12.12.2016

I Keep learning this lesson over and over again so here's a holiday re-post of why the last job counts most.

11.16.2011

You're only as good as your last job...

The universe is a tricky place and plays by a different set of rules than transient beings like us would like.  I had coffee recently (when do I not have coffee??) with a very famous photographer who was bemoaning the fact that his work had gone from super-renumerative-award-winning-globe-spanning to zilch in an arc of about five years.  And he couldn't figure it out.  We talked about market changes, the death of magazines (we both cut our teeth in the heyday of editorial work), the move to a more and more granular set of markets and age-ism (the ebola virus in the room).

But as we picked our way through the seemingly chaotic vagaries of happenstance we both saw a pattern emerge.  We'd been resting on our laurels.  We thought that a great project, done for a "show" client would have infinite legs.  That, say, a cover of the New York Times magazine would be a client magnet for years to come.  Or that a bestselling book would cement business relationships, down stream.  I'm consistently guilty of presuming that local clients know my long history in the market and that it must provide for some future business traction.  

 It's rough when you hit the wall of reality and have to confront the fact that.......you are only as good as your last job.  And that everything technical you've learned over the years is losing value faster than your dollars.....

In swimming, competitors can brag and trash talk and walk through memory lane to their heart's desire but the real test, the only test, is that time on the clock and who touches the wall first.  Nothing else matters.  You can carry your old wins gracefully but they won't help you in this race.  They won't give you anything more than a psychological advantage.  Mythology doesn't trump "now."

When we have been in the business (or the craft) for a long time we have a tendency to believe that the things we were taught and the "best practices" techniques that we embraced are both objective and right. Above opinion and obvious.  But every new style is, de facto, a destructive technology whose sole intention is to kill off the status quo.  That's the nature of art, life and business.  We can admire what came before but we achieve by inventing the new. 

I am hardly above reproach and never infallible.  I had (have) a knee jerk reaction to everything new that comes slamming down onto the photographic pike.  I hate HDR.  I loathe all the silliness of iPhone-o-graphy and above all I wish I could freeze the market and the prevailing aesthetic right at 1995.  I was pretty good at that style and comfortably understood the business....

But had I stopped there I would long since have migrated into a less.....kinetic.....industry.  The fact is, I am only as relevant to clients as my last job and my last portfolio show and (here comes the coup de grace) and showing my greatest hits from yesteryear only reinforces, to potential clients that I am frozen in amber and not swimming at pace through the stream of current commerce and style.  Without constant course correction we might as well swim to the side and exit.  They may admire my old work but it may have no relevance to the projects in front of them today.

I am not saying anyone needs to abandon their core style or walk away from decades of experience but I am saying that it needs to be incorporated into an ongoing journey of discovery which includes shooting for  oneself, trying new technologies and showing new work.  Even if the work is in a style you've done forever there is a resonance that emerges which communicates the freshness.  We can never step in the water in exactly the same way we did the day before.  Life continually changes us and you can't help but reflect those changes in your current work.  It's not important to be trendy.  It's important to let the comtemporary "you" seep into your work and the only way you can do that is to work contemporaneously. 

My readers here don't need to be reminded that I pick up new cameras all the time.  Part of it is the barely subjugated hope that the new gear will deliver the power of a cult talisman and improve my work by its magic, but another part is my belief that technology and aesthetics are joined at the hip and move in a staggered lock step.  I've talked lately about "fluid or fluent" photography by which I mean that the technology and the interface of your chosen camera doesn't interfere with your seeing.  That it regresses and becomes automatic.  That's the promise of many of the new, smaller cameras.  You look at the screen on the back (or in the EVF finder) and see the image already brocaded and prepared.  Previsualized, if you will, for you, by the machine.  All that's required is selection and timing.

In a way, fluid practice is Zen practice, is mindful practice, is stream of consciousness practice.  It precludes setting things up.  It precludes the disruption to the creative process by affectation.  It is negated by spending time setting up strobes.  It's a direct reaction to the scene in front of you or the scene in which you also exist as a player.  The 2006-2010 small strobe fascination,  was a style.  It was a manifesto.  And now it's old fart.  The techniques of HDR will be incorporated into the tool kit of photographers but, as a recognizable style, it will join the ring flash and colored filter gels on the scrapheap of photo-art-history.  The current technique of using small cameras and fast lenses, and moving and responding rapidly will also cycle through.  But it will be the prevailing style for a while.  And then it will killed off by the next disruption.

This doesn't mean that older styles don't soldier on like Zombies on the Night of the Living Dead, fashion isn't instantaneous, globally.  But you can already see the sea changes.  Scott Bourne is all feverish about shooting portraits in the studio with, gasp! an Olympus Pen camera!!!!! Thom Hogan (the big Nikon guy) declares his love for the Pens. Every guy I know is rushing to buy a Fuji x10 or x100 or the Nikon or the Panasonic mirrorless camera of choice.  Images are starting to crop up all over the place shot in the new ethos.  Camera Minimalism is rampant...

And it's all part of the process.  But you need to swim your own race.  Training methods change.  The hard work doesn't.  And the hard work has always been the incorporation of change into your own art.
Finally, to all the people who will rush in and talk about the sanctity of style I can only offer up Picasso.  He mastered seven distinct and wonderfully different styles over the course of his career and was prolific.  More work.  Less resting on our laurels.  More output and more change.  Less talk about how we did it in the old days.  Not discounting the art but no one can live on laurel leaves....

Our existence always hinges on our ability to change....well.

note:  I like this blog: http://mftadventures.blogspot.com/  it's called "High Fidelity Compacts."  It's well written and thoughtful.  Most cogent for people who are interested in smaller cameras.  Nice.

another note:  I laughed so hard I almost spilled my coffee....  On some comment stream someone was taking me to task for saying nice things about the Nikon on my blog.  Someone else responded that my blog was there to sell mountains of my books and also for my commercial photography clients.  I'm still waiting for the mountain of book sales but I hope to God my clients don't read the VSL blog.  I'm not always kind here....

Post edited. 11/17.

27 comments:

A post from five years ago today. About the role of the muse in photography. A re-posting.

The role of the muse in making art.




Like a catalyst in chemistry the perfect muse starts and sustains a reaction in the artist that makes the process of art both possible and, to the artist, desirable.  When I started out in photography I was "home schooling" myself.  And I made a lot of trials with a lot of errors but I had one short cut that many others, whose goal was to become "an artist" or "a photographer"  didn't have.  I had a burning desire not to "be" an artist but to make the art.  I kept stumbling into beauty at every turn and I wanted to record it, share it and say, "See what I see.  Isn't life amazing?!"  And since I came to the art looking for tools to share what I saw I  bypassed the whole quagmire symbolized by the question:  "What should I shoot?"

There are two ways (probably millions of ways) to come to photography.  One is to become enchanted by the tools and set off on a life long journey to master the tools and wield them like a wizard in an RPG.  The second is to find a subject and to search for the right media with which to have a conversation with everyone around you.  The wizard seeks power while the person struck senseless by beauty tries to lend power to his subjects.  To translate their beauty into a universal language.

I've often said that I can take or leave landscape photography.  Same goes for still lives or big Crewdsonian tableaux.  Ditto the Didactic demonstrations of Gursky.  But every once in a while I'll be walking down the street and I'll look into someone's face and become transfixed with the perfectly imperfect symmetry of a face and the transient nuance of a serene grace I see there.  Other times I'm equally riveted by a playful half smile or a majestically projected innocence.  And I want to make a photograph because it's all so fleeting, and the universe and time keep gobbling up our chaotic intersectional interfaces with an insatiable and unstoppable vigor.  True beauty, to me is the wonderful contenance of another person, projected without affectation.

So I slowly taught myself how to make portraits.  And for the last thirty years I've worked to make my own encyclopedia of beautiful faces.  And it's much harder than it might seem.  First you have to recognize them; the people who resonate with you.  Then you have to gain their collaboration.  Then you have to guide them through the process of being photographed.  You have to be wary of dabbling in new styles so as to not obviate your clear vision.  You have to be able to take the raw materials provided by your session and work it like clay or marble and pull from it the vision you saw with your heart.  That's the hard part.  And I fail far more often than I succeed.

But sometimes it works.

So many things can derail you.  The biggest obstacle is fear.  Fear that you'll not be able to find the "right" subject.  Fear about approaching a stranger.  Fear of failure.  All kinds of fear.  Almost impenetrable fear.  But, of course, as Steven Pressfield aptly conveyed through his characters in his magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, the opposite of fear is love.  And the capacity to fall in love is the secret tool that makes a portrait artist successful.

To fall in love with a face.  To fall in love with the way light caresses soft skin.  To fall in love with the creation of an idealistic symbol of a person's outward projection.  To fall in love with the wonderful energy of eyes, vital and alive.  The opposite of fear is love.  Love doing your work and you banish fear.

So the muse is there to make sure that, even if only for a minute or two, you experience the warm, rich embrace of love and translate it into your art.  I laugh and I kid but I really do understand that a portrait will rise above the level of documentation or decoration when I feel myself falling, however tentatively, in love with my subject.  And my one desire is to share with my audience how special my subjects are.  How unique and vibrant.

Poor Belinda.  I thought she was so radiant and wonderful when she was 20.  How silly of me not to understand at the time that every year she would become ever more so.  That's the nature of your muse.