The trough.

It's inevitable in a self employed arts based business to have cycles where you go from being overwhelmingly busy to overwhelmingly slow.  It's the territory.  We chose it.  But it's not the amplitudinal changes of work commissioned by customers that gets me, it's the indecision.  It's so easy to stray from what we probably should be doing.

I've chosen exactly the wrong way to run a business.  I have corporate clients who want nice, tidy photo shoots.   When the economy is booming they're shoveling assignments in the front door.  When the economy goes into free fall they hibernate.  Then I have advertising agency clients and, guess what? their clients are also corporate clients....subject to the same financial mood swings.  So we learn to even out the cash flow and supplement income by doing things like writing books.  And then the books become like a small business and we do things like write blogs in order to tangentially move book sales forward.    Everything moves me further and further from the core.  But that may be the progression in our industry that everyone is seeing.

Once you have a few successful books under your belt you get a bit of notoriety and the universe seduces you into doing more and more tangential stuff like participating in workshops and giving guest lectures to various college classes.  And you spend more and more time doing things that look less and less like photography as you understand it.  A friend calls up and asks me to work with them on a video. That seems like a good idea.  Diversification, right?  But not having a straightforward path seems so ambiguous.....

And it's amazing how flexible you mind can be when your clients and the economy are also practicing flexibility.  Last Summer I participated in a workshop in Dallas where I spoke about lighting with small flashes to nearly 1200 people over the course of two and a half days.  These were all scrapbookers who wanted to take better photographs to stick into their scrapbook projects.  Why did I do it?  Well, it appealed to my ego, of course.  But business was slow and the money was good.  And it was an opportunity to promote two books that dovetailed nicely with the overall tenor of the conference.  The focus of the conference was to gently teach non-technical people the technical things they needed to know to have more control over their work.

But in the course of preparing a 50 slide presentation, practicing some strobe techniques, traveling and being present at happy hours and social dinners I moved further and further away from my solitary practice of photography.

Now we're three quarters of the way through another years.  I've done a few more workshops.  I've worked on twice as many commercial assignments this year compared to last year and now it feels like we're heading back into the trough.  The low spot between the waves of work.  I'm thinking about teaching another workshop but it feels so disingenuous if I'm only doing it because I think I need to supplement my core business.  In the best of all possible worlds a workshop would be a small group thing where really complex and involved ideas that intersect creativity and technique would be shared.  Not a group introduction to stuff I've already written about plenty of times.

I had a good Summer and early Fall as a photographer doing real assignment photography.  But as a result of the last two years I always feel the cold sweat of impending doom wafting over me like a chilling breeze.  And so I pitched a book project on a new lighting technology/technique.  And the publisher accepted.  And the moment I got the e-mail of acceptance I remembered the old Texas curse, "Be danged careful what you hanker for.....you might just git it."  And all the calmness and optimism that led me to pitch the project, the joy of new learning, the challenge of writing, the happy anticipation of shooting a whole new body of work-----that all paled in an instant; replaced with the anxiety of knowing that now I have to perform.  I have to make the great new photos.  I have to master the new technology.  I have to deal with the gnawing doubt that I may have "bought a horse who won't make it to the finish line..."  I have to help sell the property once we make it.

And there is always the indecisiveness that comes from knowing that a project like this can push you to a new level......or level you.  But it's nice to get started.  Back to the typewriter and bit of isolation.

I suffered through two years of deep and relentless anxiety starting back in 2007.  It was interesting for me and also very scary and devastating.  But through it all I worked, wrote four books and kept the business moving forward.  I sought professional help.  I went to therapy.  I swam more.  But in a flash I found the secret and the anxiety abated.

A brilliant woman, named Pat, sat with me over coffee one morning and explained what she thought were the underpinnings of anxiety.  She said that anxiety was the combination of Ambiguity, Loneliness and Indecision.  She felt like it could be treated by understanding those three causes and working to erase them.  That, and the choice of the right bottle of Scotch.

While the new projects I've signed up for are daunting I'm decisive about how I'll do them and there's no ambiguity about why I'm doing them.  And, unlike the first four books I did,  I'm inviting friends and colleagues into the mix to help me make the projects really sing........and to keep me company.

And maybe the successful completion of these projects will bring me full circle.  Back to the core of photography.  And back to the fun of new discovery.

Just some Friday morning introspection.  Indulge me.


Anonymous said...

It often helps to talk to your feelings, not about them.

Tell yourself when you do well. You have to vocalize, otherwise it won't work.

Worked very well for my vertigo. I told myself "that went well. No problems at all." every time I had overcome my fear. In the end, no fear at all.

Supposedly this is the standard way of treating anxiety where I live.

Karsten said...

That is all very well - where is the link to Amazon?

Seriously, I have two of your other books and they are really good. I am enjoying your updates here a lot. Wishing you all the best with writing the new book.


Matt said...

In my un-educated but "trend / information junkie" opinion, that is EXACTLY the progression in our industry that everyone is seeing.

Think about it. How big was the professional photography industry, 10 years ago? And how many DSLR's have been sold to consumers in those last 10 years? I'm willing to bet that the "industry" of educating hobbyist photographers is going to be 2-10X bigger than the professional photography business ever was. (Not saying more lucrative, just bigger.)

Embrace it or not, DSLR's are going to continue to sell, and whenever a new product's sales skyrocket like that, there's money to be made.


Kevin said...

Thanks for posting this Kirk. I usually just lurk on your site- but this one spoke to me a little bit more than usual. Just the fact that you understand that you are in a state of angst is a major step in finding the roadmap you need to get it behind you. I salute you- and suggest treating yourself to not just "a" bottle of scotch, but your favorite. Keep up the writing, the blog, the personal photography. You impact many more people than you realize with your seasoned insights and commentary.

Joseph Richardson said...

Excellent post. Reading good commentary like yours on the business of photography always rejuvenates me. Thanks!

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Kirk, nothing wrong with letting necessity be the mother of invention. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel might not have been what it is without a few papal goons looking over Michelangelo's shoulder :)

Also, I' rather see workshops from you than a host of others who may have technical skills but not much practical business background to lend some helpful pragmatism to the mix.

Glenn Harris said...

Photography isn't the first, and won't be the last, that has to adapt to a technology revolution. I was out on a Senior shoot yesterday morning and saw seven other photographers working within a 100 yard radius. Interestingly though six of those seven were using either on-camera flash or no flash and were women, and read into that what you want. THe other photographer was a guy and had a speedlight on a light stand. I must have looked really strange with my vagabond/AB/Beauty dish combination. Do I consider these other photographers competition? - no, not at all.
I was at a State Fair the previous weekend and nearly every parent of the kids showing livestock had a DSLR or P/S - kit camera and lens combinations.
It is definitely easier to enter photography but I've found that people still value quality photography even if they own their own DSLR. You just have to demonstrate the value your product adds.
I have noticed the trend of photographers starting a blog, then presenting workshops, writing books etc.. Again, the good photographers will survive. I said I wasn't going to shoot youth sport this Fall but two clubs came a calling and i sure did enjoy putting those checks in the bank. You do what you need to and acknowledge the landscape is constantly changing, and workout how best to change with it.

kirk tuck said...

I don't intend to compromise. I don't want to go down the road of offering stuff I don't want to do to fill out the cash register. That's why I want to supplement what I do photographically with other high value things like writing and teaching.