Monday, December 17, 2012

On Losing Steam (and getting it back again)

After months and months of putting prose into practice, of applying myself and dwelling less on the informal application of theory and thought in my craft, I return to this blog with one assured sentiment - I finally know where I'm going.

Now, with that statement made, let's work on making it less nebulous.

Some time in August I hit a curiously low point brought on by self-imposed, manufactured stress in regard to the effort required to promote my brand. So overwhelming was this stress that it brought on a recession from the marketing binge I'd engaged in prior. Seeing little result from what felt to be gargantuan efforts, I became disheartened, retreated from the legions of desperate upstarts trying to establish a strong name for themselves and acquire new business. Those efforts had only ever resulted in but a single commercial shooting arrangement in my court, and the headache of Web 2.0 quickly lost its allure. Coinciding with my deflated enthusiasm, the company for whom I often photographed property listings had hired another photographer who seemingly devoured the majority of my shooting gigs.

My optimism tested, all that was left was to submerge myself into a forray of personal adventures. Artistic shoots. And I absolutely appreciate their effect, as I've never felt more aware of my baser motivations.

In September I spent much of time photographing a local steel mill that had gone the route of much of America's once proud steel industry. I was inspired by the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose work I'd seen documented in the film Manufactured Landscapes. His years-long series of photos covering the scars in the Earth left by modern industry and strip mining efforts struck me as notably poignant, even definitive of what I found myself trying to express in much of my urbex photography. Until seeing another's work, the creative fruits of a well established photographer, I never quite understood what it was that I was attempting to express myself, but understanding Burtynsky's theme, his direction, and how he defined it before ever engaging in the photographic process... it made me rethink my own approach to photography. My work had always been documentarian at best, with little point outside of what was in the frame to be seen. Suddenly I found myself wanting something more from my own photos. Documenting a rarely seen place was no longer enough, it needed something personal.

But I didn't know what. And for a good while I had no idea what it was that I craved out of my own images. I continued working like some automoton photographing places in a formulaic corner-to-corner approach much as I'd photographed everything up to that point. A good friend and I went on a week long road trip through the greater Northeast region of the States and despite firing off many hundreds of frames not a single one spoke to me. They were all the most boring photographs I had ever taken. But the experience of being in the places in which they were taken was so rich. A bridge needed to be built, some pathway by which to correct the awful disconnect.

I suppose it had clicked before, but it took time for me to dedicate myself to putting it to practice (and admittedly I'm still working to apply it to my shooting more earnestly). It was people. The people I was with, the ones I was sharing experiences with. It was never the places themselves that bore the bulk of the memories, it had always been the conversations and the antics and time shared with unique and wonderful people. When shooting on my own, for fun in this sort of manner, the photos that mattered had always been the ones that featured those with whom I was shooting. So foolish that it took so long for me to recognize.

Despite seeming so obvious and simple now, that was a huge epiphany to me in September. It took a good amount of time shooting with my "Bro from Philly" for me to recognize it. It was a concept that had occured to him long ago already, so I more or less felt like I was playing conceptual catch-up with him. As a result, I found myself shooting less, but the crop from personal photo outings being that much richer in end product. Finally it all clicked (pardon the pun), and I spent far more time enjoying my friends' company on urbex adventures than wasting my time hunting behind a lens.

Oddly (or perhaps not), the establishment of my realigned focus on the people, not the places, coincided with a lessened interest in urban exploration per se, but certainly not a diminished interest in being in rarely seen or unique places in the company of those with whom I most connected. While still embarking on the occassional urbex run, the state of decay and abandon of the locale became less interesting to me than the simple uniqueness of the place and the quality of the people. Instead of sneaking into mills and hospitals, I relaxed on 500 foot high cliffs until the stars populated the night sky away from civilization. I made bonfires on beaches sandwiched between Baltimore's finest in industrial assemblage. I spent nights under bridges and recounted life's trials and tribulations on long walks down train tracks. I watched people wander like ants from rooftops for hours. All moments I did my best to capture with the perpetrators in context. People. Not just places.

That missing satisfaction from my personal photographic pursuits realized and addressed, I once again felt in a proper place of mind to return to the business-centric approach to photography that defined the first half of my year. Not because my personal shooting was in any way affecting my business approach to photography, but after having exhausted myself with marketing and promotion, the peace and order I'd come to with my personal endeavors came with a fresh surge of motivation, ambition. Like having one's finances in order, a sense of clarity and control returned. And almost too coincidentally, the company I was contracted to for real estate photography conducted an audit of its photography division, culling its photographer roster by a significant amount... but deeming my work and my methods of conducting business worth keeping. A more reassuring indicator that my business sense is sound... nope, can't think of one.

Once again recomposed, I know what directions I wish to head in. They are somewhat divisive in that they both require different approaches, but neither approach wholly excludes the other. But honestly, my problems being squarely centered in the "what gear should I invest in next" department is reassuring in its own right - my methods are competent and in many ways superior as evidenced by my retention at the hands of bloodthirsty auditors. What I have established now is just fine, and while equipment acquisition can make my job easier they won't bring anything particularly new to the table that my method doesn't already provide. My new business focus is more appropriately focused on expanding to new markets.

In the beginning of the year I wrote a business plan that largely focused on portrait photography as a platform on which to expand. To date I have done absolutely nothing to establish myself in the portrait photography market. It exists, I've seen it put to practice by many local photographers, but they apply their craft in different ways than I intend to implement mine. It's like a trump card, or maybe an Ace up the sleeve. I only need to apply myself to it. Unlike my real estate work, there is no larger company feeding me clientelle. But I suspect that I'm already well known enough to where finding eager clients for portrait work wouldn't be difficult. Establishing that new market for business is my goal for 2013. And I've never been more ready to take it.