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It Never Gets Easier: It’s a Good Thing

August 10, 2009


So I’m in the field, working, or trying to work.

It’s always about trying to work. Snooping, crawling, scraping, pulling, pushing, begging, etc. You have an idea and you think you can make pictures that relate to this idea.

For me it has been far, far too long since I took on a new project. You would think I would be out doing documentary work all the time, but for me it isn’t that easy.

I’m not a photographer with a magazine contract, or an assignment from someone, allowing me a certain amount of time in the field.

I’m on my own. Entirely.

I could spend my time and energy searching for a sponsor, and when I say this I mean magazine, agency, etc, but I gave up doing that years ago. What I realized was I was spending so much time chasing these folks that I was never getting into the field.

I heard recently about a well known photographer who did one shoot, then spent four years looking for support for his project, and he was a huge name in the business. So how long would it have taken me? The reality is you just don’t know. A different project, a different pitch, and it could have happened overnight.

But, the odds aren’t good. So, I just find my project and I do it on my own. This is a way of suffering, but suffering in terms of a first world, somewhat employed person who has, in the grand scheme of things, an incredibly easy life. It might mean sleeping in the car in 100 degree weather but luckily my seats fold down.

The upside is that you can work exactly the way you want to work. I can shoot my Leica, and use Tri-x, and make the pictures just the way I want to make them.

I can remember doing a magazine assignment, years ago, and had an editor in NY, an editor in LA, an assignment editor and writer, who were all telling me different things, and asking for different things. My head was a mess when it finally came down to making the pictures. Then, I had to shoot a certain way, could only shoot a certain aspect of the story, etc.

When working on your own, periods of work come in terms of a few days here and there, not a three or six month stretch where I can focus solely on the project. Heck, even six weeks is way beyond anything I’ve ever had. In fact, I think the longest period I have ever worked on the same project is about eight weeks, but that was over a four year period.

But what is also interesting is I don’t think the actual work ever gets any easier. In fact, I think it gets more and more difficult. Classic documentary work is difficult to do. It takes huge amounts of time in the field, a closeness with those you are working with, and frankly, luck. I’m not talking about portraits, portrait series, urban landscapes, etc, I’m talking classic, black and white, wide angle documentary.

Often times this type of work requires multiple trips to the same place, same area, etc, and often times you don’t get those pictures you know you need to have. You can feel their presence but until you have one in the bag they grind on your mind and your confidence like an ulcer.

And as you get better with the work, the stakes are raised. There is nothing to hide behind. You can’t get by with “Well, I didn’t have much time,” or any other excuse you can dream up.

You find yourself grasping for those pictures you have made before, to cover your bases, “At least I got something,” you tell yourself, but you know it just isn’t enough.

I’m trying to be as truthful as possible with what I am trying to create. I’m not saying I’m great, a star, not by any stretch. I think I’ve made some good images in the past, and all I’m trying to do is go beyond where I’ve been. I feel like a new project has to be filled with nothing but great pictures, and when I say great I really mean it.

When you consider that great pictures really don’t come along very often, sometimes once or twice a year, you begin to realize where the bar is at.

Yesterday, I was struggling, not with content, but with light. Noonish, no clouds, high altitude, no shade. Every single person wearing a hat. I just couldn’t solve it. I was shooting just to shoot, burning a few frames to make myself feel better, but I knew I would look at the contacts and feel queasy.

I thought to myself, “I have a 6×9 camera with color negative in the car, I’ll just bang off a small portrait series.”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH Nope. I caught myself. The easy way. The modern way. This look, this style, not the project I’m doing.

So I’m all the way out here and maybe I don’t get what I want. So be it. That’s the way it is sometimes. I have to live with it.

I could tilt the frame, shoot reflections, blur everything, all the techniques we fall back on in these times, but I’m really trying to avoid this.

Being at the right place, at the right time, in the right light, is rare. Face it. It’s rare for any photographer. And then add the fraction of a second where you are actually good enough to catch the moment at the right place, at the right time in the right light. Yikes.

I think the entire thing is about slowing down. Really slowing down, which is just what our lives, for the most part, are not about. We are about multitasking, high-speed everything, and classic style work is like a virus that nobody has time to experience.

So I’m in the middle of my second shoot on this project. After the first shoot, another photographer said, “Okay, let me see some pictures.”

I said, “Come back in a year.”

I’ve also noticed that the people I’m photographing are asking “When is the book is going to come out,” or “when the pictures are going to be published,” and my response is “Well, it will probably be a few years,” which most of the time is met with raised eyebrows. “Really?” “It will take that long?”


All in all, this is what makes doing this work so much fun, and such a hair-pulling challenge. This is what brings us back and back and back, and I think is the reason that so many great photographers are so driven.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. sarah permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:04 am

    I went to photography school in the late 90’s at a time when museums, institutions, and individuals were in love with the german school of photography from the Bechers and Gursky to Hoffer and Struth. It was an all-out love affair. Barely anyone shot in black and white and I don’t know many people who actually shot 35, we were all slinging 4x5s and 8x10s. The bigger the neg and more painful it was to make, the better.

    That said, I remember doing a studio visit with one of my professors and being so perplexed and amazed that he had stacks and stacks of clamshell boxes of 35mm b+w prints. Amazing prints at that, spanning more than twenty years. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he wasn’t all wrapped up in the color, big photography obsession. It didn’t even phase him.

    I’m still shooting but quite honestly I’m still chasing the now. He’s still making images the way he always has. I’m envious of that and glad you’re making images you want to make, Dan. I’ll check back in a few years for the book. 😉

    • August 12, 2009 2:19 am


      You are such a good writer. Really, you should do more of it. Don’t feel bad, chasing the now is an easy thing to do. If you watch the industry news, the hot players, etc, for the most part, that is what is happening. It takes a lot of….frustration…courage perhaps to go your own route. But, once you do, there is no going back. The freedom tastes too good.
      Things go in cycles as well. Right now, color, large to medium format, obtuse imagery is the flavor of the day, but at some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, but at some point, it will swing in another direction.

  2. August 13, 2009 1:23 am

    Take the ordinary of today wherever it is and make it extraodinary. Take the taken for granted and change it. Take something everyone thinks has seen its betterdays and make it amazing. See what you can find within walking distance of your home that is interesting enough to get world attention. All words have been used but not everything has been said. Call your mother.

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