5.26.2018

A mopey Saturday thinking about getting older in a what is purported to be a young person's field. Screw it. We're not done yet.


It's going to be another hot day in central Texas. My brain is working overtime these days and I have trouble sleeping in past 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I'm thinking about what comes next. What will the next set of wrinkles in my working life be? How will I move the business forward? Is photography really evaporating or is it my own personal engagement that seems threatened? 

With my only child having successfully graduated from college I no longer feel the tug of complete financial responsibility pulling at me. But that's been replaced by a new worry: Am I no longer relevant to the world of commercial photography? Have a I crossed some universal but invisible boundary that will progressively limit my connection to the business of taking photographs? Will age discrimination or disengagement finally thin out my selection of clients until I am left sitting next to the computer, a pile of gear next to me, waiting for someone --- anyone to reach out with an e-mail or text and invite me to the next engagement?

When I look in the mirror I seem old now. My hair has shifted from brown to gray to mostly white. I have age spots. The people selling tickets at the theaters no longer even ask before tendering my "senior" discount ticket. I have multiple pairs of bi-focal glasses; some in the house, a few in the studio and an extra set in the car. I like the glasses because they are sometimes effective in hiding some of the wrinkles around my eyes. 

These are all external cues but on the inside I can't shake the feeling that I'm an 18 year old trapped in the wrong container. I watch many people sink into that gloomy sense of adult resignation but I watch just as many of my friends fight the progression toward the trappings of being older with every breath. In fact, I've even come to believe that an egregious expenditure on a new toy is really the desire to affirm that there's more life left to live; that the purchase of the hot new camera or the amazing new car is really an unconscious act meant to convey that you believe you'll be around for a while to enjoy the fruits of the purchase. That you are continuing in the continuum. 

The house was quiet when I got up. The dog looked up at my from her bed, metaphorically shook her head and then, with a sigh, nestled back into the upholstery and dropped back into a nice, even sleep. I went into the kitchen and made myself a couple of multiple-grain toaster waffles and ate them while drinking a glass of water. I chided myself for a lack of courage --- my real 18 year old self would have eaten cold pizza just before the Saturday morning swim workout. He might have been going to the pool directly from a late date...

I felt slow and stuffy and tired on my way to the pool but when I finally hit the cool, fresh water it only took three or four laps to brighten up and get into my groove. I swam in a lane adjacent to one of my favorite swimmers. She's competitive and driven and at least 14 years younger than me but I matched her lap for lap as we pushed the intervals down and I hit the end of each set with my heart pounding and my lungs greedy for more air. I savored every flip turn that I executed well. I focused on the front end of my freestyle stroke trying to grip a hold on the water and move my body past that point. It's as much a mental practice as anything else. 

The sun came up fully on the pool, it was 8:30 and we'd done our 3200 yards for the morning and yanked ourselves out of the water. An unspoken belief among swimmers is that if you are in good enough shape to swim masters you never use a ladder to get out of a pool and you never put a knee down on the deck during your exit. You place your hands wide on the deck and pull yourself straight up high enough to toss your feet under you. Sure, if you are nursing a bum shoulder you are temporarily exempt but, a knee on the deck.....? 

But what does any of this have to do with photography? I'll conjecture that a large measure of the disquiet I feel right now is that I'm becoming aware that peoples' perspective about "who" photographers really are comes from the advertising created by the people who make products for photographers. Their ads mostly feature youth as practitioners of the modern photographic art.  There are some hoary holdovers who've continued to have media relevance well into their senior years. I just read Thom Hogan's article about the Sony junket last month. He was rubbing shoulders with venerable like Bob Krist and a few others but the event was dominated by the YouTube Youth Gangs like Kai and his cohorts,  and the (now aging) hipster crew from DP Review. Jordan and Chris, as of late from DP Review's newly revitalized video channel, and many other newly post adolescent photo/video/bloggers. 

The message in advertising, and video blogging on YouTube and elsewhere is that photographers are young, hip, innovative and aspirational. They spend their days snapping pix of their beautiful boyfriends and girlfriends and virtually sashaying around Instagram with an air of coolness that increases with every media post and its attendant "likes". I guess I see enough of the programming to have understood the message and taken it to heart: "this is a young person's game in a young person's universe." When you see the meme often enough it's hard not to internalize it and worry that you've become as obsolete as an old Canon Rebel. As worn as a film era Leica.

This messaging misrepresents reality. All around me the successful photographers I encounter are almost without exception past forty. They are comfortably established, they jumped and struggled up the waterfall, from film to digital, like successful salmon in the run. They are the ones with the credit lines that allow for impulse purchase follies like medium format cameras, European flash systems, and Billingham bags. But the marketers miss the mark with their messaging. They only have eyes for the millennials now, the one segment of the population swimming in student debt. The generation hit hardest, economically, by the giant recession of 2008-2009. The generation in full embrace of the iPhone as the camera of choice. A misguided read of marketing stats if I've ever seen one...

When I write this all out and think about it logically I suppose life has always been like this. Every generation grows and peaks and wanes. Advertising has always preferred the cute and the young. Understanding it makes me feel better. I love taking photographs and it's really not up to me to determine the relevance of my craft to our current culture. I don't have enough data points to ever really know. It's enough for now to still have good work and still have the desire to get out every day and visually interpret my world in my own way.  And with role models like Duane Michals and Elliott Erwitt how can we go wrong? Persist or perish. There are no other choices. 

But DAMN. Isn't photography a blast?!

In car selling circles the Toyota Avalon was smirkingly referred to 
as "the geezer pleaser" for it's soft ride, ample trunk and 
welcoming interior appointments. If there is a camera that 
I would call a "geezer pleaser" it's got to be something like
the Nikon D800 or D810. Lots of nostalgia, good performance
and middle of the road comfort. Some would say it's the Nikon DF but 
I think that's more like a vinyl topped, two tone Riviera...

In a flash of coherence this is sometimes the message I get from online discussions 
and advertising about photography.


I like the pool because I can't take my cameras in with me. 
It's just me and a couple thousand gallons of water and some people 
who want to swim faster than me. Whether or not they succeed is, in some
part, up to me.

Now it's time to change gears and go to lunch with the family. Later in the day it will be time for some fun photography. What Robin Wong would call, "Shutter Therapy."

19 comments:

  1. What, if anything, do you feel you are most giving up when you choose the 28mm NIkkor Ai-s?

    ReplyDelete
  2. 18! Gosh, that's old! I'm 8, or sometimes 4. Even though my Medicare records tell me I'm 76.

    The thing is, whatever age you (your body) is/are, you haven't been there before, so it's always a surprise, and a mystery, and ... an adventure. Just do what you've been doing to keep the body fit, so that your real you, the 18 years old one, can enjoy the ride. Each new day IS a success. u

    ReplyDelete
  3. Joe, Nothing but the auto focus. The 28mm f2.8 ais is nice and sharp.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thinking about getting older? Steven Spielberg was born in 1946 and he is currently casting for a remake of West Side Story.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Lovely read Kirk. I have a theory there is no such thing as an adult. It is the construct of a child... You only have to see a child at 50 with their 75 year old parent to notice the same behaviors as at 7 year old pop out.

    However you can "feel" aged, worn out, if you catch my drift. I approach 40, I am taking stick of my achievements and looking at my course. At the same time my father in the last 12 months has gone from ill, to it being quite clear his time is very finite. So the stress has been leaving me feeling, worn out, more tired.

    The other day I grabbed my high tops, my basketball and hit the courts for a few hours chasing teenagers and twenty somethings and despite the muscle pain the day after, I have been feeling much better.

    I am sure there is a connection between movement and happiness... Now I just have to work out how to park my time between the agency here and my father in the UK. It would be great if it was as simple as a layup.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Not to be too pedantic about it, but households made up of people over 50 years of age control more than 80% of the wealth in the US. Those in what appear to be the crosshairs of the marketing department control somewhere between 3% and 8%. And they’re heavily in debt. Even after adjusting for Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, etc., the gap in disposable, available cash per household is enormous. It seems some people were taught to save. But all that may be beside the point.

    The models and actors chosen for advertising will always be younger and more attractive. I mean, really...does your inner 18-year-old want to watch sagging 70-somethings in skimpy attire frolic about the swimming pool at that exotic resort? Even the actors cast for the bowel-and-bladder spots that dominate the network newscasts seem to top out in their late 30s, early 40s. Otherwise it gets to be damned hard to maintain that incessant smile while discussing the state of one’s colon.

    Don’t get hung up on superficial signs of age. You’re still growing — witness the share of your income now derived from video. That didn’t exist only a few years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  7. But Kirk, I've always thought of you as young, hip, innovative and aspirational.
    I had been thinking along these lines a bit since I have one of those birthdays coming up that ends in a zero (still only two digits though) and it occurred to me that it is an artificial construct and holds no relevance for me. However, I will practice getting out of the pool properly.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great read and really relevant. Thanks Kirk.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Awesome post.

    Dale

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think perhaps you're at a "what do I do now?" moment. You have just divested yourself of a major expense, your load has been drastically lightened, but at the same time, a goal has been met that you have been working toward for a long time. So it's natural that you should look around and think, "Okay, what do I do next?"

    The answer of course, is anything you like. The important thing is that you have goals and work toward them. You have achieved a major goal. So set a new one.

    I was somewhat of a late starter in life; in fact, I didn't begin my career until I was 35. I'm 81 now, have had a very interesting life in photography, and have enough goals (book projects I want to do) to keep me busy until well past 100.

    One of the things that strongly influenced my decision to be a photographer was that I wanted a career that no one could make me retire from. I don't know what your thoughts are about retirement, but somehow, I don't see you ever retiring as long as your health holds up. You are still many years from the time that calls from commercial clients will become fewer and fewer, as they have for me (some still do call, although I no longer solicit them) and will need to set new goals. You are a fine writer, and I highly recommend the course I have chosen; that of creating books and magazine articles, but you are a very intelligent man and will find a path that works for you when the time comes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Isn't this internet noise not about professional photography but about trying to generate demand for an endless series of new high end cameras among potential buyers who by and large have no need for them?

    And maybe we see all the youth because most advertising is less about the product and more about convincing people that if they will only buy a new x then they will have tons of young beautiful in-crowd friends, girl or boy friends, will somehow be driving a new sports car, and will be opening their days watching sunsets on the beach in Maui?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Kirk, I think you see that all now simply because when being 20+, you were too busy, and did not pay attention to the fact that many photographic ads were about automatic point and shoot cameras, used by young people, or, maximum, by young families etc. This surely haven't changed.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Some of the most physically active people I know are retired, and that's a dilemma for one still working. You seem to have sorted out the quandary by doing both.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This post reminds me how much i like your writing. And i'm considered a young dude. Good crafts never get old.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Ah, yes...sounds like you're in your early 60s. With my only child graduated from school and on her own we found unexpected liberation in downsizing. I know it sounds cliche to downsize but it's like being reborn. We sold, or gave away, 95% of our stuff, bought a smaller home, etc...

    I found that I still have the same interests but I see them in a new light, with renewed energy...almost like starting over. Almost like being young, but with much more wisdom and money!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I turn 50 in a few short weeks and I'm baffled by how that could happen. I feel 21 in my head. I'm still playing tennis, like I always have, but it is very hard on my knees and my back now. Where I used to be able to play for hours I'm good for an hour now, maybe 90 minutes, then I have to stop (singles tennis, doubles means you've really just given up and are in it for the socializing). It is difficult for my fragile male ego to deal with this new reality. It's not going to get better either despite my best efforts to stave off the cruel realities of gravity. Gravity always wins in the end.

    Keep moving and keep going. Don't stop. Once you stop, you're done. It's ok of course to choose to stop. Lots of people do. I think as long as you are working and people keep hiring you, then you keep going. Stop when you want to. Or don't. I wouldn't worry about all the young people and what they are doing. That's a different world. Youth is wasted on the young as the saying goes. Damn I sure do miss it though.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Dear Kirk,

    Congrats to you, Belinda and Ben!

    A key component overlooked at times (because you are fit) is the ability of a working wedding or commercial photographer to meet the physical demands of humping gear, dealing with heat, etc.. Advertising, be that as it may, will never have the influence of a personal referral. The purchase of an expensive item or commissioning of a professional (attorney, physician, photographer) is typically acted upon after consulting with others. Relationships are vital and younger people mathematically can't have developed as many as an older person who has worked toward that end.

    After my divorce I gained 30 pounds and found it difficult to "hang" with younger people. I was still asked for input and my experience seemed valued; however, I could no longer physically participate at the required level. After 6 months with a trainer and paying attention to my nutrition, I'm feeling ageless.

    Expertise coupled with your ability to communicate well with virtually anyone will keep you relevant as long as you are physically capable of doing the job! True for all of us.


    Best,

    Joe

    ReplyDelete
  18. Marketing is all about optics. In the case of the camera manufacturers, I think their marketing folks are playing at two sides of the same card. On one hand they are scared of losing the interest of millennials who represent their future sustainability. On the other side of the card is the age old marketing concept of playing to how we want to see ourselves; in this case young and vibrant.

    The big miss, of course, is that we're already (relatively) young and vibrant. The level of activity and health of the 40-60 demographic is the best it has ever been. And, as you point out, we have higher incomes, are established professionally, and come to the table with a certain amount of momentum in terms of how we view the process of making photographs.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I find the whole youtubers thing to be bizarre. Kai and his peeps are not photographers, they're youtubers. Being a youtuber is a full time job, so more or less by definition everyone doing it isn't whatever they're pretending to be. Sculptor, welder, scientist, photographer. They dabble in their "subject matter" offering up the slightest of regurgitations of the subject matter in a nominally entertaining fashion.

    Despite the efforts of PetaPixel and other "new media" I literally could not care less what Kai thinks about anything. It's a big weird circle jerk of blogs, vloggers, new media, social media, yadda yadda, all promoting one another, and all virtually content-free. Every now and then they grab hold of some new bit of content, and pass it around for, evidently, months, until it has been worried away to nothing, and then they cast about for a new thing.


    ReplyDelete

Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!