I have a persona on the web. To some I am a techie guy who has a typical liberal arts education, has had some modest successes over the years as a commercial photographer and who has parleyed the fear and boredom of the years from 2007 to 2012 into a modestly successful bout of book writing and, by extension, blog writing. Most of my readers know that I swim, that I have one child, a dog and a wife of some 35 years. I've tried to keep my political viewpoints out of my public writing and I've worked to keep my views about religion personal. So, in fact, most people know very little about who I really am or what motivates me to do what I do beyond the usual, human responses to fear and greed.
While walking with my wife and my dog through our quiet neighborhood this morning I found myself taking stock of how my life has changed over the last twenty years. A change that I should have resisted more. Controlled more. In 1995 I felt as though I had a modicum of control over what I did both for a living and as an art. My audiences were the ones I actively attracted by actually meeting them. In person. Face to face. My portraits were made with tools that I loved for a number of reasons. My approach to making the portraits was nearly always predicated on a very personal view of what portraiture should be, not what popular, and every changing markets might dictate.
I had yet to write my first book or type my first blog. My days consisted of making beautiful work (at least I thought it was so), having face to face meetings with clients and friends and colleagues, and then spending many quiet evenings reading everything I enjoyed; from novels to poetry to economics. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times because it seemed important to be both informed and to have a foot in both political camps for balance.
When photography changed, along with everything else that was touched by the encroachment of the digital hegemony, in the early part of this century, it was like an anchor was cut loose for our art and even the previously codified flow of our everyday lives. The relentless drumbeat from media everywhere was about the unalloyed advantages of "being digital", of being one's own publisher and of being "on" for every cycle. A relentless march to the future that rewarded the media much more than the message, the number of followers more than what was being said or shown. Followers equalled eyeballs, which were connected to mostly functional brains, which were connected to credit cards, the exercise of which could conceivably create new income streams for "artists."
The problem was that the race for eyeballs and money led to unexpected consequences and behaviors. Instead of continuing to do the work I loved the lure of creating media and content that would sell to a mass market was alluring, intoxicating and seemed so much smarter than working in a small and contained market. The trade off, which exists for almost anyone who wants to grow an anonymous market, is that at some point you have to give your audience what they want. Not what you genuinely have to say but what they genuinely want to read. It's an enormous trade off and one that sociopaths have very little problem with. Just separate what you like from what you do for money and off you go. But the issue is a bit more complicated for people who aren't sociopathic and have a warm affinity and attachment for the things that they love to do well. Which for me is meeting people and making portraits.
I was playing around with small flashes and cheap, optical slaves in 2006, about the time that I was active on David Hobby's Strobist site. I did an image of then Dell CEO, Kevin Rollins with the small lights and wrote about it for a magazine. I also posted an article about the nuts and the bolts of the shoot on Strobist. Which led to an offer to write my first book with Amherst Media. I was living the new, social media marketing dream.
But. But. But. The process of writing a book took me away from the ongoing craft of working on portraits. Of shooting and doing what I really loved. The first book took six months to write and illustrate and when I finished with it I told myself I'd never do it again. It took so long. The effort was so concentrated and, worst part, I wasn't moving my art, craft or brain forward, I was crafting an educational resource based on stuff I already knew by heart. But then the book hit and sold very well and it became a focus point for me. People called me to do workshops. They called to interview me. They did all the things an artist with an ego thrives on. They played to my desire to be someone in my field. An expert. Someone who has "made it." And that's the most dangerous and destructive part of moving away from the things you love to embrace a different persona that's inauthentic and not genuine. And most of the attention given to me by web sources was in service of me creating "free" content for them; one way or the other. The interview or the copied blog post.
The ego accepts every offer. And the ego goads the brain to move in the direction that yields the most self-esteem building gratification. More books equal more eyeballs. More validation of your position as a successful and business savvy photographer. But the books required care and feeding. Any publisher will tell you that the writers who are successful are the ones who jump in and help with the marketing of their properties in any way that they can. I proceeded to do my part by writing this blog and flogging the books when I felt like the balance was right.
And all the time the web and technology and the media is ever changing and morphing and the targets are constantly moving. I started trying out new stuff all the time. Moving ever further from my own, innate and satisfying targets from decades before. Digital had killed my tools (or so I thought) and relegated me to a desperate and ongoing search to replace them with (woefully inadequate and homogenous) digital replacements. And all the while my artistic vision was fading. Ever more diluted by my bifurcated searches for general relevance, applause, and a desire to seem relevant within the context of a new generation of imagers. I was trying to constantly keep up with the younger Joneses even though none of them possessed a map to the future either.
I bought my first EP2 on a whim but stayed engaged in the Olympus system partially because of a huge surge of readers who seemed to hang on every word I wrote about the system, regardless of whether it worked for my real, personal vision or not. I never lied or accepted graft but somehow my sense of not only being part of a new community, but also a taste maker within it, kept me buying and writing about cameras that were ancillary to my core aesthetic. My way of seeing images and translating them.
By the fifth book I had come to realize that my "artist self" had been totally sublimated, suffocated and left in cold storage by the combination of income, ego stroking and delusions of using the eyeball base as a market to sell books to. To extend my reach as a "web personality" which might deliver me opportunities.
But the things that keep coming my way are truncated and compromised, to a certain extent. Witness my brief and rocky relationship with Samsung. Was a one week trip to Berlin, in the clutches of Samsung handlers, really valuable enough to make up for using a flawed camera? I could have easily dipped into the business checking account and sent myself to Berlin for a peaceful week of shooting, unencumbered by one dimensional marketing serfs. Some of the cameras were interesting but would I have ever even tried to shoot with a camera that has no EVF or OVF if it had not been offered as part of being in the program? Of course not.
I must seem naive now to so many people who know that there is no "free ride" and that all the web stuff is really just extended B.S., is a massive shift of value from the owner of art to the endless distributors of art waiting for ephemeral payment while the old hands at the aggregators and the many thieves on the internet actually get the payments. In a sense my years of blogging were/are my own form of resistance to just getting my own work done. Shooting those singular portraits I want to shoot for an audience that never, ever came from the web. And still doesn't.
It's interesting to have had all this play out in a public forum. It's like broadcasting potty training. Highly embarrassing at times and in the end it's all more or less poop.
Where does it all end? Well of course, in the grave. But at what point does it dawn on an artist that you've ceased to do your authentic art and you have moved into the more or less "blue collar" job of maintaining a web presence with the hope for tips and affiliate income, and that by doing so you've relegated yourself to modifying what you talk about into stuff you think will have wide interest, including techniques you know by heart and gear that's nothing more than transient entertainment?
Well, at least this confessional outflow is more interesting to me than whether or not the new Pentax camera will have HDR bracketing. Of course, my fear in publishing this particular piece is the very real possibility that I will be writing for myself, alone in the near future.
Ah well. What value is a blog if we can't interject a bit of honesty from time to time?
One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and
still one of the best!
I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as
cool places around the U.S.
How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.