I took a walk around the marathon area tonight. The city was quiet and mostly deserted, but the intersection of Boylston and Arlington Streets was buzzing. The platoon of satellite trucks, news sets and network anchors served as a vivid reminder that the eyes of the world are focused on Boston right now.
I looked at my bleary-eyed reflection in the mirror this morning and said “You’re a dinosaur”. And in a strange way, I decided that I was OK with that.
You see, dinosaurs, among them giants who apparently behaved like meat-eating bastards when they were in charge, in hindsight seem kind of cool and awesome. And in hindsight, isn’t that how we all want folks to think of us– that we are, or at least once were, cool and awesome?
I’ve been at this photography thing for a long time, and I’m getting old. If I’m a dinosaur, I’m one of those harmless, lumbering, leaf eaters. I’m a little dated and out of style, I admit it, but I can’t ever recall ripping anything limb from limb.
I still believe that that leviathan of kinky chic Helmut Newton said a mouthful when he said “look, I’m not an intellectual. I just take pictures.”
I still believe, in the words of Elliott Erwitt (another old fart and true giant if there ever was one) that photography should “have some relevance to the human condition and might represent work that evokes knowledge and emotions. That photography has content rather than just form”. I believe that, and I’ve always done my best to practice what I believe. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I’m no giant.
I still believe, as hard as it is now and always has been to make a living in any kind of creative endeavor, that my students have a better chance than most to pull it off, as long as they understand what it means to want such a thing and actually behave accordingly. And I still believe I can help them do both for a few more years.
I keep thinking of this conversation I had with a meat-eating former colleague a few years back. I was proudly recounting one of my program’s many success stories, a recent graduate who was scraping together a happy and fulfilling life as a young professional photographer. She met all of my requirements for success- she was paying the rent, putting food on her table, driving a decent car that started reliably whenever she needed it to, and was even able to take a nice vacation from time to time. All by calling her own shots as a shooter.
“See!” I said to him. “What we do does work. Our students do find success. It’s not hopeless trying to make a living as a photographer.”
He wasn’t having any of it. His definition of success and mine were, to put it mildly, somewhat at odds with each other.
“You don’t remember the 80’s”, he replied, an aging velociraptor wistfully recalling the blood orgies of his Jurassic youth.
Well, yeah, Dino, I do. I remember miserably cold winter nights shivering in a converted garage apartment I sometimes couldn’t afford to heat because I wasn’t making enough money as a wedding photographer. I remember barely getting by as a freelance photo assistant living in a former whorehouse on the wrong end of the east side of Providence, RI just so I could be within walking distance of a great art school I couldn’t afford to attend, but whose public lectures I went to anyway. I remember how it felt to meet and speak casually to historic giants like Duane Michals and William Wegman and Cindy Sherman. It was there that I first spotted the interesting contradictions between the all-too-human creators and their sublime creations.
I remember so many highs and lows and ups and downs over so many years in this roller coaster of a life that it’s a wonder I don’t have a barf bag permanently stitched to my chin. And right now it feels like there’s another big dip coming up just ahead. Urp.
There was this other conversation I had just this morning with a colleague and mentor, a world-roaming, yellow-bordered giant who I admire tremendously. He told me about an article in the current issue of Aperture, the fading journal of “serious” photography founded in the 1950’s by, among others, the major giant Minor White. Entitled Hello, photography, it bemoans the doom of the medium in a whole lot of no uncertain words. Cliff-Noting it for me, my friend said “we’re all screwed”.
Then he told me about a party he had attended in Boston last night for a local giant who entered his fifteen minutes of prime-time TV fame as a “photo coach” on the USA Network’s new reality series The Moment. Our pal was barking out camera-handling commands to an attractive young contestant as she struggled to run up and down the sidelines of an outdoor basketball court juggling a quartet of Nikon D4s sporting howitzer-sized lenses.
“Is this what we have to do these days to keep it going- a reality TV show?” I asked.
“I guess”, he replied. “I just parked the car, ran in to the party to congratulate him and shake his hand, then turned around and went straight home to bed. I’m no good past 9:00.”
I know the feeling. I’m getting old, like I said. I was invited to the party, too, but I had something more important to do last night. I was down the street and around the corner a few blocks, celebrating the opening reception of a huge student photography exhibit with a talented group of young photographers from my school. There wasn’t a giant or a dinosaur among them, and while they too see the fiery speck in the southern sky growing closer, it doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us dinosaurs. They were standing tall last night, and boy are they hungry.
Last night’s opening reception at BU’s Photographic Resource Center for the 2013 Student Exhibition was another standing-room-only sellout! Even though admission was free and there weren’t any chairs anyway, neither would have mattered. The PRC’s gallery was mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd of students, friends, family and faculty who surely would have paid any price to see the work from 18 university photography programs throughout New England.
As always, CDIA’s presentation represents the scope and focus of our program, and as usual, we looked great on the walls next to some of the country’s best known schools and universities.
A bunch of current students, graduates and family turned out for the evening’s festivities. A small “for instance”:
Jay and Freddy discussed the technical aspects of Jay’s shot while Jay’s mom tried to make sense of it all. The rest of their contingent from New Jersey stood nearby, stroking their chins while mumbling “interesting” over and over again as instructed. Freddy, by the way, was narrowly edged out for the Image Award, which would have put his eerily cool model shot on the postcard, press release and posters for the show. Missed it by that much!
Jaypeg and Tiff made a personal appearance to pat each other on the back and to be persuaded once again to name their young wedding business properly.
And can you say “CDIA grads are flooding the workforce”? Sure you can, because Steve Pugliese (chief photographer at online streetwear retailer Karmaloop) was there,
as was the PRC’s official photographer Helena Goessens,
and NY Times stringer Kat Taylor, whose awkward hug between Presidents Clinton and Obama shot during her post-CDIA graduate studies was featured prominently on BU Comm’s wall.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and was yet another reminder of why I love my job so much. Congrats to exhibiting photogs Freddy Lam, Daniel Blue, Jay Lublang, Tiffany Williams, Jessica Beauleu, Leibniz Alexandre, John Catrambone, and graphic designer Rachel Wright. Your work looks great.
And thanks to everybody who came out to support CDIA and the PRC, including, from left to right above, Jay, Justin, Daniel, Leibniz, Jackie, Surabhi, and Edward.
Work kept me away from Opening Day at Fenway Park yesterday for the first time in a few years, but Jenny was able to break away from meetings in time to see most of the last inning. Here’s my homage from seasons past- closing day 2010.
This is a long piece, I know, but I hope it will all make some kind of sense to at least some of you, especially those interested or already involved in wedding photography. I thank everyone who inspired and encouraged me to finally write this- you may or may not know who you are.
Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, my great grandfather started a printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, which, for many, many years was one of the finest and most successful letterpress shops in that city. Nearly every male descendant of Charles Jefferson Armor, including my great uncle, my grandfather, and my father, worked there for most if not all of their lives. I recall with great fondness the occasional Saturday mornings when I would accompany my dad into work, stopping first at the Horn and Hardart automat at 8th and Market St. for cream donuts and hot chocolate. Incidentally, and an interesting tangent to my story here, H&H (as it was known for nearly a century) closed its doors in Philly forever in the late 70‘s. It was another victim of the fast food craze being led by more ubiquitous, lower cost chains like McDonald’s, whose shiny new franchise quickly occupied the automat’s former space at 8th and Market.
After breakfast we’d walk the several bustling Center City blocks to a tall brick building at 10th and Race. Painted on the wall seven floors overhead, a bold sign proudly proclaimed my family’s name Lyon and Armor, Inc., Printers and Publishers to the city skyline.
I always marveled at the full suit of armor that greeted visitors to the firm’s front office on the sixth floor. It was fake, of course, but for some reason my great uncle felt the need to put evidence of his Anglo-Saxon heritage right up front (as if his name, C. Wesley Armor wasn’t enough of a tipoff). The warren of offices and low partitions– refined, businesslike but maybe a little dated for the swinging sixties– would make a postmodern design-obsessed retrophile froth at the mouth with its bent maple and frosted glass art deco-ness. My dad’s small office was in the front, but for me, the action was always out back on the shop floor. That’s where my grandfather would be working behind his steaming, clanking Linotype typesetting machine (pictured above). From across the vast room I’d see him sitting there typing away contentedly, pipe in mouth, transcribing copy from a sheet of paper into the huge greasy contraption that looked like a prop from the movie Brazil (but without the ductwork). He’d look up from his work, smile and shout “hello, kiddo!”, and in the time it took me to make my way past the presses and the composing tables he had punched out a thin slug of hot lead type that read John Randall Armor backwards on its narrow edge. Some of my most cherished possessions are a Parker fountain pen blackened by his permanently ink-stained fingers, along with a few beautiful books with endplate inscriptions reading Linotype Composition by the Master Printer John Pharo Armor.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Lyon and Armor was in trouble back then. Technology was changing the printing business in profound ways, first with the advent of offset presses, then with early computer technology in the form of photo typesetting. These cost-cutting and time-saving innovations were driving prices down and competition up. Faced with the overwhelming challenge of converting what had for over half a century been a mature and static infrastructure into a more modern facility, my grandfather and great uncle cashed out and reluctantly sold the business in 1971. Under new ownership, Lyon and Armor, Inc. moved from downtown Philly to a nondescript industrial park in the northern suburbs. With the sale went the good name of the business in the person of my father, Charles Winston Armor. As the only Armor remaining in what quickly became just another small print shop trying to compete in a rapidly changing industry, the pressure of maintaining the family name and reputation in a business that could no longer afford to care much about either took its toll on him, and he died a very young man at 50 in 1980. The mostly abandoned building with its fading sign at 10th and Race survived into the early nineties, when it was demolished without ceremony after a fire.
It took many years, but technology killed the printing industry’s traditional business model as dead as fast food chains killed H&H, while at the same time spawning entirely new ones. Cheap, high quality print-on-demand products like the Moo cards and Blurb books on the desk in front of me as I write this are but two examples of what grew from that revolution.
I remember a conversation I had with my dad toward the end of his life. I was maybe 17 or 18, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my own, and he said to me “whatever you do, don’t go into printing”.
And yet I somehow soon found my way into the periphery of his world. In 1987, I took a part-time job as a production artist with the art and design supply retailer Charrette while I was trying to get a freelance photography business off the ground. It was a fortuitous gig that would eventually lead to me running their in-house photography studio for almost 5 years. It would also allow me to participate first hand in the desktop publishing revolution that pushed our drawing boards, parallel rules, X-acto knives, stat cameras and photo typesetting system into the dumpster, replaced by shiny new beige Macintosh SE30 computers running Aldus Pagemaker on 7” monochrome displays.
Like the printing industry before it, technology killed both the process and the business model of traditional commercial design and pre-press production, this time seemingly overnight. The woman who used to run Charrette’s photo typesetting system reluctantly adapted to the boxy little Mac computers while teaching the rest of us some of the finer points of typography. Suddenly we were all designers, production artists and typesetters, and all of our work improved as a result of the new tools and integrated skillsets. Those who ignored the sea change soon became none of the above.
If you’ve followed my story in previous posts on this blog, you know I went through the same change yet again less than a decade later, as traditional photography began its own inevitable shift toward digital. Those who didn’t change with it saw their businesses and relevance decline, slowly at first, but unsustainably at last. And now, everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) is a photographer, and all of our work has the potential to be better than we ever could have imagined. The fact that surprisingly little of it ever does rise to meet that potential has nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with the belief that technology alone makes our work better.
All of that is meant to present my bona fides as someone conversant with the concept of change in my professional specialty. And all of that now brings me to my point.
In this past Sunday’s New York Times Style section, an article entitled For Photographers, Competition Gets Fierce caught my eye. The main thrust of the story describes the struggle many established photographers are having trying to compete with the growing numbers of newcomers and part-time “mamarazzis” charging $1000 or less to shoot a wedding, delivering nothing more than a disc of digital files and a handshake to the happy couple at the end of their big day. In many markets, this is already destroying the traditional studio’s business and profit model of selling high-markup items like prints and albums after the shoot itself. Needless to say, established wedding photographers are pissed.
The article closes with one of them describing how, instead of staying pissed, he decided to adjust to the evolving nature of the business and his clients’ expectations by closing his large studio and moving to a warmer climate with its longer shooting season. Understanding that $1000 for less than a day’s work is not exactly chump change for a one-man business with little overhead, he seems to have happily found a way to make it work. I can only assume that this photographer shoots other types of work to supplement his wedding income– even a wedding a week is only $52 grand a year, before taxes.
The argument against what many consider “bottom feeders” like these tends to be couched in terms of “quality”, “artistry”, and “service”. Many photographers invested in the overhead of studio space and staff (and maybe even fueled by just a touch of ego) say that their clients expect more from them (and are willing to pay for it) than the folks who hire the lowballers.
And that may be true, for now.
Look– the only thing that doesn’t change is change, and change these days is forging ahead at a pace that is almost incomprehensible. New technology always drives prices down and competition up, and the creative destruction it causes always results in fertile new ground for those with brains and balls. The technology and tools are changing, but so are our clients– yes, even wedding clients. As it becomes easier and easier to learn more and more about photography along with just about everything else, not only are professional photographers taking it all in, so are their wedding clients and guests. They own the same gear and software, frequent the same websites, study the same tutorials, follow and sometimes even set the same trends, and may even occasionally take the same classes and workshops that we do.
The digitalization and democratization of information since the mid-90‘s has brought change to every aspect of photography, and professionals who have stared that change in the face without at least considering its implications to their businesses have done so at great peril. Just the aesthetic and immediacy of cellphone cameras and Instagram filters alone have become the new standard of coolness and creativity for many, and no amount of professional spin will convince certain young, hip clients who may know as much (if not more) about Photoshop than we do that our years of experience, training and business investment justify our high price tag. “Good enough” has become good enough, as we all have suspected for some time. But what some often fail to acknowledge is that nowadays good enough can be pretty damn good, and in many ways is better than its ever been.
So where does that leave today’s wedding photographer, or any commercial photographer for that matter? What’s the solution?
While I don’t profess to have a definitive answer, I do suspect that it comes down to an ongoing focus on innovation, adaptation and reevaluation, which is how healthy and forward thinking businesses and individuals have always responded in times of upheaval and opportunity. It’s the solution that my grandfather and great uncle were either unwilling or unable to accept and implement in my family’s printing business. It’s even the solution that wedding photographers have turned to in the past.
When I shot weddings in the early 80’s, I worked for a studio that practiced what was at the time a pretty typical approach to the business. While we didn’t twist our brides into 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses, we did stress a certain formality to weddings and portraiture while being mindful of so called “contemporary” trends, just like most other successful studios of the day did. We were trying to appeal to both our young couples as well as their parents, who were usually the ones, historically, paying the bill.
Around that same time, perhaps as a response to the yuppie phenomenon of couples marrying later after becoming successful enough to call their own shots and pay for their own weddings, some innovative photographers started practicing what came to be called the “photojournalistic” style. By hanging back and shooting a lot of film with small cameras, they sold themselves as being uniquely suited to capture the day faithfully without interference or manipulation, and for a while, they were. Those savvy and conspicuously consumptive couples loved the freshness, individuality and authenticity of the look so much that eventually, that new approach became the new normal. Photographers who stuck to their traditional guns found themselves with fewer and fewer targets to aim at.
The new style became so popular that couples took it a step further by distributing cheap disposable cameras to their guests in order to collect a fuller, more spontaneous record of their wedding to supplement what their paid professional shooter could provide. Some photographers responded to what they perceived as a threat to their role with exclusivity clauses in their contracts attempting to prohibit guests from photographing certain aspects of the celebrations, a bad move that usually resulted in a collective “Oh yeah? Fuck you!” response. But other photographers sensed an opportunity with this early version of crowdsourcing, and began providing (selling) those same sometimes branded disposable cameras to their clients and including a selection of their guests’ photos in new, expanded (thus more expensive and profitable) albums and multimedia presentations.
The business has evolved continuously since that time, with every hot new look, gimmick or turnkey solution that vendors, gurus and other industry trendsetters at Las Vegas trade shows can peddle. With photojournalistic coverage giving up some ground in recent years to “fashion” styles, noir portraiture, retro and vintage obsessions and the like, surely a return to 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses can’t be far behind, something maybe even more easily enabled by a $9.99 puppet-warp-inspired iPhone app!
While in the background, waiting to pounce like thugs in the dark, there lurk the bottom feeders. They’re making their mark by somehow making it work, $1000 wedding at a time. They come and they go, but their numbers are trending upward, as are the couples willing to hire them. How you respond and adapt to that trend is up to you, but respond and adapt you must. Because just like the expensive shooters, a lot of them suck, most of them are carbon copies of each other, some of them are surprisingly good, and a few may even be great. Just like the expensive shooters, they are participating in a free market system that champions the hallowed codependency of a willing buyer and a willing seller. God bless them if they can do it, and god help any professional who believes there’s a reason why they shouldn’t be able to.
“Grow or die” was the mantra that I and many of my colleagues kept repeating to ourselves as we struggled to respond to the cascading revolutions that have happened during my 30-some years in this crazy, wonderful industry. I suggest with all sincerity and humility that it should be yours as well.
What food photographers don’t want you to know- IT’S EASY!* (* at least the photography part is)
This week, my full-time Product and Still Life Lighting class discovered how simple it is to light and shoot a magazine-quality food shot. In a nutshell, here is the secret recipe they used to cook up these appetizing images:
Use a long lens. A telephoto lens creates a compression effect that appears to push the foreground and background planes closer together. When combined with a strong, low camera position, this flattening of perspective results in a pleasing and natural layering of objects from the front to the back of the frame.
Work with shallow depth of field. Restricting the focus puts the emphasis where you want it to be, on the food itself. Because the viewer’s eye will always be drawn to the brightest, sharpest part of any image first, using depth of field creatively is one of the basic techniques photographers use to organize what can often be complex environments.
Backlight. Placing the primary light is probably the most important ingredient in the shot. Filmmakers know about something called “motivated lighting”, meaning that light generated by the supplementary light sources we use to capture a shot should look as if it’s coming from an actual light source appearing in the scene. We do the same thing here- in most of the shots above, there is a window in the background, so the studio lights were placed to create a believable pattern of light on the set. In addition to that, backlight creates a “wrapping” effect on the food that emphasizes it’s texture. If the food is shiny or moist, strong directional lighting brings out all of its nooks and crannies and glistening highlights. Bouncing a little light back into the front of the shot easily solves most contrast or shadow-clipping problems. Lighting is so simple in these types of shots that food photographers often work with the available light in the kitchens or restaurants where the food is prepared and served.
So that’s the cookie-cutter approach the really successful shooters like Boston’s Jim Scherer and CDIA grad Kristen Teig rely on to put food on their tables. That’s not very much to chew on, is it? Long lens, shallow focus and backlight– simple, right?
Wrong. Because while the photography itself is pretty basic, the photograph is not. Your picture is only going to be as good as the attention you pay to THE DETAILS.
Food photographers tend to also be “foodies”– they know food and understand the importance of its preparation and presentation. The details of the shot are what make the picture almost edible, starting with the quality of ingredients, the way the food is prepared and arranged on the plate, all the way through to the choice of the dishes, napkins, wine glasses, pots and pans, etc. If the shoot isn’t happening in a gourmet kitchen or restaurant where all this wonderful stuff is usually found in abundance, it all needs to be sourced and hauled into the studio. That’s where the value of a great food and props stylist like Mari Quirk becomes apparent- we pay a stylist to pay attention to the details, and boy, do they ever!
Our class this week was as much about the illusion of set building as it was photography. Each of the environments in the pictures above look real and thoroughly believable, and yet none of them truly exist. They were all built in an empty, windowless studio from objects that the students either provided themselves, found around school, or built. One of the windows, for instance would have been thrown away after a renovation to Sharon White’s house, but happily, she donated it to our prop cabinet instead and it has appeared in countless student photos ever since. The other one took Luke and me about 20 minutes to make out of a few strips of fomecore, masking tape and Elmer’s Glue. The blue sky and puffy white clouds were painted the night before on a small canvas board by Jackie.
Students built their sets to be very deep, and relied on the compression of the long lenses and shallow depth of field to throw most of the background elements out of focus just enough so that the food came front and center. It was eye-opening to see how many different looks were being created in the same space at the same time- Edward’s moody, voyeuristic peek through the window at dinnertime happened 5 feet away from Sarah’s sun drenched milk and cookies.
So, here’s a little food for thought. Next time you stumble across a picture that just plain makes you hungry, think about how carefully and intentionally it was made to produce precisely that result. Bon appetit!
My hometown PBS station, WHYY in Philadelphia, just broadcast a wonderful interview with my friend Al Stewart. I’m proud to see a couple of my photos were used in the piece, at 12:17 from about 1978, and at 24:30, with Jenny watching as he decanted the bottle of wine he had been promising me (a 1990 Lynch-Bages) at his home in LA in 2011.
In the piece he talks about his early influences, Lonnie Donegan, Dylan, Hendrix, The Beatles. He recounts the story of his short time sharing a London flat with Paul Simon in the mid-60’s and how he learned to write songs by listening through the bedroom wall as Simon perfected Homeward Bound. He also talks about his shift to writing songs with historical themes in the early 1970’s, which is around the time I discovered him and started photographing his shows.
He says about writing historical songs “You can’t get too high-falutin’ about it– if people like it, if they have a good time, that’s about all you can ask for, really… if they don’t like it, then back to the disco!” Anyone who grew up listening to music in the 70’s will really understand what he means by that.
I hope you enjoy this rare and well-deserved glimpse at a uniquely remarkable musician. The full 30-minute video can be found here.
Sometime last fall, I had a long, pleasant phone conversation with a guy named Ted Waite. Ted is executive editor at the technology publisher Peachpit, and directs the production of its photography books. He was contacting university photo program directors around the country to discuss how Peachpit could better serve the education industry. He said he was particularly interested to learn about CDIA because of our emphasis on career training, and because we were built from the ground up to teach digital photography.
As a result of that interesting phone call, last Thursday morning I found myself sitting on a stage at a downtown Chicago hotel in front of several hundred people. That’s me on the left, deep in prayer, next to Jeff Curto, Rebecca Nolan, Joe Lavine, and Ted (at the lectern). More about all that in a sec.
We talked about a lot of things that day, but it didn’t take too long before we arrived at a topic that we both seemed to have strong feelings about.
“Why do you think so many college photography programs still teach and emphasize film over digital?”, Ted asked.
Funny, I had often asked myself the same question.
“Lots of reasons”, I responded. “Money. Inertia. Art. Hipsters. Tenure.”
“Tenure?” He asked.
“Sure. Maybe this is a little cynical, but if you’ve spent a lifetime teaching photography as a tangible, chemical medium, and suddenly this new thing comes along and changes not only how we approach the process, but how we view the fundamental nature of a photograph, why change if your job doesn’t depend on it?”
I went on to tell him about how in 1995, when digital was on the near horizon in the commercial photography world, I made the difficult and fateful decision to climb on board the rickety bandwagon myself. I was almost 40, and while I had already spent many years learning and working with film photography, I figured that if I wanted to keep shooting for a living, I had better at the very least become comfortable with the idea of digital photography. I didn’t like it, but I did it.
I had a feeling that my job depended on it.
So I left the typically shaky but occasionally quite lucrative life of a freelance commercial photographer, and through the connections I had built in that world, took a job as an advertising photographer at Filenes, the iconic Boston department store. Filenes’ studio had been testing digital capture technologies since the early 90’s, and was in the process of converting to totally digital. While I wound up spending 11 years shooting perfume bottles and piles of socks, it was one of the smartest moves I could have made at the time.
Fast forward 18 years. Filenes is gone, and so is film if we’re honest with ourselves. I knew any number of other photographers back then who didn’t evolve as times changed, and who suffered as a result. I was right about digital photography, and now I teach what I learned to a new generation of aspiring pros.
Ted asked me again why any self-respecting photography program would teach film to students who say they want to shoot professionally, and I said, “I don’t know. But in my experience, it seems almost criminal.”
Okay, so maybe that was a little much.
Now, back to what I was doing on that stage in Chicago. Ted had invited me to be part of a panel of educators hosted by Peachpit at the 50th national conference of the Society for Photographic Education. Ted was sitting on my right. On my left was Jeff Curto, an instructor from a small community college and the conference chair. Next to him sat Rebecca Nolan, chair of the photography department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Standing at the lectern to lead the discussion was Joe Lavine, a photographer and educator from Colorado who had just published a book with Peachpit.
When I introduced myself to Joe, he said “I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you. You’re the guy who said it was a crime to teach film photography. This is gonna be great!”
Gulp. It looked like I was about to become a digital turd in the traditional punchbowl. I scanned the room again. We had already determined that about 80% of the audience taught photography at some level, many of them in undergraduate and graduate fine art programs, and I now imagined that a large percentage of them might soon be lighting torches and sharpening sticks. I made a mental note of the two emergency exits on either side of the stage.
As Joe was getting things underway, Ted whispered to me that he had no idea what to expect, but he thought the that organization was comprised in large part of traditional, fine art photography teachers. He was hoping that the diversity of the panel would encourage a lively and informative discussion. I wanted to add ‘nonviolent’ to that.
I could almost smell the Dektol in the room.
In his opening remarks, Joe mentioned that each of the panelists represented a different approach to teaching, running the gamut from film to digital. He said we all had strong and passionate opinions about the state of photographic education, and that one of the panelists even had gone so far as to say it was “criminal” to be teaching film photography.
Whoever might that be?
Joe threw the first question to the panelists: What is the current state of photographic education? Rebecca and Jeff described similar challenges in trying to teach a traditional, fine-art practice in the digital age, and even mentioned that many of their students are not terribly fond of the new technology- they want to learn film. As I tried to figure out why the cart was still leading that particular horse, I checked the comments I had solicited from some of my most experienced instructors. Words and phrases like “splintered”, “chaotic overload”, “dramatically in flux” and “unbalanced” stared back at me from my iPad. Joe looked at me.
“I would say it depends. I can’t speak to Rebecca and Jeff’s experience teaching in the fine art world, but if we’re talking about consumer education or RDNs (Rich Doctors with Nikon’s), I would say that the state of photographic education is exceptionally strong. CDIA is kind of in the middle; we’re trying to train professional photographers, and to say it is challenging would be an understatement. And by the way, I don’t really want to rat out who used the word “criminal”, but, it was me.”
That got a chuckle out of some in the audience.
I went on to talk a bit more about our program at CDIA. I mentioned that we are a bunch of commercial photographers teaching what we know to aspiring professionals. I proudly stated, as I do at Open Houses, graduations and on the first day of classes, that our prime directive is to teach students how to separate clients with creative problems from their money.
At that, there was an audible gasp from the crowd. No lie. This was obviously not a room full of commercial photography instructors, or even commercial photographers.
Joe brought up a slide that showed how few university photo programs require a business class or any formal business training at all. I mentioned that all of our students leave the program with a solid business plan, and that some of our most popular instructors and lecturers are those that help students with financial, legal and copyright issues.
We went on to talk about the challenges we all face in teaching photography, and what companies like Peachpit could do to help. The panel tended to agree that keeping up with technology was the biggest problem, with the preponderance of so called “experts” giving it away online coming in a close second. We also agreed that an online interactive database of shared information and resources, provided on a subscription basis, could be a huge benefit to our programs.
At the end of the program, Joe opened things up for questions. A guy in the middle of the room looked at me and said I was wrong for making it all about money, that not all students want to become professional photographers.
“Ours do”, I said pretty confidently.
Then something very interesting happened. A young woman put up her hand and said that she had graduated from a very expensive program, and never once did anybody tell her that if she wanted to work as a photographer, she would also have to learn how to run a small business. She said her school did not prepare her for the real world.
“What am I supposed to do now?”, she asked the panel, more a rhetorical statement than a question. I’m glad she wasn’t looking for an answer, because I wouldn’t know what to say.
And that, for me at least, cut to the chase. I wondered how many other students in the room were thinking the same thing. How many of them had been following their dreams by enrolling in schools that didn’t really help them wake up? As imperfect as CDIA is, I am more convinced than ever that we can help committed students with professional aspirations achieve their goals.
A woman in the back of the room held up a yellow card– our 75 minutes had flown by and time was now up. Joe closed the session by thanking everybody, and many people came forward to continue the discussion informally. Nancy Davis, Peachpit’s Editor-in-Chief, bounded up on the stage and said enthusiastically “You were amazing- we’ll have to talk!” Ted agreed, saying that I had been just provocative enough to steer the conversation in the direction he had hoped to see it go. I wasn’t so sure.
Nobody in the audience, however, seemed to want to talk to me- they were all crowding Rebecca, Jeff and Joe. I left the stage, and as I tried to leave up a side aisle, someone stepped in front of me.
“Not so fast”, he said.
He stuck out his hand and a card and told me that I’d made more sense than anybody on the panel. He said that, like me, he had been a commercial photographer for 30 years and now chairs a photography program in California. He assured me that the things I was saying needed to be said. “I am going to get in touch with you- I want to talk to you some more”. We shook hands and I left the room. Only then did I look at his card- he does indeed teach photography in California at a prominent college, and I am very much looking forward to speaking with him some more.
In the elevator, Jenny and I rode down to the hotel lobby with the young woman who had asked what she was supposed to do without any business training. I still didn’t know what to say to her, so I just looked away.
While sitting at a bar at O’Hare yesterday waiting to fly back to Boston, I received a message from a woman named Jamie Ide. She was asking if she could use a picture of mine she had found online as part of a website celebrating the bicentennial of the founding of her family’s former company, E.T. & H.K Ide in St. Johnsbury, VT. As soon as I heard the name, I knew exactly which picture she was talking about.
Jenny and I had traveled to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom over Christmas week in 2010 for a little R&R and some skiing/snowboarding at nearby Burke Mountain. After a great New Year’s Eve meal at Elements Food and Spirit (since closed), I grabbed my camera and tripod and went off to shoot a night scene I had scouted out earlier in the day.
It’s hard to miss the 5 story grain elevator that rises over the Passumpsic River and the old Boston and Maine right-of-way. Even from I-91, which passes high on a ridge to the west on its way to the Canadian border 50 miles away, the fading company name painted on the flat face of the mill dominates the center of the old industrial town. That structure attracted me to the rail yard behind the town’s beautiful brick train station (currently serving as its visitor’s center and the district office of US Senator Bernie Sanders). A short walk from the station’s parking lot down a narrow, winding road led to an underpass beneath the tracks; the mill tower rises beyond. Painted on a stone wall as you pass thru the tunnel is a sign warning drivers to “SOUND HORN”. I set up the camera to the right of the sign and made a preliminary 30 second exposure.
The camera preview revealed the potential for a very good image, except for the ugly orange foreground illumination from nearby sodium-vapor streetlights. Luckily, I had brought along a speedlight, and after a few tries running around the edges of the shot to work out the choreography, I painted in the foreground with multiple full power bursts from the flash. After a little RAW development in Lightroom back at our hotel, I knew I had a strong shot, and it has since become one of my favorites.
Of course I allowed Jamie to use the shot, along with a few others I had made that day. She went on to tell me that the underpass tunnel was known locally as “the subway”, and she had sounded her car horn many times over the years as she carefully made her way through. Sending me a photo from the mill’s “better days” in 1967, she thanked me with a link to my new page on the site, calling my shots “breathtaking”.
Browsing the site, and after a little more research on google, I discovered a lot more about the scene I had captured.
According to a Yankee Magazine essay in 1970, E.T. & H.K Ide was at that time the oldest family-run business in Vermont. Founded in 1813 by a Revolutionary War veteran, the mill survived multiple fires and through seven generations of the Ide family only to be sold in 2003. Through anecdotes and remembrances written by family members, managers and employees, the site recounts the marvelously touching stories of “hard work, success, setbacks and perseverance. The history of E.T. & H. K. Ide is in many ways the history of Vermont”. None of those stories is more poignant than that of Charles Craig, who worked at one of Ide’s mills from age 17 until 4 days before he died at age 85. At 69, his right hand was mutilated in the mill’s machinery. The mill foreman at the time recalled
Charles did not come to the mill during the five weeks that he was recuperating. It was late in the afternoon on a Saturday that he made his first appearance. It was a cold day, and the mill had been going full blast all day, and the air was so thick with dust that you could hardly see across the room, when the big door opened and closed with a tremendous slam, and there stood Charles. He drew his lungs full of the dust, and said “Oh, don’t that taste good. Say Will, I want my Job back again. I want to run this mill. If you don’t want me, I shall bring a chair here and sit here until I die”.
I didn’t need to think it over to answer that. I answered instantly. “Charles, as long as you live, and I live, you will have a job when you want it.” All right”, he said, “That’s all I want to know. I’ll be on hand Monday morning”.
I often wonder about what’s beneath the surface of the random images of people and places I’ve photographed over so many years, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had the story behind one of those images so unexpectedly and fully revealed. If you have a few minutes, take a look at Jamie’s site and think about the unwritten stories behind some of the pictures you’ve made.
Maybe you’ll be the person to write one or two of them.