Does Experience Offer Value to Customers? As soon as we have our first gray hair should we float out to sea on a burning raft and vanish from the market?

It's painfully interesting to grow older in what many people believe to be a young person's career. I have been practicing photography with a mostly serious intent since 1978, which means that I've already had image making experiences that cover the span of 38 years. In those years I have learned a tremendous number of technical facts about photography and, more importantly, have tested every thing I've learned. While most people are trying to accrue their 10,000 hours of practice on their road to mastery my ledgers show that I'm closing in on ten thousand projects; not just hours. Thousands of times at practice, mostly under the watchful eyes and high expectations of clients.

I'm not alone. There are many people out there in my industry who learned their craft in the days of black and white, re-learned it for color, and learned it yet again with our conversion to digital. If their arc has been the same as mine we were not foot dragging latecomers to digital imaging and technology. I've had digital cameras in my hands for more than two decades and have been working in PhotoShop even longer. I lived with PhotoShop when there were no layers and no "undos."

It's humorous to see well regarded contemporary photographers who profess to be "natural light photographers." I wonder if that means they failed to learn how to light at all.  Professionals of my generation can do natural light too. And very well. But we can also light with electronic flash, tungsten movie lights, LED panels, Kino Flos and even the light from our iPads. We don't depend, opportunistically, on nature to have everything lit for us when we arrive on a location, we can actually create light in many different ways. And we can do it repeatedly because we both understand the theory and have honed the needed skills in endless practice. Many clients don't have the time or budget to wait for the light to get neat. It's nice to know we can produce good light on demand....

But it is not just technical ability and practice that more seasoned practitioners bring to the mix. They've been through all the variations and pitfalls in the process of making art for clients. They've learned (sometimes the hard way) how to do effective preproduction. They've learned when to turn over specialized tasks like intricate retouching to specialists. They've learned how to create curiosity-safe sets for their art directors and clients. They've learned how to collaborate and how to subdue their egos in the pursuit of a shared success. They've learned how to manage business so they have cash flow to produce jobs and make them successful.

One argument in favor of much younger art workers might be the idea that they bring new ideas and new approaches to the table but that rings hollow in most cases as each generation steals and borrows lavishly and shamelessly from the masters who came before them. One only has to look to the fashion industry to see that most people practicing today (whatever their ages) are totally in debt to Francesco Scavulllo, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Chris von Wagenheim, Art Kane, Victor Skrebneski,  Guy Bourdin and Peter Lindbergh (just to name a few). Hard lights, ring lights, soft lights, spot lights, desert light, etc. It was all done before the Kinder-digi cut their first teeth and, in most cases, done with more finesse and control.

There is nothing particularly different about the styles we can all bring to the table. Many times we are incorporating looks and feels dictated by our clients and our art directors. In those cases the years of experience pay extra dividends since the constant practice across the years means we can more quickly hone in to the methods needed to serve the style. Having lived through so many styles most experienced photographers can adapt styles to clients instead of being one trick, trend ponies.

We were mostly all younger photographers at one time. We all learned by making mistakes and figuring out how to fix them. We are all marketing (in certain niches) to the same clients. Each generation has marketing strengths. I am not at all convinced that enthusiastic and cheap beats experienced, proven and reliable. And thank goodness that my clients haven't rushed to that conclusion either.

There is space for both. But not on the same caliber of jobs.

My generation is facing an interesting social shift. Where our parents were already worn out from twenty or thirty seemingly endless years at the same job, and ready to retire as they hit their 6th decade, many of my contemporaries have lived lives filled with exercise, re-invention, better nutrition and continued re-training. If you are in the cohort that pushes career boundaries, runs, swims, bikes, participates in triathlons and marathons, and you are in your 50's or early 60's, you may have more physical ability and endurance than the video game/couch pilots of the generations that follow you. If you've read the same magazines and websites that they've grown up with (as far as the photographic industry goes) you are leaving nothing on the table when it comes to delivering current styles of work and the understanding of visual trends -- in fact, a wider range of global experiences in life will probably make your vision richer and even more valuable.

For a photographer who fits the above description the idea of quietly exiting the stage because a few hairs have turned gray shouldn't be on the radar. As long as we're able to grab a couple of cases of photographic gear and make it up a few flights of stairs, and still make great photographs, we will continue to stake out our territory and compete with the best of our competitors. Press them hard with the added layers of experience  and skill....and make them cry like babies.

I guess this is a call to reject the "common knowledge" that the business of photography is only a young person's game. I'm sure some will interpret it as a variation of, "You darn kids get off my lawn!" But I like to think this is a declaration of intent to keep doing what we love and what we are good at with no regard for discrimination against tenure and experience.

If you love it, do it.

I have not yet designed my Viking raft for the journey to Photo Valhalla. I'm still having too much fun taking photographs. Hold off on the flaming arrows.


Scott Campbell said...

+1 from a 53-year old.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

We're about the same age as you might know, and I think you forgot to mention one thing in your interesting article: with more age, exerience, and knowledge also comes the fact that it's much easier for us to avoid cheap clich├ęs. Sometimes when I look at all these "look at me!" photos from the younger generation, I think "yeah, been there done that, like so many others before us". Someone once said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it endlessly...

MO said...

Nice to have you back as the sidekick to my morning coffee :) I like your coming back from vacation posts and i am only 37 years old ;) Thanks for blogging!

Eggboy said...

Kirk, you really do rock. Slightly curmudgeonly, but you've earned it. I am mid 50's and whilst slightly lacking the energy I used to have, I am at this point totally comfortable and confident in most any mode of image-making: available light portraits, light studio work (My vision misses the old Speedotrons and their heavy powerpacks, my back does not), digitizing old stereo slides from the 1950's, pics of the rotten kid doing rottenly wonderful things etc. Capture, production and delivery are almost automatic at this point. Learning about color, developing, exposure etc. the 'hard way' back in pre-digital puts the ease the current toolset gives into perspective. Thanks again, and back to my massive cold-brew coffee!!


Dave Jenkins said...

At 79, I still have plenty of zest for photography. I started my business the same year as you -- 1978 -- after working for an audio/visual production house for five years, which was a good foundation. I have to say, though, that my commercial and architectural work has been drying up for some time. The art directors and architects with whom I had long associations are passing off the scene, and I think the younger ones prefer to work with people closer to their own age. One of the realities of life.

Thanks to her diligence and foresight, my wife and I are reasonably comfortable and I have the luxury of pursuing work that I enjoy. I still get the occasional call for business portraits, and I'm currently working on a commissioned book project, which will be a mix of documentary and architectural photography. My roots in photography are in documentary work for education, non-profit organizations, and missions, so for whatever remains of my career those are the avenues I plan to pursue. And more books.

Kris Jorgensen said...

Haha Kirk,
I like to think your sabbatical {drift from the routine and finding a higher writing power} has been enlightening. Not only did I enjoy this article, I found myself having similar thoughts. To revisit and rework ideas and hardware is what is necessary to grow experience and my craft. Space and Time, is science fiction if you think you can learn this subject in a class or online.
I am looking forward to see if there will be logs left to burn for my pyre when its my time to go to Valhalla.

cfw said...

I've never been in the commercial photography or visual arts business, but I've always thought of great photography as being an older person sort of job, and great photographers as being older people. Maybe that's because the photographic work I've always admired, when I was young and now in my 60s, seems to overwhelming come from "older" people. I'm sure there are some younger people that make good photography, but I just don't see many.

Dave Jenkins said...

To pick up on cfw's comment, truly, where are the seminal photographers of the digital age? Perhaps I'm displaying my ignorance, but I haven't seen them. So much of what I see is only derivitive of work which has been done before, and usually done better on film; or photographs which are just about photography. Photography is a great medium, but a very poor subject.

I would hate to think that all the great photographs have already been taken; and in fact, I don't believe that. But I'm having a hard time finding them in current work. Maybe I'm not looking in the right places.

Mike Rosiak said...

Wow, Kirk! Here I was, worrying whether you'd like non-blogging so much that you'd never come back. Was I ever mistaken. Not only have you returned, but with both guns blazing. When I saw the length of your first "returning" post, I earmarked it to read later. Then another arrived. And then another! So, I just now got caught up, and I must say, your writing seems to have lost nothing during your break. Am I glad you're back? Is a bear Catholic?

At 74, I can mark almost 40 years in the IT field, and still going, albeit at a more humane pace. Until 20 years ago, when I was ... er ... "let go," my work life had been corporate. Free of that, I joined up with a contracting outfit in my specialty, IBM mainframe and midrange. Your essays on the business part of photography pretty much echo my own in the contracting field. Similar business issues, and the sometimes not so subtle ageism that implies that all things new are unvarnished good, and all things older than, oh, five or more years, are grandpa technologies. Until it comes time to deliver. Now approaching ten years free-lance, I feel completely relaxed in knowing what I know, and more inclined to shrug off things that used to bother me when on a salary.

There was a book a few decades ago, "The Three Boxes of Life ...", which were: Learning; Working; Playing. The construct was that traditionally, one learned for a number of years, then worked for quite a number more, than played for whatever number one had left. The author challenged the traditional time scale. What if one learned, worked, and played in one week? Or one day? I sense that you have mastered that trick. I'm still learning it, but I'm having more fun than ever before.

Kirk Tuck said...

Bravo Mike. You are my audience. Thanks for the nice "welcome back" post. Much appreciated.