note:  I like this blog: http://mftadventures.blogspot.com/  it's called "High Fidelity Compacts."  It's well written and thoughtful.  Most cogent for people who are interested in smaller cameras.  Nice.

another note:  I laughed so hard I almost spilled my coffee....  On some comment stream someone was taking me to task for saying nice things about the Nikon on my blog.  Someone else responded that my blog was there to sell mountains of my books and also for my commercial photography clients.  I'm still waiting for the mountain of book sales but I hope to God my clients don't read the VSL blog.  I'm not always kind here....

Post edited. 11/17.

27 comments:

Jan Klier said...

As Heidi Klum says: "In fashion one day you're in, and one day you're out!". Simple as that.

There's a different way of saying that your'e only as good as your last job: "Your last job should always be better than anything you've done before!" - because if you live by that mantra, then with all those years of practice you should remain relevant. It's when you get too comfortable and phone it in with the same recipe, that you fall behind the hungry newcomers.

kirk tuck said...

If only we were machines...

Minesh Bacrania said...

So many of us are machines. Get up, go to work, get paycheck, come home, turn on TV.... wait.. you talked about that already.

Your posts this week have been like a series of well-made prints. I've been thinking about them long after I put the computer away. Thanks for putting the time into them and sharing your thoughts.

Michael Ferron said...

I have a split personality it seems. One side has already decided Mirrorless is the future and big cameras will go the way of the portable bag phone. The other side is retro. It can't understand why more folks don't shoot B&W film, develop it at home and print wet in the darkroom. I'm the only one I've seen (?) walking around with a film camera in quite a while. I enjoy both sides.

Ron Nabity said...

Reminds me of golf (what doesn't?) You can hit the perfect drive, walk up to the ball and admire it all you want, but that's not what's important. The important thing is what you will do next.

Kirk, since you have "freed yourself" to write what you want, as often and as long as you want, you have released an amazing stream of posts. I'm really enjoying this!

- Ron

omphoto said...

That beautiful merry-go-round of what is current and what is not never stops. When I want to step away from the digital world, my two trusty film cameras, a Hassleblad 500c and Xpan, put me in a space where I feel more connected to the process of making a photograph. I use digital cameras for work and for fun, the instant feedback is part of that loop, and they have certainly been the right choices for that, but still, going back to my beginnings of using film, developing in my kitchen sink, hanging the film in the bathroom to dry, resonates more than anything with why I make photographs. Something about the anticipation and the delayed gratification makes the results like the final moments of a great seduction.

Paul Glover said...

The worst mistake any of us can make, regardless of the field we operate in, is to assume that we've learned everything we need to learn.

kirk tuck said...

Paul. That's the inflection point of each person's downfall.

Dick -Photographer said...

Great post as always!

Dave Jenkins said...

Another great, on-target post. I remember the feeling of anguish I experienced six or seven years ago as I came to realize that even after more than twenty-five years of work in my market I had not built a self-sustaining photography business. Now, I wonder if such a thing is even possible for a commercial photographer. Maybe for some, but for me, it appears that if I don't keep sustaining it, it ain't gonna sustain.

Reminds me of strippers. Remember them? Up until some time in the '80s, maybe the early '90s, strippers were among the most highly skilled and highly paid workers in the printing industry. Then computer-assisted design programs came along and sent them to join the dodo birds and buggy-whip makers.

Rethinking the previous statement, though, the skill of stripping may not be an exact parallel. Strippers were highly skilled, but they were craftsmen, not creatives. A few may have learned to do computer design, but I suspect most of them just looked for another line of work. We, however, are creatives. Our processes, techniques, even our skills eventually may become obsolete, but creativity never becomes obsolete. We just have to find new ways to use it.

John said...

One thing that's happening is that the "pro photographer" is becoming a "pro imager" -- the center of the trade is moving away from the camera to the computer. At one time, the camera stuff was so complicated -- the different films, the development possibilities and problems, lighting and lighting glitches, the need for massive redundancy -- that it took a fulltime camera pro with a quarter-million bucks worth of equipment to do the work. Not so much anymore, and it's getting even less that way with such developments as LED lighting.

Suppose you were doing a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1995 (to pick your year): the photographer would have to pick the best skin films for both indoor and outdoor work; would have to know how to coordinate flash lighting for both indoor and outdoor work (lighting where you couldn't see the effect at the time, because you were using film, so you just had to *know* you got the shot), would have to know how to work with all of that equipment around salt water, would have to pray for good weather...

Now, I suspect, you could go to a studio in any large city, like Los Angeles, throw around a few buckets of sand, pose your models, see all the work as it's shot, then drop in all the weather-perfect backgrounds -- Cancun, Ibiza, Miami Beach, wherever -- from stock photography, and wrap that baby up in a couple of days, for a tenth of the cost of an on-site shoot.

And if it's not possible now, it's coming soon. And we're getting closer and closer to the time when the computer guys will be able to generate the perfect models...no need for actual live women...

Dave Jenkins said...

It's already here, John, and has been, to an increasing degree, since the '90s.

clicknroll said...

great read, Kirk. i come here often to get my daily insight.
i agree with john from 2:44 PM - the future of imagery may be bleak. i'm already seeing the same face in all fashion commercials - and it all looks like it's CG.

DrMickey said...

That Zen-like feeling of picking up our familiar camera and having it become the hand-eye extension comes from familiarity and there is a lot to be said for it. But the flip-side of that 45 is a complacency that comes when we discover that our niche has become our rut.
In a rush towards the Next Best Thing, many of us may fail to pause to ask "Best for whom?". Change for the sake of change may not be the right choice, but failing to evolve is just as much of a dead end.

Jim said...

Kirk, There's HDR and then there is HDR. Too much of what's going down today should really be called SDR (Surreal Dynamic Range). My personal reaction to that is in the same territory with my reaction to Rap. Okay, I'm an old(er) guy. I admit it. But there's more to it than that. A lot of what you are talking about, including all those SDR images, is "FAD" in uppercase bold font. I've never been comfortable with fads. Too much "me too" and too little individuality and creativity. As for the "mountain of books" you are selling, I have your latest on pre-order and am looking forward to it.

kirk tuck said...

I should have emphatically made the point that the evolution I refer to above, in the article, is meant to reference the practice of commercial photography only. If you are happy and engaged and shooting 4x5 sheet film in a TechniKarden (or some variation of this) and you do so because you enjoy it and it challenges you then you need never change. But in the roller derby, full contact world of commercial art it is imperative to keep pace, if for no other reason that to be able to argue intelligently against it.

Low Budget Dave said...

No matter how great your work, a certain percent of people will declare it to be the end of your career. The Internet allows such people to post and criticize without having to do the hard work of thinking. If you listen to them, you are granting them power which they did not previously have.

Brad C said...

Thanks for mentioning my blog! I kind of have been languishing in obscurity until I posted a few comparisons with the Fuji X10 and micro four thirds. I'm sure this mention will help too :)

I love your blog and books, by the way. You are like the Elephant's Child when it comes to camera equipment - and I enjoy tagging along with your 'satiable curiosities... What I appreciate most about your equipment articles is that you just go out and use the equipment, and take risks with it my trying it out on real jobs when you can. So much more interesting than brick walls and still lifes of plastic figurines. I'm glad you came back to blogging! Your non-gear articles bring a whole other dimension as well.

Have a good day, and enjoy the weather - we're getting snow in Calgary these days... I think I might actually stick to swimming if I could swim outdoors all year long :)

John said...

This was a really great and thought-provoking post - and an area that I have been thinking much about this past year.

I have really felt over the last two years that I am in this great slot or groove - that almost always temporary period when your photographic style, cost structure and workflow are seemingly in complete sync with the type of commercial clients you desire.

My father is a commercial photographer (64) and I now have a young sister, 25, who is now shooting full time as well. With me in the middle at 40, we sort of represent three distinct periods along the arc. I can absolutely see the difficulties of aging in this business through my father and I can also see what a young eye and fresh energy and enthusiasm can bring to a client.

My father and I often comment about how my sister thinks everything is easy! The less you know the easier things are in many cases!

One thing that my father taught me years ago that I believe is a very under appreciated or even ignored element of longevity as a commercial photographer is the personable likability of the photographer! Yes, the photography needs to be good, but it is being judged by people and it is subjective in nature. People tend to like the photography much more if they like the photographer!

Regarding the need to reinvent, I think there is a great parallel with music and the lifespan of bands. The best analogy to me is U2. They began in 1980, reinvented themselves in 1984 - Unforgettable Fire. Some success. Completely reinvented sound in 1987 - Joshua Tree. Huge success. Take a pretty big hit for a few years - close to disbanding. In 1991, another complete reinvention of style and sound - Achtung Baby. Huge success.

For the last 20 years they have remained one of the 'greatest' bands in the world by any commercial measurement. The style has tweaked a bit, but no hugely successful complete reinvention. Bono, the lead singer, gave a great interview discussing the latest album a couple years back. He said something like this - "this is the best collection of songs we've ever produced, but the whole is just not greater than the sum of its parts - and it fucking pisses me off!"

I think that's how an aging photographer can feel. More knowledge, more expertise, more craft than you had 20 years ago, but somehow you can't find that "slot" I referred to earlier where you are in sync with the commercial market like that couple riding down the road in the VW commercial! Just can't find the magic!

Most bands sync with worldwide consumers once if they are lucky - 15 minutes of fame. U2 has been able to find that slot on three distinct occasions with three distinct styles. That's pretty envious stuff.

More importantly, and to the point of the post, the bands that don't reinvent and continually push themselves into new territory simply cease to exist. They're gone.

Sorry for the length - I think about this stuff a lot!

John Gillooly

kirk tuck said...

I think about it too, John. Thanks for the perspective.

donbga said...

Well I'm getting very seduced with the Fuji X10 examples. As soon as a L-Bracket is offered I'll probably imbibe myself with this camera since I like to work off of a light weight Gitzo with a Markins ball head.

Anyone need a Canon G10 in pristine condition with accessories? :)

silliopolous said...

On the whole, I agree with a lot of this except that I think you are misplacing the cause of poor behaviour on "the forums". It's not that you are only as good as your last job there - because most newb posters aren't aware IF you had ANY job, let alone your last one.

They shoot from the hip and engage in loutish behaviour because the anonymity of the Internet allows it.


Your last job? Most of them don't care about it and never will. That discussion was about THEM, not you!

And, in many cases, they insist on proving the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Scott said...

What? You mean you're NOT buying a Lear jet with the money from Nikon and the money from the books, and that other money.....

I'm so disappointed.

But I'll keep reading VSL anyway.

Jon said...

I also hate HDR. Hoping it dies off soon. Regarding cell phones, it doesn't help that Annie Leibovitz just recently told Brian Williams that the iPhone is one of the best cameras you can have with you. Maybe it's the whole "the best camera is the one you have with you" sort of thing, but regardless...I honestly hate using my mobile device for anything photography related. Has anyone ever noticed that 99% of the time, anytime someone posts a 'great shot' from a cell phone, it's been through about 1,000 post-processing steps in Photoshop to make that great picture look cool? Maybe it's because cell phone cameras generally suck? I think so. Granted, they're better (much better) than they used to be, but let's face it...it's no where near as good as a modern, descent compact camera. I cringed this summer on vacation when I saw so many people whipping out their smartphones to snap their shots of Yellowstone's best natural features. Later on at home, they'll probably be wondering "why do my pictures look so bad?" Gee....I wonder. No effort and no care was taken to get a reasonably good shot. Just pull out the smartphone and snap. Oh boy...

Trevorb said...

Just wanted to say thank you for all the articles you write. I just found you site today and I am slowly making my way through it. Thanks again for sharing your gift of photography and epic style of writing.

Phil said...

Great post Kirk! And particularly relevant to me as here I am, on the verge, on the cusp, in the process of rowing up my ducks for the big step to "go pro". Okay, I know it's more than just a "step" but you get the idea.

My (one of my) biggest concerns is among those you address in this post..."Style". What a confounding principle! So integral to what we do as photographers, yet SO tough to really nail down and quantify.

On top of that, the insight you seem to share here, that "Style" is becoming a nebulous moving target, seemingly in synch with the fast-moving and fickle vagaries of fashion and fad and which is only compounded by the constant introduction of new cameras, formats, ways - iPhone; HDR - of making pictures. The Lytro concept scares the heck out of me! Is there even such thing as a photographer anymore?

I believe (I must!) that there will always be a market for good photographs/visual communication and that breaking into the business has always been a difficult and uncertain prospect. Could someone please quantify "difficult"? My guess is that the new paradigm for photography is fast becoming the old paradigm for everything else - "There is nothing constant in this world except for change".

So nowadays to say a guy or gal does happen to have a very distinct and hard-won style and does manage to attract a few nice clients for a few minutes, the challenge, the new carrot, is relevance. Plain and simple. In a market that's changing so fast that the very idea of relevance is redefined with the release of the next new iPhone app or digicam concept? (My darkroom is still alive and well, just so you know!)

So maybe this turned into a little bit of a rant, sorry if this isn't the right venue for that. What's a guy to do? Do you think strong work (and work ethic) a well defined style and decent business sense is enough to compete these days in the rarefied air of "Professional Photography"?

BTW - I HAVE bought (and read) all your books and I hope you DO get that Lear Jet you were thinking about when you wrote them!

Regards - and please keep 'em coming!
Phil
Dallas, TX

Stan said...

Kirk, good post.

Here is a good read that is in a way related. More so for the photographer that has trouble finding their "thing". But you're talking about the various techniques going in and out of vogue reminded me of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory and getting off at this stop or that stop and not staying on the bus long enough to fully develop.

http://www.fotocommunity.com/info/Helsinki_Bus_Station_Theory