The Graffiti Wall is closed. In a few months all that will remain are the photographs that many photographers took over a time span of four or five years.
If you are like most affluent Americans you've probably spent most of your life believing in your own immortality and, as you have aged, you've probably had, nestled in the back of your mind, the idea that advances in science and medicine would extend your useful lifespan far beyond the 78.7 year average life expectancy currently calculated (average) for men in the U.S.A. If you've lived past 65 already then congratulations because your life expectancy bumps up to somewhere in the mid-80s. As a culture, we have a dim view of getting older since most equate it with encroaching infirmity, diminished mental and physical capacities, and loss. A loss of mobility, friends, loved ones and relevance.
I've been thinking about this from the perspective of a person still working in an industry that is well known for being a young person's occupation. There are few photographers who keep working in the field after they hit their fifties; even fewer continue plying their trade once they get to their 60's. And there are so many reasons for that. First is a general agism which has as its base the idea that society's memes, visual styles and references are lost on older generations which means that only people under a certain age can really understand and translate the new for audiences today. Each successive generation seems to believe that any important cultural trend had its genesis during their generation and any understanding of current innovations is unfathomable to an older generation. We often hear that young people are more facile with the screens on their smart phones because, "they grew up with the technology." Never mind that smart phones were introduced, really, with the iPhone in June of 2007. Grownups bought them first. Of course, grownups had already mastered proto-smartphones from Rim (Blackberries), and primordial flip phones before that.
I cringe when younger people presume that anyone over 60 does not really understand how to operate a personal computer. They don't seem to understand that we were buying and using the first widely available IBM PCs, and the first generations of Apple Macintosh computers, for at least a decade before most of the millienials were even gleams in their collective parent's eyes. And since there were NO web tutorials (and no web) we were also our own I.T. help desks and our own trouble shooters.
The next big fallacy is the idea that anyone over a certain age (50?, 60?) is winding down physically, and quickly. That we'll soon be toddling along with a cane, moving slowly and blocking the sidewalk to the disdain of a faster and more mobile generation zipping along on electric scooters. The idea that at 60+ we are still able to lift stuff, run, swim and even outperform a more sedentary, more recent generation is almost unbelievable to most. But that's a prejudice based on observations of the most sedentary and infirm older Americans; the ones stereotyped on TV and in movies.
I am not immune from some prejudices about aging in the general population; I think far too many people spent far too much time sitting in awkward office chairs instead of walking, moving, running, swimming, hiking. Spent far too much time trying to wick off the affects of long, boring days at "the office" by parking themselves in front of screens, wedged into easy chairs, eating chips, and slowly, physically killing themselves. I'm also aware that I have an almost unhealthy prejudice against bad diets and the affects of obesity on human performance (probably the number one way to ruin your knees and ankles...). So many people forgot to get in enough exercise in their middle years that many do come into their 60's with a host of health issues that fuel generational stereotypes...to the general detriment of those who were more diligent.
But as Dr. Andrew Weill says, (and I'm paraphrasing here) if you want to eat healthy, hang out with people who eat healthy. If you want to be optimistic then hang out with optimistic people. And if you want to stay in great shape then hang out with the people who are active and engaged in good, routine physical exercise. If you hang out with a bunch of guys at the local bar and eat a diet of burgers and French fries and soft drinks you have only yourself to blame for creating and pushing unhelpful stereotypes into the ongoing discussion about the capabilities of older generations.
So, why am I writing about aging and perceptions of aging today? A couple things. I recently lost my dad; he was 91. And while the my recent observations revolve around his decline and death at age 91, I've spent a good amount of time remembering him as he was in his 70's and his 80s. He was a bike riding fanatic all through his seventies and didn't give up the sport until his right knee blew out in his early eighties. He actively played tennis into his eighties, even with a gimpy knee. He read voraciously every single day of his life. He and my mom lived in their house together until my dad was 90 and my mom passed away. Right up until he moved into memory care he was carrying bags of groceries into the house, doing yard work and walking everywhere, with his cane offsetting his bad knee.
He had little patience for slowing down and even less patience for people who bought into the general gestalt about aging by pampering themselves and letting entropy win. I liked that. He never bought into the idea that you were required to become docile and coddled just because you were older.
But I am mostly writing this to deflect the idea that one can't pursue commercial photography in one's 60's without a minivan full of younger assistants to "help" carry stuff. To dispel the cunard that the older photographer can only work in short spurts, in between his naps and his Metamucil cocktail breaks. To negate the belief that all older photographers are frail, fragile, and slow. But most importantly to dissuade people from thinking that we are required to lose our "edge" and our grasp on modern culture and style just because we've blown out more birthday cake candles and because we have more wrinkles around our eyes.
Healthy eating = longer, more unencumbered life.
The prejudice about aging was tossed in my face at a recent social event where several people "marveled" at the idea that I would still, at 63, be dragging a cart full of heavy gear up the ADA ramp to an office building and spend my day setting up, tearing down, moving and setting up again the gear required to do a lot of commercial photography jobs correctly. That I would have the stamina to do physical work all day long...seemed to mystify them.
While Austin has a reputation for being a "fit" city I think it's been riding on a reputation developed in the 1980's and 1990's but long ago more or less homogenized into the America median because of the enormous influx of office worker bees in high tech and information services businesses. The refuges from spots all over the U.S. brought their trailers full of stuff here and also their appetite for Philly Subs, Oyster Po'Boys, In and Out Burgers, and piled them on our own bad offerings of BBQ, chicken fried steaks and Tex Mex cuisine. Fry me a river...
The athletic cohort of the city seems to exist as a separate group, different and removed from the rank and file worker. Disciplined and different. The runner, swimmer, biker, rower, triAthlete who is competing, or at least practicing, at a high level has a different idea of discipline which requires working toward physical results. The more sedentary may be just as disciplined about their jobs but the benefit they deliver is a collective benefit to their corporation, not a benefit to their own personal longevity and physical health.
In the field of photography it's the same. If you attend social functions for photographers you'll see a cross section that are, at 30 or 40, already overweight and under fit. They move slower. Photography is their obsession to the exclusion of other important things in a balanced life. The ones who survive their 40's and 50's are the ones who balance their focus on healthy living with their occupation. They set limits. They don't allow clients to schedule over early morning workouts. They have learned to push back when confronted with the idea that everyone should work "through" lunch and just graze on Peanut M&Ms, Snickers Bars and Trail Mix. That a Red Bull, a triple espresso or a large Coke is the secret to getting through a long day.
Good allies are crucial if you want to stay in the game.
A partner who understands that what you do is mostly for
the passion of it is far more likely to be supportive of things like
solo shooting trips, crazy expenditures, and a studio that's like a second home.
The biggest two things to allow one to keep working in such a kinetic industry are, as I wrote above, being physically up for the manual labor the enterprise requires, but, even more important, it's the desire to constantly change and to understand change. And that means not only the changing importance of camera gear but also popular culture.
I get that people in general love to keep doing things exactly the way they first learned them and are most comfortable using the tools on which they first learned the craft side of the profession. That's why people still keep doing three point portrait lighting and shooting everything with a certain kind of camera and a trio of three zoom lenses that has been popular since SLRs and DSLRs overtook medium format cameras as the preferred tool set for the majority of working professionals. The love of consistency and routine is one reason why it was so hard for photographers to get comfortable with also offering video services. Why it was so hard for so many photographers to move away from a print centric retail market. And why it is so hard to evolve new styles and new approaches to making photographs. Wouldn't it be sweet if you could spend a full day making one portrait with three big studio electronic flashes, captured with a DSLR and a 70-200mm zoom lens, delivered on a sheet of 16x20 inch photographic print paper? Even sweeter if a magazine were willing to pay you thousands of dollars to do so and thousands more to surround yourself, Ala Annie Leibovitz, with a circus of young assistants?
You could hold out for that. You can look for clients that might accommodate you. But if you don't have an international reputation, and you don't live and work in NYC, London, L.A. or Paris I'm going to conjecture that you might starve to death while you continue your search for these rare, unicorn clients.
A desire to stand firm with the style that originally brought you to the table is probably the very thing that absolutely will kill your chances of moving forward in the imaging industry. It's like praying that 8 track players will come back for cars because you happen to have so many 8 track tapes in your storage unit. And, are you still wearing that "off the rack" suit you bought for that wedding you went to in 1998? Thought so.....
I get a lot of flack for changing systems too often. I get flack for buying new lenses (or unearthing older ones) but underneath the churn is a constant search to understand where the market is headed and where my vision and the markets can intersect. Profitably. And with a large dollop of fun besides.
There is a secret for maintaining relevance that is far more important than playing with new methods, new gear and new lighting, and that is the need to be in touch and interfacing with the people who are working currently in your market. Last week I did a couple of jobs for a company whose marketing director just turned 30. She is a great client. The question of age has never entered our working relationship. I learn point of view and cultural mindset from her, she gets a vision honed by my having tried and discarded, tried and assimilated hundreds of thousands of imaging parameters. She also gets years of logistics and production experience from me at no extra charge.
There is no real premium for experience; most jobs have a value and you can accept the value of that job and do it or hold out for more because you were a big deal in the past.....but you will lose the job to someone who better understands the value proposition of the finished work in the context of the client's needs.
I work with Zach Theatre and several other theaters on a regular basis. Not once or twice a year but once or twice, or three times a month. The crews are young, the guest directors are currently hot properties coming in from New York, or major theaters in other big cities, to do selected productions. They bring with them current trends, looks and visual expectations. I'm always along for the ride. Sometimes I wish I had more input but I end up finding that the more friction I feel the more I can learn and the end result is that I generally have pushed back against my own reticence to change which makes me more (not less) hirable and (re)trainable. By gaining more elasticity in my vision and the way I operate I can more fluidly become part of a collaborative team instead of the boring S.O.B. that always seems to trot out, "Well, back in the good, old days we always did it like this!" Nothing is guaranteed to kill a creative collaboration with a more recent generation quicker.
I'm about to start a three day job for WP Engine. It's a big software services company and they are constantly rated one of Austin's top companies to work for. Its offices are filled with young people banging away on keyboards and doing wonderful, mysterious stuff on the web. At the general sessions, the breakouts and the social events it's highly likely that I'll be the oldest person in the room. I'll be shooting a combination of video and photos and will, over the course of the day, alternate between shooting and uploading a constant stream of new content to a shared web gallery. The social media team on the client side will have an ample supply of just in time media at their fingertips which they will use to populate Twitter, Facebook, Medium and dozens of other platforms I haven't learned about yet. We'll all be sporting contemporary Apple MacBook Pros. We'll all be slinging around archived files on tiny SSDs. We'll all be racing to the web.
I started working for the company on the power of someone's recommendation. I feared that it would be a one shot engagement; that my age would be off-putting. But this is the third year in a row that I'll be covering their multi-day conference. And one of a dozen jobs I've done with their events team in the last two years. The secret is to blend in, work proficiently and deliver what they want and need with as little fuss and friction as possible.
Last year we had a brief visitation to their show by a much, much younger photographer who was there to photograph just one of the speakers on stage. She was deeply embedded in old school technology and methodology. She started out blazing away with flash until one of the event staff swiftly shut that down. Didn't matter, the full frame DSLRs she was using were so loud that every one of 300 attendees turned around in their chairs every time the shutter went off to stare and scowl. She didn't get the memo that we'd all moved on from what was legit in the 1990s or just after the turn of the century. That the debate between mirrorless and traditional moving mirror cameras was not so much about the files coming out of the cameras but the whole use case. The ability to use silent shutters. Really silent shutters. Shows have changed. Pity for the photographers who can't change with them. Clients value anything that rivets the attention of their audiences to their corporate message while still delivering the photographic reportage they can use to spread the message outside of the ballroom.. You should never be the focus of anyone's attention in a main tent session.
Why mirrorless cameras? Because they are smaller, lighter, have a quicker feedback loop, usually better image stabilization and the files are just the right size. Lower noise, lower overall profile along with proficient results. Inside the acceptable envelope of performance.
Right in the middle, not on the edge.
Frequently celebrating success with clients and friends is critical.
Where commercial photography is most like pure commerce are the jobs where the client is in some distant location and you are being hired and dispatched to do an assignment based entirely on the strength of your reputation and your portfolio. In those situations, unless you have some weird, stylized portrait of yourself front and center on your website you are most likely being hired in a completely age blind way and you will be judged only by the work you end up making. This is where you'll get the nourishing affirmation that you are still totally relevant as far as the actual work is concerned.
I get hired a number of times each year by clients whom I have never met and, in all probability, will never meet. None have queried me about my age, my physical ability to do their jobs, or about my willingness to work as a collaborative team member. I get sent to weird places and fun places. The understanding is that if you can't do the job you'll figure out how to turn it down instead of setting yourself up for failure. But when you pull it off you know you are able to compete, head to head, with everyone else out there.
So, when I talk about hanging on to my career a number of people immediately presume that because of my ardor for staying in business I must have led a life with no idea of accounting or financial awareness; that I've spent every cent I've touched and am hoping to just keep working --- stumbling along on fumes until social security kicks in at which time I'll live out the rest of my life on packaged ramen, ersatz pasta and the occasional bottle of Walmart Cabernet Sauvignon. That I persevere out of the demands of abject poverty and a past life of reckless abandon. Why else would I stoop to using Fuji cameras and lenses instead of some premium brand of full frame cameras? Why else would I keep doing everything from headshots to product prototype photographs? And why would I keep working for another "artsy" organization like a live theater?
Well, just to assuage your concerns.... We've done a very good job of saving and investing. My wife wonders sometimes why I don't just retire and write the novels I profess to want to write. My wealth management person wonders why I didn't retire several years ago. My kid wonders why we don't sell our house in the middle of Austin's most sought after neighborhood, take the money off the table and move to Paris or Rome (mostly we don't because I don't speak fluent French or Italian).
My silly sounding and perennial answer is that I absolutely love what I do. I feel like I did when I was 25 years old. Not just physically but mentally as well. I don't want to lose any part of that feeling. I don't want to "slow down" and I don't want to forego racing my twenty-something assistants up multiple flights of stairs with cases of gear in each hand. I don't want to let that 30-something in lane four beat me in swim set. I don't want to ever say, "I used to be a photographer." I don't want to ever hear myself say, "Well, back in the golden age of photography we used to....blah, blah, blah." It's never just about the work...it's only about the work. And everything I learn every day as I do jobs for other people is more than just which colors look pretty together or how much of the background I can drop out but also what's the coolest new restaurant? How do people speak now? What's our target for our combined work? What shoes are cool? What kinds of portraits make younger people smile with approval?
I haven't found the fountain of youth and I understand that aging and then dying is inevitable. But embracing old fart-ism can be optional. Sitting in a Barca Lounger with a can of beer is definitely optional. The early bird special at the local cafeteria is extremely optional in the way that a country might embrace nuclear war. I don't intend to give in to the stereotypes of aging. Not personally and not in my craft. You might want an endless retrospective but I want to constantly burn the past and create into the future. And I believe it remains possible for any one of any age able to carry his own gear and create a rapport with people who are different from themselves. Different cultures and different ages.
The reason I won't stop is that making beautiful photographs is so damn fun!!!!
Yeah. I'm going to stop doing commercial work when someone pries that camera out of my cold, dead hands. Or at least that's today's plan.
if you know exactly which camera you're going to be shooting with tomorrow and next week and next month then I'm here to tell you that you don't have enough cameras. Not enough choices.
with a full tank of gas and open skies you can go anywhere.
The secret to everything is relationships.
Better than cameras but without obviating the need for cameras.
Sit down when you get tired but always have a plan to get moving again.
There will be enough time to rest in whatever afterlife the photo gods provide.
It is a rich person who gets to do exactly what they want to do for a living.
Why doesn't anyone ask Warren Buffett when he is going to retire?
The latest research says walking is the best exercise overall.
I'll keep swimming but it's nice to know I was never wasting time
when I was walking around with my cameras. When I finish this I'm heading back out for a walk.
You might consider a couple miles a day as just good photo job prep.....
And an excuse to buy fun shoes.
There's a certain adrenaline rush being a hundred or so miles from any major city, down a dirt road as a giant blizzard heads your way. But if you've already gone to all the trouble of showing up
it behooves you to linger for a few minutes and get the shot.
The best weather in which to photograph is any weather you can get.
If you aren't up, out of the house, and doing something fun when the sun comes up you'll have no one but yourself to blame for missing out on life.