Reframing The Question: a response to Clay Daly

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Back in early January, CW Daly posted an article here on EMULSIVE asking, ‘Where to from here?’. The article generated a fair bit of discussion both here and on social media, with more than a few answers


I bought my first SLR towards the end of the 1970s. I’ve kept going with photography ever since, on and off, off and on. I think that probably makes me a good bit older than Clay Daly who posed some very relevant questions in ‘Where to from here?’ for EMULSIVE recently. It struck me as being a bit of a cri de coeur and I wondered if there was anything from my photo life which might help him or anyone else in the same position.


To make it clear at the outset: I have achieved diddly squat by way of fame, fortune or even minor repute from photography but I don’t regret any of it. Perhaps some of the thoughts below could help in a general way with the frustration which I think many photographers feel today when possibilities seem endless but realities are ruthless. One of the advantages of age is that you can remember when things weren’t like they are now.

That is not necessarily nostalgia: there is nothing uniquely awful about modern life and none of us is facing problems that haven’t been faced millions of times before by others, though maybe in a different guise.

So here goes.

The sun rises and sets…

The weather blows. The planets turn endlessly. We have very little control over anything other than our immediate lives, even if that. If we invest endlessly in things we have no control over then we can easily end up feeling helpless.

I don’t do social media myself: I tried to get started several times in the past but I found it to be like going into a crowded room where everyone is trying to shout loudest. I came away with my ears ringing, metaphorically speaking.

It seemed to destroy my equanimity.


Listen for lessons

I was well chuffed with my 1970s SLR and I ended up buying two more lenses for it. So then I seemed to spend a lot of time juggling lenses. I got really sick of that and bought a big zoom. It was too heavy and in the end, I put the whole lot away in a drawer. That was when my children were young. All these years later we have about fifteen big photo albums of our family life and they give me the most enormous pleasure to look through.

Guess who took all the photos?

My wife. She has no interest at all in photography. She just got fed up waiting for me and my artistic pretensions bought herself a little point and shoot and got going.

There’s a lesson there.

Sorry, who are you?

The sad truth is – and this may sound harsh but bear with me – no one gives two hoots about you online.

It’s here today, gone tomorrow. If you die next week, your computer will be turned off and no one online will give you another thought. They probably wouldn’t even know you were dead. How can it be otherwise with the squillions of words and images posted every second?

How can you conceivably be true friends with anyone you wouldn’t recognise on the street, whose laugh you have never heard, whose hand you have never shaken and whose front room you have never seen? Online these are not friendships: they may be mutually advantageous connections or acquaintanceships but please let us not belittle the word friendship. Clay talks about follow-to-follow and he is dead right. It’s purely transactional.

Remember what Gore Vidal once said about his artistic ambition. “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” That’s how ruthless it can get. So let’s choose our online company carefully.


Online doesn’t need to mean geographically dispersed

Who says that online can’t be local? I have a website and I do a regular blog on it. Every month I send out an email telling people what’s new on the blog. I know every single recipient of that email personally (okay, bar one, but that’s another story). I have invited them all personally and I see many of them quite regularly. Others I see much less often – but it is a really great way of staying in touch with those people.

My best photo friendships have all been local. I meet up now with three other photographers and we put together small zines, chat about work and so on without, so far as I am aware, jealousy, egotism or annoyance. Enthusiasm is a great thing (from the Greek en+theos – filled with God, inspired) and I am convinced it is physical as much as mental. You can feel it in a room with other people but online it can be a frail thing.

Photography is a market

Most of what we might call the public face of photography is a market. Its commodity is the photographic image. It took off in the 1970s when the price of art went through the roof and something was needed at the bottom end of the market to fill the vacuum. If you doubt this try reading “Photography And The Art Market” by Juliet Hacking. It will make your hair stand on end – or should anyway.

Just remember while you are reading it though that the book itself is part of the market that it purports to analyse. There are shadowy figures at work and they will manipulate whatever they choose to manipulate: prices, reputations, social media, whatever. You will not outsmart them. Even when you are rich and famous you will be grist to their mill.

Even I dabble in that market sometimes. Occasionally I send in an image or two to a competition. Or I go and see a blockbuster exhibition. There is nothing wrong with any of that just so long as you are aware of what you are doing. But if the whole of your photo life seems to be knocking on doors that never open – it’s gone wrong somewhere.

Making your future’s past

How do you want to look back on all this is in 50 years time? If your goal really is an artistic success then you must do what it takes (though first – read this article in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the chances of artistic success in the 21st century). My great ambition was writing, not photography. It looked like it might go somewhere – and then it didn’t.

Looking back now, I think it is probably a good thing. If you haven’t already, then read about the artistic life: something like “Just Kids” by Patti Smith (about her and Robert Mapplethorpe) or Philip Glass’ “Words Without Music”. It’s tough. Is it the life you want. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – only you can tell.

So, where to from here?

That is a great question, Clay. What do you do when you can’t go forwards and you can’t go back and you can’t stand still? It is the question lurking in many a Zen koan.


Another great enthusiasm of mine was motorcycles. For forty years or so I roared around the country on them and they gave me the most enormous pleasure and satisfaction. Then one day, a few years ago, I realised it was all over. No one knows why love dies but sometimes you have to face up to the facts. I sold all my bikes and now I never look back. Sometimes it may be best to put the cameras away and just forget about it for a year or two.

Talking of Zen, I was once on a Soto Zen retreat which, in the Soto manner was very hands-off teaching-wise. One day though I said to a monk: “I dunno, sometimes I think this is all very important; and others I think it’s all rubbish. What do I do?”. He said something like: “In either case, what do you in fact do?”

“Keep going” I said. “There you are then. Keep going!” he replied. So that’s the other alternative. It comes back to my original point. You don’t have that much control. It may be better to frame the question as: “What is going to happen next?”. Life is going to unfold, that’s what. Watch it unfold. Nothing wrong with a push or two on the tiller but that’s all it really amounts to. And be patient.

Top tip

Don’t try to be a success. Try to be of service. If I may misquote President Kennedy: ask not what others can do for your photography but what your photography can do for others.

Finally

Let’s hear it for EMULSIVE and like-minded sites. No one here seems to be ruthlessly ambitious; everyone seems to be reasonably honest; it’s a good place to kick off your shoes and put up your feet for a few minutes. It’s a healthy internet.

I hope this helps Clay and others who may be feeling, as we all do sometimes, a bit stymied.

Now, if I can just get this camera and Zimmer frame through the door…

~ Peter


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7 thoughts on “Reframing The Question: a response to Clay Daly”

  1. WoW, Clay & Peter have brought to the forefront a very relevant topic. As an aspiring fine-art photographer who works with social media to try to gain attention from the movers and shakers – I can see once again that it is akin to continually spinning one’s wheels on ice so to speak. I guess we can’t fight the algorithms. I listen to some podcasts and see the odd video and was wondering if this is what I need to do to become noticed in that aspect of the photography milieu, maybe then people will notice that I’m a fine-art photographer with a perspective to share, images to sell and exhibit. But as you so clearly have pointed out, and I’ve heard elsewhere … no one cares about me or my work. Pre-Internet, I practiced photography with similar goals, but aside from becoming the next “discovered” artist, I realise something very important: I’m a photographer not because of others or the “fame” that lies around the corner. Disappointment and frustration (I do not like them any more than anyone else), were important to bringing about reflection upon why photography is important to me, and it is not because of accolades (although welcomed), but because in part, it helps define who I am. Enjoy photography for the joy derived from it and be open to share when and if an opportunity arises with no expectations. Life is too short to let an algorithm steal my passion for photography, so I will just keep plugging away, thankful for the opportunity to experience and practice photography in my life.

    Reply
  2. Beautiful response Peter. Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to respond with such wonderful thoughts.

    “TOP TIP

    Don’t try to be a success. Try to be of service. If I may misquote President Kennedy: ask not what others can do for your photography but what your photography can do for others.”

    Your “Top Tip” is well said and a very important message. How can we be of service to others is a great way to approach all of this. In my day job I live by this, how I can be of service to my patients is what drives me. In my podcasts I strive for this, what can I offer my listeners. And in my offline photography I teach as many about the love of photography. So yea your message is loud and clear, and I am happy to receive it.

    Thanks again Peter

    CWDaly

    Reply
  3. Beautiful & well thought out response Peter. Thank you.

    “Don’t try to be a success. Try to be of service. If I may misquote President Kennedy: ask not what others can do for your photography but what your photography can do for others.”

    This is a great way to look at it. It’s funny, I have that in my heart and mind. In my day job I aim to find out what I can do for my patients, in my online life I aim to find out how I can be of service to the many I come across with the many podcasts topics sort of touching the surface of that. In my offline photographic life I strive to find ways of having my photography be of service to as many. Your message is a wonderful reminder of what it is or should be about.

    Thank you Peter.

    Reply

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