A new look at complaining about the “good old days”

I was exchanging e-mails with Bob Krist, a freelance photographer who works regularly on assignment for National Geographic Traveler. Our dialogue started with the idea that when we were younger, the older photographers we admired complained about the good old days. I wondered if, today, when he and I are no longer young and are more prone to complain, are we just being nostalgic or is something really being lost in today’s photography market/climate?

First, as a rule, I hate nostalgia. I simply do not believe in it! Some years certainly are better than others, but my life generally has been moving forward in more good ways than bad. I also strongly believe that as a whole, this country and humanity are making progress and moving forward.

In my experience, people who are waxing nostalgic are often people who do not like change. Or, they are the people who used to be “on top” somehow and are no longer. Because I am Jewish and have a non-Jewish last name, I frequently have been able to fairly easily pass back and forth between being part of the “majority” and being part of “the minority.” Over the decades of doing that, I have come to one clear conclusion on the question of nostalgia and “the good old days.” The vast majority of people who talk about that are older white men, who in fact probably do miss the old order. Women, minorities and gays, for example, have little serious interest in going back to the way things were in “the good old days.” This is the core of why I have been loath to complain about the situation in today’s photography market/climate.

Still I posed the question to Bob who is, like me, an older white man. I have known Bob (and his work) long enough to know that he is not nostalgic for a time when gender and race roles were more rigidly defined. You can see his work at: http://bobkrist.com/ I think that we are both worried about something much different when we talk about the “good old days.” By the way, this is not a tirade against digital imaging, because I have embraced digital technology with a passion.

Bob wrote me:

“There is something being lost…. I have empirical evidence. Back when I was in my early 30’s, I was delivering a small B&W regional shoot to the offices of the magazine Travel & Leisure. (The soon to be famous) Bill Black was the young photo-editor and he kept pushing me in front of Adrian Taylor, the Art Director who made all the big assignments. Also in the office that day were three of the big guns—-Burt Glinn, Larry Dale Gordon, and John Lewis Stage. They were all going to lunch and I got invited to tag along.

Lunch with my heroes! Glinn had just finished shooting an entire special issue of Travel & Leisure on Thailand. In those days, the page rate of the magazine was $600 per page and he had something like 54 pages in that issue alone. Larry Dale Gordon was just back from a four-week shoot for Marlboro (he was one of the guys who shot the Marlboro Man, but he did everything from Playboy to annual reports). And John Lewis Stage was just back from shooting for three weeks in St. Tropez for Town and Country magazine.

And they were complaining, bitching, and moaning…. about how things were so much better when they were younger, the art directors were more creative, the layouts were better, the budgets were better etc. etc. etc.! I went home to my wife and kids in New Jersey and I can remember saying to Peggy, “I’ll never be an ungrateful, bitter middle-aged photographer…. these guys don’t know how lucky they are!”

Of course the same thing could be said about us complaining…. who in their 30’s today will have the careers that we’ve had? But I have to admit that from the 80’s till now, the working conditions, budgets, amount of days per job, etc. have declined steadily from one decade to the other. I do a talk where I track the rates I’ve been paid for working as a photo columnist since 1986. The decline is so precipitous that it bears noting. And it’s completely in reverse…. I started at the peak and have been riding that trend downhill ever since.

Lots of ways to share our work these days, lots more than ever. There are just not as many ways to get paid for our work. I’m glad my wife did the family investing, and she made us live modestly and save when times were really good. But I don’t want to stop working, I just have to hope that work doesn’t eventually cost me so much that I have to stop! Yes, with the ever present gear and computer upgrades, the website maintenance, the promotional mailings, etc. etc., sometimes it’s a close call as to what would be more profitable, to keep working or not? Right now, I make as much teaching and talking as I do shooting…maybe more, if you don’t count the stock. I like to joke that, “my new career is talking about my old career.”

Bob is a former professional actor who gives a great presentation when showing his work. I have heard his presentation a few different times and each time I am reminded how his previous life shapes who he is now. The story telling skills he uses in his presentation (and his photography) undoubtedly help him when he is working in the field, photographing people. He literally has a gift with people and if that skill, on top of the great photography he makes, are not enough to keep him going then yes, something does seem to have changed, and not for the better.

Early in my career, I also spent time with a few “old guys” who both complained about the good old days and dispensed wisdom that I later used as I built my career. They were John Barr and Bart Bartholomew, respectively freelancers under contract to Time magazine and the New York Times when I was working along side them. I think of them occasionally and wonder, like Bob Krist, how my current complaining compares with that of my predecessors.

Like Bob, I had my own “golden days,” though mine occurred about a decade later than his. My best photo-essays were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. Though they were not as grand as the ones he describes, a photo-story of mine that ran on the cover and was laid out over 6, 8 or 10 pages of that magazine was a big deal. While I was doing those projects, I worked with similarly great photo editors such as Bert Fox, Tom Gralish, Bill Marr and David Griffin, most of who have gone on to the National Geographic magazine. I was young and energetic when I was doing those projects but over time I saw the publication landscape shifting underneath me and before I knew it, I too was something of an “old guy” complaining about the changes.

Before I joined their ranks, I encountered numerous sets of these stereotypical “old guys” along my career path. Some were found in the darkrooms (and later the nearby bars) connected to major and minor newspapers on both coasts of the U.S. Others stood along side me and sneered at my youth and inexperience as I photographed politicians, movie stars and news events.

Yes, the “old guys” would talk nostalgically about the “good old days” when I was starting out. They would also share the wisdom they had learned (often the hard way) and simultaneously berate us as not being worthy of the work we were doing. John Barr was always especially tough on me. Years after I left Southern California, I saw him at a photo-agency party in New York City. He remembered me and told me, straight to my face, that he was sure back when we first met that “I would not amount to anything.” One of my career’s highlights was hearing John Barr say that he had been wrong.

The one thing that none of these same old guys did when I was starting out was to tell me not to pursue a life in photography. They warned me of the risks, elaborated on the rewards, while gently but surely pushed me forward. If I were twenty-five years old and starting out in the business today, would the contemporary old guys (and gals, a testament to progress) be as encouraging as the folks who pushed me forward decades ago? Now that I am becoming one of those “old guys,” I am sad to say, I think I would not be so encouraging. And that loss of optimism and hope for a better future, at least in photography, is a real palpable loss, for photographers and for our collective culture as a whole.

2 responses to “A new look at complaining about the “good old days””

  1. I think the issue is that photography as a craft and means to capture personal “vision” is still compelling, life changing, and touches many of us to our core. That said, it sure looks like its getting more difficult as a craft and trade in which any significant % of those who start out in now it will be able to make a living at doing.

    Ironically that is happening across much of the professional working landscape. There are whole ranges of trades and crafts that have become legacy or made obsolete by modern technology. Talked to any good typesetters or printing press operators lately?

    Likewise folks like me who work in the technology sales world are watching the value of and compensation for our work decrease while the actual work and the complexity of the products and the sales environment and sales process gets more complex and more difficult (and the employers get meaner and pettier in their treatment of employees, some of it out of necessity as profit margins thin and revenue growth slows down).

  2. re: john barr and his comments to you. Just think there’s an ex-CNN executive who told Katie Couric she didn’t belong on the air. Of course he’s a footnote in history and she’s the CBS nightly news anchor.

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