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Sunday, 13 June 2021


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I suppose this is true in the music industry as well. Check out how many of your albums are from 'one-hit wonders.'

Speaking for myself, in my mid-60s, I got to see several transitions that have made me change the way I approach photography.

I never was good at things my contemporaries were. I couldn't care less about any sports or be able to quote stats for every team in the history of say baseball (often known by people that couldn't tell you the year the constitution was ratified), or how to do much of anything under the hood of a car, like those that could tell you the spark plug gap on any model.

But when I found photography, I dove in completely. I studied, was constantly curious and practiced techniques that would allow me to be effective. Suddenly (if decades could be considered suddenly), I was the "photo guy".

I was called on to do everything within organizations that I was in based on my ability to get the pictures. I'm not an ego driven person, but it felt good to "know" something that others considered too complex to understand and to be seen as such.

Now, people that couldn't tell you what an f-stop is or what the three parts of the exposure triangle are are considered the masters of photography simply because of how many "likes" that the pictures of their lunch receive.

Today, I still retain knowledge that those "masters" never learned but I am nothing because I don't post online. I am relegated to just shooting for myself, trying to do better on each outing... only because I am still an enthusiast. I don't exist in the cyber photo world, therefore I don't exist.

Photographers might not be dropping out. They might just be over shadowed by the noise of the billions of banal images being posted. If a tree falls, and no one sees it fall...

Maybe they don't leave photography, but instead they stop looking for praise from social media, magazines, galleries, etc. And they enthusiastically continue doing new work with private gratification. And they may enjoy their fine prints on the walls of their homes.

Sometimes the amount of work someone has in them is, simply, finite: sometimes they go to do something else sometimes it just is finite sometimes they burn out. Here are some examples.

Can you name any Undertones song other the one everyone can name? Did they write anything even half, even a tenth, as good? Probably they did not. But to have written perhaps the greatest pop song of all time: is that not enough?

What has Jimmy Page done that is notable since 1980 (or, in fact since 1976 really)? Does it matter, given what he and his conspirators did in the decade from 1968? Was that not enough for one lifetime? Is he not allowed to rest?

What did Einstein do that was notable after 1916? (In fact he did some things, but less as time went on.) Was what he did between 1905 and 1916 not enough to have done? Because yes, it was enough.

Most of us achieve nothing. One great achievement is sufficient.

(And: just finite, burnout and burnout, I think.)

What you say is true, but I don't think it is much of a mystery.
Multi-decade careers 'at the top pf your form' -or close enough to keep you in the public consciousness non-stop, have Always been rare in every profession.
With Photography, the advent of Digital cameras made your 'Professional Eater' analogy particularly apt.It also became harder for many to earn a sustainable income.
Before Digital Photography the barriers to entry to the highest levels were also higher.
Styles of Photography come in and out of fashion, taking with them the practitioners of those styles. Sometimes the candle that burns brightest has the shortest life. So there are Tons of reasons to explain why people might fit your definition of 'Dippers"
It is much more rare for people to get to the top of their form and recognition and stay there for a lifetime.
But at the same time, it has become far easier to do Photography at a high level and just enjoy it .

Photography may look like a fun way to make a living until you realize
turning professional most often means satisfying the client instead of yourself.

"...The time is past when just putting yourself out there is enough to get you noticed...

Most of my photography over the decades has been in a small niche market. When the internet became a thing, I started posting my photos online. This was back in the mid-90s. I got some attention and sold photos that were often used in academic textbooks. But the internet grew and then there were the social media sites and many folks were much better at promoting themselves that I ever was. I've disappeared.

So that probably makes me a "dipper." Fame is so fleeting and I had my 15 minutes.

I can't speak to what motivates professional photographers to create a meaningful project or body of work, but for eager amateurs the muse can be certainly be fickle. I've had periods when I devoted a huge amount of energy and time to a particular subject or location, going back again and again in search of a good photograph. One winter it was short eared owls at a local 'hot spot' they're known to frequent. I probably got all of 2 decent images, but the experience of trying hard was very rewarding. I've been back to the same handful of sunrise locations countless times trying to craft a photograph that captures the sensory experience just a bit better. My wife was mystified by my obsession; "I thought that last one was pretty good, why are you going back again?" For me it was a worthy challenge to eke out a bit more resolution, more subtle shadow detail, more beautiful light, and then print it as large as I could.
Nowadays I'm finding that quest less satisfying, as current gear is more than sufficient to make the technical side of things routine. Instead I'm trying to distill a bit more emotional resonance from landscape images by painting them. But in understanding how to get accurate color and good shadow detail to paint from, darned if my photos aren't getting better too.

Zyni Moë's comment about Einstein recalls something I've read about high level mathematics and physics. These fields are 'computationally intensive' and performing at a high level requires the kind of raw cognitive and memory capacity that declines in all of us from the mid-30s onward. So it has been said that if a mathematician has not written a big paper by their late 30s, they probably never will. Managing a large research team as a senior scientist is not the same skill-set.

I've never been famous or even notable. I never will be and that's just fine with me. I had the classic experience of attending a workshop in my 30's and thinking I had something special. Fortunately I had another profession which kept me solvent so I could be independent of others opinions. Then, others opinions mattered. I was ecstatic when I actually sold a print. Now I no longer even try to sell or show, I much prefer to either keep things to myself or occasionally gift a photo to friends or family. I read recently that for some, there's photography, images, and then there's gear. Interests in each can be separate. For many it's almost an embarrassment to admit you LOVE the gear, but I do. My equipment has always been way ahead of my skills and talent. I still love to have the best I choose to afford. I just have fun!

Some photographers become a brand and can seemingly do no wrong they get hired as a 'brand' a safe choice which even if the end result is just ok it is still a 'brand' photo.

There are so many types of photography and within each niche trends/fads come and go (as do the photographers).

It is often forgotten that many of the OLD famous names were employed (earned a living) as photographers doing mostly fairly mundane photography jobs. However their skills and the fact that they were photographing a lot (when photography was much less frequent)gave them a portfolio over time. HCB said if he got 2 or 3 good shots a year he was happy.

Commercial photography is satisfying the client and is also 'at times' dependent on having resources and staff/stylists etc , all of which is just not possible for the amateur who cannot produce the images those resources require.

In truth some of us get lucky. Not all 'famous' photos were deliberate brilliant shots.

I progressed from stills to media shows to films, I am sure others have moved within creative circles.

Remember the term "starving artist" is redundant.

Last week I met an artist my age (70s) who was just getting recognition. Over the years he had a few shows, kept plugging away and now has big shows in LA and NYC. Takes lots of perseverance - more than most of us have.

In a similar vein, I wanted to be an astronomer. Did some pioneering work with computers as an undergraduate, got lots of offers for grad school, chose one, then after one year, my position was cut (thanks to Reagan). I left to become a high tech peddler and entrepreneur.

When people asked why I left, I would say "Being an astronomer is too much like being a priest. You don't have to take a vow of chastity, but you do have to take a vow of silence and a vow of poverty."

Might apply here too...

If you want to stay in the game you have to love photography. You have to embrace it and do it every day. So many people I meet who have some success in the field want to figure out how to make it into a 9-to-5, five day per week career and many of them learned just one way of doing things. The schtick gets old, they don't know how to move on and re-invent themselves and their work and then it's not so much being burned out as being overwhelmed by the realization that nothing short of that total immersion in the art will keep them successful over time.

In commercial work the relationships are the primary drivers of success.
If you are depending on the "incredibly creative vision" you bring to the table but you aren't interested in actually cultivating relationships with people you are bound to fail.

You were referring to photographers who worked professionally or whose art was admired for some period. But consider the energetic amateurs or dilettantes who pick up photography as a hobby. They buy a lot of equipment, are super energetic for a few years, go to Paris for the weekend and upload their 3000 photos to Flickr to await the likes. And then what? After a few years, they are gone and have moved on to some other hobby.

Plus one for Edward Taylor, truer things have never been said. Not only do people have a limited time for the crest of their wave, they also drop and make absolutely nothing after they've peaked.

Add on to this the number of photographers who have been totally dependent on the income of their spouse, and their spouse's ability to bring in the income and benefits while they are working, and you have a really accurate picture. It's the main source of most divorces: where even if the photographer makes money, they never have enough to contribute to the bottom line, and are always buying additional equipment; now even worse in the digital age.

And lets face it, 95% of it is male photographers with female spouses keeping the family above water. If you tell me that you know a woman photographer this happened to, I'll find you 95 male photographers that were responsible for the same thing. Why lie...

I had enough of a business background to read the hand writing on the wall, and got out of the photograph business for photo department management in corporations back in the late 1980's; and still it was a tough go. Post Arab Oil Embargo consolidation of corporations to the coasts from the fly-over made it almost impossible to make money in commercial photography much after the early 90's.

I remember hearing a story on NPR back in the 90's about a trumpet player who was pretty good and making a marginal living in the biz, until he finally said: "...hey, sooner or later, you have to realized you are neither getting the breaks, or talented enough, or different enough to get to the next level and you can't spend the rest of your life doing this." He went back to college to be a lawyer.

Now any monkey can take a picture on a cell phone camera, apply the correct filter, and come up with a photo good enough to cover most of whatever people in the fly-over want. While in my era, I got maybe 2 to 3 day-rate jobs a month, with a lot of commercial picture fill-ins to make up the difference; now you might get the two or three day-rate jobs, but you'd never get enough of the 350 dollar a pop fill-ins to make a living wage.

Prosumer shooters have been killing the business for years, at least since the 80's, and it's no different today. I blame the buyers as well. No art director or ad agency weasel would be working with an amateur for any reason back in the 70's; they were professionals and they were working with professionals. Now if you use your brother-in-law or yourself to shoot the picture on your iPhone; you deserve what you get when you can't find a professional to take that high-end food or product photography when you need it!!!

More the rule than the exception, in any art. At 65, I'm still working for my 15, which a friend assures me will come when I'm dead and buried- which I'd be fine with if I could get in writing, otherwise, I'd settle for 5 in the here and now...

Which reminds me- whatever happened to the 'photographer' who'd leap in front of his subjects to shock them into his 'decisive moments?'

Let's not talk of photography but of the photography business - the practical process of touching base with past customers, bringing yourself to the attention of those unfamiliar with you, to do the bookkeeping and to buy what you can earn a return on. Images are used everywhere; the business includes those who sell equipment or expertise, those who choose the right image for sales or decoration and those with the talent to choose an image to fit with words and/or music to elicit a response. I know more than one "one-hit wonder" who went on to successful careers in the music biz long after the leather pants and cool hairstyle went away. Work for hire is also photography.

Here's another thought to add: is it possible that when you stop feeling that you're learning new skills and gaining new knowledge but are instead just garnering experience, the passion for (whatever it is) just drops? Not just photography, but lots of endeavours? The "Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?" moment?

I often think it's odd that young photographers say they're seeking to be famous when most people on the street couldn't name 10 famous photographers.

You either shoot famous (Annie Leibovitz) but then you're just famous by association, or you become famous some other way, (Jeff Bridges, Dennis Hopper) and publish your photo books because your fame gets you there.

The rest just live in their own small world, and may for years and years, unknown to the world that defines "what matters" or "who's relevant."

I think it would be best to be famous among your peers, and John Szarcowski certainly did a good job of getting some known through the Museum of Modern Art (Eggleston, Shore).

Even known photographers like Duane Michals, who I find very innovative, he put up work in New York and a couple of street photographers, I think it was Garry Winogrand and maybe Lee Friedlander stopped in to take a look and Winogrand said, "Let's get outta here, this isn't photography."

So, know that even among your peers, everyone's not going to like your work.

That's why you have to do it for you. Not for notice or likes or fame, which you have no control over, but because you have to. Because you can't not do it.

The true artists don't have to be talked into making art, they can't stop. I seek them out, I want to see what their photographs (and other work) have to say.

Speaking for myself, I make photographs every single day. I work as a commercial and editorial photographer for a living, but when I'm between assignments, I'm always working on personal projects. I can't imagine a day where I wasn't making pictures.

With respect to the frequent sudden evaporation of vocational (craft) photographers Kirk Tuck smashed the nail atom-bomb squarely; it’s about relationship-building! Photography-for-hire is a service business, one that requires no licensing or creds. Much of it is anchored on reputation, on word-of-mouth, on RELATIONSHIPS, not on “artistic” skills. Long ago I had a very wise boss who opined, “The greatest ability you can develop is reliABILITY.”. Photographers-for-hire are hired to competently photograph something for a reasonable fee…and they’ve got to show up on time. Unless you’ve developed relationships and a good reputation as a reliable service business (yes, just like a plumber or electrician) you’re doomed to be a “dipper”. That’s something that most of the photographers-for-hire I’ve met just simply don’t get. They’re hired primarily as tradespeople, not as artists. Just take the effin’ pictures and get lost.

The story of “dippers” in the rarified world of art photography is a bit less obvious outside that world. But it’s just as simple. Here in Chicago our city’s payroll was long largely based on political patronage, rather than skill. “Don’t send me nobody that nobody knows!”, used to be the motto of many city department heads. That’s exactly how much of the top art photography business operates today. Being recommended by a professor at a top MFA program is almost an unspoken prerequisite for getting representation by one of the top art dealers , at least in the under-30 crowd. (Even better if that prof is also represented by that dealer.). If you’ve ever wondered how some young person out of nowhere can be selling 18x24” prints of, say, yellowing toenail clippings for 5-figure prices at a top NY gallery look no further than his/her educational pedigree. “Don’t send us nobody that nobody knows!”

As an aside, it’s fascinating to see how many former vocational photographers blame their declines on the advent of digital technology. Photography has been a never ending succession of technological change, with each change producing ever more democratization of the medium. If the last change knocked you out of business you didn’t have much a business. Here, again, Kirk Tuck smashed that nail flat when he commented that success in photography mandates constant reinvention and exploration. You don’t have to be the best, but you do have to stay awake!

'guys', at least here in the UK, is now a modern 'neuter'-case word, ie it means person. It's a bit ironic -- after 'man' having fallen out of the 'neuter' category, to hear young women referring to each other as 'guys'. A linguist might have something interesting to say about underlying categories of language. But maybe this isn't happening on the other side of the pond?

As you tell it, I guess I have dipped after a while being published in magazines. This is where I have started in 1981. My assignments were mostly editorial and I have been lucky enough to be kept busy for ten years.

I have been pushed out almost all at once by the milieu of always looking for fresh art directors. With the experience, I was able to shift to corporate work. And I have been in this business for the last 30 years, some years being better than others. My work is now mostly anonymous, made of industrial shots and corporate head & shoulders, which I do enjoy actually. The pandemics striked hard, mind you.

I have always maintained an almost daily practice of personal photography, mostly of shooting in black and white on the street. I show these to very few friends and on Instagram/LinkedIn. That has kept alive the interest in the craft. It tells also my clients that I do truly and still enjoy the craft.

I have no notoriety but the Holy Grail of the Perfect Snapshot keeps me going. I am fine with that.

Personally, I know by now that I'm a dipper who drops in and out of photography. Every few years I drop in for a while - Immersed in books and taking photographs. Right now, it's much less so. I've even enrolled in course to try and get some mojo back but to no avail. I enjoy the classes but just don't go out in my own time.

One thing though, while not photographing I can enjoy other parts of the hobby, like collecting photo books or the film cameras I couldn't afford as a young man. But there is always a feeling that this is a poor substitute for actual photography. Thankfully, at some point I'll usually find myself back taking pictures.

There is a reason that we make a destinction between work and play. Work is hard and play is fun. When making the car payments and paying the rent depends on your photography, this is work and it isn’t usually fun. When you go on vacation and take some photos for yourself, that is fun. I found this out years ago when a friend ask for an enlarged print to give to his father for his birthday. Suddenly, finding the time to set up the enlarger and make the perfect print on a tight deadline was more of a chore than a pleasure. The nominal amount that I charged him for the materials didn’t make up for the sudden tedium of making that print. It became a job and was no longer a fun activity. That’s why I enjoy photography, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon and if nothing comes from it, it really doesn’t matter. Food will be on the table and a roof will be over my head even if I screwed up the processing of that “great” roll of film.

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