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.