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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

A Morning With Eisie and Carl….

Jul 27

In Friends, history, Thoughts at 4:56pm

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And Gordon, Ernst, Margaret……..

Had a terrific week in Santa Fe. Great class. Nice bunch of folks who produced some pictures that were much more than nice. We rocked and rolled all week with big and small flash, in the usual collection of fascinating places, working with the unusual, interesting and beautiful faces of the Santa Fe Workshops model community, many of whom are my dear friends, and populate numerous pages of The Hot Shoe Diaries. I’ve got a great relationship with a bunch of the folks who pose for the workshops. Like Deidre. She called me last week and said, “Hey, I shaved my head! Wanna shoot me?” Answer below.

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More on D in a future blog….

That’s always the fun stuff. Every week long workshop, I host what I call the business breakfast to talk about the un-fun stuff. It’s generally a long meal, peppered with nettlesome questions about how to survive as a photog, how to make it, construct portfolios, find clients, price jobs…..the grist of turning our passion into pictures that make money. I do this during the daylight hours. If we met for dinner, it would most likely become something of a religious drunk, with many tequila laced epithets, confessions, admonitions and apocalyptic descriptions about just how wrong the business of photography has gone. The entire conversation would simply degenerate into a bunch of extended vowel sounds, kinda like a set of James Brown lyrics.

I attempt to be coherent, and thoughtful, though it’s hard. When you hear about a recent cover of Time magazine being bought off Istock for $30, it’s easy to just think about reaching for the sawed off and giving them sumbitches what for. But this whole numbing process has been going on for so long it would be difficult to sort out the most deserving sumbitches, and truth be told, some of them be us.

So you know what saved the day? What elevated us all? A visit to Sid and Michelle. The Monroe Gallery of Photography currently has a show called “A Thousand Words.”  Walking into those four walls adorned with those pictures is to leave all the other crap behind, and be lifted up by the most beautiful breeze you can imagine. The images cut to the chase and the heart. You get goose bumps. Your eyes sting. You remember why you picked up a camera in the first place.

Sid and Michelle are so knowledgeable, and for them, the pictures on the walls are family, just like the people who made them, though a fair number of those shooters are gone, which makes preserving their legacy all the more necessary. They told my class stories and a bit about their wonderful philosophy, which is, simply put, that pictures are important, and have value.

Bill Eppridge’s pictures from RFK’s campaign are on the wall, and Sid showed the class Bill’s book. In A Time It Was, Bill’s visual record of Bobby’s campaign, is the charred master print of the busboy cradling the senator’s head. It was damaged in the Laurel Canyon fires that swept through Bill’s home, but the core of the image is still there, and the charred edges make that moment all the more searing and painful to look at.

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The lead photo of the show is Eisie’s famous drum major shot. I used to bump into Eisie all the time as he padded the hallways of the 28th floor of Time Inc. “Hello McNally,” accompanied by a fairly dismissive wave of the hand was generally as far as the conversation got. As the story goes, Eisie was waiting at the elevator on 28 with a bunch of other photogs. The doors opened and they all crowded in, the diminutive Eisie found himself in close quarters, surrounded by younger, taller photographers.

He looked around. “I used to be just as tall as all of you,” he said in his German accent. He made a couple dramatic shrugs of his shoulders, the kind of motion you would make if you were carrying something heavy. “The equipment, the equipment,” was all he said.

Driving through the desert. Damn hot. Blogging from the van. 10 hours to San Francisco, where Drew and I do two workshop days at Google, and then a stop for Kelby Tours. After that, we disappear into the land of the yellow border.

More tk…..

Zack Light!

Apr 13

In Friends, Thoughts at 10:14am

Check it out……Zack Arias posted a group shot done in a dark theater with like 30 subjects with one Speed light.

So the pressure was on, as he relates. Nothing like shooting a group shot of a bunch of other shooters, fer chrissakes. Especially, you know, you’ve got Chase Jarvis, Cliff Mautner, David Nightingale, and assorted photo luminaries in the shoot. I mean, people who know what they’re doing. And of course, you’ve got David Hobby and Chris Hurtt floating around, telling Zack, you know, hey man, “It’s reaaallllly dark in here. Like f-nothin’, man! Whaddaya you gonna do? You’re screwed!”

And DH had a pocket wizard in his pocket, dialed into Zack’s channel, you know, just to really mess with him. (He didn’t, ultimately. He showed mercy to Zack, who was on stage with his camera and tripod doing a pretty good imitation of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.)

The shot’s amazing. It definitely falls into the “Holy Shit” category for me, cause I saw it done and I was like, dude, you know, this is kinda out there….But man, he nailed to the wall. Plus, everybody looks good! There’s the deal. Tough shot, tough spot, knocks it back. Nice job, Zack….

Actually took the weekend off. Saw family, hung with Annie. Behind with the blog a bit. On another plane now, heading for Tampa to see my buds in the Kelby Clan. Scott, RC and the gang are really rubbing off on me. In the last two weeks I actually bought an Iphone, and opened up a Facebook account! I might even start tweetering, or whatever that is called. As I pointed out in my first post there, that’s something I could do in between tooting. So, that might end up being a fairly frequent activity for me. Who knows. Mongo meets technology. Dropped an f-bomb on my first post too, just to get it out of the way. I’m from NY, you know, so saying fuck is kind of like clearing your throat. My language will probably get worse this year too, cause I’m taking Jay Maisel’s NY workshop down at the bank. Looking forward to being eviscerated in the unique and wonderful way Jay can do that. He’s so smart, and funny, and keen eyed, and steeped in the world of pictures…I can’t wait.

Anyway, got a couple posts coming that should be fun. Gonna concentrate on camera work for a bit, cause there’s still so much to learn. When I was at GPP, I went back to the desert. I had gone out there last year, and it basically kicked my ass. I was experimenting, fooling around really, which is really the core of what I do, and, while I learned some stuff, when I came back, I really felt most of my pics were about as dry as the sand I was standing on. Also, in one instance, I felt I had failed a dancer, which I hate to do, cause they work so hard.

The dancer in question was the lovely Alessia. Did okay pix of her last year, mostly due to her expressiveness, but I’m nothing if not tenacious, so I went back this year and shot this with her.

It’s overwhelming out there in the sea of sand. You cruise through it, and look, that’s wild, but how about over there? That’s cool, too. Maybe keep going and see what’s over this ridge? More desert. This year, I stood for a minute and did a 360 and was like, that’s nice, okay, that looks awesome over there, and yowza that’s great, but hey, didn’t I just see that dune? Like an endless bolt of rumpled fabric, the dunes fold into each other with no starting or stopping point. I started to realize just how dismaying it would be if instead of having a couple of Land Cruisers waiting for me, I was out there by myself and I looked down at my hands and instead of seeing them holding a D3, they were holding an empty canteen. It’s wild, endless, and relentless.  Put something down, and a few minutes later, it’s gone. The desert rolls on and on, and if you stayed still for a bit, it would roll right over you.

That’s what it did last year. When that happens, man, it makes for a long plane flight home. When it comes to missed pix, I’m not exactly a water under the bridge, yesterday’s news, turn the page kinda guy. I dwell, ya know? Brood, even. Ruminate. And then try it again. I have a history of doing this type of thing. On a LIFE assignment, I lost a whole camera rig–motor driven Mamiya Pro II, 50mm lens, the whole deal, in the Great Salt Lake. If you were gonna choose a lake to drop a camera in, that’s not the one. It was February to boot. Freezing. Ice everywhere. Tripod leg slides off a rock, and the whole thing pitches into the drink. I remember turning to my assistant, the reporter, and my subject with a tight, unamused grin and said, “This could hardly be construed as positive.”

We folded our tents, and got out of the cold, and kind of just in time. But went back the next day, to the same spot, and got a cool portrait of the naturalist writer, Terry Tempest Williams.

So, true to form, I went back again this year, to a vastly different climate. Did some pictures I’m happy with, and I’ll blog some tk. But it felt good, you know, cause I just wanted to see if I could figure out what misfired out there in my head. It’s an ongoing question, right? You’re a photographer, so the first thing you do every morning is walk into the bathroom and stare at the mirror and put a big L on your forehead. Why didn’t it work yesterday? Will it happen again tomorrow? Probably. Maybe. It’s like quicksilver this thing we do. Can’t ever quite grab it and put it in your pocket, patting that pocket comfortably, knowing on this day we got, it’s right there, next to my car keys. My old high school basketball coach used to refer to a really quick, hard to defend player as being “tougher to catch than a fart in a bag.”

Good pictures are like that. Tough to catch. Hard to hold. Probably just as well. If we ever got our mitts on the real reason this whole thing occasionally works, we’d probably play with it, shake it, turn it upside down, and ultimately break it. Best to let it go, and keep chasing it. More fun that way….more tk…..

Random Thoughts…things I find odd or interesting…

Feb 11

In Rants, Thoughts at 2:07pm

Gary Fong  recently sent out an ad blast special for Valentine’s Day.

Now lemme get this straight. The Fongster evidently thinks a GPS attachment to your camera is somehow a romantic gift, the kind you would associate with Valentine’s Day? Does it come in a heart shaped box?

It might be useful. If in fact you have this, then you can exactly mark the spot where she fucking dumps you. You can take notes and re-visit it by your sorry ass self every Valentine’s Day. And if it comes to pass they build an Arby’s over it or something, you can go in and have a Super Roast Beef sandwich all by your lonesome. My advice guys? Lay low on the GPS and go the jewelry route.

Down in Vegas. Drew and Lynn sat next to each other in the emergency aisle. We’re casting today, and Drew has the wonderful duty of photographing about 150-200 beautiful women. He better be careful not to crack wise or say anything male or disgusting about it though, cause Lynn’ll reach over and slap that boy silly. Lynn is such an amazing producer. I know, come Friday when we shoot, I can walk to the camera and put my eye into it and not worry about anything else, cause I know everything’s been handled. And Drew’s been great. He came into the studio back in October and started traveling and running things without skipping a beat.

Lessee…more odd, ironical stuff. Walter Isasscson just wrote an interesting piece for TIME about the future of newspapers. Tough thing, though, is he writes about saving newspapers in an issue of TIME that’s about 4 pages thick. The supernova egos of the scribes and pundits at TIME must be really gasping for oxygen at this point, as the relevance of the magazine drifts. They still are doing a great job with a fraction of the resources they used to have, but man….TIME was always the photographic flagship as well, even though it was run by word merchants. The very good picture editors up there, like Mark Rykoff and Hillary Raskin, always got good shooters in the right places, even if they didn’t use the pictures all that well. As a magazine, it lives in the world of words. As one of their more peacock writers once proclaimed at a location dinner (I was actually invited), “Joe’s pictures are the whores that sell the chalice of my words.” Hmmm…

Good stuff…kudos to Syl Arena for outing the sumbitch who was just cloning people’s blogs and running it as his or her own proprietary site. Syl led the charge, and the site came down.

Great series of posts from David Hobby. As usual, helpful, informative, and funny. The Harrington link to cute kittens killed me.

I’m ranting of course, and that’s mostly cause I haven’t been able to have my daily morning rant with my buddy Bill of late about the state of things and I’m really missing it. He’s had this crazy bronchial pneumonia, bronchitis, throat thing for the last month or so. He’s been going in to work, but unable to talk at great lengths. I told him it was very clever to vector himself into the work force as a one man viral terror attack. Job security being what it is, if he can knock off a few co-workers, it might be just the thing.

Its jarring now when you get his phone message. I’ve gotten used to the new voice, which is somewhere between Tom Waitts and Darth Vader, but the old Bill is there on his recording, clear as a bell. Told him I thought he should change it up to some sort of Joe Cocker-esqe greeting, something where one protracted, guttural vowel sound would pass as a greeting. This would be punctuated by a resonant splat as he pulls the phone away, makes a long sucking sound like folks do in a Japanese noodle shop, thus accumulating the contents of his nasal passages in the back of his throat, which of late has been something of his own personal Baikonur Cosmodrome. The splat occurs when he then hocks an enormous loogie right up against the plate glass window he has by his phone. Give him a call. I can give you his number.  It’s an altogether bracing way to start the day.

Back on a plane yesterday. Cell phone envy. I guess I’ve got it. I have one of those really cheap, simple phones. It feels like it tumbled out of a Cracker Jack box. But everybody else on that plane had some Blackberry, Noodleberry, or IPhone with like 300 apps. It’s like a cult or club or something. Moose Peterson actually blogged about being over at Scott Kelby’s one Friday night, watching football, and everybody started comparing Iphone apps. I was teasing Moose, ya know, like whoo…baby, what a wild night! Were the police called?

I mean the guy next to me sat down and just started typing into this thing he pulled out of holster on his belt. Swear to God. It was like sitting next to the Dirty Harry of Blackberry users. This thing was enormous, and had like flashing lights and shit. He could type almost as fast as my youngest daughter, who types faster than those guys talk when they come on at the end of a commercial and need to qualify what was just advertised. “Rates vary in some states. What we just said was bullshit in every state. We really didn’t mean it, what you just saw was a come on cleverly disguised as an offer so we could entice old people to call our 800 number so we can get our mitts on their retirement accounts.” It doesn’t really register cause they talk so fast.

So then we take off and he switches up to his computer which is some sort of monster Dell that makes kind of a Tarzan yell when he opens it, and man he starts peckin’ away on that like he’s getting’ paid by the keystroke. This went on for a while, and I just about had enough so I start pseudo-Photoshopping some pictures I thought might knock him off his stride a bit.  I’ve got the new Macbook Pro, the 15 incher with the glossy screen so there’s no way he couldn’t notice. That thing is so bright and contrasty they could use ‘em in the searchlight towers of a maximum security penitentiary.

It worked.I could tell he was sneaking glances, cause he started to make typos…heh-heh.

Today when we left JFK we had to make a tight turn to the runway and right behind us was an Air France jet, and I could just about see into the cockpit. In the interest of international relations, I pressed my face to the window and started mouthing “Frog Pussy!” I think they saw me, cause I swear the co-pilot was mouthing back, “Mick Bastard!” Runway fun.

You know I never really mean offense by any of that stuff. I’ve been on the road for over 30 years, and I’m pretty addled at this point, plus enormously sleep deprived, and that probably contributes to the oddball train of thoughts that trundle through my brain at all hours of the day, especially the early hours. I mean, ya gotta laugh doing this, or you’ll just start weeping uncontrollably. Remember in the Perfect Storm? The boat capsized and it’s over, and the tough guy on the crew, played by William Fichtner (who always does a great job) is standing in an upside down cabin of the boat, his macho exterior cracked and splintered, crying as it fills with water? As photogs, we could all just stop right where we are and do that. But I refuse. Hard as this is, just still love it. Love it, love it, love it. That essential thing, coupled with a mildly bent sense of humor, keeps me going. Bleary eyed, but still going. I’ve come to embrace the shot below as something of a self portrait. That camera made the entire 1000 miles of the Baja race, clamped to one of the dune buggies, and this is how it came back. Battered, beat up, but still shooting pictures. (It was a loaner camera, by the way, Nikon was not pleased.)

I’m sure they’ll box me up and cart me away someday. I have dreams about this sanitarium type place I end up, sorta like the one Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday ended up in towards the end of Tombstone, one of my favorite really bad movies. He’s in a bed, white sheets, white pillows, white walls. Everything white, then he can’t feel his toes, and then…nothing. His reported last words were, “Damn…this is funny.”  It would serve me right to make the passage in monochrome after shootin’ all that damn Kodachrome….more tk.

Random Thoughts in the Cold

Jan 3

In Seminars & Workshops, Thoughts at 4:12pm

Thankfully, this year will start pretty much the way last year did–-with the Digital Landscape Workshop Series in the cold of Yellowstone Park. It is magnificent. Hell, even I got a couple of decent landscapes, but that was mostly cause I went over and stood by Moose.These jaunts are terrific for me, cause I get to brush up on my wildlife biology. Did you know bison use their overlarge head as a snowplow in winter months to push aside the surface snow and get to the vegetation underneath?

Actually, me in the wild is ridiculous. I can spot a creep or a weirdo three cars away on the NYC subway, but out there I’m frikkin’ clueless. I looked up last year and the whole staff was waving at me, desperately gesturing. A bison had walked up behind me and was close enough to pick my pocket. This horned beast bigger than a mini-van just strolled up beside me while I was like, checking my white balance or blowing my nose or doing some other nerdy, East Coast, big city, pansy ass flatlander bullshit . Thankfully, he was uninterested, probably cause I had been wearing my snow pants constantly for about three days and smelled bad. After he walked past, I looked out at Moose, standing on the road. He just closed his eyes and shook his head.

I’m looking forward to it. Maybe we’ll have the same driver! I tell ya, wheeling around in a six ton snowcat with somebody as psychologically brittle as the ice in the trees adds zest to the day. We had a couple brothers out with us last year who were both docs, and they sat directly behind me. After one particularly harrowing slide around the back roads, complete with narration, I must have looked very worried cause one of ‘em reached around and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Joe, we’ve got the hypodermic ready.” I hope they signed up again.

Hey, how about that Kelby guy? Has he got connections or what??!! A custom made Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 lens with VR! Talk about having your cake and being able to hold it steady while you eat it!

Scott was joking around of course, and the lens don’t exist, but some folks kinda took the news and ran with it. It re-convinced me of a couple of things….A) the power and reach of Scott’s voice in this industry, and…B) the passion folks have out there for digital photography. Pretty cool. Got me to thinking.

If I could custom design a camera, what would I put in there?

First, it would be called the D3Z Transformer model, or something like that. It would have the voice of Optimus Prime and at the start of each shoot, his rich, reasonable, impassioned baritone would beseech the subject: “Give this worthy photographer time and access to do his good work upon which the fate of many hangs.”

I mean, who wouldn’t listen? If they didn’t you could switch to “Vader Mode” and the camera would start to emit aqualung type noises. A far more sinister voice would then intone: “I find your lack of enthusiasm disturbing.” The camera would then send out some sort of sonic infrared radio signal that would constrict the subject’s air passages. I mean, they figured out how to send flash exposure information wrapped around light frequencies, surely they could figure this out. Talk about useful technology.

It would have—Custom Menu Function M3—This is the  “NOT THAT LENS, ASSHOLE!”  custom function that activates automatically whenever you are about to make an irretrievably stupid lens choice. I would hear this often.

It would definitely have “The Moose Peterson Move.” This would cause the camera to stop and make a beautiful picture out of something you just walked past and didn’t see.

I would attach the blinking highlight warning to an air raid siren.

The grip on the camera would be wired to read my pulse and blood pressure, and it would also have audio sensitivity so that my muttered utterances which currently simply bounce quietly off the lcd and disappear unrecorded into the air are actually duly noted and metered for stress in my voice patterns. If my pulse or BP spikes, or I complain too much about the situation, the light, the time, the fee, or my own ineptitude, a voice from deep within the camera quietly but firmly says, “Remember Joe, you said yes.” Thus admonished, I continue to shoot.

It would have a very selective function button called the “Celebrity Tool.” You could only apply it to certain subjects who have, you know, potential. This would lighten and coif the hair, maybe trim a few pounds, smooth out the skin, automatically turn the photo vertical and slap some appropriate tabloid magazine logo on it, like, you know, “Starrzz with Buzzz!” In a sub-menu of this move would be a variety of add-on or design options:

Insertion of an incredibly cute puppy.

Selection of splashy, eye grabbing pull quotes, such as…”____Speaks! I’m Still Pissed!” Or, “Available Now! Space in My Womb!” Or perhaps an inflamed admission: “_____to _____ : It’s The Bodyguard’s Baby!” Thus packaged, it would then be dispatched wirelessly to your agent who could possibly pass this person off as “the next big thing.”

Right next to the RGB selector in the new color menu would be an autofocus mode called GWB…means the camera will focus on nothing.

I would also request a sports version of this highly advanced picture making machine that would include:

Custom Function “Brett Favre” –An auto function. Whenever you make a good frame, the camera runs around and slaps you on the butt, shouting “Way to Go!” Being whacked on the ass is vastly preferable to what is generally happening back there to most photographers in the current business climate.

The “Plaxico Burress Default Mechanism”–This is a locking device that initiates whenever you have it slung over your shoulder, dangling at your hip. It prevents the camera from accidentally shooting your leg. (Good thing Burress didn’t shoot himself in the ass, he’d have brain damage on top of everything else.)

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Lessee….hey, if you want to start your New Year off right, have a laugh, be photographically enlightened, and look at pictures that leap right out of a very spring loaded imagination, go to Drew Gardner’s website and blog.

As they say in England, positively “mad” not to mention “brilliant.” Drew is based in London, and shoots and teaches everywhere, including good old Maine Photo Workshops and over at GPP in Dubai. He has categories on his site, like “Epic Fashion,” which perfectly describes his approach and invariably involves beautiful women, dangerous men, funky teenagers, all manner of woodland creatures and an entire array of barnyard animals. He also has the audacity to have a category called “eccentrics.” I pinged that and expected a self portrait.

He’s unstinting in dispensing his considerable knowledge, a genius at controlling huge shoots (fashion models and wild animals, what could go wrong?) and a hoot to boot. He’s also a good guy. I know this cause he tolerates my antics when we teach together. Last year in Dubai I tried to light a room by bouncing an SB800 off his bald pate. He was very patient, even though he got a little sunburned when I went to manual 1/1.

Check out the K-Man who almost took the plunge with a bunch of Jersey Polar Bears who ran into the Atlantic Ocean for charity. Cool post, and nice shooting. Photographers. We’re crazy, right? The manual says don’t get the camera wet, and we just don’t listen.

I’m always shooting my own stuff, but might try for some sort of personal project stuff this year, along the lines of Mark Seliger’s pictures in his elevator shaft thing. I’m thinking about, “Pictures from Under my Porch.” There’s a lot goin’ on down there, I tell ya.

I jest of course, though a buddy of mine, Aaron Ansarov, started a project called “In My Backyard” which has taken on a life, literally, of its own and the last news I had, a piece of it might run in the National Geographic. As I always say, the best pix are right there in front of you.

Hope some real good ones will be in front of all of us in 09….

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….