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on Jun 10, 2011 in Friday Thoughts

Life Cycle of a Photographer

17 Jan, 1991, I had been self employed for a whole three months when that decision blew up in my face. I had been in the business of wildlife photography for a decade and with Sharon, built it up to where we felt our sales would permit me to stop working a 60hr a week job to concentrate on just photography. The first three months were going OK, not great but OK. I’ve never known a day of security being a wildlife photographer, that’s not part of the job description but things were moving in the right direction. Well on that day in January, the Gulf War started and for the next six to nine months, you couldn’t give away a North American wildlife critter photo!

As I’ve quoted so many times, as my good friend Wayne Lynch likes to say, “Wildlife photographers start each day unemployed!” That fact is probably what keeps so many from trying and many who do try from ever succeeding. Well, as the war continued our business slipped and as the image sales went down the tubes we really only had two options. We could either go back to our day jobs (not a cheery proposition) or tighten the ol belt, dig our heels in and produce even more (yeah, crank up production). And with time and that old fashion work ethic (thanks Dad) we managed to survive and that slowly became business growth. And for a while with such jobs as being the Nature Editor for Popular Photography, we started to feel good about how business was going.

Then the economy started to go south and one of the first things to feel the pinch is photography (also the last thing to feel the upswing). While we were doing OK, that’s not the same as putting money away for a rainy day. This was the first time we’d as a business had to work through an economic down turn and we weren’t ready for it. Sharon & I had had our business and economic college classes but no one ever said, “You in photography, when you see the economy hinting things are going to be bad, you’d best hold onto your pants!” That first one was really, really, really hard and there were some cherished lenses sold to pay bills. We cranked up the content creation another notch, kept shooting film but only got what was needed processed and the rest stayed in the freezer until we had the money for processing and wiggled forward. And with time again, things pulled out and were on the right road.

We’ve gone through that cycle three times since we started in the photography business. We saw this one coming and as best as we could, prepared for the down swing in photography. There was no way one could see all the photographers from closed newspapers flooding the market. No way one could predict the influence devices like the iPad would have, but as always, we dug our heels in and just cranked up the content making machine. It’s what we and all the successful photographers in business have done since the late 1800s when times get tough, you simply create even more!

During this whole time, we’ve tried a number of ventures in the attempt to pull out ahead of the curve. Those that have been successful you know about like the wildlife photography or our DLWS series. Those that went down in flames, only us and our account know about and there have been some real doozers! That’s when the saying, no pain, no gain takes on an all too real connection. But that’s how it is. That’s just as much a part of photography as f/stop and shutter speeds. But if you’re not in the business, you would never know or experience any of that.

When you’re not in the business of photography, your only real concern is do you have the money for that particular piece of gear, that particular trip or special workshop (and are just as real). And in these times, that is a real valid concern. If you watch the news broadcasting more economic gloom and doom you feel like you’re on the fantail of the Titanic looking down at the frigid Atlantic going down for the last count. What I’ve been hearing from a lot of photographers lately is when it comes to doing something beyond the box, the response of “When I win the lottery.” Not to be one to lecture anyone but, WTF?! What has happened to self determination, pride, work ethic, riding out the storm, pushing ahead, and all the other bad sayings that go with kicking your own ass back up the road?

I’ve been talking with a lot, a lot of WWII vets the last six months, doing interviews with what has been rightfully described as the Greatest Generation. They were kids who had just come through the great depression and for just pennies a day, went off to war because, well, simply, it had to be done. They came back home and built so much of what we enjoy today. They didn’t wait to win the lottery, the majority of them simply dug their heels in and created….jobs and products and art and music and towns and dreams, the American Dream!

There is no way that you can’t have really bad days where picking up the camera is simply not an option. I don’t know about you, but personally for example, I can’t write a word when I’m not in a good mood. And when it comes to shooting, yeah, there are days when that isn’t an option. But I know that if I don’t put the right foot in front of the left one and keep moving forward even at a snail’s pace, I won’t get anywhere. Even in these economic “bad times,” I still take risks because that’s what photographers do. A good example is my venture into aviation photography where my heart took me and the brain followed to make it work. There are a whole lot more peaks then valleys but you do have both in the pursuit of art and self expression. We’re in the business of creating a lifetime of treasures and not just a moment of pleasure. Don’t wait for that lottery, change the rules of the game and make your own win. At least that’s what we’ve done, it’s the life cycle of a photographer!