12.15.2020

The "All In" mentality can sometimes sabotage my core pursuits. Or...how many rabbit holes can you jump into at once?

 


People are all so different. I admire people who are able to make a long term plan and stick with it. I think I admire them mostly because I have such a hard time trudging down the same path day after day. And I tend to be obsessive about whatever new, bright shiny adventure presents itself. 

When I first took up photography seriously I was drawn to the thrill of making black and white portraits of people I found interesting. If I'm honest with myself it's obvious that making art out of portraits has always been the constant undercurrent of my attraction and dedication to photography. But I let so many distractions interfere. And spent so many resources chasing them. 

Take my recent plunge back into video. I started back in with some simple cameras and basic microphones and I thought everything looked pretty good coming out of cameras as basic quality .Mov files. No fancy bit depths and no extended color ranges. I worked with cameras like the Sony A7r-ii and a Sony RX10-3. My regular working methodology somewhat matched my still imaging routines. Ignore V-Log. Get the exposure and color right in camera and make sure everything is in focus. The work looked good and no big additional investments in gear or training seemed necessary. 

I was mostly doing interviews and testimonials for a German healthcare company at the time and everyone was pretty happy with the edited results. Logic would have suggested that I just continue on doing the same thing and trying to get better at non-gear stuff like: the art of interviewing. tweaking lights for interviews. better audio techniques. trying more adventurous angles and shots. But being a gear nut I was drawn into shooting more and more stuff with two cameras simultaneously. And, as the projects proliferated I convinced myself that I needed two identical cameras so everything would match up in the edits. 

After a spell with the two Sony cameras my research "convinced me" that I couldn't like the video files coming from the Sony consumer cameras because, unlike all my video friends' cameras, these weren't 10 bit and didn't write files in 4:2:2. Eventually I found myself deep into the Panasonic systems. 

This year, instead of pulling back and enjoying enforced time off from spending and wheel spinning, I bite off the production of more video projects for the theater and other clients. After our big project near the end of the summer I was asked to shoot video of the theater's outdoor concert series. And here starts the big disconnection from logic/purpose and intention and a plunge down the rabbit hole with a little push from my own ego. 

I should have declined the offer to shoot the videos because that kind of work is more rote documentation and isn't really creative. It's more like tossing equipment at something visually mediocre to try, through heroic angle changes and editing, to pull out something people might want to pay to stream and watch for an hour. The constraints were many.

The music and voices of the artists were all great but there wasn't much visual interest. No stage decor. Minimal lighting. No costume changes. Not much to work with, visually. But the projects tweaked my ego and also pushed me into the boring realm of technically mundane problem solving. 

I convinced myself that in order to do this right I'd need a follow camera with a long lens and then I'd need two or three other camera angles on the fixed stage so the editor would have more cutting options. I tried certain cameras and decided they weren't exactly what I needed so I bought more cameras. The cameras worked well but I decided I could use also use different lenses to better effect. In essence I was brutally over-engineering each project and, given the tiny stipend attached, ended up "losing" $500 to $1,000 per show. 

In a depressing moment of shocking Satori I realized that I had, in that moment, strayed completely from my core mission. forsaking my real love in the arts and  replacing my passion with a misguided pride in my technical problem solving. I could rationalize that I was "helping" out the theater but at a certain lower level of production the role I was filling wasn't anything any other technician could not do just as well. And I'd been an active participant in my own "straying from the course" for decades...

Now, don't get me wrong. If you are mid-career and you need money to keep the lights on and the wolves from the door then the ability to solve problems and accept bigger and bigger, or more complex projects can be a real plus. Financially.  It gives you more products to offer your clients. But the day you find yourself sitting in the office charging batteries for six cameras, loading each camera with V90 SD cards and putting cinema lenses on your designated stationary cameras, all in order to film a quickly produced, three person singing experience for little more than coffee money you will, hopefully, have the sudden realization that you've lost the thread. You've moved away from making art to doing "blue collar" grunt video and you were driven to it by your "need" to step in and show off your technical proficiency. The need to keep your ego fed.

After getting five of these projects in the can I thought I was finished. Then the theater wanted just one more. I declined. And the next day, when I went into my office and saw all the cameras, lenses and peripheral junk I'd quickly amassed to do multi-camera video shoots I was embarrassed at my own lack of guard rails. And a bit shamed by my squandering of time and resources I could have better put into service doing the real work I know is my core passion = portraits. In black and white. 

It's the ultimate destructive extension of the idea that gear matters. If one camera angle is good then four different angles must be so much better. But at some point you have to either give in entirely to the idea that it's all just a job or stop and reconsider where you true love lies. 

In retrospect I should have considered the year 2020, from March until now, to be an opportunity to break from my compulsion to freely accept any and all commercial work. Only now, in mid-December have I come to grips with the spinning rims of non-intention.  Only just starting to separate need from want.

One of my friends who knows me better than I know myself suggested to me that I might stop and meditate and really consider what I want to do with the time I have left on this mortal coil. Did I want to work like an itinerate pot mender and go from job to job doing an endless repeat of basic and un-inspired projects or would I be better served by stepping back from having to constantly prove my technical worth and taking stock of the very core activities that I would truly enjoy? Could I go back to the beginning and experience that joyful feeling of making beautiful images?

The act of meditation, as I understand it, is an attempt to quiet all the little voices in one's mind and to concentrate on your own truth. After having retreated from "work" projects at the beginning of the month I've had time to reflect on this. Like a glass with muddy water you have to wait until all the debris settles before you can see through clear water. In effect, not having deadlines and responsibilities for projects that are busy work has given me a bit of clarity.

So much of the office/studio is still filled with stuff for "just in case." What if I have a job that requires we shoot against a white, full length background? Oh, that's what those six lights in that case and the long roll of white seamless paper are for.... What if I need to shoot macro photos of semi-conductor dies? (something I haven't done in over a decade...) well, that's what the big macro rig with rails and stuff is for. And the video slider, and the three gimbals, and the eight shotgun microphones (each new one being just a little better than the last one), and what about those fifteen, big light stands? And those five soft boxes (now with front panels in various strengths of yellowing)?

Even the compulsion to keep an inventory of every focal length lens I might ever need for any commercial job when, in fact, my real passion in photography requires maybe three lenses at most. I have a 20mm; I've used it twice in a year. I have a 50mm, I use it every day.

All of these things take up space and, more importantly, mindshare. 

They are a result of the "compound interest" of our shared beliefs in our industry, carried over from the last century, that we need to be ready to handle anything at any time. From architecture to food shots. From portraits to landscapes to microscopic processes. And the point of pride was that being ever-ready we could handle anything. Even if we didn't like a particular process and were only doing it for the financial rewards. But being able to and wanting to are vastly different things in the current age. And at my current age. 

I shudder to think I will end up years from now surrounded by mountains of gear but unfulfilled in my basic, personal mission. 

Cameras and gear are an addictive trap. They also function as an ill-fitting life jacket for your self-esteem. A hopeful antidote for your imposter syndrome. Haunted by the thought that you might just be a mediocre image-maker but you'll be able to fake your way through as long as you have the best support gear you can buy. 

When I get introspective I sometimes think I'm being unrealistic and that having this wide tool box of stuff is really important. At that point I usually think back to two people who each rented my studio back in the 1990s, for one day projects. Both were from Dallas and both were working on big campaigns for agencies here in Austin. One studio renter was a guy who specialized in photographing beverages. More specifically, beer bottles or beer cans with just the right amount of condensation and sparkle. I expected he would arrive with an entourage and tons of gear. He brought two lights, one ratty and yellowed umbrella and one well used wooden view camera with two lenses. He worked alone. He was methodical and self-assured. He called his client when he had a perfect Polaroid and the client came over mostly to sign off on the Polaroid. 

The photographer let me look at the Polaroid and I was a bit surprised and very impressed with just how good the final photograph was. After the client approved the shot and left the studio the photographer worked on a few different angles, just for himself. Then I helped him take down his set and pack up. There was no camera clutter and no mental clutter about his work. Just the work. I had the sense that he could do amazing work with a cheap camera and a work light. The gear was just a clean window into his vision of the project. 

The second photographer to rent my space and teach me a lesson that I apparently, quickly forgot, was a former student of mine from UT. She'd gone off to Dallas which, at the time, was the center of all cool advertising production in Texas. She had apprenticed with two different photographers: one a fashion photographer and the other a catalog photographer. By the time she showed up in Austin she'd been a regular shooter for the Neiman Marcus catalogs and also shot for two, big cosmetics companies. She was in town to photography The Budweiser Girls. An image of three beautiful girls in white swim suits lying on a big pile of sand (our studio beach?). 

She rented her lighting from one of the neighboring photographers and her assistants set up a simple but very effective lighting design. My former student brought only her camera stuff with her. It consisted of one older Hasselblad film camera, a 150mm lens that looked as though people had put out their cigarettes on the front element, an ancient but still working 80mm lens and a Polaroid back. 

She made some adjustments to the lighting, climbed a tall ladder and shot the image of the models hanging out on the beach. The shot would become part of a national ad campaign. There was not angsty indecision about what she would shoot with or how she would proceed. It was so clear to her. 

The process was quick and efficient. She was also having fun. And, in the process, billing in a day what I might have billed back then in a week, or even a month. But she had a mental clarity about her work and she didn't stray from her vision and her purpose. Again, her gear was absolutely secondary to her vision.

This month off is helping me achieve a modicum of clarity. I no longer need to be a "jack of all trades" and I no longer need to be equipped with every permutation of camera and light necessary to shoot....everything. 

I just wish I had been paying attention a bit earlier. That's all. 

I wish there was a way to hold a big garage sale and make most of the stuff in my space disappear. But managing that seems equally odious. But I'm consolidating and I hope to get back to my earliest passion. Taking beautiful black and white photographs of most interesting people. Taken in a style that I like and not because a client has requested/demanded that it be that way. 

It's hard to do. We've all (in the USA) been raised in such a mercantile culture. We are so quick to assign monetary values and class status values to everything we do and everything we own. It's a tough paradigm to move on from. 

My presumption was always that moving on from the work that put food on the table to a "golden period" in which I could kick back and do my own stuff would be easy. But it's not. In some regards it's the routine stuff that gives one's life structure. Take away the work and you take away the structure. The money becomes immaterial but the awkward transition to adventurous leisure and rewarding self-assignment has its own discomforts. 

How do you do it?