Defining my own place in photography

It is mid-September, which for me means the beginning of my working year. During the summer that just ended, like most recent summers, I certainly worked hard, but I also relaxed a good bit. So, now I am starting my busiest season of September to June. That is when I travel the most for work, teach most of my workshops, give most of my presentations, make most of my stock photos and do most of my assignments. I have been planning out the next nine months or so for the last year and a half. I am aware that in this age of last minute planning, this much advance planning seems counter-intuitive. But for me, such long-term planning allows me to get as close as possible to achieving most, if not all of my goals. Defining those goals has been a long process, as has been learning to manage my time in order to achieve them. That long (and continuing) journey is the subject of this week’s blog entry.

As I start this blog entry, I am near the end of my week as an instructor at the first annual California Photo Festival. The Festival ( ) brought together aspiring and established photographers from around the world for an intensive week of workshops, seminars, presentations and social gatherings. It was organized by the Light Workshops and took place in and around Los Osos, California, which is half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The invitation to be an instructor at this event was a small milestone in my career as a photographer. It proves to me that the choices I made years back, to define my own place in photography rather than using someone else’s model was the right decision for me.

As much as I would like to flatter myself by saying I knew all along that my goal was to “define my own place in photography rather than using someone else’s model,” I would be lying if I said it was anything other than complete dumb luck that it happened that way. Regular readers know that I studied the craft of photography extensively in high school (and to a degree in college.) I studied the history of photography in college (and beyond.) Together, those two efforts helped me understand the art and the craft of photography on a higher, almost philosophical level. What those two courses of study did not do was prepare me to make a living as a photographer. In order to learn how to be a pro, I assumed the best strategy was to mimic the lives and careers of the photographers I most admired.

When I started out as a newspaper photographer early in my career, I knew NOTHING about that line of work, so I modeled myself after my immediate peers. In hindsight, that may not have been such a good idea. I worked with some nice people but the arc of their careers since we met suggests that in many cases I should have looked elsewhere for role models.

In the first five years after college, I worked my way through newspaper jobs in different parts of the country and at different sizes of newspapers. I was continually encountering photographers who I might have modeled myself after, but …. I was not meant to be a newspaper photographer so after five plus years at various newspapers I became a magazine freelancer. Again, I initially tried to model myself after the more successful magazine photographers I knew. I was living in New York City at the time so there were plenty of magazine photographers to meet, know and even emulate. That did not work out well either.

In hindsight, but only in hindsight, it is easy to say why it was not so smart to be blindly emulating others rather than doing the hard working of finding my own path. On an obvious level, looking to others is often easier than asking yourself hard question. In my case, the people who I was looking to for guidance were sometimes inept, underhanded or even malevolent in their business and professional dealings. In other cases, they valued job security over creative autonomy. That is a choice they made and now I can respect that, but it was not for me. Still others were battling inner demons that tended to take them off track (and might have dragged me down with them had I become too intertwined in their lives.)

The fates (in the form of my first marriage,) took me out of NYC and to Philadelphia. There, I knew almost no one, no one knew me, and so I had a unique opportunity. After years of trying to emulate other photographers, I realized that all that was left for me to do was to accept who I was, where I was professionally, and then to reinvent myself.

In Philadelphia, I ended up doing photo-essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine and other publications. I started doing more and more in-depth projects on ever more complex topics. I also started winning grants and fellowships, which supported those same projects. Although the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times was considered more prestigious, the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine was exponentially better in their use of photography. The typical New York Times magazine story was writer-driven while almost all my stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine were photographer-driven! In the decade I was doing photo-essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine, 1986-1996, they won many, many more awards for photojournalism, magazine design, etc. as compared to the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine stopped publishing long form photo-essays, I had to come up with new ways to work. Because I had been licensing (over and over) some of the images from my in-depth photo-essays, it was a relatively easy transition into stock photography. Since the mid 1990s, I have been intensely focused on producing and licensing stock photos. Simultaneously, I have expanded further and further into the world of photography education. Teaching forces me to refine my photography as I share what I have learned over the years.

I have also become very good at planning my life and work so that my teaching, stock shoots and presentations usually happen as part of my typical two week long road trip. An example is that in November I will be visiting family near Detroit, and if my planning pays off, I will also be photographing inside more foreclosed houses for my ongoing project on the subject. Long term planning enables me to make most of my trips serve multiple purposes. This same advanced planning, which seems to be a dying art today, also gets me some remarkably good airfares, which is increasingly difficult as airlines cut capacity and raise airfares.

As a photographer who spent a lot of time looking for others to emulate, I am now more comfortable than ever with myself. So who am I? I like to think of myself as a photographer and a photo-educator. I know I am a commercial photographer because the vast majority of my income is derived from photographers that others pay to use. I like to think that I also work across disciplines, doing some fine-art photography, which I define as work that is exhibited on its own merits. This is compared to the assignment photography I do, where I make images that fit the clients needs and not necessarily my own. I am also an editorial photographer because much of my work is published, in print or on-line, in editorial contexts.

Because I am never one to waste an opportunity, I do not regret the process I went through of emulating others. It taught me many things. It especially helped me figure out who I do NOT want to be and what kind of work I do NOT want to do. That is a really important awareness! Photographers working to define themselves (and their styles,) will learn almost as much by figuring out what they do NOT want to do as they struggle to figuring what it is they WANT to do.

Now that I understand, in hindsight, my journey, I know what I actually did to get from where I started to where I am. What I did was eventually I learned to emulate traits and practices of different individuals rather than emulating the whole person. This is a better strategy because I am being truer to myself. Also, some photographers who I modeled myself after, turned out, over time to have clay feet. They disappointed me at various critical points when I was young and idealistic.

As this posts, I am teaching and photographing at the California Photo Festival with other accomplished photographers who have made similar journeys. Similar but different in that each one had their own unique starting point, their own particular journey which brought them to their specific final destination (where they are today.) I have met new people to get to know better many of who have traits and practices to consider and emulate.

This point is equally true for the students here. Those who listen carefully have an opportunity to find photographers with practices and traits to consider and emulate. Assuming they look past the photographer’s perennial focus on gear, they should realize, it’s the photographers, not the technology that makes the image.

Just one example of new traits and practices to consider and emulate came to me from the photographer Hanson Fong, who I met here. In emphasizing the point that it is the photographers, not the technology, he says, “no piece of gear ever thought, saw or felt for you.” That point is something ANY photographer, aspiring or established, should keep in mind.

2 responses to “Defining my own place in photography”

  1. re: “no piece of gear ever thought, saw or felt for you.”

    true. But its true that Ansel Adams saw or felt about the images he was capturing, if he’d shot them with a kodak brownie instead of a 8×10 view camera we might not be spending much time talking about his work and his original prints might not be fetching hundreds of thousands of $’s today.

    being a good photographer with a vision doesn’t eliminate having the right tools or appropriate tools no more than being armed with all the latest and greatest photographic tools makes anyone a good photographer.

    neither view, concentrating on the tools or concentrating on the image and the vision is a zero sum binary proposition.

    “A sword is useless in the hands of a coward.”

  2. Defining your own place is important on both microscopic levels (individual images) and macroscopically in the path one takes. It would seem necessary to follow both the “right” path and the passionate path to truly take you there. And it would seem the challenge is to know these paths when you are there.

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