Since the later half of the 1980's, when I launched a full time career as a professional photographer, I've accepted and grown the identity of "photographer." In a way it's like joining a cult where the constant practice of making photographs takes precedent over so much else. Extra time goes into photo projects, vacations revolve around places that we'd like to spend time photographing in, extra money in the budget goes to paper and film and now different digital cameras and software. The language and the knowledge of so much arcane trivia made us a tribe. It all seems like so much fun until you come to grips with the idea that you placed yourself in a narrow little slice of a very big world.
The problem with identifying too closely with the pursuit you undertake for your income; your living, is that every profession and every art form changes. And, sure, you can continue to try doing the same thing over and over again but you know at some point that you're just riding around in circles and watching your objective relevance fade into the sunset. In your twenties and thirties everything is new and exciting. In your forties (and hopefully even into your fifties) you've mastered the parts of photography that seemed daunting or complex in earlier years and maybe you are lucky enough to still be surrounded by a cadre of like minded image makers for whom the gut level thrill of making photographs (and being a photographer) never wore off. Go team Anachronism!
But it seems, at least to me, that by the time you hit your mid-sixties, it's hard to summon up the same levels of enthusiasm and immersion you once did. After you've lived through popular culture's fifth or sixth (painful) re-discovery and emulation of Robert Frank or Irving Penn, and once you've done all the top ten styles of the last 50 years for the umpteenth time for clueless clients you get....jaded and bored.
I never wanted to admit that this would happen to me but there it is. I've started to lose interest in doing yet another assignment for anyone that consists of making work portraits of people against a gray seamless background. Or a blue one. Or a white one. Or a black one. I'm beyond exhausted by having to explain why light on a face in a portrait isn't supposed to be flat as a one toned color swatch but should have some direction to it in order to "model" the subject's features. Painfully over having to have the conversation about the physics of getting a really ultra-wide shot where the subject is "super in focus but the background is super out of focus" and despairing also of the idea that everything can happen, photographically, in the blink of an eye. Just lean in through the doorway and make us a masterpiece...
I got into the habit of always carrying a camera with me back in the days when one of my favorite everywhere cameras was an Olympus half frame with a 40mm f1.4 on it. Loaded up with Tri-X and always ready. Back in the "golden age" of art photographers and art school programs I was one of hundreds of people walking through Austin every hour of every day with cameras hanging from thin leather straps over proud shoulders. Now, in a sense, I walk pretty much alone through Austin, probably a humorous oddity for subsequent generations. Most of my personal photography now is just a reflexive response to boredom and habit more than any heartfelt desire to tackle some project. Even the thought of doing "a project" reeks to me of obsolete, art school hokum.
All of this dissonance is, of course, tied up with my too close self-identity as an artist and a photographic technician. As though it's not enough just to be a fellow human scrounging his way through life. Having a ready label that, at one time in history, seemed like a bold and adventurous but was really was just a way of trying to differentiate oneself from the sometimes abhorrent concept of "herd." Or even worse, "average."
After what seems to have been a long enough career I'm a bit stunned and, to tell the truth, a bit saddened by the reality that after all this time I have only a handful of my own images that truly move me, that hold my attention. Photos I would risk rescuing from the proverbial burning house. Mostly from early trips abroad or of beautiful (to me) girlfriends and, by extension, close family. And I'm pretty sure that it's the same for everyone else who followed the same trajectory as me. We envy the Henri Cartier-Bressons and the equally driven Richard Avedons but when we weigh our output against that of those previous generations we know most of us have, in most "art" regards, fallen far short of what we were wishing for when we were young and bulletproof. Buoyed up today only by the vague and shallow assertion that, "at least we tried."
I find myself in the process of moving on. Of jettisoning the identity and life of a commercial/professional/mercenary photographer. I have nothing left in the tank that I want to share with clients. I don't need the income and I don't need the frustrations that come with trying to match the changing tastes and expectations of a current advertising industry which has been raised almost exclusively either on cheap stock photography or the idea of collaging bits and pieces of images together to make something acceptable in post processing. I cringe every time I hear: "We can fix that in post." And I feel even worse when I hear myself say that.
I no longer want to find myself at a beautiful location, with perfect light, at the perfect time, only to get a phone call from a harried marketeer trying to shepherd a wayward CEO to a fixed location and time calling to tell me they are running about an hour late. And I never want to be there again to suffer the frustration of knowing that if everyone had done their part correctly the light would have been perfect and the photograph marvelous but when they finally did show up the light had gone ugly and flat, the open shade was now gone and the temperature had risen 20 degrees. Now we have a sweating, corpulent man in a bad, bad suit, in a rush, sweating like he'd just run a marathon and hoping "we can get this done in a couple of minutes."
Some have suggested I volunteer and work with good non-profits. Oh gosh! That never occurred to me...(sarcasm alert). But that's shoehorning a different package of compromises than the situation I'm already trying, it seems, to exit as gracefully as possible or as clumsily as necessary.
I've turned over my position at the theater to a younger, trendier and much more enthusiastic photographer. Upon doing so it dawned on me that most of my buying and selling of gear in the last decade, at least, was very much predicated on how to do that specific kind of assignment as well as I could. Now I feel unencumbered by any expectation that I need to go long and low noise and fast. Half the gear I have I never needed and the other half was job specific.
Here near the end of my desire to be commercially viable I look across the assemblage of stuff in the studio and wonder how it was I got so far afield from the slender selection of passionately acquired gear that worked so well for me in the beginning... and how to get back to the garden. I fear that my own missteps have closed the gate and that the desire for the coolest gear drove away the magic.
So, yeah, I'm wrapping up a couple of jobs that I thought I wanted but I really didn't. I'm already telling people who call or text that I'm blocking out the month of October for "a project." But it's not true. I just don't want to do their work anymore. I'm going to spend the month searching to see if I can find a path back to my own work. My own photography. Unencumbered by client demands and taste and unencumbered as well by the legion of internet photographers who are quick to suggest what I could have done differently at every moment.
I really am going on a road trip in October and B and I are really going further afield in November. And maybe I really will take just one old camera and one lens. And maybe I really will only photograph things that are interesting to me without any concern for outside verification, validation or acceptance. It's an interesting time. Thank goodness there is still swimming and walking. I at least still understand my attraction to those activities right now. I'm hopeful I'll find a good way to reconnect with the passion I've felt for photography right up until last year. It's at least a useful mission. But only to me. Only right now.