Choosing a photographer is tough. This is a question that has many facets. Back in “the day” before digital photography, photographers had to choose. What were they going to be. What kind of photography will they be practicing? Photographing people? Photographing landscapes? Things? Animals? These are all specialities. Ones that people chose “back in the day.”
I was always an artist first. From the time I was only a girl, I drew or painted people. Graphite, pen and ink and watercolor were my weapons of choice. I explored my world, my sensuality and spirituality. I drew my friends, my lovers and even my pets. But people remained my favorite to work on. Being able to capture someone’s essence well created such a satisfaction in me. To be able to work on a project and say, “Now, that’s well done”. Years later, I realized that without classic training in painting I couldn’t make a living at it. Being an “older student” with an opportunity to go back to school, I chose what i thought would be the next best thing: Commercial Art and Graphic Design. I worked hard, studied and realized that I had a knack for creating catchy designs. My talent was recognized, and I won several awards in the student division of the professional organization. But I never lost the idea of really wanting to study painting and paint people.
Flash forward several years: a marriage and a daughter. Around the time I started to create my family, I stopped creating my art. I picked up my sketch pad many times after my daughter was born, but never could get that old feeling back. I don’t know if it was because I was tired, maybe because my mind was scattered. I couldn’t get it back. So I set it down. And my dream of becoming a portrait artist, too.
I was thrilled for my family when I received an offer from a Fortune 200 company to work in their multimedia department. I had learned graphic design, information design and commercial art BEFORE there were computers on every desk. Before there was desktop publishing and Adobe products, there was CompuSet Type setters, the newest computerized typesetters. Before those, there were actual people whose jobs were known as Typesetters. They hand assembled each word, each phrase, each paragraph of each page you read of a magazine or Newspaper. Of each brochure, each flyer. The designed printed page was a true melding of artistry and skill. A collaboration of designer and typographer and pressman. But I digress. I learned computerized design by going BACK to school again, and learning (would you believe) AutoCad. It was taught as the ONLY computerized graphic design course. Of course, we fell into the danger zone because the teacher taught the program but not the good tenants of design. (Which is a problem today. No one ever wants to learn graphic design, they want to learn how to work in InDesign, PhotoShop and Illustrator.)
After a few years in that multimedia position, I had to make a jump. The department went through a major layoff. I survived the cuts, but only because I had many skills they could utilize. Other, more talented designers left, but because my familial background in photography (my dad owned a darkroom/darkroom supply store/gallery in the 1970s) I was seen as a person who could do “other duties as assigned”. 1 week after the layoffs, I was asked to “closed down the photography department and inventory everything, and to keep a bare bones photography system in place.” Within two weeks of this major change, veep of the department called me personally to ask that I grab one of the cameras, to go downtown and make some environmental portraits of their corporate attorneys. I didn’t want to do it. And the photographs were nothing more than snap shots. But I suppose they were “good enough.” It was a dilution of my talents and skill sets. To spend time on learning the tenants of good portraiture, I had to turn my back to keeping up my chops in Graphic Design. I found I enjoyed working with the people, so I chose, through necessity, to be a people photographer. I trained myself, at work and at home, by trial and error, and by lots of reading and study, to be a classic portrait photographer. Not necessarily because I wanted to, but because that is what my “job” at the time required of me, and once I relearned the basic use of the camera, I actually had fun! I realized that I was fulfilling my dream in a way. I was making portraits, albeit with different tools.
But your talent isn’t yours if you work for someone else. The buying public or the second level managers who you work for (or purchase your product) and people in general have “commoditized” talent. “Is it repeatable?” “Can you write down how to do that, so ‘Kyle’ can do that too?” How many times did my manager (while I was an employee) and then my contract holder say this to me? Too many times to count.
People confuse talent with skill. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard: “Hey – I have that camera.” It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to learn ANY of this stuff anymore. There is no danger not eating if you blow it while trying to create the art/photography assignment for your final in school. It doesn’t cost $9.00 PER exposure (cost of film/developing/camera) to create portraits anymore. (Do the math for a 10 exposure medium format or a 24 exposure 35mm) And if someone decided to pick up a camera, then they, too, can become a photographer.
I left that company 6 years ago, to create my own opportunities. Over the past 5 or so years, they retained me as a contract photographer for overflow work. This week, my contract was dissolved with that company. Not because I am a shitty photographer or by my choice, but because, the management decided to handle contracts and all independent contractors through a 3rd party. I had 18 months left on my 3 year contract. I have been invited to join that talent /skill pool. I am not sure if I want to go back into that environment of “skilled work”.
I am writing this because I saw on FB, that one of my dear friends (who still works there) posted some fabulous photos of her taken by someone else. This “dear friend” has never hired me to do her family portraits even though I am also a neighbor. When I clicked on the photographer’s name, there were other portraits of this companies employees on his FB page. (Sharing like this got me in trouble with their attorneys..?? Head’s up!) I clicked on a specific gentleman’s photograph taken in front of his books stacks in his home because he looked familiar. The portrait was nothing special – no drama except ALOT of books, it was in focus and it was a good likeness of him. And indeed, it was one of my clients – who came to me, here in the studio last year, to have his portrait made. We even talked about doing this type of portrait in his library, although he hadn’t quite unpacked but he never called back.
In looking at his FB posting of the portrait that we made here in my studio along with all the comments, I took comfort in that everyone loved the portrait I made for him. “Good, classic portraiture.” was one direct quote.
I can hear it now: “Grow a thick skin, Dawn. Its business.” But all I can think of is that I am a good classic photographer, one that has “done” my time, and I do take it personally. I try to give my clients what they want, no fuss, and with a good experience. Personal service.
So, I suppose this begs the question, if proximity is key, and there is no longer any “loyalty” in return customers/clients: what is the point? Why did these people go to another photographer? I think I know. But I welcome your comments.
(All the portraits shown here were made by me.)