What Happens When You Do Everything Right, And It Still Doesn’t Work?

There was a very interesting post over at Kirk Tuck’s blog this week. It had to do with only being as good as the last shot, and how some great photographers are watching their careers slow precipitously, even while still being recognized as top level photographers.

This sort of piggy-backs on my previous article, “Fear and Loathing in Photoville” in which I discuss some of the fear that is prevalent in some circles of photography. “Old guys” sometimes find change hard. They will sometimes hold on to previous patterns too long, after all, they worked for them in the past. And sometimes, they are so set in their ways that they refuse to even consider what is happening around them is real. How could it be changing that fast?

That fast… yes, it is changing that fast. And it shows no sign of slowing down. Not for the short run. Probably not for the long run either.

So we keep on doing what we are doing, and getting praise for it, and expecting it to be ongoing. Like any artist, we feel that what we are doing has merit and value. We keep moving confidently toward completing art that we feel, no, that we KNOW is what our calling creates.

But things are changing everyday. Generations are moving into play, and each has their own value system, their own way of working, their own heroes. And a lifetime of contribution from any artist is no guarantee that the younger demographics will much care about.

In fact, as we older guys hold on to the things that are important to us, the things that we surrounded ourselves with, the contemporaries that MADE us who we are, we move even farther away from the younger groups who have different contemporaries. Different heroes. Different influences.

And sure, we can be considered ‘an influence’ but few of us wake every morning thinking, “well, today I move from being a top-tier artist to someone who “influenced” a top-tier artist.” Few at the top want to be relegated to the “we are so glad you were able to come tonight, does the walker make it harder to drive” group.

I can try as much as I want to embrace hip-hop, or boy bands, or that insipid “Disney kid” singing, but I cannot. It has no relevance to me, or my time, or my experience. I’ll take Mitchell, or Ella, or Benatar, or Battle. (If you don’t know the first names, that is not surprising, and you are probably younger than I am. And that is the point.)

And even those artists had peaks in their own careers. Joni Mitchell has created lots of wonderful albums of music, but none were more revered than “Court and Spark”, “Hissing of Summer Lawns”, and “Hejira”. And none after those three ever achieved the acclaim, or sales of those three. They were nearly perfect, and stand as a tribute to the amazing music that she made.

Keith Jarret has released many solo albums since his first double record “Koln Concert”, yet none have reached nearly the sales of that piece. I listen to all of them, and still the Koln Concert gets play far more than some of the others.

Maybe that is the time that they had to reach their pinnacle? Alec Soth’s blog had a very contentious post on whether photography is a young person’s game.

“Reading this at the age of 40, I began to picture myself as Wile E. Coyote still running after he’s off the cliff. The decline seems inevitable.

But is it? From in-depth quantitative studies, University of Chicago economist David Galenson has proposed two kinds of artist greatness. One he calls Young Geniuses (conceptualists who do their best work early in their careers). The other group he calls Old Masters (those who work by trial and error and improve with age). According to Galenson, Picasso (Young Genius) peaked at age 26 whereas Cezanne (Old Master) peaked at 67.”

Yeah, I get that coyote running around with the dynamite strapped to the tail thing… I do.

But it also shows how we may begin to think about how we fit in, age wise. And how that will affect how we do what we do.

I recently watched Mick Jagger and the guys doing a concert… oh man, I thought they looked terrible… lame and silly. Jumping around like a nut case is a young person’s personae. It looks absolutely stupid on an old guy.

Have you ever watched videos of Peggy Fleming winning the Gold Medal at the Olympics a long time ago. She was beautiful, she was graceful, she was amazing. And she would be a rank amateur in today’s local rinks if she skated that skate today.

The bar moves, and people get better and better and better. It was widely believed at one time that no one could ever run a mile faster than 6 minutes, or that man would never be able to go to the moon, or that we would carry a phone with a camera and be linked to people all over the world to access information in real time.

All silly sounding now, right?

So what does an artist do? Do we try to stay ‘hip’ and ‘young’ and ‘ahead of the game’ and risk looking stupid and out of it? Watching Sammy Davis Jr, one of my most beloved heroes, on old Carson shows wearing Nehru Jackets and “love beads” makes me cringe. But at the same time, I am not gonna wear black socks and sandals while wearing the stupid beach hat.

OK, the beach hat maybe, but not the black socks and sandals.

I can only offer my humble opinion.

We do what we do best, and keep doing what is authentically ours. We find ways to do it that may help cross the gorges of demographics, but we don’t go automatically to change our selves to match their values, we bring our values to them within a context of growth.

When I hear a photographer complaining about the business, I always ask a few questions:

1. What are you doing to get your work out there? How does your marketing plan work?
2. How are you staying current with your work? Is there something you can do to create something new?
3. What is your current plan for changing it up, and creating buzz?

I cannot tell you how many ‘deer in the headlights’ looks I get. I hear about how they will NEVER do a Facebook page, or tweet, or blog or… well, you have heard it all too. Lots of ‘old timers’ and ‘seasoned pros’ react with hostility to things that are new. Different.

While Facebook and Twitter are a very new thing to us older folks, the young people grew up with them. The digital age is NOT new to them, it is THEIR influence, and THEIR normal, and we can either accept and adapt or simply do the ‘old guy’ thing and mumble about ‘kids’ and their toys… < fart, scratch… belch >

But instead of blocking the new, I suggest the acceptance of it. Have fun with it. Embrace it as some new way of working. A way we never have.

And one more thing, and this one is important. And probably the most difficult to do.

Listen to the younger artists. Listen to what they have to say. Listen to how they perceive the world, the art, the business and the technology. Being a master means that you have been a student. Become one again, and embrace the new ways of working – not to try to become somehow ‘young’ and a total phony with hair implants, nipped and tucked into fake youth, and listening to kids music as you spew kid speak.

Listen to them to understand the new world. It is there all around us, and it is never ever going to be 1994 again. Or 1978.

Becoming the student when you are a master is no fail, it is instead an acknowledgment of the true master belief; that all of us have new things to learn, new ideas to think about, and new ways of approaching the work we love.

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  1. Simply and perfectly put!

    As an old guy in a new business this helps me keep focused on how I may succeed.

  2. I think we all have to look at this with new vision. Older artists are staying active longer, and younger artists are starting younger.

    Personally I love listening to young photographers going through their process. I may see where mine are better, but I can also find ways where theirs are better.

    A master always wants his student to become the master. I see no problem with that.

  3. I have always loved learning new things and hope to never stop.

    Maybe if I make it past 90, I’ll take a break?

  4. Great post. I am about to embark on a drastic career change into full-time photography very soon, and I absolutely loved reading this bit of wisdom. I might be hitting the 50 mark in 2012, but dammit, I’m not O.L.D.!!

    While I don’t like Facebook’s past and present policies as to content ownership, I do recognize that FB can be an important tool in getting yourself noticed out in the inter-tubule space.

    Now get off my lawn, you young whippersnappers! :-)

  5. Not one of the “seasoned pros” at all, but appreciated this blog all the same. Definitely feel the pressure of having to keep up with trends, even though overcooked HDR, iPhonography, and Justin Bieber and Rihanna fever are things I don’t really feel like I could ever get on board with. Merely saying that I have a deep appreciation for Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Tony Bennett, Jerry Uelsmann, Herb Ritts, W Eugene Smith and Edward Weston makes me feel ancient, even though I’m 26.

    Been following your blog for a while now, Don, as well as Kirk’s. Love both of your posts!!

  6. I remember reading a post on a wedding photography forum where an older photographer was concerned his age made potential clients pass him by for someone younger. And then someone asked him what his work looked like compared to the so called younger photographers. The older photographer was still doing the same work he did 25-30 years ago and tastes have changed many times since then.

    The Daily Edit posts on A Photo Editors blog has exposed me to great work by young and old photographers and sometimes I can’t tell the age group of the photographer just by their portfolio content. These photographers get it and know how to stay relevant today and probably tomorrow. As long as we continue to be students and keep an eye on how the landscape is changing us old farts should stay out of the tar pits for a while longer. Any day you don’t learn something has been an opportunity lost.

    • You are quite right, Glenn. Some artists can grow and change and others seem to be quite reticent about it. Many times it is wrapped in a self-view that will not allow them to think they may be being left behind. The “young scaliwags don’t KNOW what I know and I am far superior because I did that and that other thing and back in 92 I was hot in NY and blah blah blah…”

      What matters is now. Period.

      A legacy is a good thing to have, but it will not put food on the table or tear sheets in your book.

  7. Don, is this not part of the eternal struggle between authenticity and what the “market” wants; aka, art vs. commerce? What if my authentic self (influenced by the things I cherish) is perceived as “old” or “out of style”? Do I keep doing those things/create those photographs because it’s the “real” me, or do I change with the times and do what others thing I should do?

    Personally, I think we all have to answer that question for ourselves, but I’m interested in your take on it. What is the right balance of authenticity and marketability for you?

    • Hi Stuart.
      Yep. And I agree that it is a very personal thing when we are discussing our art and our images. And I certainly am not advocating changing one’s style to fit the “look of the moment” or be non authentic. I am thinking much more along the lines of inclusion instead or exclusion. Expansion instead of contraction, or even switching.

      And I am much more in tune to how to change that may not be related to the images at all. Maybe it is in the marketing (or lack of it) or in the relationships that have long ago dwindled. Maybe it is presentation or delivery or POV. Is it possible that an old dog can learn new tricks? Without forgetting all the good ones he/she had that made them who they are?

      I think so. I cringe when someone tells me they aren’t interested in Facebook cause ‘nothin’ is interestin’ there, just people talkin’ ’bout their lunches…” I cringe because they are eliminating something that could be fun for them because of a reason that is not true. Not having a website, or these days not having a website that works on mobile and tablets, that can be dynamically changed. Not adding new work, changing up the mix, engaging the visitors in conversation… all of this is what needs to be done.

      The younger photographers are doing it, but the older ones seem to be ‘above it all’, and not interested in competing in places they feel they already won.

      You can win the hill, but you have to fight every day for supremacy upon it. And the youth keep coming in volleys too thick to repel with simple arrogance or entitlement.

      It becomes a bit more tricky even when we are talking about commercial photography. Not art, not fashion… commercial. One big softbox was the 80’s, 90’s and early 2K’s. Now, multiple snoots and grids are being used for the same types of shots. I still use the single box, but I am adding grids… ya know. I have no intention of following the crowd, but I do have to deliver what the clients are wanting. That is why it is called COMMERCIAL photography. We are cameras and visionaries for hire, and we are being hired by patrons who KNOW what they want. It is our job to deliver.

      Thanks for the great question. I hope I gave you some insight to my thinking.