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THE BEST ASSIGNMENTS ARE FREE….

Dec 15

In Thoughts at 11:12am

They are gifts we give ourselves…..

You already know the ones…the ones that really terrify you. The ones you think you can’t handle. The ones you think are way, way, beyond your capabilities. Gateway assignments. The ones you need to take. They come in on the phone (rarely) or in the email of your imagination as loud as the “TERRAIN! TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” warning in the cockpit. You must respond. You must engage.

Increasingly, these are the ones you give yourself.

On the other side of that job, win, lose or draw, you will be a different photographer, and presumably, absolutely, a better photographer. Like a redwood, you just accumulated another ring. You could liken it to a scar, the way things go in this business. I try not to think about it.

But here’s the beautiful thing about scars. They are on the surface. Not attractive perhaps, but at the end of the day, inconsequential. They don’t affect your core.

Someplace at or near my core, I’ve got this fortress. It is well fortified, and I don’t let anyone in there. No tedious editor, no residue from a soul blasting job, gets in there, ever. Cause inside there lives whatever makes me love doing this as much as I do. Dunno the why’s and wherefore’s of it. I don’t unwrap it or turn it upside down and shake it, trying to figure out what’s inside, cause I might break it. It is what makes me hold my breath at the camera, makes me curse my mistakes and short circuits of mind, will and body, and gives me the recurring nightmare that I am swimming underwater and when I try to break the surface I find it is glass. I can’t break through and I am breathing water and jaysus-be-jaysus where the hell is the next good frame? Why can’t I figure this out and why haven’t shot anything worth a good goddamn in the last bit of forever? Is this the end of the road and the limit of my talent? I wake up in a cold sweat.

Nice, huh? The miracle of photography, sitting on your chest in the middle of the night like a big wet dog, panting in your face, demanding to be fed.

Like the boxer in the song, photographers remember every cut. I certainly do. (It’s just that way with the Irish.) Those cuts are the jobs, the frames. I can remember what I said before and after certain rolls went through the camera. I can remember what I had for breakfast that day and whether I was just shy of 5.6 at one twenty fifth. I can remember the smells in the air, and just how miserable, elated or terrified I was. Often, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but those are yesterdays I didn’t make a picture.

Ironies abound for photographers. They are occasionally huge and cruel and we either laugh them off, smile through our tears, or are crushed by them. Some are small and produce rolled eyes and a sigh. We are on assignment to shoot the CEO, but we come up the freight elevator. Our work adorns the hushed hallways of corporate palaces even as our demise is plotted and graphed. The rakish, insouciant legacy of a Robert Capa and the derring do that produced those pictures that are the stuff of our collective memory is celebrated and paid lip service, but hey, wait a minute, look at these expenses! That was then fella, and this is, well, now.

Or, we attend a photo gathering where a picture editor exhorts us from the podium to step it up, work harder, get to a new level, and push the envelope. Then that picture editor goes into closed door meetings at their shop and advocates against raising the day rate.

I am the last staff photographer ever, at LIFE magazine. I didn’t get that mildly undesirable title by doing anything in particular. I just kept shooting assignments, and then they fired me. Later, the magazine did its final, absolute death spiral. Like Santino in the Godfather, it took a lot of bullets, but it finally went down for good.

Round about that time, the Time Warner colossus was seeking to “build a bridge to the visual community.” and instituted the Eisie’s, a prestigious series of awards in honor of the legacy of Alfred Eisenstadt. It was determined that LIFE would be the host and sponsor magazine, much to the dismay of TIME, then the big budget gorilla of the photo world.

During my brief tenure at LIFE, I agitated to do stuff, as all of us do. One result of my agitation became a story the mag called “The Panorama of War.” It won the first Eisie for journalistic impact.

I found myself on stage, at a gala hosted by LIFE, accepting a LIFE sponsored award for a LIFE assigned and published story. Mildly ironical problem, though, as I stood there, prize money and the paperweight of the award in hand, was that LIFE magazine had fired me the week before the ceremony. I chuckled inwardly as I smiled at the podium. I even smiled at Norm Pearlstine, the boss of the whole deal, who was sitting in the front row, looking for all the world like he was in a dentist’s chair. I actually felt bad for him cause he had come over to run Time Warner from that sea of type known as the Wall Street Journal and had never met a picture he understood. Here he was at a photo banquet, fer chrissakes, and later, he had to give out the most important award of the night, and thus make the longest speech. He had a terrible time pronouncing “Sebastiao.”

So it goes, and it always has. We are on our own. Whether we are on assignment or on staff or on Flickr. Whether we are making a buck or winging it, unfunded and unfazed, on the increasingly threadbare seat of our pants. That’s as it should be. Trust me, When it comes to corporate belt tightening, housecleaning, and general neutron bomb keep-the-building-lose-the-people cost cutting, we are both the baby and the bathwater. We get thrown out. They will never understand that picture gathering cannot be plotted on a chart, estimated in a graph, or measured in people hours relative to numbers of units produced. Thank God. If they ever figured it out, and really understood the astonishing alchemy of it all, they would want to be us, and trust me, there’s already plenty of us.

One of my heroes is Frank Hurley, the shooter on the Shackelton expedition. He was one tough nut of an Aussie. When their ship, the Endurance, got locked in the ice, he stripped down and dove into the frigid hold to retrieve his plates.

Hurley “is a marvel,” wrote Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance. “With cheerful Australian profanity he perambulates alone aloft & everywhere, in the most dangerous & slippery places he can find, content & happy at all times but cursing so if he can get a good or novel picture. Stands bare & and hair waving in the wind, where we are all gloved and helmeted, he snaps his snaps or winds his handle turning out curses of delight & pictures of Life by the fathom.”

As Shackleton said, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.” The Endurance was doomed. The crew was stranded. Hurley kept shooting.

The ever prescient David Hobby just threw a big rock into the pond of our psyches. Lots of ripples, from Chase Jarvis to Moose Peterson, to Vincent Laforet to the gang over at Sports Shooter. Just like a couple hundred photographers at the exact same location will produce a couple hundred picture points of view, there are lots of opinions out there, from “Yeah, that’s the deal,” to “Is he crazy?”

Not crazy at all, methinks, and that’s not to say we should all apply for non-profit status. I think what David is talking about, really, is not dollars and cents but growth and direction as a photographer, increasingly an isolated task, as the more collective staff photographer experience withers and dies. My advice to young photographers has always been to join the staff of a newspaper or wire service. Get some editor on your case, putting your ass on the street and your eye in the camera everyday. Come back to the wet darkroom to soup your stuff with the rest of the shooters and kibbitz, compete, spin tales, drink beer and give out shit. And listen. And learn.

That is increasingly anachronistic advice, of course. Digital has changed the deal, and the curves in the road upcoming for all of us are steeper, sharper and many aren’t even on the map yet. More so than ever, we are on our own, crafting a path unique to our skills, intentions and career goals. Take a look at Doug Menuez’s recent musings on career path.

A career in photography is a journey without a destination. And really, do you think someone’s gonna buy you a ticket to someplace you can’t even point out on the map? Try writing “meander” on a travel requisition and see how far you get.

I’m not suggesting you don’t need to make money as a shooter. Far from it. But those pictures we get, the ones we keep close, the deepest cuts, if you will, are really of our own volition and making. And those are the ones we seek and need, or better, the ones that seek us. They are way stations. You will stop there, or need to stop there, no matter if someone is paying you or not.

Cause what we are talking about here is food for the table and food for the soul. You gotta sell your stuff. You gotta pitch clients. You gotta make some dough with that fancy machine you have in your hands. And there is no problem with that. It is in fact, a very honorable and wonderful feeling to make your living with a camera. Trust me, I have shot all manner of jobs. I’ve shot for clients I shouldn’t have worked for, just to keep the studio alive. I’ve shot bad deals just cause I wanted the pictures so bad. I’ve shot wonderful jobs that have pushed me personally and professionally. I’ve even gone to photo heaven. In the last couple of years I’ve worked for a client whose art director is a wonder, the people running the show have become like my family, I’ve been treated fairly and I’ve expanded creatively. And, along the way,  I’ve shot jobs so thoroughly mercenary that in my head I don’t hear the whir of a motor drive, but the kaching of a cash register. Its a wonderful sound. It means I will be able to keep that camera in my hands a while longer, and extend a little further, reach a little deeper, and stay the course. What an amazement! I got paid to do that which I love!

Many pictures I shoot nowadays have only me as the client. They are pictures I need to do and want to do. I fund them myself. Did one last week in Vancouver. Wanted to work with a dancer, so came in early, rented a studio, paid an assistant and paid the dancer (I always pay the dancers, they work just as hard as we do and make even less) and shot some pictures I really like. When I finally get home I’ve got a studio, six square feet of chrome diamond plate flooring as a backdrop, a smoke machine, some heavy gauge chain, a battered chainsaw, and a physical trainer whose endearing nickname is “The Pain Chisel” all arranged for. Can’t wait.

I could gin up a portfolio of fancy flying, dancing, body bulging, glam type pictures and bring them to one of the stylish, au courant type magazines, and they would laugh me out of the building. I’m realistic about this. For better or for worse, I grew up shooting for mom and dad’s magazines–LIFE, National Geographic, Time, Sports Illustrated. At a place like Vogue or Esquire or GQ, I couldn’t get arrested. At one of the hipper men’s magazines, a book I’ve shot a couple covers for and a couple years back knocked out a fashion piece involving the U.S. military (which they liked so much they expanded the story from six to ten pages) I had to go in and show my book to the new, thirty-ish photo editor. He liked my stuff and was very respectful. As he closed my portfolio, he looked at me and said, “You’ve had a great career.”

In other words, “I’ll hire you for an editor’s note picture if I can’t find someone else at the last minute.”

Okay. Picture editors at places like this are relentlessly searching not so much for good pictures, but for buzz. Occasionally, good pictures and buzz coincide. Tough thing is though, even when they are able to stuff good pix into their mag, it is so graphically cluttered (the printed version of a sound byte) you can’t really enjoy ‘em anyway. Hell, lots of times you can’t even find ‘em.

Will some of these pictures I pursue on my own ever sell? Dunno. Never been much of a stock shooter cause my stuff has been so assignment specific. I get sales reports now with my pictures turning around eye popping amounts of remuneration, like a recent one I got from a prestigious bastion of publishing erudition for all of $4.67. Jeez, never thought a stock sale wouldn’t even get me into the movies. Shit, that one won’t even get me one of those big boxes of Raisinets.

I get a check like that and I either laugh or cry, depending on how many days I have left to pull together the mortgage. I look at these picture statements and I feel like a kid in a Cape May arcade who just turned about $50 of cash money into a clutch of “admit one” tickets that gets dumped into the counting hopper and spits out a chit that allows him to pick out anything in the shop that’s worth less than a buck.

This is not a good business model. My accountant on occasion has mentioned my endeavors lean more towards “hobby” than profession. Okay. The numbers don’t add up. Pretty much, I’ve never added up either, even to my parents.

We run when others walk. We work when others play. We adjust our schedules to accommodate theirs. We present the flimsiest of reasons to insist that we be allowed to keep doing that which we need to do, something for us that is as necessary as breathing. Paid or not, it is what we do.

By the way, at the age of 76, Frank Hurley came back off assignment, and shrugged off his camera bag and sat down, saying he didn’t feel well. He was dead the next morning. I suspect there was still film in his holders.

More tk….

74 Responses to “THE BEST ASSIGNMENTS ARE FREE….”

Don Giannatti says:

on December 17, 2008 at 8:38 am

This is such an important post, sir. I occasionally work with young photographers (to the medium, not age wise) and when I talk of the passion that must be involved to make a single moment in time, in two dimensions, powerful – meaningful – I sometimes get blank stares.

I sometimes get glimmers of introspective awareness. This article will be one that I point to again and again.

And, btw… I am glad to know I am not the only one with the crazy ability to remember every thing about every photo I ever made… fstop, shutte, lens, temperature, what I was thinking or discussing with the talent… all of it.

But cannot for the life of me remember to bring milk home at the end of the day.

Salutes, Bill. Great read.

Martin says:

on December 17, 2008 at 11:48 am

Joe,
This is now printed and I’ve sent my secretary out looking for a frame so I can hang it on my wall and read it everyday.
Thanks.

Richard says:

on December 17, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Hi Joe,

I have watched your DVD about 10-15 times now, I am reading your book and will reread it again. You are not only a wonderful photogrpher, but a great writer thank you for sharing your talents with us. I am hoping to do workshop this coming fall in NYC. The good thing for me is and one I am very happy about, I always wanted to be a photographer, but like so many others felt I did not have the talent too. So after a long absents from doing what I love I have come back to the fold with folks like you out there I know I can become the best I can, and for me that is good enough. The part I mention above is I can do it because I love it not because I have to. I have a great job so I now work for my photos.
You are a great writer never knock you writing, as you have a great way of putting the words in the right place.
Thanks you once again for sharing and I wish all the best to you and your family. Have a great holiday and happy and safe New Years.

thanks Rich

Gerhard Steenkamp says:

on December 17, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Hi Joe

I can’t believe that one person is feeling so much the same as i do. You just said it better than i could ever do.

Regards

Gerhard

Bill Rogers says:

on December 17, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Joh – I’m surprised that you posted my earlier comment – I was in a goofy mood. Now, I’ll be serious. You and David Hobby have opened an important dialog. It’s especially valuable to me because I have Parkinson’s disease. Photography is what keeps me motivated and engaged with the world, and I have made many new friends through it. I’m aware that some working photographers are threatened by people who work inexpensively or for free. I don’t want to take food off anyone’s table, so I stay away from the bread and butter jobs in our area – no weddings, no school portraits, no commercial assignments. I work the fringes – musicians, community events, and so forth. Right now I’m volunteering to take photos of African-American churches for a group that is putting together a display for black history month and the MLK birthday, and I’m learning more about photography by doing so. Most important, I’m not sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. Thank you for your post.

John says:

on December 18, 2008 at 10:28 pm

Joe-
No sense in repeating what’s been said so eloquently by others. But there’ s another page to the story. For those of us who on one hand, have chosen another life path that doesn’t place us in the same world as yours, along our alternative path I’ve recognized what your world and perspective offers–through your images and your words. Fortunately, you are willing and able to share with us. I wanted to be a professional, and am. Success is one dimensional, and for that other dimension and inspiration to be better at keeping the eye in the camera, thanks ain’t quite enough.
John

j. kiely jr. says:

on December 18, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Thank you Joe. Another post that lands straight into the gut of working photographers. Thanks for saying what needs to be said. Appreciate all your work on this ‘blog. -j.

Roeland de Bruijn says:

on December 19, 2008 at 5:21 am

Dear Joe,
Wonderfull, inspiring post.

I have long wondered whether it would be possible for you to come to Europe and give one or more of your workshops.

I’d attend. Most definitely.

As a matter of fact, if you decide you like the idea, I would love to see if I can help to set it up for you. Maybe a small tour of Europe, and especially the Netherlands ;)

Anyhow, just wanted to compliment you on another wonderfull post. Thanks

Billy says:

on December 19, 2008 at 11:21 am

Joe,

Great post! It hits home with me… I shoot for State Government doing conservation related shoots and “Meander” doesn’t fly with politicians. Thanks for reminding me what I love and what I get to do everyday. Can you run for Governor of Alabama?

Thanks

Jase Bell says:

on December 21, 2008 at 7:49 am

Joe,

This reminds me very much of Tony Levin talking about bass playing, he doesn’t talk about it but just talks about life instead. Much more interesting. I agree with what a few have said, you’d be great choice for writing a book on photography that went beyond photography, The Moment It Clicks did that to a point. I think it could go a lot further. Photography can be a solitary thing so this kind of emotional support is always useful (while possibly providing some form of therapy for you :) ).

Regards and blessings
Jase

Michael says:

on December 23, 2008 at 8:41 pm

Reading this made me fell like a kid and an old man all at the same time. Bravo.

matthew pace says:

on December 24, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Joe,

I am in tears, don’t know why but something hit home. I have been trying to figure this out for a long number of years….and you said it all…

When I first started, an older photographer said, ” ..know that photography is a jealous mistress that doesn’t kindly to being in the back seat..”

She has been and still is my lover, and now thanks to your great words, I understand her a little better.

good shooting

matthew pace

Barbara Louise Gould says:

on December 30, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Wow!
And I mean WOW. I didn’t even get half way through this post and all I wanted to do was run, run as fast as I could out the door, grabbing only my camera and picking a location on the map (GPS) and see what developed.

You have inspired me to no end and this… well it just put a cherry on top of my love of your work.

For Christmas I received your DVD and a bunch of new gear. I’ve been a “photographer” my whole life but did nothing about it until about 6 months ago. I could only dream of the experiences you have. When reading your post, for the 5th time, it almost felt like…. I was in my own head. Running from thought to thought getting more excited on to the next until it’s all spinning around in there… until I go get it on “film”. I had to remember to breath at one point.

There are two quotes from this blog that will stay with me forever. “Often, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but those are yesterdays I didn’t make a picture.”, and “A career in photography is a journey without a destination.” And the entire first part up to “Nice, huh? The miracle of photography, sitting on your chest in the middle of the night like a big wet dog, panting in your face, demanding to be fed.” makes me speechless.

Thank you for the inspiration to keep on shooting!

edd says:

on January 1, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I loved that…that was such good reading.

Inspiration to keep shooting.
Thank you.

Edd

JoshB says:

on January 6, 2009 at 9:05 am

Thank you so much for this incredibly inspiring post. Truly wonderful, and a great way to start my day today.

Joey says:

on January 10, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I’m at a crossroads myself as far as what I’m going to do after college. Thank you for this.

tonyoquias says:

on February 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

Wow! That piece left me speechless. I’m inspired again. Thank you very much. I needed that.

Your fan from the Philippines,
Tony

-S says:

on February 21, 2009 at 11:47 am

I have to say; I’ve stopped and wondered what is it like to be “that good” — as good as you are and what it must feel like to know you’re that good. To have that level of confidence and intuitive knowledge of making all the right moves at all of the right times, and of being a bright and successful professional artist.

This post of yours has put everything I’ve always wondered, and thought, aspired to be and ached for, into perspective.

You put it perfectly into two sentences:
“Whether we are making a buck or winging it, unfunded and unfazed, on the increasingly threadbare seat of our pants. That’s as it should be. ”

Btw.. if I had any idea what-so-ever that you would be here in New Mexico (tomorrow!!), teaching a class on advanced lighting, I would have signed up for it in a heartbeat! I think I’m going to keep my eyes open a little wider from here on out, instead of reflecting (and agonizing) inwardly so much.

Thank you for sharing this part of yourself.
Thank you…

SenenCito says:

on April 13, 2009 at 1:00 pm

yup I reread it again..its such a fascinating and awesome article. I believe I will be rereading this many times in my lifetime

Kyle says:

on August 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

Joe,

I have re-read this blog post so many times. I know you posted it so long ago, but I have it book marked so I can go back to it whenever I need a kick in the ass to pick up my cameras again and get after it. (I also have letter to a young photographer book marked)

You are such an inspiration and have done more to fuel my love of photography. You have opened so many doors through your teaching that I feel that I will forever be in your debt.

Little less than two years before I am out of the military and I make the giant leap into photography, so I am trying to learn everything I can. I just can’t thank you enough for all of the wonderful information you have on your blog.

I have so much more to say, but I just can’t find the right words. I will say this though, if I ever lucky enough to meet you I’d love to buy you beer.

Every profression, even photography has heros…..thanks for being mine.

Kyle

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