7.09.2019

I think each of us knows why we love to do photography for ourselves but a long time ago I figured out the main reason I like to do it commercially.

Checking in on that next job?

Photography can be a bit addictive. You give yourself leeway to walk around with what is basically both a portable time machine and also an almost instant "art factory" and having both operational rationales firmly in mind when you leave your front door you've already gone a long way toward mitigating any guilt you might otherwise experience by having no set schedule, and by taking hours and hours to walk around aimlessly and just look at stuff in a different way from everybody else.

I'm not sure non-photographers get it. Everyone is so goal driven and schedule driven these days. Everyone also seems to want a guarantee that if they spend the hours something of practical value will emerge at the end to justify the temporal expenditure. I think we understand the process of roaming around looking for things to photograph to be more like fly fishing than a newspaper route....Part of the reward is either the looking, or the standing in streams. Or both.

I have friends who, when they have spare time from their work-work jobs, are given lists of things to accomplish by their spouses. Clean the garage. Clean the gutters. Take your ratty leisure suits to the Goodwill.  They tell me how lucky I am to be a photographer; my take is that they should rethink their approach to relationships and priorities. But I digress....

I've used the excuse of photography to go so many places I wouldn't otherwise thought to go, and met people I would have never said "hello" to if I hadn't thought they looked interesting enough to photograph. I approached them because of the camera in my hands and little else.  Photography is also a great hobby, akin to three dimensional puzzle solving.  You get to figure out stuff in your head, on the fly, and in at least three dimensions (not counting time). 

There is a real pleasure for most of us in being able to "research" (spend hours reading reviews on the web) cameras in order to find just the right one for me, and then, having bought it, realizing that there might be a camera out there that would fit you even a tiny bit better and so you start the process of looking for that ultimate portable time machine all over again. 

But given how much the business of photography has changed, and how the foundational make money work  of picture taking has evaporated, how much competition has multiplied, and how accountants and data jockeys have replaced shared creative concepts, you have to wonder why anyone in their right mind would take up, or continue, to ply photography as a trade. 

To read statisticians one would think that embracing a career that has no safety net, no guarantees, no real rules, and no widely acknowledged process of certification, is akin to financial suicide. Hence the jokes:

What's the difference between a commercial photographer and an extra large Pizza from Luigi's? Well, you can actually feed a family of four with the pizza.... (Bada Boom, implied). 

Or: How do you make a million dollars in a career as a photographer? Start by inheriting ten million.... 

Or: ( and this one is for younger photographers or musicians...): "What do you call a photographer whose girlfriend just dumped him? Homeless." 

I just love being at a conference with my cameras and being asked by an employee/attendee/guest: 

"Do you do this photography thing full time?" No, I think to myself. I'm just doing this as I work my way up to being assistant manager at the McDonald's down the street. Then I'll have it made and never have to photograph again. Plus any burger that falls on the floor you get to have for free!!!

Sometimes I tell people who ask these sorts of questions that I used to be a pathologically shy accountant and that I do these "gigs" at the behest of my psychoanalyst as therapy. "I'm getting better. I can talk to strangers now without wetting myself anymore....." 

So, why do I do this? It can't be the only thing I'm acceptably competent at; I mean, after all, I've written seven books, run a regional advertising agency and taught at a University, surely I can find something, anything that makes more sense than hanging out a shingle as a "camera guy." Costco always seems to be hiring....

Well, here's one of the main reasons I decided that this would be a good career for me: I don't like repetition and I don't like being around the same people all day long, everyday. One of the things many people who crave security hate about a freelance lifestyle is the idea that you never know what you'll be doing tomorrow, or next week or next month. But I adore the idea that I won't know what I'll be doing until I book the next job.....or wake up tomorrow and self-assign something that came to me in a dream. 

I take pleasure in knowing that if the client I am working for today is a real train wreck of an asshole my job will probably be over by tomorrow and I'll never have to accept an assignment from him again.  ("I'm so sorry, we're all booked up for 2020. Do you want me to see if we have any openings in 2021?). 

If an  advertising agency demands a Bentley level job but has a Hyundai level budget I can laugh and say. "No." Or "Hell No." and there will be another job in a day or two that comes attached to a wonderful and interesting client who comes complete with an ample budget and the perfect idea of where we should go for lunch during a break from the work. 

Another aspect of the same gleeful reality of only having to be "on" a day or two at a time is the knowledge that there are many, many clients out there and they cycle through regularly enough. Most good art directors at decent sized agencies work with illustrators, are compelled to use stock photography, or use some graphic other than commissioned photography for most of the projects they do. The reality (and it's been the same story for decades) is that each art director usually only gets to produced five or six ads per year which require them to hire and work with a photographer. Pretty bleak...at least until you realize that good photographers are constantly building and repairing their network of clients. Direct clients, advertising agency clients, business owner clients, event producer clients, editorial clients, video producer clients, and even individual portrait commission clients. Some photographers can also add to that list galleries and collectors (the lucky ones). Oops! I forgot association marketing directors....and non profit arts organizations.

I was working at Dell one day about nine years ago. The bottom was falling out of the U.S. and world economies. Banks were failing. You could hear corporate check books snapping shut. You could sense the fear everywhere. I was set up in a little conference room with my Dell Blue Background and a couple of lights, making headshots for the marketing people. 

One of the executives from my list of folks who needed to be photographed came in and sat down and we started talking about all the little stuff you always talk about with strangers who about to be photographed. After a few minutes the talk turned to the economy. How could it not? At any rate he looked a bit embarrassed as he asked me, "With the economy heading into a huge recession aren't you scared all your work will dry up? What if Dell stops using you?"  Things did seem a bit perilous but I thought for a minute before I answered... and then I responded: "I've got forty or fifty clients I shoot with on a somewhat regular basis so if one of them takes a break there's always someone else that steps in. But you work solely for Dell. If you get fired from this job, in this economy, it might take a good long while for you to find another job. Doesn't that scare you? I mean, after all, I have fifty clients you really only have the one..."

For me one of the real pleasures of being a photographer is that it's unlike being a contractor building a house. I'm not stuck on one project for a year or more. It's unlike working in an office because I can be somewhere new and different every day. It's not like working on a team because I don't have to suffer through working with some jerk who demonstrates a personality disorder day after day. It's not like being a doctor because I don't have to argue with an insurance company to get paid (usually) and I don't spend a bunch of time around sick people. 

In fact, quite often people will call me, talk about their creative project, give me a budget and leave me to sort out how I want to do the work. And that's about as much freedom as I guess most of us can expect and still have a real job. 

And when I am not on the clock I always have a good excuse for my family as to why it's more important for me to walk around with my newest camera and lens instead of: cutting the grass (which we pay someone else to do) or trapping skunks under the house (which we would definitely pay someone else to do) or participate in amateur plumbing projects, or draining the crankcase oil from the car into the aquifer. My excuse is that I'm constantly working on getting better and better at my real job. Seeing. And my "hobby" of indolent camera walking is done in the service of keeping my reflexes and my operational fluidity with cameras up to.....a professional level. Yes. Done correctly this career is a great dodge. 

Just don't tell too many people. 
I love all my theater clients. We work with them for a day at a time, a couple times a month...

this is the look I give to potential clients who think it should be fine to miss swim practice for a number of mornings in a row.....

I am certain this is my photographer friend, Tomas, in disguise and under cover. Working as a hobbyist.

mostly I love photography because it's so colorful.