So Many Levels, So Many Layers

My friend Sabrina works as a photographer in the Sulphur, Oklahoma area.
My friend Sabrina works as a photographer in the Sulphur, Oklahoma area.
Sabrina has maybe the smallest feet of any adult I've ever met.
Sabrina has maybe the smallest feet of any adult I’ve ever met.

Lately I’ve been taking a long view of photography, turning it over in my mind and trying to decide what it is, what it isn’t, and who I am in the midst of it. Honestly, I’m feeling a little lost, which I think is true for a lot of photographers from my generation.

In the movie Reds, one of the witnesses says, “Reed thought he was a good poet.” He makes a  disgusted face. “He was a terrible poet.” Like Reed, I probably think I am better at some things than I actually am. Some aspects of photography? Sure.

It's true that I will photograph anything, any time, but it's also true that with so many photographers shooting everything all the time, a shot like this gets diluted into obscurity.
It’s true that I will photograph anything, any time, but it’s also true that with so many photographers shooting everything all the time, a shot like this gets diluted into obscurity.

In the middle of all this, I was collared by a nice young lady at our recent AdaFest celebration who wanted to know if I would write a piece about how to process black-and-white film. I ended up writing my column about it, since everything about souping (processing) film is still in my head, along with other uselessly outdated skills like how to win at Missile Command. It was nice that I could share these skills and ideas, but I’m not at all sure I gave anyone anything useful.

I have recently been a little overwhelmed by the “everyone is a photographer” paradigm. Closer to the truth, of course, is that everyone with a camera or even a smartphone is perceived as a photographer.

Part of this misperception is in the idea that technically perfect photos are better photos. An excellent example of this is shown in the next image…

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, November 2002
Canyonlands National Park, Utah, November 2002

I put this image in a book of my travel photos. Upon showing it to two photographers, they first rolled their eyes at each other, then hesitantly asked me if I “meant” to have all that flare and ghosting in the image. I didn’t even feel obligated to explain it to them, since it was obvious they had made up their minds. But yes, of course I “meant” to include the flare and ghosting. That was the essence of the image: the brilliant Utah sun overwhelms us with light, so beautiful in the blue blue sky. But their urge to see it as a flaw, and thus to see perfect images as a goal, blinded them to its beauty.

Photographers are always helping each other and glad to see each other.
Photographers are always helping each other and glad to see each other.

One thing I do all the time is have a camera – not a phone with a camera in it – with me when I walk the dogs or work outside. There really is something tangibly positive about making myself use a camera when it is, by definition, less convenient than using my phone.

So am I really overmatched, played out, washed up, old? I will emphasize that what I do best, photojournalism, I do better than most, but maybe I’m feeling the pressure of my craft becoming less valuable. Best AM radio. Best eight track tape. Best leisure suit.

I will continue to do photojournalism while I can, and although I know my audience likes my work, that doesn’t mean they can support it. I love what I do.

This is a happy accident of photography, shot from ground level with no effort to see through the viewfinder or on the monitor. The image is of our sweet little Chihuahua Summer, who, like most dogs, wil come to you out of curiosity when you kneel, sit, or lie down.
This is a happy accident of photography, shot from ground level with no effort to see through the viewfinder or on the monitor. The image is of our sweet little Chihuahua Summer, who, like most dogs, wil come to you out of curiosity when you kneel, sit, or lie down.

2 Comments

  1. This vulnerability and introspection is refreshing to read. Yet also sad — because changes in the industry (and in people’s perceptions) have brought you here.

    “…maybe I’m feeling the pressure of my craft becoming less valuable. Best AM radio. Best eight track tape. Best leisure suit.”

    This is all very possibly true, yet I think there’s an important caveat. Each of the examples you mentioned is something that has been *replaced*, often by something measurably improved. I don’t think what you do is something that has yet been replaced, and certainly not by something better. It might be passé to keep on staff highly qualified photojournalists and we are quickly leaving behind the days when the average person holds some measure of AWE for a truly gifted photographer, *but* what you do is still the top-of-the-line in this field. So far, no one has invented a way to record and disseminate visual information that is inherently superior to photography. (Arguments about video are best left for another day.)

    Regardless of what “the market” says, you keep doing what you do — as JFK (I think) said (paraphrase) — “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”

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