I've always wondered...how big a part do you suppose our personalities play in what we shoot?
Reading Jaren Wilkey's account of his shoot with Jimmer Fredette on Friday almost made me break out in hives. It's an account of the kind of thing I mostly suck at. I realize that for a few experienced pros, a relatively simple shoot like that might seem like child's play. Not moi. I don't like pressure and I don't respond to it well. For me, it almost beggars the imagination to think of just how thoroughly and completely I would have screwed that up.
A story I've told many times concerns a colleague whose portfolio I was looking through one fine day. One picture showed two young teenage girls in bikinis asleep on their stomachs on the grass; both had their bikini tops untied so they wouldn't get tan lines.
I was admiring the...composition, when a question began to dawn on me. "Where exactly were you when you took this shot?" I asked her. My colleague was a small, unassuming woman with a very gentle manner—even her voice was soft and unthreatening. "Where do you think?" she asked. The answer: she'd stood straddling one of the sleeping girls. With one foot on one side of one girl's body and her other foot planted between the two of them.
"Did you know those girls?" I asked, incredulously.
"Know them? Of course not." They were two strangers sunbathing in the park.
The consequences of myself taking a photograph in that manner flashed through my brain. My scruffy, then-200-lbs. bulk blotting out the sun; the alarmed onlookers; the girls waking up; the screaming; the people dialing 911; the police handcuffing me and taking me away to face who knows what charges of perversion and predation.
So, what have we learned so far? That some photographers thrive on pressure. Those people find it an energizing challenge to shoot four setups of a college basketball star in 13 minutes in an improvised location—a task which would most likely reduce Yours Truly to a quivering mass of jelly. And, other photographers can shoot near-closeups of other peoples' near-naked children in the park and not draw the faintest whiff suspicion or disapproval. And that attempting any such thing would most likely be ill-advised for Your Humble Host.
Here's another kind of photograph that I am never going to take in a million years. I'm scared of heights. I can hardly look at Lewis Hine's pictures from the construction of the Empire State Building without experiencing extremely unpleasant vertigo. But taking them? I'd have to be rescued by the time I'd climbed to the fifth floor. When it comes to moving pictures of high places...well. My fear of heights grabs me by the throat and makes me look like this. You know that television commercial where the tobacco smoker is descending from a great height by stepping down from one panel to another, to illustrate a medication that supposedly helps you quit smoking? I literally can't watch it. Have to change the channel.
So now picture me doing a shoot suspended from a helicopter like Joe McNally.
Not going to happen.
I've always suspected there must be some landscape photographers (I said "some," note bene, not all) who find the landscape an amenable subject because it stays put and doesn't pose any interpersonal challenges. In other words, they get along well with the subject. And talk about time constraints—in landscape photography, waiting (for the right light, for the clouds to pass) is not infrequently cited as a virtue.
Certain portrait photographers in history seem to have been people with mild Asperger's symptoms—people who had trouble relating to other people. A portrait sitting was their way of relating, of having an encounter and maybe a conversation with a stranger in the context of a structured situation.
I worked for a guy once who liked to work with lots of assistants. He was an egotist, and he loved to yell at his minions. (This would be me in his position: "Ah, excuse me? Excuse me, sorry to bother you, but if it's not too much trouble, would you mind moving that gobo to the left a little bit? Oh, you're busy. Never mind, I'll get it.")
Other personality types love the improvisation and open-endedness of shooting out in the street. They grab the camera and head out with empty cards and no preconceptions, with no idea what they're going to come back with. If nothing happens that day, no worries—they'll get something tomorrow. That would drive some studio photographers completely batty—they not only like to control the fill light to a tenth of a stop and the exact shade of the background, they also like having a sketch of the picture concept to work from before they even get started.
There's a good reason why art photographers become art photographers and assignment pros become assignment pros. It doesn't have to do entirely with what kind of photographs they like or what kind of photographs they want to create. It also has to do with what style of working suits their psychology. It's a matter of comfort level.
It's almost comical how most photographers will say they can shoot anything. They hate passing up a job, and the best answer to get the job is, "Sure, sure I can do that." A color photographer will say he can shoot black-and-white, and a portrait photographer will say she can shoot an ad. Some pros can shoot anything—but that's because what they really like is problem-solving!
At least to some degree, I don't think we necessarily choose our favorite subjects—the subjects we gravitate toward are simply the ones that suit our personalities the best.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Walter Glover: "A collection of absolute truths Mike. Wonderful piece.
"And it is refreshing for me to hear someone else identify Professional Photography with 'problem solving.' For me 'twas ever thus whether shooting glamour, architecture or customised Harley Davidsons. Identify what needs to be done and then find the obstacles to achieving that goal and then plot a series of solutions to remove those obstacles.
"But my true passion is just shooting B&W film for myself: either with a motif or with found curiosities. Trouble is, I probably suck at it because it is nigh on impossible for me not to want to make corrections and modifications. Hell, the clue is right there staring me in the face when I realise that I can't find purpose for myself without an adjustable view camera.
"In the past (read: in my youth) I have done the tethered-to-the-chopper stuff, standing on the skids and shooting. Could I do it now (at 62)? Hell no.
"But what a wonderful tool photography (or the desire to photograph) is when we consider how it can help us to identify, face and conquer our demons.
Mike replies: Thanks Walter. Same to you.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "My problem with events like the Jimmer Fredette shoot is not the pressure, it's that I wouldn't put up with it and I'd tell him if all he was giving me was 13 minutes, he could take his 13 minutes and stick them where the sun don't shine. I would consider this a teaching moment for Jimmer, who hasn't yet done much in life. And I wouldn't worry about losing the cover shot—I'd tell the magazine that he was only giving me 13 minutes, and that I don't work that way.
"At a newsstand the other day, my girlfriend was reading a magazine article about Gwyneth Paltrow, and she said, 'Look, she says she works out two hours a day, six days a week. How can she do that?' A minute later she said, 'Well, of course—that's her job. Her job is too look good.' And so Gwyneth works at it.
"Which is something that Jimmer needs to learn. If he ever does anything serious in pro sports, he'll learn that you take time for photographers, because it's part of your job. That he got to the age that he is, without learning that, would suggest that he's not bright enough to do well in pro sports. I mean, does he really think we see all those great personable photos of Michael Jordan and Kobe (or Robert Redford or Gwyneth Paltrow) because they only gave the photographer 13 minutes?
"About Mike's fear of heights. I was once doing a story about a farm family in the Midwest, and the husband made extra money down in Southwest Minnesota by climbing radio towers to change the light bulbs (yes, that's a job.) I was working with a photographer named Joe Rossi who came up with a really great idea: he'd climb above the farmer, so he could shoot down at him with a wide-angle lens as he changed the bulbs. Which he did.The tower was four or five hundred feet tall; I climbed about fifty feet up and quit: I figured when I could see South Dakota, I'd gone high enough...."
Mike replies: I don't know...maybe you just wouldn't get the Jimmer job, then. Who will and won't do what must be known among the hirers. Anyway it seems to me I've heard iterations of the "you've got ten minutes" meme many times, starting with Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill. Maybe Lincoln's secretary once said things like, "You can have ten minutes, Mr. Brady."
Re Joe Rossi, he did a nice portrait of Garrison Keillor sitting on a curving staircase wearing bright red socks. Unless I'm mixing up one or more names again. I wonder how long he had with Mr. Keillor?
Featured Comment by MarkB: "Well, I am a rock climber, but I've always been afraid of heights (edges really). Who knows, I could be a street photographer some day if I could just get over my fear of disapproving glances."
Featured Comment by Ray: "John Camp wrote, 'Does he really think we see all those great personable photos of Michael Jordan and Kobe (or Robert Redford or Gwyneth Paltrow) because they only gave the photographer 13 minutes?' No, it's usually five. Unless it's for an ad campaign and they're getting paid to be there, most 'celebrity' portrait photography is done on an incredibly tight timeframe. Part of the whole David Hobby 'move fast, travel light' ethos comes from his experiences having assignments stacked and being given very limited time with a subject; a critical part of the equation is efficiency. I'm pretty sure that if you're not named Annie Leibovitz, telling someone that's even semi-famous that you'll need an indeterminate chunk of their day for a shoot guarantees that some other, faster photographer just got work."
Featured Comment by erlik: "While I do think that giving a photographer five minutes is more than a bit arrogant, here's another example at Chase Jarvis's blog. Moby—10 minutes to set up, five minutes to shoot; 199 photos in the five minutes. Plus technical difficulties equals a lot of stress. A lot."
Featured Comment by charlie: "Thirteen minutes with a subject is an eternity to a street photographer. I often get no more than 1/1000 of a second."
Featured Comment by MarcW: "Pretty much any book or blog you read involving the photographing of rich and/or famous people is that they give you what you get and you get what they give you. McNally also talks about this in The Moment It Clicks and on his blog as well as the others already mentioned. So, yeah, it's a crappy thing to do, to give a photographer five or ten minutes, but it does in fact happen a lot.
"I forget if it was in a book or on his blog, but McNally in particular mentions some hotshot basketball player who got bored, 'went to the bathroom,' and left the set and went home. Yeah, that was a jackass move of the first water, and his editor might even have agreed that it wasn't McNally's fault, but the article was slotted and it needed a photo. If he hadn't got one the first five minutes, there wouldn't be one.
"It would be a fine, fine world if magazines and newspapers could say, 'Screw you, Mr. or Ms. Newsworthy Personage, you were rude to our photographer/reporter so NO ARTICLE FOR YOU.' However, that's not the world we live in. That article wasn't in the mag because its editors wanted to lionize some dimwit dunker, it was in there because they thought it would sell copies. The fact that the dunker was in fact a dimwit does not alter this calculus by an infinitesimal."
Featured Comment by Andrew Burday: "Mike writes: 'Maybe Lincoln's secretary once said things like, "You can have ten minutes, Mr. Brady."' Of course, but don't stop there. Why do you think Stuart's unfinished portrait of Washington remained unfinished? [Rimshot duly added —Ed.]
"Seriously, responding to Harriet Rubin's questions, a partial answer would include being fully prepared and acting like you have a right to be doing what you're doing (which means knowing when you can pull off the act and when you can't). People are very good at detecting others who are acting like they shouldn't be doing what they're doing. People are much worse at detecting others who are doing something they shouldn't be, but acting like they have every right to do it. (Which explains quite a lot of contemporary American politics, by the way.) So if you think you have a right to do something, act like you have a right to do it and the odds are no one will challenge you.
"E.g. I—middle-aged male, baggy clothes, receding hairline, ponytail—could probably get the sunbathers shot. I'd start some distance away, focus on my foot, make sure I had the correct exposure for the light, then walk over, stand straddling the young woman, carefully frame the shot, take it, and casually get the hell out of there. I wouldn't do it because 1) I'd feel like a creep and 2) if somebody did raise a ruckus, the potential consequences would be severe. But the odds are I could get the shot and nothing would happen. And in a situation where what you're doing isn't creepy but you're worried about peoples' perceptions, it's still essential to act like it's not creepy.
"Sally Mann has some stories about getting shots in scary circumstances—e.g. some of her shots of homeless kids and families. A large part of her ability to do that seems to involve believing she has a right to be there and acting unafraid. And then knowing when she ought to be afraid, and making tracks."
Mike replies: Also in response to Harriet's question, I am far from the last word on the subject, but I did once write an article about it.
Featured Comment by Dave Gess: "Having done the whole University Photographer gig for many years, the Jimmer thing is true. You work for the University so don't have the luxury of turning down a job, you just shoot it. These folks have to be jacks of all trades. You shoot very structured studio shots one day, time-constrained portraits on location the next and then get top-notch action shots at the basketball game. Budgets wouldn't buy lunch for a lot of big time shooters. You need to have the personality to handle shooting pretty much every type of photo to a very high standard. You have to be able to stomach doing the unpleasant ones with the client never knowing you hate it! Great column as usual Mike."