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I See You

February 13, 2009

A few days ago I was drilling holes in my library wall in an attempt to install new bookshelves for my rapidly growing photo-book collection. I’m not exactly skilled at home improvement, so this simple gesture took all of my concentration.

By some miracle it worked. I hit the studs, the screws hit home, the shelves held, and as of a few hours ago, my books were still standing.

After the shelves went up, I slowly began to gather the stacks of books and place them on the shelves.

I noticed something that stuck with me throughout the day, the night and into the following day, like that cloud over Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoon. First, I should have made more shelves…idiot!

I also realized that my favorite books, and the photographers who made them, all had something in common; an immediately recognizable style.

All I needed to see was the image and it unleashed the power of their individual style, regardless of anything else.

Moriyama, Webb, Salgado, Mann, etc.

When I see these names, see their images, hear their names, it instantly creates a legion of imagery in my mind. Like fingerprints in their uniqueness. Like memories.

Now you might think this is an obvious point, but I don’t think it is. Today there are photographers working who have this distinctive look and feel, but there are fewer and fewer of them, and if I had to guess, the future will reduce this number even more. And, some of the most successful of the current crop really don’t have any style at all. Or perhaps their style is that there is no style, which can be said of cultures as well, some of which are thriving in this fashion.

Even Bruce Lee, when cornered on the boat on the way to Han’s secret island, replied, “My style?” “You could call it the art of fighting without fighting.” What? What he meant to say was, “I’m going to try my best to remove your head,” but doing this could have jeopardized his employment at the tournament of death. When being hired to do battle perhaps you want to remain below the radar until you are called upon. Same is true for the photo world????? (This was a kick ass analogy. Get it? Come on, kick ass??)

I’ll give you a photo case study. Me.

I printed in the darkroom the other day and created six new pictures. After I was done printing, and was in the process of the great, final wash, I realized these images looked like they could have been done by six different people.

Perhaps in some way, this could be a good thing, but I think overall, it isn’t. It took me years to really figure out what my style was, years of trial and error basically. I do like different looks and formats, but I know what my style would be if I had to shelve everything and choose one thing.

I probably won’t have to do this, but you never know. Being a photographer today, a real one, is so damn difficult, and with the current economic situation, it will only get harder, and a part of me thinks that perhaps the only thing that will survive is our true style. And a part of me thinks this is the way it should be.

I think with all the different kinds of work I have done in the past ten years, I’ve really lost a good portion of my style. I think the ONLY way to get it back is time in the field, time ALONE and time NOT on assignment, not connected to the constant chatter of the social networking sites, the blogs, the cell phone, etc, and return to the idea of disappearing into your mind and your vision.

I think sometimes we think you can make up for this stuff with gadgets, gear, post production, shows, press, etc, but I frankly believe this is pure charade.

When you strip everything down you are left with only the images. The tricks of today are the laughter of tomorrow, but when something is really strong, it stands alone, in need of nothing other than the viewer.

Images like this don’t happen often, and can’t be created later. They just happen, and typically, when they do, you know it. You don’t need to see it because that 250th of second becomes a part of your soul.

So as I look into the near and distant future, I wonder to myself what it is I REALLY should be doing. Should I shelve the distractions, both photographic and otherwise, and commit to rediscovering my path? This is far easier said than done, but I have to consider it.

I’m older now, have responsibilities, so the layers of doubt, of question, of fear are far more complex and powerful than ever before.

I realize I’ve skirted the edges of the cliff that leads to “content” and know I would rather never photograph again than walk further into this style of photographic being where the bulk of images flash across your retina but never make the trip to your brain.

However, I did just read, I think, somewhere, that a significant portion of the public eats fast food something like twenty times a month? Did I read that wrong? But, if I didn’t, it might explain a lot about photography as well. Ouch! Safe, expected, controlled, conformed, mainstream, dare I say….nope, can’t say it. Remember the Bruce Lee reference.

I keep hearing, “Yes, but you have to make a living.” Agreed, but is it better to choose this mainstream path, or do something else for your income and then work solely on “your” images for your personal needs? I think this second choice would actually be far better for my industry, and only far worse for my ego. A very successful photographer recently wrote a post about “reskilling” or “retooling” his life, learning another trade to make the living so that he could continue his work. I think that post was like a rifle shot to a lot of people. I know it was to me.

I’m fortunate, have a good business, one that I try to evolve and change every four to five years, and I really mean change. I have to work hard to keep changing and starting over, but it is totally worth it(All but the losing my style part.) I’m more alive today than I was twenty years ago, when it comes to making pictures. At least until my bookshelves come crashing down on my skull. Or they stop making film and I have no reason to shoot any longer.

I think it is a fantastic job, working as a photographer. It really is. However, I sometimes wonder if I’m at a crossroads, where I have to begin looking at a broader scene, but with a far more focused pair of eyes.

PS: the attached photos are unrelated, done while I was writing this. Just fyi.

Keep snapping.

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