7.13.2010

The importance of shooting for no good reason.

Emily.  Taken with an Olympus e-30 and a 35-100mm f2 zoom lens.

Gosh, I really like photography.  And I think it's a lot like playing the piano.  You need to practice all the time if you're going to be any good at it.  It may seem like one of those crafts where you can learn all the stuff you need to know and then shelve it until you have time.  But I think that only works for hobbies like stamp collecting or artistic pursuits like conceptualism.  If you paint you need to learn to control the brush and the more you do it the better you are at it.  It's the same with musical instruments.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  When will I be done learning to meditate?  When I'm dead.  And how do I learn to take better photographs of people?  Shoot and shoot and shoot.  There's really no shortcut and there's really no advantage to learning every little fact as a cerebral tidbit.  When you shoot a portrait your hands do some stuff your mouth does other stuff (talk, sing, lie, cajole, praise, engage....) and your brain does some other stuff.  But to make them do everything at once and make them do it reasonably well you have to give your creative muscles daily exercise or they atrophy.

So I call friends and people I meet and relatives and anyone that will listen and I invite them over to my little studio and make photographs.  And it's nearly always a nice collaboration.  When it isn't it means I wanted everything my way and ended up not getting anything nice.  Or the subject wanted everything their way and that didn't work either.

The image I keep in my head as I shoot a portrait is that of water in a stream.  Every time a rock comes up I try to go around it.  I never try to push the rocks out of my way.  I don't know what's on the other side of the rock but I know I'll get there if I just stay fluid.

The way to stay fluid is to be the water, everyday.  And flow.  

Practice, practice, practice.  Enjoy the process and you'll enjoy the outcome.  Force the process and the outcome is worthless.

Everything we think about the photo market is suspect.

I don't want to sound like someone who is relentlessly positive but I think the rumors of professional photography's death are highly exaggerated.  I think the patient had a bad case of the flu for the past three years but I think it was  episodic and not as brutally permanent as pundits and aging photographers would have you believe.  Photography, for most corporations and companies, is like the HR department. It's great to have during the up times.  HR's in charge of head hunting and hiring and keeping employees happy and stable.  But it's not sales and it's not manufacturing and when the economy goes sour it's often as much of a target for cost cutting as photography and employee appreciation events.

During the last three years there's been needed belt tightening and then belt tightening as corporate theater.  Sadly, photography has always been perceived to be the caviar on the buffet. Take the good stuff off the table and bring out the hot dogs...  When times get tough fewer P.O.'s get written.  Fewer photo intensive projects get done.  Anything that costs money but doesn't move the water polo ball toward the goal in the short term is relegated to the "wish" list, not the "to do" list.  And so it's been for three long years.

But disgruntled photographers began to talk about how the "market has permanently changed".  They mistook a brutal downturn for whole scale evolution.  There were/are endless predictions that dollar stock and the web would be the final nail in the coffin of professional photography.  No one would ever assign again.  Best case (deeply pessimistic) scenario?  We'd all learn how to become videographers  slugging it out over in that sandbox.

But business needs images.  Business needs advertising.  And advertising needs to constantly evolve to keep its audiences interested.  Otherwise Mr. Whipple would still be squeezing the Charmin and Madge would still be soaking in Palmolive.  We'd still see "the little purple pill" every evening on the news.  Nope, the audience won't go to the same movie over and over again and they won't look at the same ads over and over again.  So, new and different is part of the product specification for communications.  And that means new ways of looking at things and that means new images and, by extension, brand new photography.

So now, three years after the big freeze there's pent up demand for photography of the same old subjects but imaged in a new way.  A new style.  Not radically new but new in the way that a Honda Accord gets a facelift every few model years.  Nothing worse for an executive than using an old headshot in a speaker's promotion or event program only to have aged a bit.  Likely he'll end up the recipient of many, "Have you been ill?" inquiries as the audience tries to reconcile his weathered and beaten current look with the headshot in the program they hold in their hands (someone remind me to tell the story of retouching gone wild and the cancer scare story....).

Here's what seems to happening right now in the business:  Products are getting new product facelifts and need to be re-shot.  Executive teams have been shuffled and need to be re-shot.  New markets are opening and old markets are re-opening and companies are getting ready to put on fresh faces and go after the markets.

Many have discovered that photo fees from professionals are really such a tiny part of the budget that the different between $500 and $5,000 is still just a fraction of a percentage of the overall cost of production and ad placement.  They are starting to understand the overall value proposition and would rather have proven "brands" (photographers) than taking chances on unproven generics.  In short, the market is showing the same signs of life it has after every market correction.

I put a photo of this building in because in the last recession the common belief in Austin was that the game had profoundly changed and no one would ever be able to sell a condominium in the downtown area in the foreseeable future.  Since then, this building and about 12 others have been built, are coming online and filling up briskly.  As late as last year pessimists proclaimed that the buildings would either go partially filled or that developers would have to radically reduce their pricing.  Now the buildings are nearly 100% sold.  People are clammering for more space close in to downtown.  It's the place to be.  The general take in 2008 was that real estate would be dead for a decade.  Now we need more.

The market is always more optimistic and pessimistic than the facts.  There aren't stock photos of the new CEO, the new building, the new factory, the new product, the new fabric, the new airplane, your kids, your daughter's wedding, or any of  a thousand other subjects.  We will need to take them.  We may take them with tiny digital cameras, we may take them with hulking behemoth cameras but we will take them.  We may deliver them on the web.  They may run on the web.  But they will still add the same or more value to corporations, companies, mom&pop businesses and other communicators.  We just need to charge accordingly, deliver accordingly and revive the working business model.

The sky may be falling but it may be the sky in some other market.  As a profession we need to stop putting energy into a myth that's destructive to our markets and our psyches.  The game was called on the count of "rain" for the past few years.  The clouds are breaking up.  Game on.