Riding the peaks and troughs
Waiting for the next commission is the hardest thing a professional photographer can do
I was trying to work out what pictures I ought to be taking, rather than those I wanted to be taking.
When I was told – by photographers older and wiser than me – that it would take ten years to make a living, I didn’t believe them. And now I tell students and assistants the same thing, and they don’t believe me either. We sit at our laptops trying to figure out how to bring in the work, how to pay the bills, how to make enough time in the day to have a life as well as work, and how to get through the next year without having to call the tax man to apologise for having spent his money on insurance and fixing the car. It’s not what we thought it would be, is it?
We thought we’d be travelling the world, hanging out with the beautiful people, driving fast cars and drinking cocktails. Or maybe we thought we’d just be taking pictures. Because that’s what got us into it in the first place, right? Taking pictures. With Pentax 35mms from our dads that had really annoying lens caps and light meters that were kind of hard to read. But that’s not what it’s like to be a professional photographer in 2015. Our world changed, for better or for worse, in around 2007, and here we are, realising how much our working lives have changed, and wondering quite how it happened.
The peaks and troughs are the same though; one day you’re shooting something really cool in a fabulous, exotic location, the coffee is really good, the weather is on your side, and everything’s great. Two days later you’ve sent in your high-res pictures, and there’s nothing in the diary. Oh my god, you will never work again! Your work is shit, the phone isn’t ringing, and your friend the picture editor isn’t returning your emails any more. Is it press day or did he actually hate your last job even though he said he loved it? Then the phone rings and everything’s okay again. It’s exhausting!
I had a bit of a moment a year or so ago when I realised that I was trying to work out what pictures I ought to be taking, rather than those I wanted to be taking. It sounds kind of obvious now, but I was chasing my own tail trying to find out what people wanted, and shooting that, and inevitably failing because someone who was much better than me at whatever ‘that’ was, had already done it. And of course, they had done better than me, because it was what they wanted to be shooting.
So I had to think about what it was I wanted to shoot, and I got stuck. I love my big set-up stuff, but I can’t just go and do that whenever I feel like it. There’s a whole load of preparation and phone calls involved, not to mention the budgets. I just wanted to take some pictures.
I dug out my Mamiya 7s, which I hadn’t shot with in maybe five years. I loved shooting with them, but no picture editor can afford rolls of 120 now, and digital really is a bit more convenient a lot of the time. But those Mamiyas are lovely. They’re light and quiet, you don’t look like some crazed paparazzi with one round your neck.
So I went for a walk, with a roll of 400 and an 80mm lens, and just took pictures of things I saw. And it felt good! I wasn’t shooting for any reason; I just thought ‘that’s interesting’ or ‘I like that shape’, or ‘there it is’. You know when you’re taking pictures, and they’re okay, they’re doing what they’re supposed to, but none of them are really singing? And then, suddenly, there it is – a picture appears in front of you, and if you catch it in time, it feels like Christmas for a split second. You’d been waiting, hoping for the day’s photographic gift, and finally it was here. Walking around with that Mamiya 7, I had that feeling again, remembering what it was like just taking pictures that I wanted to take, regardless of whether they would be any good, or whether they would make me any money. It was a nice feeling.