Thursday, October 23, 2014

Musings on the Death of Photography

I can’t think of one art form that has died; perhaps this is because art, by definition, depicts an enduring aspect of the human experience. I have no worries that photography will be the first to perish.  But there is something gnawing at its soul that I find intriguing.  A few things, actually.

Photography is probably the most accessible “art” form we have.  Everyone takes pictures.  Many, many people play an instrument, but it’s unlikely that you’ll record your friend or family member’s playing and listen to it daily.  We do that we photographic images, though.  Our walls and refrigerators are plastered with photographs, most of which were shot by amateurs.  It’s an art form whose price of entry is almost nothing, which makes the price of being “exceptional” very high.  The talent, equipment, and dedication required to rise above the ocean of camera-wielders is astounding.  

And it’s a spectrum: Aunt Sally’s images blend into the enthusiast’s, which blends into the talented professional, which blends into top 2% of photographers.  This blending makes it difficult to evaluate and critique, two necessary conditions of any art form.  That’s a nibble, I think; a gnawing.

So many photographers, working on so many levels, makes it difficult to find paid work: full-time photographers are undercut by part-timers who will do the job at half the price; part-timers are undercut by Freebies.  All of this is being discussed endlessly and hopelessly.  The unspoken challenge is that less work also means slower improvement; even the best photographers improve by virtue of working. 

Unlike ever before, artists are working in an environment where “free” is a common price point.  There’s free music on the internet; free books in the library; free news; free concerts; free performances; and apparently “free” (but often stolen) images on the web.  And when things aren’t free they can be “bulk rate.”  Netflix gives you unlimited movies for a monthly, bulk fee.  “Free” art is less common among artists who produce a physical object that can be hefted around your apartment—like a painting or sculpture; but if it can be turned into something intangible—a song, an image, or a movie—then there is a growing expectation it can be had for free.  Munch-much goes Death on the ankle of Photography.

The accessibility of photography also leaves us drowning in images in a way that has never happened in the history of our or any other art form.  Our hard drives are clogged with unprinted and forgotten images.  I worry that this surplus devalues truly exceptional images.  My mother passed away last year, and each of the limited number of photos of her are a treasure.  I don’t think I would feel so attached to them if I had inherited a hard drive with a thousand images.  Worse, I don’t think those few would have stood out in a sea of mediocre images. Historically, painters have had the same complaint of museums: hang a work of art next to twenty other paintings and what do you get? A mind-numbing experience.  I can think of few things more chilling than my work contributing to the numbing of the public’s response to photography.  Munch-munch.

On the bright side, there has never been more of a demand for images.  With the internet, we live in an increasingly visual world. This means opportunity for more money, creativity, and excellence.  Two forces are clearly at play here.  How will we navigate them?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Day 88, Learning 88: You're a Screw-up. So am I. Deal with it.

Everyone makes mistakes.  Frankly, it’s how I got into the business.  I’d been taking pictures basically since childhood, and in later life was blessed with working in careers and environments that put those talents to use.  Before I ever considered myself a professional, my images appeared on the cover of International Musician and Engineering Magazine, several CDs, brochures, and marketing materials for numerous theatre companies.  It wasn’t until a friend-of-a-friend asked me to take their picture on the spur of the moment that I started down the path of considering myself a professional.  Because the picture I took really sucked.  I was rushed, should have switched lenses, the color was off, the shadows were grim.  In short I screwed up.  So I challenged myself to learn 100 new things about photography over the next 100 days.  And I did.  It took some elbow grease, but it wasn’t all that hard.

The hard part isn’t ingesting new information, it’s regurgitating it.  You’ve seen a penny tens of thousands of times, but I’ll bet you can’t remember which way Lincoln is facing?  That’s because the mind goes through two different processes in learning: taking it, and synthesizing it.  It’s the same reason that you can check your watch, but if your friend asks you what time it is a moment later you have to look again.  I knew that my “book” learning wasn’t of much help without practice.
The smart choice is to call upon your friends and family to act as your subjects.  I was never very good at that, so I looked for opportunities to volunteer my services for low-pay, low-stakes jobs.  That required throwing up a quick website of my previous work.  After a few jobs—and the realization of just how much even a low-stakes job required, hours of prep and digital editing--  I realized I needed to charge something closer to a professional fee.  So last January I re-vamped my website and officially hung out my shingle.  I’ve been both cautious and ambitious in the jobs I’ve sought and taken.  Over the past 10 months I’ve shot for two marketing agencies, a wedding, three CDs, several corporate events, and half a dozen individual sessions.  My clients have included the international companies Illy Coffee, Levi Strauss, and Kromtech; local musicians, actors, and models; a Pulitzer Prize winner; fashion start-ups and more.  Each has been a challenge and that has kept me engaged and energized.
And then I screwed up.  This isn’t ancient history, something I can look back on with a rueful smile; this was a couple of weeks ago.  I was shooting a highly personal “life event.”  A personal project dealing with loss and death.  It was, in some respect, a ritual.  My beloved Nikon 35-70mm f2.8, my work-horse and go-to lens, developed a loose internal part in the focusing mechanism.  The result was a fractional bit of random “jiggle room” in the focusing mechanism, and a varying degree of blur depending on where in the jiggle you were.  At its best the blur resembled defraction; at its worst the images were unusable.

I didn’t notice it.  We were shooting outside on the beach.  There was bright light, sand getting everywhere, we were working around the waves, and I was managing the pressure of performance.  It wasn’t until I returned home and saw the images (about half of the shoot was with this lens) and investigated my quipment that I realized what had happened.  I was beyond mortified; I felt sick to my stomach.  I could say it was just a mechanical malfunction, but in truth I should checked my LCD for more than exposure and composition when I was in the field; I should have brought a loop to shield the glare on the screen; I should have slowed down and I should have mixed up my lens choices more. The problem wasn’t purely mechanical.
Learning number 101 ain’t pretty.  But the lesson here is in how to both prevent failure and deal with it.   

There are drawbacks to continually checking your images (or crimping), but there’s also a way to do it.  

1     .       Take your time setting up your shot and lighting; let the client know
2     .       Shoot a series of shots before checking your LCD so you don’t destroy the flow of a session
3     .       When you do crimp: 
a.       Check your composition
b.      Check the aesthetics of your exposure
c.       Check your actual exposure using the histogram
d.      Check your focus at 100%
4     .       Bring a loop to outdoor sessions

So what do you do when you fail?  Here’s what I did.  First I prioritized the digital editing from the session so I could finish the images ahead of schedule.  With careful editing I was able to fully redeem about 80% of the session; the remaining 20% was “passable” but below a professional level.  I sent the images to the client ahead of schedule, explained what had happened, and offered a re-shoot if they were dissatisfied with any of the images. 

This is what I did.  Luckily, my client was so pleased with the first 80% that they didn’t mind the shortcomings in those 20%.  But I’m not patting myself on the back anytime soon.  Almost every session is a ritual of sorts, a special occasion, and as such is un-repeatable.  My failure took something away from my client that cannot be replaced.