Insecurities, Navel Gazing and Just Getting On With It

It's been a while. I've been sitting on three photo shoots from all over and have really dragged my ass in getting them into something workable. The reasons are manifold: converting the backroom to a studio, the normal vicissitudes of domestic life and, more to the point, wrestling with what goes in, what goes out and what gets filed in "Maybe Later: The Nascent Project File"

For the past while I've been watching the photostream of the G+ Communities I subscribe to with a certain amount of disquiet; nothing overt but more a Columbo-esque "somethin's been botherin' me" kind of niggle in the quiet recesses of my brain. The best way I can put it is like this: "Is it just me, or are people just posting 'happy snaps' and passing them off as photographs? And why is it that frequent posters are not showing any improvement in story telling, technique, drama tension, humour or composition?" I have other questions that I can't articulate yet but it all forms quite the interesting cocktail party in that area of my brain. Admittedly G+ contributors are all enthusiastic amateurs (in the best sense of the word) like myself so perhaps these perceptions are realistic given the population of these communities.

On top of this there have been several insightful articles with titles such as "Kill Your Babies" (on editing your work) and "Street Photography Has No Clothes". These are but two but you get my drift.

It is with this in the background that I pulled back completely to ponder my a) editorial process, b) my entire process of engaging with the environment in which I work on any given day and c) am I getting any better or is just random chance that I make an image that is decent and finally d) are any of the images that friends and family say are good, good or is just a mercy compliment?

I finally decided that all of this was, in the end, just mental masturbation and that I should just get on with things. It was in reading Minor White's article in the first issue of Aperture that kicked me out of my funk. If you don't have it, buy "Aperture Magazine Anthology - The Minor White Years" and you'll see that many photographers today are just treading the same road as White, Lange, Newhall, and the rest trod all those years ago.

With that, I'm going to start with a my second shoot and work my way around to the other two in future posts.

I was in New York this summer for about a week (never long enough) and walked. I think I logged about 25 miles a day. After letting them stew in LightRoom for a few weeks I edited down the equivalent of 20 rolls of 36 down to 14 images that I thought were OK. After shuffling the order around to see what narratives and groupings popped out I found that I had 3 things running through the 14: Children, Workers, and Isolation.


It was odd that I had taken so many images of children as I normally don't photograph them, more out of respect and not wanting to be a creep, but I was presented with such rich opportunities that this is what fell out:



It was brutally hot in NYC when I was there but the hard work of making the city run has to continue.



I've been working on two projects called "Converse" and "Communion". They're not very strong projects yet, but I think there is some meat on those bones I can make a decent stew from given some time. Conversation's obverse is Isolation and even in Times Square (which in the summer at peak tourist season makes a Japanese subway car at rush hour seem spacious) there are moments of isolation.


All Said and Done

Looking at these, I think there is one great image that could stand on its own without any other context. Perhaps three others that are strong enough to be included in a portfolio. Kill your babies.


A Reflecton on "Photographs Not Taken"

I've been reading a thought provoking little book "Photographs Not Taken" edited by Will Steacy. Many book blurbs say this book is a collection of essays by photographers about failed attempts to make a picture. I concur with the description by the publisher however: "about moments that never became a picture". It's a big difference, that change in phrasing and I think the former denigrates Steacy original aim.

The essays are short, some just a few paragraphs. Others run to two or three pages. Some are lists, some are stream of consciousness, others are diary entries. Although some commentards disagree, I was struck by how articulate (in there own way) these photographers are; they who work by telling our stories visually. Each essay is a thoughtful reflection on the circumstances surrounding an event where the shutter was not released (or in some cases shouldn't have been released).

Several themes appear throughout the book behind why an image was not made:
  • Respect for the subject/moment
  • Looking back to youth when photography was not on their radar
  • Acts of violence (random or premeditated) that required other responses
  • A realization that the moment was not meant to be or could not be shared
And yet, for each moment "that never became an image" there is no regret, no "aw shucks", no "woulda, coulda, shoulda". Rather there is a restful acceptance that even though no physical image was made, the image and all of its emotions remain with the photographer for good or ill.

This book also provides an insight into how photographers think about photography, what it means to be a photographer and what a photographers responsibilities are.

Hetherington's description of the the flight from Monrovia with rebel forces is unnerving: you feel like an adrenalin junkie when he finally ends with:
"There isn’t much more to add, but I always remember that day and the feeling of being so empty — physically, mentally, and spiritually — that it  was impossible to make the photograph."
Doug Dubois lamenting his lack of courage to stop photographing his subject and hiding the resulting images in a box.

Chris Jordan gently remembering an image of a backyard barbeque that took on a mystical aura but was never made; now residing in a private exhibition in his mind to be visited at will.

Ed Kashi on how at the end of a shoot in Lahore happening on a horrific car wreck springing into action to help the injured, putting aside the urge to make an image.

I don't profess to have been in the same situations as the photographers in this book nor do I have the same breadth and depth of experience as they (let alone being in the same league). Perhaps like Lisa Kereszi the images I didn't make happened while I was young: those images in my memory of my extended family, those images I did make while the images I should have made were peering over my shoulder but in my youthful arrogance I ignored (and can no longer remember).

Now, approaching 60 (god that weirds me out) I am finally hitting my stride, learning to make the images that need to be made for me, by me as well as images that will not be made by me. Yes, like Ed Kashi says,
"Usually there are various ethical, personal, or tactical reasons for this decision."
I usually baulk when I can't do the subject justice or treat the subject with dignity that any subject is due. Having suffered from depression, I will not photograph the mentally ill or the outcasts unless somehow I can build a bridge with them and in someway tell their story. Anything else is just a cheap shot.

This book is a must read for anyone who thinks about what it means to be an honest photographer. This book is a reminder that to be a successful and dare I say mature photographer you have to be truly present and in the moment: even if that means not making an image.

"Photographs Not Taken" Edited by Will Steacy Published by Daylight Books ISBN 978-0983231615


Always ask yourself: "I wonder..."

After my New York trip I had just enough time to put in a few shifts in the OCC before heading out with my nephew on our annual photo tour. This year we explored but a small portion of the almost deserted southeast corner of the Palliser Triangle in Alberta.

One of the projects I've been working on is the depopulation of rural Alberta, making images of what is and who are left and the stubborn optimism that stays with those that remain. Sometimes driving into town you're lucky and you meet people, other times there is not a soul, just the sound of the wind and the roar of the vehicles on the highway bypassing town. I'll be posting more about this later; right now I'd like to share a few thoughts on solving problems and puzzles.

As photographers one of the things we are called on to do is solve problems. Often we don't even know we are solving problems, the problem appears, our brain recognizes it: "Ah yes, 3.45.a: Do this, that and that." and presto and image is made. Sometimes, the problem is such (as in this post by Kirk Tuck) the solution requires as much planning and logistics as the Normandy landings. Other times, you just have to sit and look and say to yourself: "I wonder..."

On our travels, we were motoring along Highway 61, which is part of the "Red Coat Trail" we wheeled into Nemiskam. Not a lot left there now, two dwellings, one of which is surprisingly new (a micro house) and a larger property secluded in trees. There are a few abandoned buildings, but of interest was the remains of an old gas station. The windows have long since been boarded up, but as I was working the site I noticed the boards had 3/4" holes drilled through the thick particle board.

Peering through the holes, I saw that the roof had partially collapsed allowing a splash of light over the detritus that has accumulated since it was abandoned. Well, there you go, but I knew that if I put my 'Cron or any other lens up to the hole I get mostly particle board and not a lot of image. Time to step back and think. Aha! In the past I've shot through chain link fences by fitting the lens through the links. What camera do I have that has a front element that could peep through the hole minimizing the influence of the boards? I had my hands in my pocket and there was my iPhone.

I wonder...

Sure enough, it worked.

Nemiskam Garage

Nemiskam Garage
Never give up on an opportunity. Work it. Solve the problem. Say: "I wonder".


Film at 11

House of Vintage (Ricoh 500, Ilford PAN-F)
In my previous post I couldn’t find a lab in town that would pull process C-41 film and ended up sending 4 rolls of XP-2 and 2 rolls of PanF 50 to Ilford Labs in California.

Last Thursday I got them back and I am very, very impressed with the results: no water marks, no scratches, no dust. Even the medium quality scans they provided on CD are of remarkably good quality with minimal dust. The images in this post are from those scans. In short, worth the 16 bucks a roll and the wait. I don't think I could even do silver as well as these guys back when I did process silver.

A few things jumped out at me:
  • I used the Sunny 16 rule to guide my metering with the Ricoh and it worked very well, even with the Ricoh’s non-standard shutter speed scale.
  • I’m going to have to retire my dear old friend, the OM-2. It’s been with me for decades, but it looks like the electronic shutter is losing its mind. You know, lots of blank exposures even though everything sounded like all was well: mirror up, mirror down, sundry mechanical noises. It's not about the batteries; if it was, the OM4 would have acted the same way. It’s not worth the dosh to get this old campaigner fixed, it goes back into my camera cabinet to slumber: the battery munching OM-4 and the not so voracious OM-4T will have to take its place.
  • XP2 works very nicely when pulled 1 stop. Put a yellow filter on it and it prods buttock.
  • PAN F 50 is a freaking awesome film.
Below are a few examples using the Ilford provided scans. This coming week I’m firing up my scanners (V750 and Coolscan V ED to compare the two) and do some hi-res work. Stay tuned.

The negative looks better than the scan. I think it'll respond nicely as a 16 bit tiff but it does capture the searing sun of the prairie around these parts. Back in the day I'd print this on a hard paper.
Stavely Hotel (Ricoh 500, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 A bit of filtration and XP2 responds nicely
Stavely Hotel (OM-2, Yellow filter, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 I can't believe the dynamic range on this one! It's only an 8 bit jpeg but wow!
Bulk Landscaping Supplies, Marpole Vancouver (Ricoh 500, PAN-F 50)

Busker, Granville Street (OM-2, XP2 pulled 1 stop)
 I metered the bricks using my iPhone Pocket Light Meter app and waited with the Ricoh for this to evolve. Bit of cropping and we'll be golden.
Baby and Parking Guy (Ricoh 500, Ilford PAN-F)
Remember, these are just 8 bit low res jpegs. I can hardly wait for days off to get into working with these and more!


Stuck In Calgary With the Rangerfinder Blues Again

The Gang of Four Roam the Streets

I try not to write too much about cameras and technology in this blog. Brand A vs Brand B, film vs digital and all the other raging debates on the various fora on the intertubes don’t really occupy a lot of cycles for me. Over the past few months however, I’ve had an interesting time making images due to the fact that my Leica M-E had to be sent in for some warranty work and a CLA “while you’re at it.”

I’d been shooting with my M-E for almost two years and in late in January I started noticing bizarre patterns when I applied my “dust bunnies” curve in LightRoom to the images I made with the M-E. I recalled seeing something on a Leica feed about this and did some rummaging and found that yes: I had the dreaded sensor corrosion problem. To Leica’s credit, they’ll replace your sensor for free, regardless of how old your M-E/M-9 is.

Early in February I took the camera into The Camera Store in Calgary. My camera guy Stephan confirmed what I was seeing, bundled up the M-E and sent it away to the Leica Maintenance facility.

Now I was faced with a problem: what to photograph with? I did use my E-P2 for a while, but it was not as immediate and I fought continually with its “I’ll focus here, regardless of where you think I’ll focus” mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I love the camera dearly: small, light, great image quality, especially with the 45mm f1.8 lens. It just felt, well, fiddly. It’s still part of my day to day kit and shares the bag with the M-E.

I really liked the immediacy and total control I had experienced with the Leica and looking over my storage cabinet I pulled out my father’s Ricoh 500. This camera is as old as I am (pushing 60) and I’ve used it in the past and works like it’s new. I bought a couple of rolls of XP-2 figuring that it would be “easy” to get C-41 processed. I decided to pull it one stop because on a sunny day, you’re shooting at 1/500 (maximum shutter speed) at f/16. -1 stop gave me 1/250 at f/11. This decision would return to haunt me.

Working with the Ricoh was as delightful as working with the Leica. It was so stealthy, so quiet: just a slight “snick” as the leaf shutter did its magic. The rangefinder, despite it's 60 years was still clear, a bit dark, but clear and worked like a charm.

Getting into a real groove, I pulled out my OM-2n to work with as well. Batteries were a bit of a dilemma, but even though all the pundits say that the 3v lithium cells are not recommended (without providing a reason) they work fine. The Ricoh had a 45mm lens so I mounted my favourite lens of all time, the Zuiko 100 f/2.8. This is a dreamboat piece of glass: sharp, great contrast and in the words of Digital Review’s Kai: “bokehlicious”.

It was also looking like a long wait for the Leica, so I decided to run Ilford Pan-F 50 in the Ricoh as that gave me lots of room to play aperture wise on reasonably bright days. I selected Ilford Delta 100 to use in the OM-2: a yellow K2 filter that would give me the same exposure values as the Ricoh. I really am not enamored with fast films like HP-5, Tri-X and such, especially here in the high foothills where the light is overwhelming and harsh. The “Sunny 16” rule is more like a “Sunny Something much more than 16” rule the light is so god damn hard. With cameras that are limited to 1/1000s (1/500s on the Ricoh) shutter speeds you really run out of aperture fast.

Working with my old friend the OM-2n (and later my OM-4T) showed me just how far digital camera manufacturers still have to go to make a useable viewfinder. These are bright and huge! Even the Leica seems cramped in comparison! The split-image rangefinder and the micro-prism focusing ring were a delight discover all over again. Why DSLR manufacturers can’t put this in their optical viewfinders is beyond me. I’ve yet to find a cogent argument for not including these features.

I loved working with these three cameras. This is how it’s supposed to be: immediate, with no barrier between you and your subject and excellent ergonomics that don’t get in the way.

Brother of an Other Mother

I got the M-E back last week and I’ve been working with it as well as the Ricoh. If I had to choose one over the other I couldn’t: both are so easy to use, so well designed, so well-built that you feel confident with them.

I also spent a day working the Leica next to the OMs: again, brothers of different mothers. I really can’t favour one over the other. Both just work and don`t get in the way.

What was it about these cameras that make them such a pleasure to use, what lets them fade out of the way between you and your subject?
  • Ergonomics – Everything is where you expect it to be. In fact on all three brands, all the major controls turn the same way, feel the same and are easy for your finger to find by touch. Surprisingly, they are all in similar places. No fiddly buttons that can be bumped by accident or that are undifferentiated in size or by texture. The viewfinders show only what is required: nothing more, nothing less. 
  • Lens construction – I love the well damped focus rings on the lenses that I use with these cameras: just the perfect amount of friction, just the right feel to the rubber. It just hammered home how much I despise the focus by wire nonsense that seems to be all the rage these days.
  • Build quality – these are robust bits of kit. There’s nothing flimsy, nothing fragile about them. All 4 cameras were designed for use by working photographers and you don’t feel as if you might break them if you look at them cross-eyed.
Put all this together and your imagination can soar because you leave the technology behind.

Developing Stories (Film at 11)

I’d run 4 rolls of XP-2 through the Ricoh and when I took them to “The Last MiniLab In Town” I was told that they no longer do C-41 pull or push processing. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s just a setting after all, but they can’t be arsed, so they won’t.

Of course the selection of silver halide film opened up another can of worms: where to get them processed as well. I don’t like working with chemicals: never have. To top it off I really don’t have anywhere to mix and work with them. The thought of pouring spent chemicals down the sink and on to the water treatment plant with no silver recovery in place seems wrong to me. I’d rather find a third party that’s set up to work with this stuff.

I ended up sending my first batch of C-41 and silver halide film to Ilford in the US. It’s not cheap. If they don’t work out, there’s a custom lab in Vancouver I’m going to try. When I get the results back I’ll share them here. There is a pro here in town that will do silver but I used him once in the past and got the negatives back scratched with water spots: Ugh!

And In the End

Will I continue to shoot film? Yes, of course. Will I drop digital? No way. Both have their place and I’ll shoot them side by side in the same shoot if needed. It’s not either/or for me.

I’ve got as near to perfect digital cameras as you can get; I’ve got the perfect film cameras. I’m a happy man.


Conversations in Vancouver

Toys in Window, Robson Street
Vancouver is a strangish place to photograph. Having grown up there, the layout of the city seems to be imprinted on my DNA, yet what is now there only partially resonates with what was imprinted all those years ago.

I love the light however. On the west coast the light is gentle and on a misty day with the sun peeking through it has a special luminosity, specialness that I’ve never found anywhere else.

The street can be challenging as, like New York, there is always the risk of descending into cliché; especially when you wander towards the east side of downtown YVR. The cadence however is different from NYC. New York never really sleeps. Even early in the morning there is a vibrancy and a pulse that Vancouver doesn’t seem to have; well it does have: around 1100 in the morning everyone pushes back from their desks, toddles off for and elevenses of a venti Americano decaf low foam no sugar extra shot and then off to a resto with a one word moniker like “Bleen”, “Food” or some such for a lengthy lunch. Later at night, until the clubs close, there is a sort of pulse, but you are dodging binge drinkers, the “lads”, and the ubiquitous rough sleepers.

Like many cities, the west end of Vancouver is posher than the east end. Denman Street acts a demarcation between the posh condo’s bordering Stanley Park and the newer condos and street scene of Robson and Davey Streets. A collection of low buildings that has the feel of the Vancouver I knew. A well-heeled crowd, by and large, and relatively free from the tourists that now prowl Robson make up Denman’s street scene.

I was standing on a corner watching the flow and saw two gentlemen walking down the street deep in conversation. I was lucky that they had to wait for the light to change.

Passing Knowledge

After a foray to the other (east) end of town I commented in my notebook:
“When confronted with the filth and squalor of the DTE in YVR it’s very easy to revert to the cheap shot rather than try and find the basic humanity of the people on the streets.
-Not sure how to approach (coward?) so I avoided it”
I did make on image though that, I think, does capture the dignity of the people there. On Carrall Street, just off Hastings is Wings Café; it’s been there in one form or another as long as I can remember. I walked back and forth along this block and just out of the corner of my eye on one pass I saw the door open and these gentlemen step out to continue their conversation over a fresh cup of joe and a smoke:
Wings Cafe
I gave this one a Kodachrome look, because by now I was starting to flash on Fred Herzog. The light matched, my mood matched, all was good.

Herzog holds a special place for me. His images capture the Vancouver I grew up in and I have a hard time separating his images as an artist from the images in my memory. In some I can still smell the fug of the inside of a BC Hydro trolley bus on a rainy day.

His images of what is now the Downtown East Side are especially poignant for me. I remember walking these streets, from the Army and Navy, on to Woodwards, Eatons and then The Bay. Of course you never went down to Gastown (we called it Skid Row then) but Hastings (although in decline) was still busy street. I’m not going to get into what happened or why; I don’t have all the information and enough has been written by urban planners, sociologists and everybody else and their dog.

I’d like to contrast Herzog’s Hastings with how I found Hastings this past February. This is a picture made by Herzog around when I was about 4 or 5, looking east along Hasting at Columbia.
E. Hastings and Columbia (c) Fred Herzog
I had no idea that I was treading familiar ground when I lined up and made the following image. It was only afterwards that something twigged when I was looking at the images in the hotel room.

Hotel Balmoral - East Hastings

This is confirmation, I suppose, of Geoff Dyer’s thesis of the “ongoing moment”: all of us are treading the same paths and, unknowingly influenced by what went before, we make our own interpretations of similar subjects at particular place and time.

Gotta Learn Something (or I’m wasting my time)

I think the hardest thing for a documentary/urban photographer to learn is concentrating on treating your subjects with respect. I really dislike 90% of the images presented as street photography. Some of them are just sloppily composed, exposed and/or processed. Some don’t say anything or don’t even try. Others cheapen the subject, cheapen the genre and are trite and clichéd in the end cheapening the photographer. Photographing a homeless man passed out in a doorway says what? It says nothing, it asks nothing and it does nothing to advance the human condition.

I’m not trying to change the world, just ask questions and tell a story about life and I guess I expect other photographers to do the same.

I’m not one for the “in your face” style of work that seems to be all the rage. A bit of refined distance is, I think, permitted. It requires patience and the ability to fade into the walls until the right moment but I’m OK with that.

I find that my favourite images of a period of making images are those made when I’m in the zone: that wonderful feeling of nothingness and everythingness, of a complete connection with your environment where every pattern of light and dark and colour set up a vibration so deep that you can’t but help to trip the shutter. B.A. Baracus would say: “Damn fool on the Jazz, again.”

Technical Stuff

I really try to downplay the technical aspects of my images as it really doesn’t matter; it’s the story what counts. In this case however, I’d like to share a very useful set of tools. I decided to process the colour images using a wonderful set of Lightroom plugins that mimic the Kodachrome films of old. You can find them here:


These are the best that I’ve found so far and for the price (free) highly recommended.


Artifex Succedere! and Other Incantations

Wait. What? What sort of title is that for an “Into The Foto" blogpost. Well, there's a reason. Of late (well, actually over the past several years) I've been seeing all manner of posts that sound way too much like medicine shows of old; items such as “10 Things to improve your Landscapes”, “10 Foods to Avoid!”, “ISIS, 10 things to know!” and most recently “The 10x Principle: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure as a Photographer”. It's the last one that kinda broke the damn dam and has had me working on this post for the last three weeks.

Before I go any further, I want to post the following disclaimer:
“I have an immense amount of respect for Eric and for the work that he has done as a photographer, blogger, interviewer and educator. This post (I hope) begins a dialectic on what success and failure as an artist is compared to that of, say a geophysicist, dot-com entrepreneur or hockey player. ”
In my introduction I alluded to medicine shows. I always view universal absolutes with a jaundiced eye for a variety of reasons; mainly I've seen way too many cure-alls come down the pike each promising to fix, once and for all, poor data collection, bad project management, and a weak wrist shot. It is almost as if we don't really want to think for ourselves and would rather have someone throw out a panacea so that we can continue to flail around until the next wunderwaffen gets thrown over the wall by the marketdroids at Bang-o-grams-R-Us, Sirius Cybernetics or Jacques Latouque Hockey Sticks.


The first thing that struck me in Eric's post was that when his student (I presume) asked: “Will I be a successful photographer?” there was no discussion if the student had any talent for photography in the first place. Without a modicum of talent or at least some creative vision no 12 step program will make you successful. Sure, you can tweet and blog and network and build up your brand but if you don't have any innate talent, you really won't go that far in the Business of Photography.

When I was a kid I wanted to play pro hockey in the worst possible way; stands to reason, I'm a Canadian. But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I practiced I faced a major hurdle: cement hands. 30 odd years later I picked up the game again and yup, still cement hands.

If you are going to embark on the Business of Photography, be honest with yourself. Do you have any talent for this? And this includes thing such as creative vision and an ability to deal with people like Bridezilla.

Success? Failure?

This brings me to the next observation: nowhere is “success” or “failure” defined.  Judging from the remainder of the article it appears that these are defined in terms of money and prestige. I posit that it's way more than that.

I'm going dispose of Failure right now and not return to it. Failure is not the antithesis of success as some would have it; rather Failure is one of the foundations of success. If I don't make a mistake (failure) at least once a day then that is one less opportunity to learn and develop. The only result of a failure that is a “true” failure is when you do not to seize upon that mistake and learn from it. For whatever reason we equate a business folding as a failure. Bollocks. Businesses fold for all manner of reasons and if the entrepreneur does not look back at what happened and learn from it then it is a failure. Failure as a photographer is not making the image, not growing as an artist, not treating your subjects with honour and dignity, not saying anything significant and deluding yourself that you are doing these when, in fact, you are not.

Remember the words of Buckminster Fuller:
“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes”
What then is success? In business I suppose it means profits, cash flow and a sustained business presence. What about for the artist? What about for the photographer? Dave duChemin makes this observation in his “Craft and Vision” series:
“To some it will be a great business that replaces your soul-numbing day job, for others it means creating work you love even if no one ever sees it.”
So, everything hinges on your definition of success. Only the individual can do that and even then it is as elusive to define as it is to attain. Just make sure you know what you are getting yourself in for, unlike Mr. Anchovy:

I can't tell you what success is because I don't know your circumstances; I can tell you what success isn't based on my experiences as father, geophysicist, bespoke software writer, and one time dot-com 1.0 entrepreneur and hack photographer:

  • Success isn't overnight, it's incremental. You'll never wake up one morning a “success”. You may wake up one morning smarter that last night, richer than last night, more content than last night. 
  • Success isn't easy. No matter how you define it, big or small, getting there is hard work. 
  • Success doesn't destroy families, relationships, your integrity or your soul.
  • Success doesn't come at all costs. See above.
  • Success isn't about money. 

And sorry, I can't tell you how to attain your success and avoid those pitfalls; only you can sort that out.

Success and the Work-Life Balance

I'm reminded of a story that I heard somewhere, back before the idea of work-life balance started getting ink. It's about what constitutes success and what matters in life.

What Really Matters in Life? 

To turn Eric's exemplar from Thiel around (“You must study the endgame before anything else.”) : You have to be honest with what your endgame is; the fisherman knew  what his endgame was before he even started.

History is Written by the Victors

Eric quotes extensively from two Web 2.0 “captains of industry” but in Business as in War, history is written by the victors and their hagiographers.  After each major conflict or outrageous business success there is a “memoir boom” as participants from all levels rush to their typewriters trying to cement their place in the national histories and show how they, and only they, made “the difference at the Khyber Pass”, “ensured victory at Wadi al-Hira”, or “prevented disaster at D-Day”.

It was getting so out of hand after World War II that even the Goons were poking fun of it. I remember a Goon Show from many years ago where Major Bloodnok, to the SFX of a typewriter says: “The day war broke, I said to Allenbrooke, "You fool, don't you realize that...” In fact there is entire Goon Show devoted to lampooning the whole memoir writing wheez: “Seagoon's Memoirs”!

So too, now.

Every dot-com gazillionaire has, is or will be generating endless ghost written words about why they were successful and their competitors a bunch of nebbishes who where incapable of arranging a piss up in a brewery. All of these tomes may have a germ of truth in them, but all of them are written a posteriori through the coloured glasses of hubris and ulterior motive: usually to confirm the corporate “founding legend”.

These authors most certainly weren't thinking of the management gems they are now writing about when they were in the heat of battle building the company. I'll invoke a military analogy here; it was more along the lines of “We need to take reference X to take City Y. (strategic goal). To do that we need to first encircle Hill Q (tactical goal) and then control roads A, B and C (tactical goal). We will succeed using this battalion, that air wing and that tank corps.” Of course it never quite works that way because of unanticipated counter attacks, equipment failures and other tactical goals that where never thought of in the first place. When they get to X and C it's sit back, catch your breath and then lay plans for the next strategic goal.

At the end of the conflict of course the generals and field marshals look back and say “Oh weren't we clever, we did R, S and T and that is how we succeeded in taking Y.” This is what gets written in the memoirs when in actual fact while R, S, and T may have been helpful in the taking of Y, if they were honest with themselves, R, S and T were responses to particular circumstances not part of any great gift of wisdom and in fact the success was that they could extemporize and create R, S and T before the other guy did.

Back when a certain Netherlands based company was an investor in my Web 1.0 company, I recall sitting outside the great man's office waiting for a meeting to finish. It was quite a heated discussion and finally I heard a fist slam a desk and I heard a colleague shout:
“Damn it Jan! Circumstances make leaders! Leaders do not make circumstances!”
It is the circumstance that allows a person to become a leader by reacting, developing, and deploying the correct strategy and tactics. A leader attempting to manufacture circumstances to apply strategies and tactics (remember R, S, and T?) that worked in the past is asking for trouble.

What worked in the past should be recognized and used as a backdrop to inform future decisions, but to describe why SomeCo was successful after the fact by spouting atomized aphorisms that have been bent to fit the corporate legend is hubris at its finest.

Applying these atomized aphorisms to your unique circumstances is just asking for trouble. At best you can adopt the practices that fit your you and your situation.

10x? Shmenex!

Hate to break this to everybody out there: only once a generation is there a musician, photographer, a physicist, a medical figure, sporting figure, whatever that is ten times better. In business it's only once every business cycle, if that. Look at the NHL: Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, they only happen once a generation. Further, these guys weren't ten times better than the one before them, they where only ten times better than what was in the league at the time.

In technology true disruption has only happened a few times: The Mac, The PC, Smartphones, the World Wide Web; everything else is incremental. Consider: Twitter is just an evolution of IRC. Facebook, Google+? Their roots are in the old news groups (remember rec.alt.photography for example?). Texting? Shoot I still have an ICQ account that dates back to the nineties! The cloud? That's just FTP for dummies if all you do is store your data on it; for cloudy computing resources look up time sharing (and I don't mean condos in Puerto Vallarta).

For Google to trumpet that “we only do things that are ten times better than what went before” is as if to laugh! Is:

  • Android 10x better than Windows, Linux or OS-X?
  • Chrome 10x better than Firefox?
  • Google Search 10x better than Bing or Yahoo?
  • Google Maps 10x better than Apple Maps?
  • Google Nexus 10x better than an iPad or Surface Pro? 

10x? Shmenex!

The Artist as a Young Brand

Doing a quick survey (well, I googled the web) I noticed the following: if you search for “personal coaches” (a really hot ticket a few years ago) and “personal branding” you'll see that pretty well the same motley crew pops up. 'nuff said.

Why in heaven's name would you, as an artist, want to brand yourself. Are you a commodity? Really? Do you need sloganeering to define who you are? Do you want to be thought of as some catchphrase? “Dodge: Ram Tough”, “Chevrolet: The Heartbeat of America”. Do you want to be pigeonholed?

I recall an interview Lee Ritenour did before a concert in Japan where he said something along the lines of:
“...it's so refreshing to play in the Far East. I can take my music in some different directions and everyone understands what I am trying to do. If I do that back home people get upset...”
And what if you decide you want to change your brand, beyond an exploration of other things as Mr. Ritenour above? Good luck with that. On the web, everything is remembered so if you don't want to be the uber-wedding photographer you once were and want to be known for f64 type landscapes that will be a massive undertaking. Ask any company that needed to re-brand; business schools have tons of case studies about what it cost those companies.

I also don't buy this thing that a brand is a tangible indication of trust. A brand is what the ad-men say it is. Branding is propaganda, dammit! You are who you are and if you are a person of integrity, humanity and talent that will get around and you'll end up fat and happy. Trust me.

And Finally

Eric provides a possible framework for commercial success in this ADHD world we currently occupy. It has little to do with photography or being successful at photography.

It's unfortunate that we all want a simple recipe for whatever we deem as success. We seem to have lost the mental discipline to truly understand what the heck we are doing and rely on public intellectuals that dispense aphorisms and treat these as oracular utterances guaranteeing good outcomes if we do the incantations properly. We have become a product of a Powerpoint mindset.

You know what? There is no single thing, no single technique, no single paradigm, workflow, process, voodoo spell, Potteresque faux Latin mumbo-jumbo or Powerpoint slide deck that will guarantee you success at anything: geophysics, bespoke software development, hockey, business, photography, anything. All what these things can do, at best and only if the deity is willing and the crick don't rise, is create a possible environment for possible success – nothing else.

It's a crap shoot. Always was, always will be and anybody who tells you different is selling you something (like snake oil). If you buy into it just make sure you pay for it in unobtanium: that way neither of you will be out of pocket. Remember the great poet Burns:
“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy! ”
But, (there's always a but isn't there?) if all what you get out of this article are these:

  • “Go out and try. What's the worst that could happen? Exactly.”
  • “Ignore the self styled experts, the potion sellers and the 12 step specialists. They are in business to make money, usually by taking yours.”
  • “Do your best at what ever you do. Do it with all your heart, with integrity, with respect. You will succeed, however you may define that Success. It won't be overnight, you might be on your deathbed, but you will succeed. It may not be what you thought success would be, but you will succeed”
  • “Failure is the foundation of Success. How you respond to Failure will determine your Success”
  • “Horatio Alger wrote fiction.”
  • “Ignore all “Keys to Success” lists (like this one).” 

then I will have, within the confines of this article, succeeded (a very modest definition of success).


NYC Conversations

One last tranche from my fall trip to New York and then on to other work. To paraphrase “The Naked City”: “There are eight million conversations in the naked city.” These images show some of those conversations: public or private, intimate or contentious, posturing or honest.

This couple was walking hand in hand past Madison Square Garden enjoying the fall evening, enjoying each other’s company. At an intersection, laughing at a shared joke they embraced; an honest embrace, a deep embrace, an embrace filled with love and laughter.


Of course some people have the contrary image: the abrasive, argumentative New Yorker. I had passed this group of friends several times and at a stage in Times Square they stopped to visit. On the surface this image would confirm the stereotype. In fact the opposite is true. They were listening to each other intently (Times Square is noisy) and the very next instant all of them burst out in laughter. In another post I ranted a bit about people wanting their images to reflect the reality as they saw it; well, this shows that you can manipulate that reality using space and time. Once again, context is everything.

You talkin' to me?
As if it's not hard enough to develop human relationships in the "Naked City" we seem to sabotage our attempts by erecting so many artificial barriers. These four friends pulled up in the Village and no sooner had they crossed the street than out came the iThingies; other people more interesting than the people they were with.


How different from this group of friends, in the moment, using the same technology to come together.

We were here
That's about it for New York for now. The remainder of the images can be found in my Smugmug gallery, here. I'm really looking forward to my next visit and work on some of the themes that I've written about. Brooklyn beckons as well.