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Bigger Than The Game

July 29, 2009

MP_Wildnress_059-copyYou hear this a lot, “Nobody is bigger than the game.”

This typically refers to a good player, who thinks he or she is a great player and more important than their actual sport. If you have ever hung around a major sport, or major player, for any length of time, you will quickly realize why this happens.

Most of these people are surrounded by hanger-ons, clingers, leeches and “yes” people who are really afraid to tell the star athlete what they need to hear, or what reality actually is. So, you let this go on for any period of time, and suddenly the player exists in a bubble where their life is larger and more important than anyone else. Hey, if someone tells you are great, perfect, studly, etc, for year after year after year, at some point, it would be difficult to believe otherwise.

I was emailing with someone regarding photographic style and how important it is, at least to me, for a photographer to find his or her own photographic style. Again, for ME this has always been a critical aspect of being a photographer. Finding a style can be years in the making, complex, or in rare instances can come early and easily. Your style can also change, further complicating things, or clarifying, depending on your point of view.

Me personally, my style has changed, but so have my goals and ideas about what it means to be a photographer, and the contribution I want to make. Ahh..contribution…a word I will come back to.

After pondering this idea for at least three minutes, all the time allowed in MY modern, blog-writing world, I realized that I was totally wrong. Yes, I was wrong, not like there isn’t a trend developing here.

I think style is very important, but I realize it really isn’t that important if your goal is simply to work as a photographer. Take a look around. I did.

I think there are more photographers working today that have no style at or, or a style that is a direct copy of a well-worn style of yesteryear, and by yesteryear I mean like last Tuesday. Trends come and go in about six-weeks these days, and when something works, whether it be for a publication or gallery space, snappers line up to mimmic the great beast.

Great dust clouds form across the plaines as photo-hordes pursue what is the now. Case in point, the urban-abstract landscape as the “new” documentary. This work, or style, has been around since the 1970’s, but has suddenly reappeared with a vengeance. Two years ago, you began to see a spread here and there, and now, it is truly everywhere. Mags, museums, galleries, etc, exploding with obtuse, urban scenes void of people.

I think it is actually easier today to NOT have a style, than to HAVE a style. I’m in the portrait/wedding field, and when I look around, no offense intended, it is very difficult to find someone with a recognizable style. In fact, when I meet with clients, that’s the first thing I ask them. “Of all the people you have met with, could you pick their photos out of a police lineup?”

Most of the time, the response is, “hmm, I never thought about that.” Sometimes the answer comes quickly, “No, not even close.” But often times I get a call or email the following day saying, “You know, I was thinking about what you said.”

The vast majority of portrait/wedding photographers have adopted a similar style. And I know why. It works. It’s safe. It’s profitable. When the unstable person is scanning the crowd you don’t want to be the one in the clown suit(me). And, with portrait/wedding photography, there is a HUGE amount of tradition involved. I’ve always been a fan of this tradition, but I don’t follow it with my pictures. The guy in the blue, ruffle-tux was a better photographer than most people give him credit for, and probably knew a lot more about photography than many of the young, successful photographers of today. If you are a portrait or wedding photographer, don’t fret, style takes a while to find, and typically can’t be found in the mainstream. You gotta look in the mirror ask some tough questions and dig for it.

A lot of clients, with their portrait and wedding imagery, do what they think they are supposed to do, and not what they want to do. This is why conforming works. This is why my client base is smaller than most.

But, in the end, you gotta peer outside the window and take note of the condition of the ship, photography, as we head into shark infested waters. What is your contribution? How are you helping photography? Photography will outlive us all, if we help it along, and conforming, to me, isn’t helping anything.

I think finding a style, while not essential for business, is essential for photography to survive. We have already watered down photography to a level I’m not sure it will recover from, so there is no need to continue to do so. I used portrait/wedding as an example, but all genres are equally as guilty, even fine-art, which might be the MOST guilty.

We need to draw a collective line in the sand, and stand by what we feel our style is, and what this will contribute to the long-term success of photography. I know this isn’t very now. Not even close.

Okay, lets start here. Let’s say that 51% of the time we think about respecting photography, and 49% of the time we ponder ourselves. What ratio are you at now? Ah, wait, stop, think about it. It might sting. It’s okay.

You gotta realize that doing this will set you free. It might not feel like it initially because we build up mountains of photo-baggage around us, but in the end, you will see as clear as day. But, you have to be prepared for rejection, for uncertainty and for much hard work, much more than if you conform.

Don’t think I’m immune to this junk. In fact, I conform all the time, and it really sucks because I KNOW when I’m doing it, and I STILL do it. This is horrible. But guess what, I’m not doing it as much anymore, and in six months, I’ll be doing it even less. I’m working my way…….backwards, yes, backwards.

You know how kids are really honest? They say things that an adult would never say because we “learned” we are not supposed to say it. Well, sometimes it needs to be said. “Hey Mr. Milnor, your skinny and you smell funny.” I would never hear this from a client, but their kids would tell me in no time flat.

Any maybe it’s true. What I’m saying is that all those years ago, when I got into this game, I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I had a style. It was all the distractions over the years, the paychecks, the conforming needs of the industry, etc, and suddenly I’m adrift with my mast snapped off.

A few days ago I was in Los Angeles, amongst a crowd of photographers, and a few others who are in the industry but don’t shoot, and someone said, “The photographers that work the most are the ones that shoot the crappiest pictures.”

It made me laugh, but also think about what percentage of that statement is accurate. I think “crappiest” is perhaps a bit harsh, but “predictable,” is right on the money.

I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and now I’m doing it. And I’ll tell you what, it’s better for me, yes, but more importantly, it’s better for photography.

PS: The attached image is from my new project. I don’t plan on showing any of this new work until I’m much further along, but I thought this image might work for this piece. I have no idea what it means, but it can’t be good.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Robb permalink
    July 30, 2009 11:33 am

    As always, your post was inspiring as hell, and affirms some thoughts I’ve had recently.

    • July 30, 2009 4:39 pm

      Thanks for reading stillphotog. It’s an odd thing to think about but it sure seems real to me.

  2. July 30, 2009 4:04 pm

    Amen.

  3. Larry permalink
    July 30, 2009 7:18 pm

    As a lover of photography, and not a pro, I still find this to be all too true. And it’s not just photography but that’s another discussion I think. Anyway, thought provoking as always.

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