10.15.2010

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.