A new year. Offering up a bit of self-critique, which we as photographers engage in sometimes too much, and sometimes too little. You know the feeling. You wake up, look at the mirror and put a big finger based “L” on your forehead as you stare bleakly at your ever whitening scruff, fumbling for your glasses while unfolding your frame like a rusty lawn chair. You eventually reach full height, but it takes a while.
On our Instagram channel recently, we showed a glimpse of 2023 in an IG Reel. It showed a range of pictorial endeavor from that turbulent twelve months. At first, I didn’t want to do it. “My pictures from last year sucked,” I whined. Photogs are excellent whiners. Back in the day, when this industry was fairly awash in cash, you could hang around the picture department say, at Newsweek, and if you complained loud and long enough about wanting to go do a story about such and such, an editor up there would pretty much give you a $1,500 guarantee for a first look at your film just to get you out of their cubicle.
But Annie, my beloved and determined wife, who also happens to direct our studio social media channels with a deftness and a determination that rivals a world-class chess player, insisted I pull images. So, like an old school fishing trawler, I threw the nets over the side and started dragging for pictures. The result was salubrious, like a wind blowing through the leafless trees of my brain. A radiant shard of optimism sliced through the clouds of my relentless, personal, near daily employee review session and warmed my face. Hey, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all! Wow, look at that one. Not bad!
Ok, calm down. We put it up on our Instagram channel, and it played over 60,000 times, evidently. “Natural” views…still not sure what all that marketing/internet hoo ha means but I guess that’s good! Clicks that simply bounced in over the transom. No antibiotics, cage free views. looked at the run of the year, one thing struck me, and it has been with me since the very beginning, back in 1976, pounding the cracked, uneven pavement of NYC, the pungent smells of unpicked up garbage wafting into my nostrils like a snort of smelling salts. Look for work. I can do this. Give me a job. I can do it. Let me shoot. Fifty bucks a picture for a shot over the UPI wire? Ok. I’ll do that. Once, dear friend Jimmy McGrath at the NY Daily News rang me up. We were hurting, on strike. He offered me a gig shooting the harness racing finish pictures at the old Roosevelt Raceway out on the island. Speed Graphic, plugged into a flash system. Zone focused. Pop! Deadline process the 4×5’s in an old wet darkroom that reeked of Dektol and cigarette butts. Payment? No money, but a steak dinner at the track restaurant. Ok, I’ll do that.
Decades later, another thing resonated for me seeing our quick draw, set-to-music selection of ‘23. Versatility. A lot of value in versatility, as a photog, even though it’s not discussed much in these often-indulgent times of “photographing your creative journey.” Technology abounds, pixels proliferate like a virus in a sci-fi movie and new lenses have apertures wide enough to drive a truck through. But the unglamorous underpinnings—versatility, durability, tenacity. Oft overlooked, perhaps. Something I drive home to photogs trying to survive nowadays.
The sad, recent demise of splendid actor Tom Wilkinson focused me a bit on this question. He had the ability to inhabit a role, to effectively disappear into a character. He said of his acting, “I see myself as a utility player, the one who does everything. I’ve always felt that actors should have a degree of anonymity about them.”
I owned up long ago to the fact I’ll never be the best at anything when I look through a lens. You want the best sports shooter? It ain’t me. Best fashion photog, best documentarian? Look elsewhere. But you need something done, with clarity, professionalism, thought, imagination, and adherence to deadlines and budget? You got a job that requires you to be personal, do research, bring the skills and the tools to bear that lead to a set of fresh frames that have merit? You have an assignment that requires journalism, portraits, concept photography, and illustration work? Ok, here’s my number.
Take the often overlooked, seemingly ordinary and bring it to life. Operating theaters! Badly lit factories! Computer labs! We have to find good pictures when, at the first look at the location, it appears there isn’t a picture within a country mile. So I try to tell young photogs the same thing I tell myself. To look local, think of companies who might need a refresh or a rebrand. Can you edit? Can you do web design? Are you good at social media? All that helps. At my studio, we go after a job as a team, all bringing various skills to the table.
I shot a job last year that presented, at least on the surface, some relatively ordinary scenarios. Thus, it was gratifying to hear from the publisher who hired me. He’s been in the business a long time, and knows his stuff.
“I don’t know which world you came from, but these shots are definitely other-worldly. I saw what you had to work with, and I now see what you saw. It’s really unbelievable. It’s amazing.”
That’s our job. To see what others don’t. To memorialize and make important that which others walk by every day. To be astonished by the unusual, as most are, but to also observe the mundane of life and celebrate it with pixelated permanence. To make others do a double take, a head tilt, or cause a furrowed, intrigued brow. To get someone to just stop, even for a few seconds. Don’t swipe. Look. Feel. Think.
If you’ve chosen this photographic path, understand it’s a long road. It’s not a new toy, just unboxed, and soon to lose its shiny panache and wonder. It’s lifelong and needs patching and tinkering along the way. It’s alternately a sprint or a slog. A joy, or a heart wringing mess. The sound of the shutter is a clarion call, time and again. We must answer. It’s part of who we are. We don’t want to photograph. We need to photograph.
A thing to remember, perhaps, as we all collectively shoulder the cameras for the coming year. Ready for work again. Step out onto the tightrope of the creative life. Figure it out all over again.
The joy of being a photog always runs strong. Even the tough days still make me smile.