When Giants Roamed The Earth
I looked at my bleary-eyed reflection in the mirror this morning and said “You’re a dinosaur”. And in a strange way, I decided that I was OK with that.
You see, dinosaurs, among them giants who apparently behaved like meat-eating bastards when they were in charge, seem in hindsight kind of cool and awesome. And in hindsight, isn’t that how we all want folks to think of us– that we are, or at least once were, cool and awesome?
I’ve been at this photography thing for a long time, and I’m getting old. If I’m a dinosaur, I’m one of those harmless, lumbering, leaf eaters. I’m a little dated and out of style, I admit it, but I can’t ever recall ripping anything limb from limb.
Back when real giants roamed the earth with cameras, photography wasn’t the narcissistic and self-referential circle-jerk that so much of it has become in recent decades. They came of age in the Modern era of the 20's thru the 60's, and that's where they left the tracks that generations have followed. They were Mad Men venturing out obsessively with little more than their wits and a world view, propelled by a one way ticket, good shoe leather or a full tank of hi-test. It was an era when great photography was simple but not at all easy, when image and idea held each other in perfect balance.
Maybe that leviathan of kinky chic Helmut Newton said it best when he said “look, I’m not an intellectual. I just take pictures.”
I still believe, as hard as it is now and always has been to make a living in any kind of creative endeavor, that my school's students have a better chance than most to pull it off, as long as they understand what it means to want such a thing and actually behave accordingly. And I still believe I can help them do both for a few more years.
I keep thinking of this conversation I had with a meat-eating former colleague a few years back. I was proudly recounting one of my program’s many success stories, a recent graduate who was scraping together a happy and fulfilling life as a young professional photographer. She met all of my requirements for success- she was paying the rent, putting food on her table, driving a decent car that started reliably whenever she needed it to, and was even able to take a nice vacation from time to time. All by calling her own shots as a shooter.
“See!” I said to him. “What we do does work. Our students do find success. It’s not hopeless trying to make a living as a photographer.”
He wasn’t having any of it. His definition of success and mine were, to put it mildly, somewhat at odds with each other.
“You don’t remember the 80’s”, replied this aging velociraptor, perhaps wistfully recalling the blood orgies of his Jurassic youth.
Well, yeah, Dino, I do. I remember miserably cold winter nights shivering in a converted garage apartment I sometimes couldn’t afford to heat because I wasn’t making enough money as a wedding photographer. I remember barely getting by as a freelance photo assistant living in a former whorehouse on the wrong end of the east side of Providence, RI just so I could be within walking distance of a great art school I couldn’t afford to attend, but whose public lectures I went to anyway. I remember how it felt to meet and speak casually to historic giants like Duane Michals and William Wegman and Cindy Sherman. It was there that I first spotted the interesting contradictions between the all-too-human creators and their sublime creations.
I remember so many highs and lows and ups and downs over so many years in this roller coaster of a life that it’s a wonder I don’t have a barf bag permanently stitched to my chin. And right now it feels like there’s another big dip coming up just ahead. Urp.
There was this other conversation I had just this morning with a colleague and mentor, a world-roaming, yellow-bordered giant who I admire tremendously. He told me about an article in the current issue of Aperture, the fading journal of “serious” photography founded in the 1950’s by, among others, the major giant Minor White. Entitled Hello, photography, it bemoans the doom of our old-fashioned modernist approach to the medium in a whole lot of no uncertain words. Cliff-Noting it for me, my friend said “we’re all screwed”.
Then he told me about a party he had attended in Boston last night for another friend, a local giant who just entered his fifteen minutes of prime-time TV fame as a “photo coach” on the USA Network’s new reality series The Moment. Our pal was barking out camera-handling commands to an attractive young contestant as she struggled to run up and down the sidelines of an outdoor basketball court juggling a quartet of Nikon D4s sporting howitzer-sized lenses.
“Is this what we have to do these days to keep it going- a reality TV show?” I asked.
“I guess”, he replied. “I just parked the car, ran in to the party to congratulate him and shake his hand, then turned around and went straight home to bed. I’m no good past 9:00.”
I know the feeling. I’m getting old, like I said. I was invited to the party, too, but I had something more important to do last night. I was down the street and around the corner a few blocks, celebrating the opening reception of a huge student photography exhibit with a talented group of young photographers from my school. There wasn’t a giant or a dinosaur among them, and while they too see the fiery speck in the southern sky growing closer, it doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us dinosaurs. They were standing tall last night, and boy are they hungry.