One of my friends mentioned this over a glass of wine recently. Today seemed like a good day to repost it. I wrote it in 2010. Near the end of the year...
"THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK"
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. We had a houseful of people. My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too. Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family. Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food. My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards. Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly. I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....). We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style. My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane. Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table.
Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening. Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm. Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome."
Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend. Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen. It's a line that resonated with me like a bell. He said, "The Passion is in the risk."
THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK.
That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years. The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it. And the passion is proportional to the risk required. I've included two photographs to illustrate my point. In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome. I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers. I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance. Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation. There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation. I had to be quick with my technique. I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene. All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture. But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward. That being said, this isn't my favorite photo. But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.
In the arts the passion is never truly about money. It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion. When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary. Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.
The second photograph is passionless. We make these all the time. It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another. There's no engagement. There's little passion. And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street. There's little reward because there's little risk. And without the risk there's no passion. And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.
But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts. In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion. An example. If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice. I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example. If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty. I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise. The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation. In art parlance, he's become a "master". By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity. If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art. And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way.
So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job. And there's the risk. Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk. And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.
Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience.
The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience. When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others. In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward. It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can. I have too many responsibilities. I have too much to lose to risk everything. And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.
The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer. The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life. And he creates a legend.
That's what the few real artists in our lives do. They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks. They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride. They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.
So. Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months? Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment? No. But I know the results will be different. I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.
If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff? Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting. If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be. If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.
If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.
The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around. I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net. Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk. And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art. Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high. But nothing moves forward that way.
Here's an odd thought. One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, "What is the opposite of fear?" The eventual answer? "Love."
We work through the fear that everyone feels. Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion. Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful. Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear. Some work through the fear to feel the love. The work is the love. The process is the fear, The fear is the risk. And the risk is the thing that artists embrace. And that's what makes the best work work. Knowing that you might fail.
Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me. Yes. I'm as scared as I can be. But not because I won't make money. I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do. Every time I go out and shoot it scares me. And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better. When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.
The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time. When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over. The passion is gone. It's time to stop. But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within. There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want. And to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion. And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks. Because:
THE PASSION IS IN THE RISK.
The passion and the risk are different for everyone. And so are the rewards. And that's why people talk about gear instead. Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do. And it will be different for you.
added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station. Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words. We really don't have a train station here in Austin. The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs. I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel. But even more to the point, I have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful. The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time. It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks with multiple suit cases. You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants. Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome. You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.
And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again. And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in. They were freelancers like you are now. Somedays no one would want to pay for their help. Other days the work would be non-stop. There were no guarantees. No safety net. But it was what they knew how to do.
And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue. And now we travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers. But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard. And there are now no more young porters. It's a dying art. Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing. And it's sad when an era passes.
And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks. And they're pissed. And resigned. And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?
I look over and see the scene come together. They are resting on the cart, looking for customers. They are smoking. I walk closer. I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers. I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder. The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click. Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it. I understand. I won't shoot another frame. I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study. Young life swirls around them. One man smiles in a resigned way. Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression. And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message. Yes. I did. I got the whole message.
When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer. Much closer. But cropping is not the same. I wish I'd gotten closer and wider. The 55 instead of the 75. But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.