The many times I’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail I was always hosted by Barney “Scout” and Sandy “Frodo” Mann. They open their home to hundreds of hikers every year, providing not just a place to crash for the night but also a pickup, dinner, a ride to the border and plenty of information and other aid. Having stayed there in some years as a helper, I spent some time documenting the process a hiker goes through from pickup to their first footstep north on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Coordinating pickups is one of the hardest jobs for Scout and Frodo. They live in constant fear that they’ll “forget” someone and leave them stranded at the airport for hours.
Step one for preventing that is their schedule board and the dozens of hours they spend making and studying it.
Scout does his part. Much of the coordination work happens on a computer, especially since many of the hikers that stay with them will be from outside the United States. Email is the easiest communication tool.
Much of the time that is spent at Scout and Frodo’s home is spent on a process of reduction and shakedown. Most Hikers have been scrambling to get the PCT process complete — subletting apartments, selling or storing cars and other possessions and much more. Once they get to San Diego they have to attend to the details of actually backpacking.
The day of departure can be a stressful time. PCT Hikers at Scout and Frodo’s typically sleep in their gear — which means the first operation in the morning is getting it all back in their packs and making sure nothing is forgotten. Some hikers, having been taking care of small details to the last minute, haven’t even yet packed their backpacks with all their gear until this moment.
Once ready to go, hikers settle in for a breakfast provided by the Manns. Many don’t eat much, despite the fact that they will walk 20 miles this day. The start of their hike begins to seem very real and some people can become anxious.
Between 5:30 and 5:40 hikers must load their gear and themselves into the fleet of vehicles ready to take them to the US – Mexican border.
It’s a rare occasion where this event doesn’t go as scheduled. Scout and Frodo provide excellent guidance and information the night before and the day of that often has the last car leaving right on schedule.
Now, in a car and unable to move, emotions begin to run high. Some people get jittery and excited, others become quiet and introspective.
Even once at the border, Scout’s job isn’t done. Time now for another role he plays — documentary photographer.
From this spot hikers begin their 2650 mile trek. At least half will quit within the first 1100 miles, either becoming disinterested by a journey that takes half a year or falling to injury or some other malady. Six months in the wilderness is very hard to conceptualize for those who haven’t done it.
Focal point is a term that photographers and photography blogs throw around continually. “Create a focal point,” it’s said, “it should be the first and last place the eye goes in your image.” That’s true, of course, but like most important things it’s easier said than done. A strong focal point is better thought of as the punctuation at the end of a carefully composed sentence. You need to know not only what makes the best single focal point, but also how to compose the sentence that precedes it.
First, consider what makes the best focal point; the best punctuation. There are a few things that your eye will shoot to first because of the way your brain processes visual information: points of high contrast, high sharpness, faces, human and animal forms, forward color tones (usually warm tones, like yellow) and recognizable objects that are large in frame (which reads as close). For effective punctuation of your visual sentence, you need an object or entity that creates interest and is comprised of at least one characteristic from this list.
Then, you must consider what makes not just a focal point, but a strong focal point. Now you must write the sentence. In scene, when you’re out shooting, look for ways to simplify and arrange the view through your lens to either point at or isolate your focal point. This is where compositional rules like the golden ratio or rule of thirds come in. Placing your focal point at these ideal locations in the frame gives the most space to support it with line, pattern or blurred motion. Experiment with angle and camera position to further shake the viewer out of their usual way of seeing and get them to engage with your image.
In my own photography I think of this as “harvesting geometry.” You can adjust things like brightness, color and sharpness easily in processing software but the hard lines and actual structure of a scene–the geometry–is difficult to adjust. It can be done, but it will save you a lot of time in software to convert the three dimensional world to your two dimensional image properly now, when shooting.
The last step, and to really make your image shine, is to carefully polish what you’ve created in camera using image processing software. Using curves or levels adjustment layers masked into appropriate locations (or adjustment brushes in Lightroom) manipulate the brightness and contrast of the focal point and supporting areas of the scene to create a visual hierarchy that creates depth. Highest contrast should be your focal point, brightest or darkest tones depending on your image, with lowest contrast and darker tones making up the non-focal areas of your image. See the whole image–make it small or blurry if need be to obscure detail — and analyze the scene that surrounds your focal point. You want to cultivate alternating areas of lighter and darker zones that reinforce and frame each other, ascending towards the focal point. Manage attention and interest by understanding concepts like chiaroscuro, executed intentionally. Find a rhythm of alternating tonal values that strengthens the natural path a viewer’s eye will follow in your image.
Beyond this recipe for strong focal points, think about how great art is made — emotion. Create compelling graphic content with a strong focal point and a supporting visual hierarchy. Then understand that you can point at something beyond the visual. Emotional content is how you make art. Point at something with the visual language that can’t be seen, only felt. When you can get your emotional content to point back at your focal point as well, then you have a truly powerful image.
We are animals. We see raw contrast and graphic content first. We only stay looking long enough to feel if the graphic content makes us. To be an artist, be both an animal and a sentient human being. See and create graphic and emotional content. Point them at each other and transcend.
I love and hate work. I feel like I have been working since the day I was born and I’m tired of it. I feel like without work, I couldn’t understand the world. Work has dragged me down into the deepest depths I have ever been in, emotionally. Work has lifted me up into the highest levels of mastery that I have ever experienced. I want to stop working. I never want to stop.
These statements are contrasts, technically opposites. But they are the contrasting tones that together create a single image — this American life. Our economy, executed. I dwell on work because of how much I have experienced it — and yes, because of how much I have hated it. And loved it. That conundrum, that conflict, that unsolvable riddle is why I can’t stop working. I have left my work and begun a new work — my pursuit of not working.
But to be successful, I must work. I must work harder than I worked at my previous career, which I left because of overwork. I must put my head down and take step after step into the blizzard of work ahead of me. The important thing, now, is that this work is mine. I work not for something someone else believes in, but what I believe in. Which makes it both easier and harder. Money is not yet involved in this state I seek. For now, I seek it solely because I believe in it. Yes, I hope that money will find me down this path, but that isn’t what it’s really about.
My work in pursuit of not working continues visually as well. This project has been very good soul searching for me. I have met great people. I have seen really interesting things. I have been allowed to set this same interest down in memory. I have thought deep thoughts. It feels so good and I am glad for it.
Andy Phillips. Andy and I used to be neighbors. He lived with his partner in the apartment above mine. I witnessed his life, at the very least by ear, for a time. We spoke occasionally but really I saw his life in negative spaces. Not spending a lot of time directly together but still engaging indirectly in the details of living within one building. But now in the pursuit of this project I get to see his life in the positive space, to participate in it.
Andy is a metalworker. He welds, cuts, carves, polishes, shaves, etches and just generally fastens the heavy, long-lasting materials of our society into structures that serve us. He is a man that seems very genuine and honest. He is what he seems to be. This is a man easy to like, even as he uses a hardened wheel spinning rapidly enough to defy perception to sever a piece of the hardest material available. He works in an environment that is both cultivated and raw. He is as he is and he makes no excuses. It is beautiful.
Sean Moore. A complex man. Like many of us, he likes to stay interested. He’s been a salesman, a fisherman and other things. But now he’s a mechanic because finally, he realized this is something he can care about. This is something that provides enough interest to balance on the tightrope that exists between making money and creating brain cells. He works on cars not because it pays the bills alone but because he has decided that it is the best compromise between boredom and income.
Ryan Tabb is a man chasing his dreams. Sheltered in the structure of someone else’s garage he sews and creates the gear he enjoys using. He shows excitement at the idea of making things for other people. A friendly, open man he focuses on what he knows to get ahead. You can get involved in business by competition and enjoying keeping others down or you can see business from the angle of taking care of yourself and the people connected to you; Ryan sees the latter and he has his eyes on the work.
Carrie Lewis defies structure. Starting as a child in her large family she has had to compete, to find herself, not be afraid to work for what she wants, and to get out and find a place elsewhere in the world other than where she was born. She is a jack of all trades, a person of many skills. Plaster is one tiny part of who she is, but it fits into the whole. She executes it with the same skill and focus that she does anything else.
Katie is a free and open person. She struggles not to smile. She paints portraits with the same method that she uses to live her life. Trying to leave the restaurant industry behind she is focused hard on getting ahead and being able to integrate painting and illustration into her life in a way that creates stable income. Not to get rich, but just so she can relax. The service industry can sap your ability to live a healthy life; she rebels against this.
Anne-Marie has a strong energy. She is a confident person of ideas. The Soap Queen, she moves about her social media studio with a focus that she brings to everything about her business. She cares for her employees and understands that running a business isn’t about making money but about taking care of the people who help you and using your collective to build something.
But the problem is Andy, Sean, Ryan, Carrie, Katie and Ann-Marie — they are so much more than the work they do. This is only one facet of themselves. Sure, it shines hard — this is why I sought them out. But it isn’t their whole being. They are just people in the structure of our society. Wanting to be themselves but not wanting to be homeless or poverty-stricken. Their work is important to them, but it is not who they are. They’re just good people, existing inside a culture of work.
There is some other plane of existence inside our culture that the people who struggle most efficiently can reach. It is a combination of work and love. It is the whole comprised of the duality of struggle and rest. Within the structure of our economy — that maybe you hate, that often I hate — you can reach happiness. It is like sudoku — try something and then check it. If you are paying attention; if you really care enough, you can find a place for what you love. Perhaps you will have to let the market refine it, have to adjust the dream to make it fit, but there is a way. These people demonstrate that.
Maybe this is what they are experiencing. That look on their face. Maybe this is what speaks to them from the next level of existence. They’ve found the way to get ahead. The structure of our economy can be a barrier to how we want to live. But as with most structure, if you stop raging and find a way to use your intellect within its boundaries you can find a way to get what you want. Accept this is the structure of our lives, love the hate you have for it. Game it. And win.
The most interesting part or perhaps greatest danger is that when you win the game, you may find you have come to love the rules. What once you would have changed, its changed you instead.
I took the best photo of my life today. I came down from the mountain and loaded it up on my computer. When I brought the photos up on my screen, they were just trees. Bummer. But it felt so good; looked so good on my camera’s LCD. What’s the deal with that?
This is why processing is the key to a great image. This is why revision is the key to great writing. Polish your gemstones. A great thought, a great idea, a great RAW is only just the beginning of something better. It is a seed. Without nurturing and pruning, it really is nothing special.
Lots of people have great ideas. Lots of people witness great moments. But there is an art to the witnessing, an art to seeing. And with art, the more you perfect your process the better you are. So take this to photography. See, capture and then refine. What is your image really about? Graphically, what elements of your image focus things and what elements muddle things? This is where you enhance the focusing aspects and mitigate the muddling. That is what processing is. You are tuning your vision.
When you see with your eyes, your brain does this. When you shoot staight to jpeg, your camera’s firmware does this. It happens no matter what, it is an element of seeing. Simplification and processing must happen to see an image. There is truly no way to capture an image without some kind of refinement happening whether you like it or not. Pinhole camera? Guess what, the physics of the pinhole are simplifying the scene — hell even the availability of light simplify the scene. Reality is incredibly complex. To record it, you must simplify.
Too, you must maintain control over that simplification. To be an artist, you should be the one at the helm of the process. Don’t let the engineers that designed your camera’s firmware make your images — make them yourself. The beauty you saw, you were the one who saw it and you know best what exactly you were seeing. So make sure others see it, and highlight it.
Your sensor is a data collection tool. Just because Lightroom takes my camera’s RAW and runs it through its own color profiles and default settings doesn’t mean that is what my image is–the changes I make are not lies to make it look good. An unmodified JPG output from a raw isn’t the last word — it’s an average of what the camera recorded. My image is what I saw when I was there and more so what I felt when I was there. It is important to remember that seeing and that feeling and use the data your sensor collected to recreate it. This is the art of photography.
So this is that disconnect you will sometimes get when you load your photos onto your computer. Once they are large in Lightroom or Capture One or Photoshop RAW and zeroed, you might think that you were crazy when you felt what you did. But you are not. This is just the feeling of being at the beginning of a pile of work. Get your waders on, time to get wet.
This is what a random person with an iPhone can’t reproduce. This is what takes love and loss and commitment to create. This is photography; this is being a photographer. It is being there with the equipment and seeing. It is then knowing that you’re still hours from a final product, even with mastery of the mechanical end of things. It is knowing still that you can do it, that you can reproduce the true seeing and feeling of being there, in that moment, even if straight from your camera there’s a disconnect.
Time to put your head down and use your memory. Time to make some artistic decisions and feel what you felt when you were there in that moment. Time to get to work. And whenever someone uses the hashtag #nofilter, ignore them and move on in your life. Because when you think about it, even #nofilter is a filter.
Here’s the before and after of an image to keep you thinking.
Photography, when it isn’t your job and is just your art, is an optional thing. This is a problem with most creative acts. You don’t have to do them. Wether or not you do them is a function of a lot of factors: energy levels, available attention, interest, expected reward, return on time investment — hell, even simple availability of time, among other reasons. So it’s easy to lose the thread of what you’re doing. What are you doing, anyway? What’s the point? Why bother?
You bother because it creates value for you. Not just for who sees your work: your colleagues at work, your family or even your relationship partner but rather who you are at the core. You want to make art because it’s real and it’s for the actual you that is at the bottom of the hierarchy of faces you have to show the world. Being and feeding your true self is a rewarding process. So why does that inspiration and motivation go away if it creates so much value?
It’s because it’s so open-ended. Because it is so freeing and empty of obligation, it’s the first thing on the chopping block when your reserves are sapped. Dragged through the mud at work? Fuck it, sit on the couch and watch Netflix instead of taking your camera to the streets. Your girlfriend mad at you? Go play video games instead of taking a hike together to get that landscape shot you might have otherwise. Been drinking too much coffee? Time to pay back that metabolic loan by performing your idling behaviors like browsing reddit while thinking about how tired you are, instead of taking the effort to decide what to take photos of.
But all is not lost! Let’s think about something — I bet you don’t want to go to work most days, but you do. Why is that? Well, sure, because you have to. But WHY do you have to? This is a Gordian knot of concepts and obligations, but the bottom line is because there is a structure in place that makes it a non-decision. You go to work because you go to work, and that is in place because the times you have not gone to work you have been made less comfortable than when you do. It is a self-reinforcing loop.
Decision fatigue is a thing. Google it. The human brain is not structured and did not evolve to make as many decisions as we have to make in our lives today. This is why you struggle to make the decision to go take photos. Because making that decision takes a certain energy, a certain chemical investment. If every time you want to go take photos you have to make a decision, you will create negative reinforcement for that action, despite the fact that you want to do the action — it’s the decision that’s the issue. If every time you wanted a drink of water you needed to haul a bucket up fifty feet of rope from the bottom of a well, you’d probably be less hydrated — and that’s for a required bodily function! Now imagine drawing photos up from that well.
So remove decision from your photography. If you really think photography brings value to your life, if you really believe in the art you create when you compose the world through your lens, then re-think how you go about it. Process is a huge thing for art. You need to build a process that causes you to capture photographs without tapping your well of decisive energy. There are many ways to do this. Ideally, I would leave this open to you. You know yourself better than I can guess at you. But I know what value an example can be, so here’s mine.
The Project. I have spent a lot of time as an adult trying to understand the world as a whole. This isn’t just photography, this is living. One way of seeing things is that there are two components to life. Structure and content. Structure is the book shelf, the house it’s in, even the book cover. Content is the text, the photos and most significantly the ephemeral ideas within. Without the bookshelf and the book cover you can’t access the content. Look at this blog — without the website, there is nothing — where would I type all this? At best it would be a text file somewhere. Yet what you are reading is a separate thing, housed within. Truly the structure serves the content — this WordPress server isn’t the important thing, it’s this article, the content — and the same thing is true of photography. So in that metaphor, we have the photography as content — so ask yourself, what is your structure?
Structure in photography is the project. The theme. Think about culling photos — when you got out for a shoot, how do you go about it? I’m guessing you take 100 photos and then get home, load them onto a larger screen, and pick the best 1 or 5 or 10. So how do we take that to the next level? Simple. We do that 5 or 10 times, then take the best 5 or 10 out of THAT. Your best of the best.
The problem then becomes unifying them. How do you show these best-of-the-best photos to people? You need a common thread. Take my most recent project, At Work — I have had six or so shoots to this point and I’ve collected five images from that. This allows me to take one really appealing image from each day and tie them together with a story that lets me show them to the world in such a way that people can connect with and appreciate them. I can maintain a narrative that lets people interpret the content of the individual photos as part of a larger whole, despite the fact that I will be taking them over five or six months.
So, inside this At Work photography project reference we come full circle. How do you regain that inspiration, that motivation and that confidence? You make a structure where you don’t have a choice. You make it work. Without all the negative connotation that comes from having to do something for money, while harvesting all the positives of needing to do something without decision. Start thinking long term, start thinking about your art as you do about your life.
And, to truly become a master, start thinking about the people that come after you. Who will be posting about your historic photo essays on reddit or its descendants in 2050? 2100? And what will make them care and be interested?
I think you can look around at a lot of the content based around photography on the internet and extract a theme: People want to be better photographers. At the lower levels of the hobby that’s fairly easy. There are a lot of concrete skills and tips to pick up and integrate that are available via a variety of mediums. Doing tutorials for processing. Covering some basic design concepts like composition and other visual elements for shooting. Learning about lens optics and exactly what is going on in your camera. There are a lot of easily articulated skills to practice; it can keep you busy for years just consuming the basic instructional content.
But what happens when you bump into The End of the Internet? Really it’s not that simple I suppose. It’s not a lack of content — because goddamn, there’s an infinite amount — but rather a lack of applicability. Once you reach an endgame state, there are no more tutorials to make you better. There are no easy answers to the question, “How do I get better at photography?” You already understand the thirds rule of composition, and you at least have heard about the golden ratio and other compositional rules. You’ve probably developed an automatic eye to utilize those. But then it becomes a question repetition. Thousands of times, tens of thousands. Enough to wear out a shutter. And that’s soul crushing, because people live through narrative, not repetition. And there’s no good, fulfilling story inside “And then I tried ten thousand slightly different compositions over ten years to fine tune the exact placement of my foreground elements.”
So you need a philosophy. You need a set of rules and a guiding story that can help you down the path of years, instead of down a path of day or weeks. You need to zoom out from your tutorial existence that is one day to the next. You want to be better at taking photos. We all do. And it’s easy to say, intellectually, that it’s just practice, time invested. But it’s hard to live that.
This is my philosophy, my structure for this art. It is not the be-all-end-all. I don’t think such a thing exists, mind, but I think there are some universal concepts that are useful and I think there’s a good basic way to tie them together. That’s what this is. It’s just a net that maybe you can tote out on your fishing boat and cast into the ocean of the world and maybe, if you’re lucky and skilled and paying attention, catch some stuff reliably. I’m just another person with this net — and I didn’t even weave it all, I found it and just patched some parts up.
First, you need to idealize something. You need a destination. Where do you want your photos to go? Who is better than you? Identify them. Photography is very ego-laden but I guarantee even the best, most self-assured photographers know someone that they they at least suspect is better than them. Find as many examples of this as you can. Learn about those people. Especially learn their process, the thoughts they have as they create. Advanced levels of any art become less about the mechanical details of technique and more about the details of what is going on in the creators mind. Learn their mind. But bottom line, know what looks better than what you are doing. Have a target. Study it.
Then, through study, identify what specifically is better. There is something, it’s specific, find it. You may not have the vocabulary to understand it, but you can see it visually. Manipulating concepts is difficult without a solid vocabulary, but it is possible. Work on finding a simple word, even just one. Get started on something. Is your ideal photography clearer? Is it emotional? Is it warm? Is it cold? you can find one word, I guarantee it. Then find two words. Then three. It isn’t easy, nothing valuable is easy. But find words and apply the internet to them, or even just take it to discussion. Generate more vocabulary. Google that vocabulary. Think about what you already know about processing, shooting, seeing — and apply that concept. Apply several concepts! Snowball it, get exponential growth happening.
Then plateau. Because that’s what happens. you will plateau, every time you identify a concept that can improve your photography. You will apply it until you get sick of it, master it, and then plateau. And that’s when you start the process over. Yeah, you’re better now. Maybe you’re much better. Hey, maybe you’re really fucking gifted and there’s hardly anyone whose work you cannot break down into simple concepts in your own mind in moments. But I bet there’s at least one that isn’t so easily broken down. I bet there’s someone that’s a little better than you, a little more aware of the medium.
And start the process over. This is what getting better is like for anything. Embrace the larger timescale and just find enjoyment in the individual steps of the process. Watch fads come and go. Watch new technologies come and go–sometimes, and stick around other times. If they stick around, integrate their lessons. Now the game is structure — what is your structure? What lets you stay with this medium after the novelty of shooting vanilla images wears off? Because it will, trust me. You will shoot and forget so many images that you will learn that some are just worth experiencing and not recording. But once you have that realization, what then?
Structure. The project. You can have a one night stand with photography really easy, but this is how you marry it. Stories are the true nature of photography. Human beings see the world through story — period. This isn’t just photography, this is the human condition. If photography is the art of seeing, then the nature of photography is the stories that we see. So what story would you tell? A day in the life? The struggle of the working man? The horror of war? In every single worthy thing there is a story to tell. Shit, tell the story of the small. Tell the story of insects. It doesn’t matter, it all has a story. Take this idealization of technique and the graphic image and apply it to anything you feel strongly about. I guarantee these things — your love of the image and your desire to tell a story — will carry you forward the 10, 30, 50 years it takes to master photography. With these loops of idealizing your style and identifying the stories you care about, you will be a master… if you can stick with it for as long as it takes. However long.
Maybe it will be longer than you are alive. But if you transcend the process, someone will find you later. That is art. You are here now, and maybe no one will see you. But that is something a true artist will mostly ignore — because you’re too goddamn busy working.
Also, for perspective, I’d like to share a photo I took and processed something like 12 or 13 years ago that I was able to dig up on the internet. We all start somewhere.
I posted this on /r/photography on Reddit, thought I’d put it up here as well. A few other photography blogs have reposted it as well. I actually wrote this while mildly intoxicated, which I suspect with myopic hindsight might be part of my writing process. A few small changes to this draft. I think I need to be better about drafting as a whole, instead of just slamming my first draft up on this blog immediately after writing it — much like I grew out of slamming the straight out of camera jpegs onto the internet. There’s a lot of ways to figure out how to get better at photography, this is just my thoughts along that path.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I honestly can’t remember why or how I started. I mean, I remember my origin story… but as an adult I also know that is probably a distillation and summary of what exactly went on. There are no easy lessons now, and my memory of the entry-level lessons is distorted by time. Best I can tell you is that things have become a few large ideas that I try to execute on a variety of levels of my practice.
Fifteen year lessons: Photography is communication. Why I do something is 80% of what I end up doing. I like to tell stories with photos. Even when I’m producing a single image, I focus on the story that it tells. Is this “best view of x city” or is this “How I feel at x location” or is this “This is how it feels to be x person”. I feel I am wasting my time if I am not communicating some emotion with a photo. The 100 million people with smartphones are doing the straight documentary recording of environment. If I want to be something else, I need to step up to the next level of communication.
One photo is the key. When I was in my early days I would take a lot of photos because I thought that was the path to one great photo. Now I have transitioned to thinking that meditating on a single photo that distills the moment is the way to think. Spending time being in a place or a time. Feel it, understand it, think about how to portray it. I still take more than one photo, but it is always in seeing that one first that I shoot a few chasing it and know when I have it. Capture and move on. This doesn’t mean when shooting you only take a single exposure — You might find yourself bracketing, or experimenting with a few changes to composition. But in your mind you should see one shot and be aiming at it. Not blindly clicking the shutter.
Understand that what you do is for you. Your vision is yours. It should communicate to others but ultimately if you hinge everything you do on others opinions, you’ll never do anything great. Consider what other people see. Be receptive. But your vision is what you will always be enacting and ultimately if you photograph by committee you’ll never get to that perfect recording. Be communicating always, but communicate your own mind and trust that others will be able to interpret. Maybe they won’t, many people are not properly understood. But if it is true to reality, somewhere and sometime it will be received. You get what you get right now and you have to let go of anything else.
A photo is an extraction. It is a simplification. It is reality seen through certain limitations. It is those limitations that make a photo. Four straight edges and a 2D simplification of reality. You need those limitations to make this an art — if you are trying to 100% capture reality you are not taking a photo and it doesn’t make sense. A photo is a haiku. 17 syllables and done. Without those walls, you’re lost. So embrace the walls and find a way to express everything there is between them. There will always be something outside the walls, but that’s okay too. Do what you can and that’s all you can do.
Oh and process your images. Simplifying your vision is key. Whatever method makes your photos stronger, but something. Processing is half or more of photography and always has been.
I have been working most of my life. My grandfather came here from Ireland in the 1950s. I come from a culture where salvation through religion, success, happiness — everything, comes through work. I am not entirely happy about this, but it has been the way of my parents, my grandparents and everyone who has come before. Until the last few years, I have known no other way of being. Work is the western way. The root of American and European culture is work, especially as a lower class person.
I am tired of working. I have been working since I was 16. My family wanted me to work even earlier but no one will hire someone who is under 16 for any job unless you have connections and my family had none. At 16 I started working in a restaurant as a runner — somewhere between a Garçon de Cuisine and a Tournant in the brigade system. I got the job because a guy from Poland, maybe 3 or 4 years older than me, could not do the job satisfactorily and was fired the day I was hired. My neighbor, who was a cook (alcoholic grade) at this restaurant told my soon-to-be-boss that his neighbors son was looking for work and passably intelligent, so they hired me nearly instantly because I had both hands, both feet and bonus — an excellent command of the English language. I have been working in this context until the last few years.
I am tired. This work does not pay well. The problem is that I am both greedy and intelligent. The latter is debatable based on what I have to do to my mind with chemicals to get by with the structure of life I possess. But I no matter the opinion I am a thinker. My talent is photography. So why not explore the space of work with the tools I have available? I want to know what it looks like to work, in every industry I can get at. I want to see what other industries, people, companies, jobs, whatever can offer. Let me look into your world. I want to see it all.
I think the great unifier is the internet. That is where I turned first to find people who would share their lives with me. Upon putting word of this project out on the Great Series of Tubes the first person to get back to me was Alexarc Mastema. Alex is the owner of Maniac Roasting here in Bellingham, Washington. Alex vaguely recalled me from my previous days as manager of a large restaurant here in Bellingham, so my entry was lubricated. He is a really cool guy and a true worker. He didn’t go to college, he’s only worked.
Look at this motherfucker. His finger is unto God. He lifts the Blessed Lever and releases unto all of us the dark base of our society – caffeine. One of the Allowed Stimulants. What a fucking guy. I really enjoyed working with him and capturing his process. He cycles between the hot roaster and his hot reddit-accessing laptop, a perfect loop. Just like me, really. When I see someone admit their redditing within their workflow, I know they’re being honest. Next is Aaron Jacob Smith, the head brewer at the longest standing microbrewery in Bellingham, Boundary Bay.
Working with Aaron was fun as well — everyone so far has been pretty great to work with. We rambled around the Boundary compound, which is much larger than I realized, dragging lights and trying different compositions. We got into the beer a bit as well, as Aaron was cleaning out some tanks and checking on some batches when I got there. Brewing looks like a super interesting job — so much the game of controlling environment through temperature and sanitation and all that stainless steel.
I want to rove far and wide with this project. I have been using it as a structure to approach a wide variety of people and I’m really excited about the possibilities. I think that as a country and a culture work unites us. Perhaps this isn’t ideal but it is the case. American Workers is a not just a set of words, it’s a fucking ideal. Our politics are a source of this continued concept. We want this, as a culture. I won’t lay into it negative or positive, but I will agree it is the way it is. We want this. So let’s look at it. Let’s look at work, high and low. Bad and good. Rich and poor. Art and manufacture. Whatever I can see, I want to seek. My grandfather would be proud — I hope.
My project of shooting Bellingham at night has been going well. I spent some time up at Western Washington University recently, where I was able to snag a few more good images of landmark locations. It’s often uncomfortable for me to spend too much time on campus — I’m no longer of average college age and I never attended this school, so I don’t quite feel like I belong. That’s the hardest part with shooting urban environments in general for me, of course, but people on campus tend to be a lot more likely to approach me and ask what I’m doing than elsewhere. The hardest part about that is they’re being nice about it and are just interested — but that’s hard for me to handle at times. If they were more of a “hey stop that” type, I know how to handle that. But people being nice always throws me off. And when I’m off, it’s harder to get a good photo session going.
It had been off and on raining that night, which was fortunate for the photographs. It’s much easier to love a night-lights-and-reflections photo without a doubt. The campus has plenty of momentary shelter as well, which is useful when the occasional random downpour rolls through.
I think what I’m typically looking for in night photos I didn’t quite find up on campus. It’s a little too trafficked and busy. I want hints of loneliness, emptiness. I want a theme of abandonment to at least poke its head into the shot. I think that night time melancholy is not only what I’m looking to photograph, but what drives me out of my apartment to take photos in the first place. There’s not much in my place but this big computer screen to keep me satisfied. I did manage to find that feel in one image I took while on campus. Some days I hate this photo and some days I love it. But I loved it when I took it and that usually carries a bit of weight long term.
Ultimately I think I need to find more abandoned areas. I may need to be more aggressive about going where I don’t belong — typically I’ll avoid any location where I have to feel like I’m sneaking around but then again I think I could really get something there. Also, I’m still hunting for that panorama of Bellingham I have in my mind. I haven’t been able to catch a sweeping shot of Bellingham yet that meets my standards. I need more roof access!