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We now continue with our original programming….
WARNING: LENGTHY POLEMIC AHEAD, NO PHOTOS
If you had asked me, even a few months ago, how I felt about the state of my photography career, I would’ve given you the same answer I’d been using for years: “I’m still in my start-up phase.”
I like to think of myself as a newbie in photography. And, taking a long view, I suppose that’s still true. I expect to be shooting for at least another 30 years (hopefully much more), and the paltry amount of time I have under my belt right now will ultimately represent a small percentage of what I hope will be the total. The depth of my photographic ignorance is profound, and I will never have enough time on this earth to learn what I want, and need, to know about making photographs.
But lately, I’ve settled into an uneasy acceptance that in fact, I’ve “made it”, at least in financial terms. For the past several years, I’ve had enough money to do pretty much what I want; and my business grows year over year in pleasing amounts. It’s been a long time since I worried about having enough money next week (as I once did), or next month, or even next year. Better still, I’m getting the kind of work I really want to get; I find most of my shoots to be very fulfilling. I’m doing fine; I’ve “made it” as a photographer. Things could certainly go awry, and there is plenty of uncharted territory ahead; but I can no longer pretend that I’m a start-up.
So, yay! for me…but that’s caused me to think a lot about how exactly this has happened. How did I come to this place, where no rational person would have predicted I’d be? I occasionally get asked to speak on this topic, and I’ve always struggled to identify the characteristics and habits etc. that I felt were important…..other than to say that luck had absolutely NOTHING to do with it (on that score I’m quite sure).
I was frankly lucky to have gotten out of high school, though, and I literally flunked out of college (cumulative GPA: 1.8). When I “became” a photographer, I did not have the first clue about what I was getting into. I took no photography classes, read precious few books, did zero assisting. I had never actually met a professional photographer. The odds were so high against me that if I’d had any inkling of what my prospects were, I’d have been too scared to try. But, I didn’t know any better.
So what was the magic ingredient?
Before we go any further, let me just state for the record that I absolutely LOVE what I do for a living. I’m one of those rare artists who actually does his “personal work” as a source of income. So while I’m about to go off on a long-winded spiel about the True Nature of Hard Work, let’s set as a baseline that I’m a very happy guy. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to replace the words “hard work” with the words “happy obsession” for the remainder of this essay.
I deal with a LOT of up-and-coming photographers, people who absolutely don’t think they’ve yet “made it”. They’re at the beginning of the journey, and it’s shocking how many never “get there”. I’ve stood in rooms filled with aspiring photographers and asked them a simple question: “How many people here are willing to work hard, to reach their goals?” Every hand in the room goes up, every time. And a lot of them roll their eyes at me, too. It’s a stupid question; who isn’t willing to work hard, to make their dreams come true?
Turns out, a lot of people aren’t. They say they are, but they aren’t. That, or they don’t know what I mean when I say “hard work”, and “sacrifice”, and “tenacity”. So today I’m going to try and explain this stuff.
A while ago, I was part of a video profile featuring 8 photographers, talking about the nature of success. There I am, blathering about how I still cold-call clients, but some of the biggest names in the industry (McNally, Heisler, Burnett) were talking about hard work. And “Hard Work” turns out to be surprisingly simple.
Since then I’ve had this conversation with a number of colleagues, all of whom have similarly “made it”, and it turns out we all agree: most people are simply un-willing to work hard enough to get where they say they want to be. I’m surrounded by startup and would-be photographers who insist that they intend to rise to the very top; but when push comes to shove, it always seems like there’s a different priority. They’re going camping. They have to visit their cousin. The big game is this weekend. Their friend is in from out of town. They have people over for dinner tonight. They’re attending a wedding.
These folks, by all appearances, have rich, full lives. I compare this with my life and see profound differences. I work a lot. Weekends don’t always mean much to me, because I work most of them. My photography has impacted my relationships (and not in a good way), has pushed aside pretty much every hobby or interest I had when I started, and dominates my social life (basically, all my friends are photographers). I do know photographers who are happily married and raising children….and frankly I’m in awe of them. I don’t know how they do it. One friend says, “A very understanding wife.”
I used to think that I was staying up until 1:00am because I was incompetent. “If I can’t out-shoot them,” I thought, “I’ll out-work them.” But it turns out, staying up late is how it’s done. Every successful photographer I know stays up late, and/or gets up early. Every one of them is pretty much monomaniacal about their photography. Happily Obsessed, you might say.
WHAT IS THIS “HARD WORK” YOU SPEAK OF?
OK, so what the hell am I doing at 1:00am? Back when I was truly a start-up, that was a pretty legitimate question. When you don’t have any work, there’s not really a lot to do, right?
Wrong. I didn’t have clients to take care of, but not having clients is no excuse for not shooting. There was a time, before I got my first digital camera, when I couldn’t even afford film and processing. I would walk around Oakland with an empty Olympus 35mm SLR, shooting photos just as if there were film in the camera — trying to teach myself composition. I read horribly tedious books with titles like “Light, Science, and Magic” (not nearly as exciting as the title implies), and “The Art of RAW Conversion” (even more boring than the title sounds). I spent hours online, studying the work of other photographers. Later, I self-produced shots that I wanted to make, that I wanted in my portfolio (and I still do this today).
I had filing systems and bookkeeping systems and backup systems in place long before I really needed them, and most of the time they sucked and I had to re-work them once I actually had things to file, and back up, and deposit. But I learned from those mistakes – by the time I really needed to do it, it wasn’t my first time.
Today, hard work means a couple of things. When I’m shooting, it means getting up at 6:00am (or more like 4:00am, if there’s a pre-dawn call time), eating a truly crappy hotel breakfast (or no breakfast at all, see: “pre-dawn call time”, above) and then being on location at 7:30, shooting until 8:00pm, eating a burrito and then sitting on my hotel room bed until midnight, editing photos, typing out contracts (email doesn’t stop, even when you’re shooting), comparing calendars, and figuring out travel arrangements for the next gig.
When I’m not shooting, it means even more tedious stuff. Repairing and organizing gear, finding the burned-out light bulbs that broke thanks to TSA (I carry light bulbs to every shoot. File under: Hard Work for my assistant). It means having all my bookkeeping and files in order and staying on top of re-touching requests etc. so that when a client calls and needs me to be in LA tomorrow, I can do it and the rest of my business doesn’t fall apart.
This is true whether I’m excited about the gig, or not. And I think this is a really, really important point: you can’t scale your effort according to the relative merits of the project. I’m not suggesting that you lay out hard cash on resources that will drive you into the red on a particular job. But effort – how hard you work it – that should not be a budget item. Few things drive me to distraction more than listening to someone defending their mediocre photos by saying that if it had been a “high-end” gig, they’d have done this and that differently. Listen, buddy: if you want that “high-end” gig, you’d better be doing this, that and every other thing on ALL of your gigs. Starting now.
WHEN IT’S EASY, IT’S EASY. BUT WHEN IT’S HARD…
“Hard Work” means always going balls-out on every job. Getting up early and skipping breakfast and working long hours (like I described above) is easy when the work is fun and exciting. But what about when the work sucks? What about when the client doesn’t really care one way or the other? Are you still willing to roll out of bed at Oh-Dark-Thirty? I once shot an interiors gig for a new client that was, from a design standpoint, utterly abysmal. They knew this; it was a utilitarian structure, and no one pretended otherwise. But the photography needed to be done, the place needed to look good, and they hired me. I knew from the moment I walked in the door that this was never going in my portfolio. The place was, frankly, depressing. But I took the project seriously. I worked damn hard, for two days, photographing it. I waited for the good light. I did things that were very nuanced, that probably no one but me would ever care about. I composed shots carefully, and lit them with all the skill I have. I could’ve just phoned it in, cashed my check, moved on. But I didn’t: I shot the crap out of that place.
So here is where I’m supposed to tell you that this client turned into the best client I ever had, and made me tons of money, etc. etc. But that didn’t happen. It was just a difficult 2-day shoot of a boring project, nothing more. So do I regret having put out the effort?
Why? Two reasons. First, I firmly believe that maintaining that disciplined attitude is crucial to success. They hired me based on my reputation and portfolio. What does it say to my next client if I don’t put my best work forward on today’s shoot? Secondly, it’s a form of autonomy. Whether or not I do good work is dependent 100% on me, not on external circumstance. Hire me, you get quality material…..period. The design might suck, but my photography won’t. My client might not care, but I will. Self-employment means I get to live life on my own terms, and I take advantage of that every chance I get.
THERE IS NO TRY….THERE IS ONLY DO, OR DO NOT
Success isn’t easy – but at least it’s not complicated! For sure, there are multiple factors involved (brains, talent), but I think it’s clear that you only need two out of three… and it’s the work ethic that’s the must-have.