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.
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.
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…
Share your knowledge, story or project
At the heart of EMULSIVE is the concept of helping promote the transfer of knowledge across the film photography community. You can support this goal by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this personal passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and giving as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.