Today I’d like to take a charity break after discussing gear, to discuss something that I’ve found far more important to understand about photography.
When I graduated from college, my sister gave me a book. It was called “Who Moved My Cheese” and was written by Spencer Johnson. I’d like to give you an in-depth review of the book. But the truth is, I never really bothered to read it. For one thing, I wasn’t a big reader at the time, unless the material in question was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. And second, the title of the book confused me and led me to believe it was some sort of cartoon about a mouse that I was clearly too mature to read at 20. This all makes no sense, of course. My sister was somewhat prophetic in providing me with this book, because the lessons it contains about how we respond to changes in our lives are exactly the kind of things that most adults will find themselves struggling with. at one point. But, instead of getting that early introduction, I instead started my artistic pursuits without the prospect that one day things might change.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of artists. This is a very, very broad generalization. But, on the one hand, you have people who make art just for fun. There is no real expectation of financial gain. If the art they produce is sometimes exhibit-worthy or periodically earns them accolades, it all dresses up. But, really, art is a passion or hobby as opposed to the focus of their lives.
The second type of artist is also passionate about his art. But, in the case of the second artist, occasional cheers are never enough. They want some validation of their craft. This may come in the form of a stable income or notoriety within the industry. They consider that their art has not only an artistic value, but a monetary value. Very often, success for them can be judged by the names of customers on their ledger, the daily rate they charge, or the rewards they have.
There is obviously a vast collection of other artists who live along the spectrum between these two. So you may not fall into either category. I consider myself in the second camp, but with a slight tendency to favor artistic merit over money (often to my professional detriment). But I just used those two categorizations as a starting point to explain why it can be so hard for any of us to really get there. Wherever “he” might be.
The reason being an artist is an endless journey is that we exist in a constant state of change. My father was a doctor. He went to medical school in the 1960s. Had a great career where he was able to move up the ranks based on the things he learned in school as well as on the job. There have been massive technological changes in science over his sixty-year career, but the changes have been gradual over time. Art, as opposed to a more formal sector like science, is evolving at a much faster rate. The purpose of art is to create something new. Therefore, being an artist means constantly searching, minute by minute, for a better way to tell your story.
There are some technical things that don’t change much. The aperture, shutter speed and ISO/ASA definitions haven’t really changed much since their inception. But the ways in which these concepts can be used and manipulated are constantly being advanced and modified. I started my photography career with a fully manual film camera that was nearly 40 years old. Now, every photographic tool I buy seems obsolete within six months as the pace of technological change accelerates.
The market itself is not moving any slower. When I entered the business, social media was in its infancy. It was a potential add-on for customers, but not something that required my focus. A few decades later, social media has taken over the conversation, opening up new opportunities and erecting new obstacles along the way. There are now entirely different job categories for photographers. Influencers. Content creators. Categories which, if they had been so predominant when I started out, could have led me to choose another profession. Or, perhaps, to have approached the same job differently.
As all of these environmental changes occur, perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is the inevitable change we will experience as artists throughout our careers. I can think of many titanic changes in my own life that have led to both success and serious worry. I started my career as a filmmaker. I had no ambition other than to do the next Braveheart. Through a confluence of events too long and accidental to list here, I shifted my focus to still photography. This change has paid significant dividends both financially and creatively. But the emotional tug of war between my love of cinema and my love of photography has always been just below the surface. Over time, my still clients began to request more and more movement work, which allowed me to connect both sides of my artistic brain in a positive way. But it also reopened the door to the question of which shape I enjoy the most. And which deserves my attention the most? An eternal question that I had long struggled to face. Now, as my career has changed in a way that has redefined the priority of directing and cinematography with stills falling back in the pecking order a bit, I often find myself struggling to balance the attention I dedicated to everyone. Questions I thought I asked a long time ago seem to come up constantly. Only now, in a much more strident form, as the market conditions for both have changed dramatically since I first had the dream of being an artist.
I don’t mention it to make it sound like I’m special. On the contrary, I simply recount this as an example of the artist’s journey. The technology around us keeps pushing us further to try new things. The market in which we operate often forces us to take turns that we want to take or not. And the burning desire in each of us constantly causes our goals to change. Our cheese continues to be moved.
It’s one of the most infuriating things in an artist’s life. But it is also one of the most invigorating. As hard as we work to define our business plans and our approach to life, we know that everything can change in an instant. A new technology can be invented. A global pandemic can arise and completely disrupt the way we do business. Or, our own need to grow as artists can suddenly make our own goal success seem like just a pit stop along the way.
Art is learning. Learning is one thing in life that you never tire of. Photography and art are an endless journey. And it should not be otherwise.