Photos courtesy of John Young
We all grow old, if we are fortunate. It’s a given, the aging process. We do not all grow up. That’s more of an optional condition.
Now, growing up in certain areas of your life—love, being a provider, being a parent, being responsible to others, being decent in the general conduct of your life—is a good thing.
But in terms of the exuberance with which one embraces one’s craft, i.e. the making of pictures, well, that’s another thing altogether. When you consider the happenstance of this profession, the up and down nature of it, the essential importance and simultaneous silliness of it, the inarticulate rush of unfettered enthusiasm we retain for the click of the shutter, and the desperate tumble we all make in the madcap pursuit of a very uncertain result—well, growing up doesn’t suit that particularly well at all.
For instance, sitting on your ass on a cold, cobblestoned street to make a picture of a ballerina on pointe in a place she would never actually do that, that’s not like getting on a conference call scheduled at 3pm. The whole non-sequitur, head-tilting nature of the photographic endeavor doesn’t completely jive with growing up, being responsible, mature, and careful in the assessment of what one does relative to what one might produce. Growing old I’ll accept. Growing up, well, let’s not check that box just yet. Or maybe ever.
Or, perhaps you get a notion to become a window washer for a day, and you rope down the outside of the world’s tallest building. You’re old enough to know better, but hey, there are pictures there. As one often recalls at the end of an adventure, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And, every once in a great while, when you look afterwards at the photos, it was, in fact, a good idea.
Being up for an adventure and seeing the world with continually fresh eyes is an essential component of being a photog. Getting up insanely early so you can get your tripod down ahead of everybody else so you can record those first slivers of light that will grace this magnificent scene that’s in your head is an act of recurrent, boundless, childlike enthusiasm. Especially as most of the time that magnificent scene you have dreamed of capturing remains just that, a dream. Those golden, wondrous slivers of light we desperately hoped for are often swallowed by clouds, and that angle that was gonna work out so well is now obscured by the giant crane they moved in overnight to begin construction on some new condominiums we had no idea about. Sigh. Oh, well. Where’s a good place for pancakes?
Why carry a camera with you? It would be so much easier to walk unencumbered. But, you never know, around the next corner might be a marvelous, not to be repeated scene, and the bitter disappointment of being camera-less is worse than fatigue from the leaden slog with a backpack full of gear. Except of course for those times when the marvelous scene presents, and we have the gear with us, and we miss it. Damn! Shit! Aargh! Loser!
Time for coffee! It’ll be okay. The gods of photography will eventually smile on those who resolutely bounce back, and continue to stride purposefully, camera in hand, eyes at the ready.
The wondrous anticipation and the sheer, ludicrous cruelty of all this would weather a soul more inclined to be staid and serious, i.e., mature. Hell, the foul nature of what occasionally occurs on location would convince some to never go back outside. But we are photographers, and locations are where the wild stories are. So we gear up, grab the kit and sally forth, yet again. Only to (most likely) end up at the coffee shop again. The perennial refuge from the unsuccessful photo sojourn. Who knew a triple vente non fat latte could be such a soothing balm to the injured photographic spirit?
Sincerely trying to do this is a ticket to disappointment on a regular basis. Things that don’t work out, pictures that fall short, time to work that was promised and then reneged on, coupled with technical glitches, instincts that misfire, subjects who won’t cooperate….need I go on?
Reminds me sometimes of that old joke about the enthusiastic child, laughing and smiling as he was digging in a sandbox full of horse manure. When asked why he was pursuing such an awful task with such grand exuberance, he replied, “Well, with all this horseshit, I figure there’s bound to be a pony in here somewhere!”
So it goes. The pictures are out there, the sirens singing on dangerous rocks. We resolutely refuse to put wax in our ears. We listen and respond, despite the disappointments.
Photo above courtesy of Peter Polcz
There are numerous times I’ve cried when I’ve had a camera in my hands. Thankfully the times I’ve laughed are far more numerous. The thrill of a good picture, the audacity of the pursuit, and the incongruity of it all when it works, well, those days will flat out make you chuckle, or even laugh outright. (Or at the very least, prompt a quiet, knowing smile. You are onto a secret. Being a photographer is a beautiful thing.)
Thanks to Natalie Wilmhurst, of Glasgow, a wonderful dancer who was patient and lovely to work with. I profoundly thank John Young and Peter Polcz, friends and fine fellow photogs, who contributed the pictures of our Scottish workshop above. Those snaps are reminders to me of the blessed truism of a career in pictures. You can have a laugh with a camera in hand, and maybe even make a living sitting on your ass in the street.
Gear used in demo of Natalie….Nikon D4S with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8. Flashes are SB-910 units. Light shaping gear is by Lastolite, the Tri-flash attachment and the 4 in 1 umbrella, atop a Shur Line paint pole. Contact Jeff Snyder at [email protected] for details.
RIck DeNatale says
Joe, if wikipedia has it right, you’re a bit more than seven months younger than I am. I think I’ve stayed young in mind, but my joints have raced ahead. I’d definitely need the help of a couple of assistance to rise from your position in the penultimate photo!
Charles Lloyd says
There is the joke about pilots that applies to photographers like Joe.
The kid looked up at the pilot and said, “When I grow up I want to be a pilot just like you”.
The pilot smiled at the youngster with an impish grin and replied “Well, you can’t be both so I chose to be a pilot,”
art meripol says
Joe, if you’re anything like me you’re sitting in the street because your knees won’t let you kneel.
Good story as always. Thanks for reminding us all to think positively about what we’re blessed to be doing.
Jim Colton says
Never grow up Joe…It’s over-rated…besides, I am happy to be in…and respectfully welcome you to…the club…of Senile Delinquents! 🙂
Thomas Gorman says
I live in Glasgow and I can’t believe my biggest photographic idol is only 50 miles away from me and I couldn’t make it to either of the workshops. Happy to have the updates on Twitter and through this blog though. You’re an inspiration Joe!!
David Taranza says
It is said that men never grow up really. What differs them from little boys is only the price of their toys!
All best, Joe.
I’m glad I found the courage to approach you at breakfast in the hotel in Edinburgh, it is great to have found that someone you have only met through your books but who you look up to in print and image is actually a nice guy in real life. I wish I could have stuck around to see you shoot the images of the ballerina. That image really pops!
Growing up is for those with no imagination.
Joe McNally says
Yes!!! My membership is now official! Awesome :-))))
You are an inspiration and I hope to still photographing happily and as easily as you when I am your age. Which is really young. ;).
I honestly don’t think we could survive this business with out being young at heart and mind.
Ps… Got my new car! Thanks again, loved being able to help you guys out!
Joe McNally says
awesome! many thanks as always…
Thanks for such a hugely inspiriational day, I learned so much from watching you work.
Jessica Otto says
Stunning, all for the love of it!
I have a difficult time reconciling your attitude with those of a great number of photographers on blogs. So many are so serious and angry. I’ve pointed many people to your articles as an example of not only great photography but a wonderful approach to life. I cried when I read your entry about the blind girl and the horse.
Joe McNally says
Many thanks for the kind words Patrick. It’s a good thing, generally, to remember the blessings of doing this….all the best and thanks for stopping by the blog…Joe
Vanilla Gorilla says
In the seventh paragraph you talk about not carrying a camera, and later regretting it when you don’t. Isn’t there a quote from your buddy Jay Maisel that goes something like “Always bring a camera, it is hard to shoot a picture without one”.
Great photos and stories, as always
Curso Fotografia Bruno says
shame to be so far
Dan Cheng says
Excellent blog Joe, I hope to be as energetic and enthusiastic as you when I reach your age…oh wait…damn I’m just about your age now…I better get moving….;-) cheers DanC
Hello there! This post couldn’t be written much better!
Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
He always kept talking about this. I am going
to send this information to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a good read.
Thank you for sharing!
Brian Wilson says
This is my second time to read this, it won’t be the last time. An inspiration for “those days”…