Pictures, purges and process (part two)

As of late, I have been writing about the massive spring-cleaning I have undertaken over the last few weeks. I am pretty much done with this archival edit and purge. I have also been thinking how much fun it was looking through thirty plus year’s worth of work. In all, it was a good starting point to reconsider the evolution of my style as a photographer. If I had to give that journey a title, as I went from a beginning photographer to an established professional, the best phrase would be “moving the goals posts.”

I know that in the process of working for a series of small, medium and large newspapers early in my career, my moving newspaper to newspaper was my way of looking for the right place to do “my” kind of photography. I was not as aware (and only later realized) it was also my way of scaring my mother half to death. That was because I stayed, on average, less than a year at most of the staff photographer jobs that I held during that five-year stretch of my own “moving the goals posts.” I would start a job with the thought that working at a big newspaper would make me happy. But I was not happy there, so then I thought a job at a mid-size newspaper would be what I wanted to do. It went on and on from there.

After working in newspapers for about five years, I started working for magazines. What I gathered from looking at the magazine work and projects that I did along the way was that, yes, the technology of photography was constantly changing and “moving the goals posts. “ I now realize, based on looking at my magazine work, that I was creatively doing much the same thing, “moving the goals posts. “ Over about a ten-year stretch, I tried out almost every kind of magazine photography possible.

I did a fair amount of corporate work, including a couple of fabulous annual reports. Getting paid gobs of money and flying around on helicopters (which landed at my command) was great fun, while it lasted. I do not think I was committed enough to that specialty to make a full-time gig out of it, so that specialty was tried and discarded. (In hindsight I am not sure if I discarded it or it discarded me, but that is another question.) It also looks like I photographed millions of meetings. They look largely the same, except the people actually doing the meeting vary in terms of gender, age, religion and ethnicity.

Looking at photos of me in dozens of places all over the country (and later the world) reminded me of how I used to travel like mad, for publications and corporations. I apparently spent a great deal of time in helicopters and limousines. As I have written before, I am not sure that I was really that important a photographer. But the folks I used to work for thought I could pull off whatever they needed done, so they often sent me where they needed my skills, via chopper or limo.

Now, that work is largely gone since editors try to hire “locals,” rather than sending in people from out of town. Though it cut back on my traveling, it helps me to this day because I get a fair amount of assignment based on the fact that I live in Providence. My peers in Rumford and Warwick, R.I. could just as easily do the jobs that I am hired to do. Since their mailing addresses are not Providence and mine is, they may as well be in another country, at least in the eyes of the average young photo editor in Chicago. Those editors can barely find Rhode island on a map let alone locate Barrington, R.I. for example.

I also did a great deal of work for non-profit organizations along the way. Though I cannot remember the shoot, I found the film from a large project that I apparently did for Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Philadelphia. That was one of a number of attempts to get serious about being a portrait photographer. Besides photographing the “cultural figures” that I previously blogged about, I regularly photographed what I would call momentary notables such as Adrian Cronauer, the man whose story became the Robin Williams movie “Good Morning, Vietnam.” On one level, I succeeded as a portrait photographer since I did many assignments back then (and even do assignments now) making portraits of businessmen and athletes for publications. The former were referred to in photographer slang as, guys with ties and the latter as guys with balls.

I was briefly a war photographer, working under contract to the weekly Life magazine during the first Gulf War in 1991. It was a fascinating experience and I learned a great deal about war, the media, nationalism, etc. It was also not compelling enough for me to make into a full time career. Plus, although I was both good (and lucky) covering that particular war as it impacted Israel, I knew that I hard neither the stomach nor the drive to do the same thing in other, less familiar places.

Many of my early projects that never took off also reappeared. I was reminded how in the late 1980’s, I had started a project on Russian immigrants in and around Philadelphia. That morphed into a project on Russians trying to leave the Soviet Union. That whole project collapsed when the Berlin Wall came down and with it the entire Soviet Union. Other equally spectacular failed projects were spread out before me on the light box.

Looking at the aesthetic evolution of the work, I can see myself learning to think before shooting. In my earliest assignments, it looks like I photographed everything in front of me. As time went on, I was clearer in thinking through what it was that I would (and especially would NOT) be photographing on a given assignment. That thinking is still at the core of my photography today.

I was also reminded that, in the end, commercial photography is a lot like prostitution. You are taking something that can be very personal to some people and doing it on command, for money, for strangers. In my case, I found old examples of where I had converted personal projects that I loved, into paying work, which it turned out I did not care for as much.

One example was a project that I loved doing at the time, which was photographing life among traders on the floor of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. That is the oldest stock exchange in the United States and was founded in 1790. The powers that be at the PHLX saw the project I loved in print in the Philadelphia inquirer Sunday Magazine and they hired me to do their annual report. I agreed, envisioning more shoots among the energetic and over-the-top characters on the trading floor. Instead, I ended up photographing meeting after meeting, talking-head after talking-head and I was not the least bit inspired. My lack of passion showed up in the work that I did for them, which I found and then discarded during this recent archival purge.

The whole process of the PHLX project was an important reminder. Even though I did all the right things when it came to marketing myself as a photographer, in the end, I did not have the ability to get excited about a topic that I did not care passionately about. I now appreciate that a professional photographer must be able to get excited about whatever it is that they are getting paid to be excited about. That, sadly is something I cannot do. Looking through all that work, over three decades, reminded me of that problem. My solution now is to do stock photography, where I make photographs that I like and then have stock agencies license those images for me.

The last thing that I noted was how in photography as in life, “History is written by the victor.” That idea, attributed usually to Winston Churchill, argues that the more successful (economically, militarily, politically, etc.) a nation is, the more attention it garners as well as the more control is has over how it presents itself to the world. This came to mind as I was deciding which photographs to keep (besides of course those I wanted for personal or aesthetic reasons.)

Most of images that I kept for purely business reasons were ones that I believed (hoped) would be of interest in the future. One example was my work from the 1992 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. I spent a great deal of time (and film) photographing the two major candidates, Lynn Yeakel and Arlen Specter. The name you recognize is of course, that of the victor. His political influence and name recognition have continued an upward trend. Ms. Yeakel’s have not. That is not a judgment but rather a historical fact! That in no way diminishes Ms. Yeakel. But it is the photographs of Senator Specter that are of continuing importance. All of this reminded me that life itself is constantly “moving the goals posts.” What was important at one moment may not be the next.

On the one hand, I aspire to be the idealized photographer recording/ interpreting/sharing the moments in time that I experience. On the other hand, I am also the practical person/businessman who cannot keep every image he ever made. I certainly wish I could keep every image I ever made just as I also wish I could take the time to organize it all for future generations. That way, they could better understand the work I did as well as the events I was portraying. But that was not the hand I was dealt. Making the most of the situations you are presented with, good and bad, is in my mind the very best example I can think of in terms of “moving the goals posts.”

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