6.18.2009

Free Versus Free.

It's that time of the year again. The Austin director of the Kipp Schools would like me to donate time and energy to help them with their annual report. Their AR is one of their principal fund raising tools. We've done the last four, won some Addy Awards and some local awards and generally helped move their game forward. The Kipp schools are non-profit charter schools that serve an incredibly important function. They provide a top quality, college prep education for children with brains and talent who are underserved in public schools. According to a huge article in the New York Times the people who do the Kipp schools have achieved amazing results. Given the opportunity the kids excel. They match the test scores of kids from affluent neighborhoods. Amazing stuff.

The job will take a couple of days of shooting on location. A couple days of post processing and a few meetings. They would like me to donate my services and I will. I'll do it because it's an educational cause I believe in, the economy has provided me ample free time, and it's a nice showcase for my work. Does this mean that I believe in doing free work as a means of promotion? No.

I've been following a thread on the web wherein the original poster complained about Google asking professional (meaning established, working designers) to submit spec designs for material that would be used on various websites. If accepted there is no other payment than the implication that one's work would be seen by millions of viewers.

This follows on the heels of various posts on the web that contend the only way to break into New York's closed circle of fashion magazines is to offer to work for free. Many people rushed to protest this point of view. And there is a an obvious disconnection.

Supporters of the "work for free" theory suggest that it will bring in massive amounts of commissioned work at highly profitable rates. They further suggest that this the paradigm of the future for artists so we should stop whining and get with the program. They point to photographic luminaries such as Joe McNally and David Hobby as examples of people who are giving away their photo knowledge and prospering. And here's the disconnect: David and Joe have products to sell that are different than photo commissions. They are selling books, DVDs and workshops. Their rationed release of information, and Joe's scintillating stories from the field have as their goal to sell product. Their blogs are not aimed at clients, in fact, if we are to be honest our advertising clients have little interest or time to cruise photographer's blogs. So while David and Joe are prospering by offering free samples they are prospering by selling intellectual property through these vehicles and not art.

For large companies to leverage their reach and their resources to exploit and extract time, intellectual property and art from single person businesses by making vague insinuations about the value of exposure is unethical and immoral. Helping out your family or your favorite cause is part of our common pact with each other and with civilization. Helping a major corporation become wealthier by becoming a "scab", and a free one at that creates inertia that pushes artists further and further away from being able to survive financially in this world.

There are those who argue that they have no obligation to support artists. I agree. The market will decide which artist succeed financially and which will fail. But I would argue that a person supported by his or her profession who muddies the waters of the creative markets by placing the aggrandizement of their ego over the welfare of society in general and, by extension, the fate of the arts, is making choices that will make our culture coarser and less compassionate. I think that's sad. If you are good enough to do the work you should be paid for it in real currency.

Here are my ground rules for donating my services as a photographer: The cause must be good. The entity must be a non-profit. The use of my art must conform to best industry practices. The final piece should have a clear goal and a clear set of metrics with which to measure success.

If you are a full time doctor, lawyer, IT guy, etc. and you are giving work to corporations for free that they would otherwise pay for you are disrupting a system that supports imaginative thinking and creativity. That's all.

Remember when we all thought available light was so cool?

I still do. Styles ebb and flow but I think the prevailing style of lighting that was coincident with your initial development as a photographer makes a mark on some inner aesthetic part of your brain. The style of your nascent brush with art locks you on a certain pathway.

For many of us old enough to remember the general interest magazines like Life Magazine and Look Magazine; and certainly National Geographic Magazine, the look that "locked" us was the gorgeous and incredibly well executed "available light" imagery. Little wonder that most of us still lust for cameras like Leica rangefinders with their fast sharp prime optics. To work back in that milieu required physical talent as opposed to technical talent. One had to be able to recognize and respond to good light and bad light with flawless technique. If you worked with the ISO 200 speed film of the day you learned to stand still and calm the tremors of human existence in a way that image stabilization and ultra high ISO sensitivities in digital cameras don't really demand. (Not to worry, this is not a rant about digital versus film.....)

I think the look hooked us for several reasons: 1. The shots weren't set up. No one needed to show up with an army of assistants and cases full of lights and stands in order to do their work. That meant the photographer blended in and was not part of the production. Kind of reversing the Heisenberg theory of affective subliminal interaction. No "Heisenberg Compensator" was necessary. Subject reactions, unfettered by the persistent visual patter of flashes, was more real, less self conscious. 2. The need for "speed" in order to hand hold cameras led to the design, production and wide spread use of really fast lenses. Some of which are still competitive with the best on offer from Canon and Nikon. Leica had the f1 Noctilux. Canon had a 50mm f (point) .9 lens. Even my old Olympus Pen FT sported a 60mm 1.5 lens. Now we get excited about a constant aperture f2.8 zoom? Really? The upshot of the fast lenses is a wonderfully thin zone of focus that makes the in focus subject the nexus of all attention and intention. 3. The images weren't subjected to endless iterations of post production. Nothing existed to save a mediocre shot or a shot that just lacked intrinsic interest.

I loved opening up a fresh copy of Life Magazine. Not all the images were wonderful, compelling or even midly interesting but the ones that were had the power to rivet young eyes for ages.

The world has changed. People entering photography now feel the overarching desire or need to imprint a personal style on every image they shoot so many settle on a style that is often a hodge podge of imitative steals and compulsively imprint that style on every frame they shoot. The tools have become more of a message than the message itself.

In the last month I've pushed myself to up my game. To handhold better, to see better and to improve the craft. You'll think I'm nuts (and maybe many of your already do) but I've given up a 25 year coffee habit in the quest to handhold better and to have the patience to see stuff worth handholding a camera for. I'm meditating in hopes of getting clearer and clearer about what I want to photograph and why. And I'm getting down right reductivist about the gear I want to shoot with.

I figure that with a D700 and a 50mm 1.1.2 and a fast 85mm I should be able to do good, compelling people work at a higher level than I would if everything were lit. And I do find that I'm having to watch the light with a patience I never did before.

Even though part of my livelihood depends on selling books about using lights I'll be the first to admit that some subjects don't need to be lit. They repulse the attempt. Nothing beats perfect light and nature makes a lot of it.

The above shot was done for a hospital group and is nothing much. But it catches my eye because of its candid nature and the perfect balance of light and contrast. It reminds me that sometimes getting even more MINIMAL garners maximum results.

As I was thinking about our society's collective compulsion to embellish reality and photographers' compulsion to use light as style I came across a verse in the good ole Tao Ching (Stephen Mitchell Translation) that reads:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about other people's approval and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.