November 5, 2012

Reflections on Filter Photo Festival Chicago

I've spent the last couple of days reflecting about my (unfortunately limited) time I spent at the Filter Photo Festival Chicago, and I can't figure out why it had such a profound impact on me.

I think it boils down to this: photography, like no other industry, is made up of lone wolves.  While we can be quite clicky at times, in the end it is everyone for themselves.  As photographers, we live in silos.  Commercial, freelance and assignment photographers are the worst, especially in a down-turned economy.  We have a staple or mainstay of clients (or at least a single one) that we don't want to loose.  We feel that if our peers know who we are shooting for they might drop them an email or a postcard or who know what is next.

Where does that get us as a group and as a profession?  This behavior won't get us far, that much we already know.  As a Department Chairman of a Commercial Photography Program for the last eight years, I can quickly think of at least a half dozen photographers who have hung up their spurs and closed shop.  I'm happy they have turned to us to donate their once coveted equipment, but every single time I see a piece of gear, use it, or mention it to a student, I'm reminded of what a delicate balancing act our young photographers need to perform to be successful, let alone just stay afloat once they leave our relatively safe walls. 

As a second-generation photographer, I can say with 100% certainty that yesterday's solutions (heck, even today's solutions) will not work in the future.  The young photographers that are gaining a footing in what seems like quicksand share some traits.  I don't want to get off track or miss my main point so I'll just mention them and move on:

  1. Passion, They ooze it, they literally live, breath and sleep photography, if you are not this passionate about photography, then get out now and find what does wake you up each morning.   There are easier ways to make a living.

  1. Technical mastery of their tools, if they (still) shoot film they shoot it well and for a specific and profound reason.   They are not Lomo hipsters riding out a fad.  If they are shooting digital then they understand their particular process and workflow from concept to capture to output, nothing is happenstance or teased out in post.

  1. They are social and vocal, and not just online.  They know how talk about their work and the work of others.  More importantly they do it.   They get out of the silo, come up from the basement darkroom or down from the attic workstation to go do just that...and often.

That is it; there are more similarities but I want to stop here to keep on point.

One of the many photographers I follow is documentary photographer Daniel Milnor via his blog Smogranch.  In a recent posting he spoke about brilliant multimedia artist Jeff Frost.  If you don't know his work, look it up, it's truly fascinating.  Milnor talks how his eyes have been opened by spending time with other artists, painters and sculptures and less time talking to other photographers.  He feels in doing so, it helps broaden horizons and refines insights to the world.    You don't have to run to your local arts center.  I would be happy if you got up and talked to photographers but lots of them.  Which brings me back to Filter photo...

I sat on the board of the Chicago Chapter of ASMP for eight years, I believe strongly in what ASMP stands for and how they approach the business of our industry.   Everyone in our industry should belong to a trade group or organization, if nothing else to support the ongoing lobby efforts and solid business education they provide back to the industry.  I'm a huge supporter of ASMP.   My father was the second president of ASMP in St. Louis and I literally grew up around it.  However, I mistakenly spent eight years sitting in the back room of the now defunct Lab One in search of inspiration and comradery with other like-minded individuals and all I got was pissing and moaning from my peers and elders.

It was legitimate.  Most of the bitching surrounded day rates, clients, the state of the industry, which, in all honesty was warranted.  However, for the cost of parking downtown (twice a month) and the time away from my young boys and wife I was literally looking for love in the wrong place.

So my recent feeling of euphoria and discovery all stemmed from a dinner and two lectures, that's all.  I barely scratched the surface of what Filter Photo Chicago had to offer, which is a lot.  Around the edges of each event were conversations that were rich in inspiration and full of mental and physical imagery.  Conversations, even short ones, that made you want to go grab a camera and go shoot something.

It is events like these that will cultivate your own work and help propel it and you forward.  The ability to develop projects you are passionate about and share the progress with others is the engine behind your eventual success.  And what's nice about personal work is you define what success ultimately amounts to.  Many of our favorite photographers shoot projects so personal, that the final product is never intended to be seen by others but the practice of doing so is therapeutic.

I'm writing for this reason.  I truly feel our industry needs some love and here are my thoughts, ideas and advice to jump-start our profession:

  1. Participate in local and regional events, meet ups, photo walks, whatever.   Not just in photography, but film, painting, sculpting anything that seems remotely interesting.  They can be just as profound as large yearly events that are promoted to do the same.

  1. Share unselfishly with other photographers and artists in your circle.  Don't underestimate the power and value that even brief conversations can do for your peers and emerging photographers for your own excitement, enthusiasm and ideas.

  1. Give without an agenda. Give of your ideas and yourself to your peers and more importantly emerging photographers.  Undoubtedly they are walking a tougher road then we ever did.

  1. Lastly: Shoot...and lots.  If digital has done anything, it has removed physical and financial roadblocks to practicing your craft.  So do the scales, run stairs, however you want to look at the countless hours of practice that are needed to rise in our craft.   Just get out there and do it.

And that is what Filter did for me.  It provided the canvas or the opportunity to talk to other professionals about something other then business, something more important: Passion, the very same passion that got me into this as a profession.

So if Filter Photo happens to be in your town (Chicago) then get out there and attend something.  Events are scheduled year round with the big hurrah in the fall.  If you are not in Chicago, check out your local ASMP, APA, Strobist group, whatever and attend something, anything just get out there and like Pink Floyd said so well  “All we need to do is make sure we keep talking”

Thanks for reading.


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