One of my closest friends is in intensive care. The odds are that she won't make it. Her name is Marilyn. She is a brindel-colored German shepherd, and for twelve years she has been my friend and companion. Seven years ago, I was in a human intensive care ward, with the human version of the illness that hospitalizes Marilyn now. I was pretty rocky when I got out, and took on a very light work schedule--working from my home. Marilyn soon got the nickname of "Nurse Marilyn." If she comes home, I will be "Nurse Bill." If she dies, an album of twelve years of pictures of this dear and special friend will be assembled and placed with the other albums that document the families and friends of my wife and myself.
As photojournalists, one of the most satisfying things that we can do is to photograph "our lives," some part of the world that we cross, spend time with, and hopefully come to understand and care about. (One of least satisfying things to photograph is something for which we have no understanding, involvement or interest.)
This is not to say that we are going to make careers of photographing our friends and families. It is only to say that in a photographic world of specialization, choose to do something you like. Too many photographers put out "B" portfolios when they are looking for work. Let me explain. You like to do "A," but you figure that no one will hire you to do that. So, you put out a "B" portfolio. It's close to "A," but much more conventional and saleable. Of course, it isn't exactly what the client is looking for. They give you an assignment to do "C."
Try putting out the "A" portfolio. Then, at least, you might get an assignment to do "B."
As to what you like to do. That's a complicated thing and likely to change and evolve over the years. Initially, photographers tend to pick a subject--sport, science, war, politics, theatre, celebrities, etc. Indeed, they may always be identified by that subject in the minds of their clients.
But as a photographer spends more time with a given subject, they tend to learn a little, hopefully grow a little wiser, and start to have opinions. Exactly what they "specialize" in becomes a little more difficult to describe in terms of subject.
Arthur Grace started with UPI, went on to cover the New England area for the New York Times, then worked for Time and Newsweek magazines. He covered wars, politics and ribbon cuttings like all good photojournalists. But, through all of this he was a portrait photographer. I have a print of one of his early 1975 "press conference" shots. It's a portrait of Orson Welles--tight, glaring into the lights and clamping down on his cigar; not what you'd expect from a press conference.
By the time he published Choose Me, Portraits of a Presidential Race, both as book and single images on the pages of Newsweek, he was covering the media event of the year on black and white, with a twin-lens Rollei. And he was shooting environmental portraits. No zooms (not even interchangeable lenses), no motors, no strobe, not even a roll of film with 36 exposures. A fixed, not very fast, medium wide-angle lens, a tripod, a little ground glass finder and a twelve exposure roll of film.
I've talked to several photographers who worked alongside Grace. They were stunned and envious that one amongst them was not developing serious back problems. There is no question that he produced a significant part of the very small percentage of pictures taken during that campaign that have any lasting value.
When he shot the photographs for his second book, Comedians, he was doing the same kind of photography--but with people about whom he felt more deeply. Some were friends; some became friends over the hours of interviews he conducted to provide text for the book. Interestingly, Arthur himself had taken his turn at stand-up in his youth.
Portraiture, one-on-one people photography, is one part photography, one part understanding the subject. A great deal of Arthur's commercial work is movie posters, star portraits that are one part photography and ninety-nine parts understanding the subject. It is that understanding and a very genuine curiosity and fascination with people that defines his photographs. The last time he showed me his personal work it was pictures of his auto mechanic.
In the end, photography is about what is in front of the lens. All those precision mechanisms and advanced optical designs stick out from our noses about six inches. However, the focusing scale on the lens has an infinity mark on it that should indicate there is a little more in front of the lens than directly behind it. Some of the saddest photographers I know are interested in the first six inches. Most of the good photographers I know are absolutely fascinated by what is in front of their lenses.
That's why I think it is a wise exercise to photograph your family and friends. Hopefully, most people are interested in their family and friends. Lest you think I'm kidding, look at the work of Larry Towell, Gene Richards, Elliott Erwitt, Gene Smith, Will McBride, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Edward Weston, Ralph Gibson, and (in honor of Marilyn, the German shepherd) William Wegman.
Choose Me was published by the University Press of New England, ISBN 0-87451-491-6. Comedians was published by Thomasson-Grant, ISBN0-934738-80-7.
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