May 15, 2014

It was a couple years ago, when they took my desk away, that all the downsizing in journalism really started to piss me off. Someone had decided that our department needed to move, and the spot we were given was a smaller space with fewer desks than we had people. It made no sense. The newsroom was riddled with empty desks, and one open space that would have fit all fourteen of us was given instead to the six summer interns. I would have to share a desk from now on.

But I refused to share a desk. No way. I would rather go without one than share, I thought. After all the depravations brought on by the decline of the journalism business, I deserved, at least, a damned desk.

Despite my feelings, the decision to move us was final. I tried to put the best mental spin on it, telling myself it wouldn’t really matter and saying feel-happy things like, “Well, I’ve never taken a great photograph while sitting at my desk!” I pictured myself spending all my time out in the field, doing great things.

It didn’t help.

It was too hard to push away the doubt and concern, the insult really, that I would no longer have a desk of my own in the office.

My frustration boiled over and I decided that if they were taking my desk away, I’d just box up all of my personal belongings and move out of the office. As I was pulling down the photographs hanging above my desk, the executive who was taking my desk away approached.

“Hey,” he said, as I pulled another 13×19 inch print from the wall. “Now that you’re going to be sitting over by my office, does that mean I’ll be privileged to see your work displayed on the wall in our corner of the building?”

And here is where you as the reader, not knowing the executive or the various things that happened between us, might find my response somewhat cold.

“No,” I answered. “I don’t have a desk anymore.”

.:.

About a month ago the remaining employees were called into a mandatory meeting and told that, within the hour, several of us would no longer be employed. We shambled lifelessly back to our respective departments to wait it out, to see who would be terminated, killed, eviscerated. By this point our department had been moved again and I had a new desk of my own. It was more fort than desk; we salvaged unused office furniture from all of the recent staff reductions and stacked it high around our workspace like some fortress of solitude. Or a place to hide if there was an office shooting.

We gathered together in the fort, telling stories and jokes and trying to not to attract the attention of the man in the red shoes. He was making his way around the newsroom like the grim reaper, tapping the shoulders of those who were being laid off. Those tapped walked dead, right through our department on their way to their final separation meeting before leaving for good. We tried to keep a list of who was tapped. That happens at every layoff. Lists of names. People always want to know who.

We were huddled together at my desk, as if there was some bit of safety from the circling predators here in the center of the herd. One co-worker walked out of the building and drove off, saying they would have to make him come back if they wanted to lay him off. I felt like a coward for not doing the same. But as miserable as it was awaiting possible career death in the office, I didn’t know if it would feel any better to be alone. Our group just stood around trying to ignore the dread and dismay all around us.

A shoulder was tapped twenty feet away, and a good friend was let go. That’s as close as they got to our group. I was not laid off.

If you’re ever in a situation like that, a slaughter, don’t stand around in the crowd hoping that you won’t be the next one killed. Don’t hide in the fort. Run for your life.

.:.

Twenty-five years ago I attended a workshop about the imminent death of newspapers. It’s been a long time coming. Recently I photographed a local pastor. He asked me about some specific troubles affecting my newspaper (that everyone in town seemed to know all about) and I brought out a glib line I had used repeatedly to end such queries:

“Despite all the bad stuff happening in the office, I find that my job is still great if I just focus on my work and keep the office drama out of my head.”

Usually that was enough to bring any conversation back to happy talk. But this was a wise pastor. He asked:

“Are you able to do that? Ignore all the office drama?”

The question ripped me open. Because, as I told him, “No.”

.:.

I said I could have the new niche photo website built in two weeks. At the time, they loved that word: niche. But I made sure they understood that it would only be done in two weeks if their plugin code worked.

And their code didn’t work, more than likely because of the company’s server configuration which was beyond my control. Six weeks later, I was ripping my hair out, still trying to get it to work, and at the same time continuing to be a full-time photographer.

Finally I decided to trash their code and rebuild the entire website from scratch.

After just two hours, the site was up and running flawlessly.

Throughout the six weeks and two hours I’d spent developing, others had tried to have the project killed. Every few days I’d get a new update: The site was approved. The site was canceled. The site is approved again. This happened multiple times as various department heads battled for territory. I kept working on it regardless of each day’s news.

When the site finally went live, traffic to it grew quickly. I waited to hear anything from upper management about the work I’d put into the successful launch. One day a single photo on our site got the most hits of anything else on the company’s daily web report. Still, it was three weeks before anyone said a word to me about my work on the site. A lite compliment was offered up, the only one I ever got. It felt like too little and too late.

Once the site was doing well, one of the people who had tried to kill it off reversed his position. He posted comments on the website saying it was a great idea, as if he had never opposed it behind the scenes. Even more surreal, he was nominated as an Innovator of the Year for the project.

But this whole walk still had one more step of silly. One day our niche photo website simply vanished. The server stopped responding and the site refused to come up in our browsers. No one said or did anything about it. To this day I don’t know what happened.

.:.

It was 3am a couple weeks back when inspiration struck. I woke up and the solution to a major problem came to me. For three years we had been unable to merge our assignment and calendaring systems. Now I had the solution figured out.

While everyone slept I got up and started coding. By the time my shift was about to start, seven hours later, I had programmed a system that would save us a lot of time and hassle. It felt good to help out. Our assistant photo editor had just been laid off, and I knew that losing him would make things difficult for the in-house photo staff.

I put the computer away, took a shower and then started my shooting shift for the day.

Over lunch that week I told a friend about what I’d done. He was a wise friend. He asked:

“What did you get out of that?”

And all I could come up with was, “They let me go home early that day.”

.:.

I was reading a book about a pair of Navy SEALs who were falsely accused of abusing a prisoner, then acquitted only after a drawn-out public spectacle. Of the ordeal, one wrote:

“Firstly, something dies. With me it was the will to strive to be the best, as I’d always done before. My motivation was way down. On training trips I was dragging my feet. I’d simply lost that SEAL ethos, that sense of feeling unstoppable. And I could not get it back.”

In those words I recognized my greatest fear. What if I lost my drive for excellence? What if I lost the pride that I took in working hard and doing my best? What if it went away, all because of events completely unrelated to photography?

My colleagues and I seemed so close to losing it. And who could blame us, considering the many body blows that we had taken as a profession? I had built a wall in my mind to stay strong by blocking out memories of the indignities, but leaks were constantly developing and bad memories would flood in like this:

Remember when we were all forced to prove that we were the parents of our very own children, at the risk of losing our health insurance?

.:.

During the interview that got me hired nearly twenty years ago, a salty editor asked me something like, “What if you get tired of this and burn out on the job?”

“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “But if it did happen, I’d be gone long before you ever noticed. I’m not going to stick around and half-ass this job.”

Still true.

.:.

What happens next? Who knows.

I haven’t burned out on photojournalism. I still love every day on the job. Every assignment adds to my understanding of this world and my fellow human beings. I’m not stopping until I, like so many good people before me, get tapped on the shoulder.

May 10, 2014

I retired the Utah Photojournalism website yesterday. You can read the farewell here:

http://utahphotojournalism.com/2014/05/utah-pj-2009-2014/

It’s a sad thing, but something that’s been on my mind for a year now. I said everything I wanted to say in the farewell post, but I just responded to a friend who commented about it as well. I wrote this to him:

I see your point about a post that might have lit a fire under people to post more, but keep in mind that I’ve been lighting fires under people for years, mostly to no effect. It gets really old trying to motivate people who really don’t care, and after all the time I had put into that site, I was done. If I thought that I could have rallied the troops, I would have. But so many times over the last five years, such calls to arms failed over and over and over again.

And then I typed this part to him, but deleted it before hitting send:

It might be hard for people to understand, but after putting in so many hours over five years coding, designing, posting, commenting, updating, shrinking down the 24 megapixel photos people would upload, backing it up, etc., just knowing that the site was still there in such a weak state, I couldn’t take it. I guess you would only understand that if you had put in as much time as I had.

And I’m writing this now:

I almost shut it down a year ago, so by the time this month rolled around it was like I’d been keeping a dying pet alive just because I couldn’t bring myself to end it mercifully.

And I’m writing this and stopping:

Imagine you had a restaurant and you put a large part of your life into building it and making everything look and taste just right. And for a while people came and it was the best thing ever. And then you noticed that they were coming less and less. And there were some really cool people out there that loved the food but never even stepped in the door. And after a while there were some really cool regulars, but they only came once a month. And days would pass with no customers. And you continued to put in the time polishing the bar, staring at the front door to see if anyone was coming in.

That’s what it was like at the end. It felt like death.

The Iron Sheik at the Shorty Awards Ceremony

#gifmaker

The Iron Sheik at the Shorty Awards Ceremony

Won the biggest award of my career two weeks ago. I won this year’s Shorty Award for GIFMaker. (That’s The Iron Sheik saying a bunch of gibberish, above, shot from my seat at the awards ceremony in Manhattan).

Nice try Smokey, there was no mention of my award in the paper I work for.

No, there was no all-staff e-mail. But I get it, you’re trying to get me to say something that will get me in trouble. It’s not going to work, no matter what you bring up. I won a Shorty Award.

Yeah right. Only one of my GIFs has ever appeared on the paper’s website, and that was a year ago. I’m not going to fall into your trap.

I’m still not biting. That blog went down about a year ago. I don’t know why they pulled it down, or why they still have a link to it. Another mystery.

Enough of your distractions, Smokey. What is important is the work. That is what is always important, and I’ve learned a lot from my GIF project.

You need to follow your own creativity, wherever it takes you. Don’t think for a second that the traditional newspaper photojournalists of the world have any appreciation for animated GIFs? Of course not, but so what? You can’t let the attitudes of others dictate what you do creatively.

Don’t quit a project or body of work just because you’re not getting your due. If you believe in it, keep going.

If you can’t get your work published, publish it yourself.

If what you’ve done is good, it will be noticed.

If I only did work that fit into the newspaper photojournalism world, things would get pretty boring.

Exactly.

March 1, 2014

Spent the day yesterday photographing two state championship high school basketball games. A photographer there was really interested in talking about the lighting qualities of the various high school gyms in the area.

“Cottonwood’s okay if you can stand the yellow,” he said.

I put my headphones on and he started talking to someone else. I realized how little any of it mattered. After you’ve photographed hundreds of games you don’t really worry about details like that. Especially with today’s technology. This guy had at least $15,000 in equipment, and at that level it doesn’t matter what the light is.

But then their conversation veered into sales, costs, 10% discount codes, and all the bullshit that is killing photography. I turned up the volume, letting Warbringer take me away from it all. Head in the sand, head in the sanity.

No, I was probably listening. Because I heard him say that he rented a long lens for some previous high school tournament, shot six-thousand photos, and made only a single sale. He didn’t even recoup the cost of the lens rental.

Six-thousand photos. One sale.

I chimed in. I wonder how many photos of their kids these parents have seen by today, the end of the season? How much have they spent on prints of their athletes, and how many have they been given for free?

What’s killing photography is all of us posting fitty photos from every game.

So true. It’s not about quality anymore. It’s not about the best photo. At least, it’s not enough about the best photo.

As for him posting 6,000 photos from a tournament:

I put about 9,500 photos into my archive in all of 2013. I’d probably only show about 200 of those publicly, like if I was going to make a book or something. And in showing you those 200 good ones, I’d know that 150 of them were obviously flawed. I’d also know that my ten best photos had imperfections (in and out of my control) that I still kick myself over.

.:.

I woke up this morning and my wife and I watched Claude Lelouch’s underground and illegal race through Paris in 1976. Rendezvous. I want the opening title screen or something like it to be on anything I produce. This:

le film que vous allez voir a été réalisé sans aucun trucage ni accéléré

I’m reading The Driver: My Dangerous Pursuit of Speed and Truth in the Outlaw Racing World
. There is a good thought early in the book for photographers in today’s world where the major camera brands are like vampires sucking our wallets dry. He walks about a pair of young bankers one-upping each other by purchasing the latest Ferrari, “flashing his Panerai diving watch and smiling at the girls at the next table.”

Then this:

Not one of these people will ever hunt, cave-dive or race, or attempt anything that would endanger their purebred dog, Italian navy diving watch, or custom-ordered car, let alone their own safety, unless well paid, forced, or shamed into it.

This is the message of Rendezvous— it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it.

.:.

To the other professional photographer at the game, a real photojournalist who has been doing this as long as I have, I pointed a question regarding the 6,000/1 photographer.

Were there people like him on the sideline back when we started out?

People like him meaning the photo enthusiasts you find at every local high school, spending thousands of dollars on equipment, talking about how mad their wives are when they buy new lenses, photographing the games and giving their photos away to the team… Were there any of those guys on the sidelines back in the day?

No, he said. Back then it was just professionals, and they wouldn’t even talk to you. You’d ask them a question and just get a glare in response.

True. The people doing photography then, when it was film and manual focus and difficult to the level that your photos might not even turn out, were only professionals. There were no enthusiasts, only people who had at some point devoted their entire lives to photography.

Photography was a challenge then.

Today’s modern, do-everything in-focus-all-the-time equipment has made it so easy. It’s made capturing the photograph a simple effort of pointing and clicking. And that is why you have so many people spending their wives’ money on equipment and making 6,000 photos.

The challenge now, the thing that makes you as a professional standing above all of the enthusiasts… your single best photograph from the game.

In another word, editing.

The photographer who posts 6,000 photos of the game is an amateur. The photographer who posts 1 masterpiece is the professional, the expert, the master.

Note: These days it’s likely that neither photographer will get paid.

I’m using two minutes of Mr. 6000/1′s life to make some observations on photography. This is a man pursuing a passion, and we respect that. So if you’re reading this, 6000/1, it’s not so much about you as it is about where photography is today. You’re welcome at my side any time. We co-exist.

And again, it’s not about what you have, but how you use it. See what I’m saying:

Nineteen

Two days ago.

We were all herded into the training room and told we were there for some “tough news” regarding The Salt Lake Tribune.

Our guesses leading up to this moment had been pretty grim: maybe the paper was being sold, or the editor stepping down, or we were moving to some cheaper office space, or maybe even a cutting back to fewer than seven days a week publishing.

But the “tough news” was worse. The editor was stepping down, and 19 people would be let go immediately. We were now living in a horror film. I looked around the room. There weren’t enough people in there for anyone to feel safe.

We were told to return to our desks where every one of us would receive a letter telling us our fate.

We all got up and walked to the uncertain future. I didn’t even want to take the letter my editor handed to me, but what were the other options? I went to my desk in the Photo Fort we had constructed from the cabinets and cubicles left over from previous layoffs and sat there staring at the envelope in my hands, not wanting to break its seal and put something bad into motion, like the death of my career.

Finally I opened the envelope. My brain, in survival mode, had to read the letter twice before I understood I was safe (“your employment will not be affected”). But there was no sense of relief. I looked up and started to take stock of my environment.

I saw people walking quickly for the exits, tears in their eyes, desperately needing privacy. One writer passed with dark sunglasses covering red eyes. People were hugging each other in grief.

I couldn’t leave the safety of the fort, it was too terrifying. I just stood there looking out, crushed. The photographers started checking with each other to see what had happened. One of us, Paul, had gotten one of the evil letters. After 35 years his career as a photographer with the paper was over. He came into the fort, where we had all gathered. In this horrible situation we gathered as family and shared stories like we used to back in the day while we waited for our film to develop.

Paul’s letter said to report to the sixth floor at 4:30, which was an hour away. We passed the time together trying to forget what was happening all around us. Across the newsroom other small groups were gathering to commiserate. It was the biggest loss we’d ever experienced.

I finally left the office to photograph a high school football game, an event that felt completely meaningless after what had just happened. I was on autopilot, and turned in a series of generic action photos that I’ve already forgotten. I went home and I stayed up texting and looking at the many depressing status updates about the layoffs on Facebook. I found out that one person had been laid off on their birthday, one had a new infant child at home. We were all trying to process it online. I finally made it to my bed for a night of little sleep. Across the neighborhood one of my co-workers was on his couch with his laptop doing the same thing. He fell asleep while online and woke up at 5am sitting there with all his clothes still on. Never even made it to bed.

Two days later. 19 friends are gone, two of the top editors are leaving. I’m shooting figure skating and college football today, hoping the work will clear my head.

Reading List

Just drove several hours to an assignment and the back seat is covered with books. You can leave them in the car – no one would ever steal a book. I’m in my hotel bed staring at a few things I might read.

These are my top candidates for right now:
El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

Necessary Evil (Milkweed Triptych)

These are the best books I’ve read so far this year:
The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield

Louder Than Hell – Oral History of Heavy Metal

REstart

As far as creativity goes,
this summer has been

pretty
slow.

.:.

Hot.

.:.

demon barber

I photographed a 92-year-old lady earlier in the month. We sat in her all-pink front room and had a nice conversation waiting for the reporter to show up, talking about family and kids, fun stuff. As if she were one of my own grandmothers. It was a good connection. As I was leaving, she said she hoped the story would be a positive one, and then added, I don’t trust the media. They lie.

zing!

.:.

Google Reader is gone. I use RSS in a big way, so I waited til the last minute before moving my feeds to feedly. But then I figured out something better. Built a private blog that pulls in all posts from all my feeds. It’s bad ass. I can see all posts on one site. No more relying on anyone else’s RSS system.

That’s the way I’m going with a lot of things – away from free services and back onto my own servers.

BitTorrent Sync is another big chapter in the process. I’ll write about it all later.

.:.

Copy is the new Dropbox. You can sign up for a FREE 20 Gigabytes at this link: https://copy.com?r=7DrcFh and we’ll both get a bonus.

.:.

A Mormon missionary sat on my couch with a guitar and belted out Green Day’s Time of Your Life with some serious angst. There is no documentation of this event. You have to trust me.

You know, I think things r about to get even crazier around here…

Quiz: Leica M Monochrom vs. Orgasm Keychain

In the tangent universe I only shoot black and white photographs, which is why I’ve been drooling over Leica’s new $8,000(!) camera, the M Monochrom, which only produces black and white images.

But then I shoot photos like this one…

Photo Booth, WoodShed Bar, Salt Lake City

…and wonder: Could I really go all black and white? It’s like going vegan. I probably should do it but I can’t quite give up the bacon.

So do I get the Monochrom? Or should I take the $8,000, convert it into quarters and try to win the orgasm keychain that’s wedged in among the stuffed animals in the claw crane machine?

orgasm keychain

Here’s a Quiz…

The following quotes are from the Amazon reviews of the Leica Monochrom M and the Orgasm Keychain. See if you can tell which ones are for the luxurious camera and which are for the plastic keychain that makes orgasm noises:

1. “My granddad borrowed this from me and it was hard to pry it out of his hands.”

2. “Raises eye brows when it starts making those low sexy sound(s).”

3. “You can blend into the masses and pretend you’re Cartier-Bresson.”

4. “This … is probably for affluent eccentrics.”

5. “Too bad Ansel didn’t live to own one. I suspect he’d give it 5 stars too.”

6. “Great at pajama party.”

Not Missing Anything – Not Getting Anything, Either

I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience with the EOS 1D-X during last month’s March Madness basketball tournament. The thing was so quick. Twelve frames per second felt like the difference between firing an AK and a minigun. I’ve never had a camera that fast.

But for all the minigun shooting I did, it was more of a challenge than normal to find a memorable set of photos. That was partly the fault of the subject – basketball. It’s one of the most challenging sports to find original photographs in.

And while it’s nice to have a camera that never misses, I found myself missing some soul in my photography. A lot of the time I was just pointing straight ahead and making a twelve frame per second video. And the edit, with all those photos… Mind numbing.

About once a year the cry goes out: Slow down! says one photographer or another. They say things like:

“4 frames a second is fast enough”

or

“Put your camera on single shot”

But these are not correct. It is well intentioned bad advice.

Sometimes even twelve frames a second is not fast enough to avoid missing a shot. And why limit yourself to popping off single shots when the world is in full motion? I want continuous drive when moments are dancing in front of me. Because I am not Luke Skywalker. I can’t use the Force to intuit events before they happen.

And neither can you.

But there is smart advice intended in the slow down talk. Here’s what those good people are trying to tell you…

Be calm.

Think.

Push the button with purpose.

Al the Animal

Yeah. Cold, windy, even snow falling here in mid-April. It sucks. The photo above shows my mood. Just wasn’t feeling it for a couple of days. Funny how you can come out swinging for a couple weeks and then find you’re at zero. By midweek I still had nothing worthwhile for this post.

Photographed a dome-home, a soccer game, the remnants of an apartment fire. Then my car died. When it mysteriously started back up, a homeless guy with a bashed up face jumped in and while I gave him a ride across town while he said all of these lines…

My name is Al

I’m so high

Life is lonely…

…and hookers aren’t the answer

My name is Al

You need anything? Cuz I got lots of stuff

Don’t go to the strip clubs for strippers, private shows are better

You sure you’re okay, white boy?

They call me Animal, but my name is Al

You smell like a cop. You a cop?

Weed? I’m beyond weed right now

Rant

Friday night I went out to the garage and ripped through a three foot stack of matted 13×19 inch prints of my work from 1987-2003. I ripped the prints up and dumped the pieces into the trash bin. Maybe it was a brief moment of madness. I don’t know. The work meant a lot to me, but sometimes you get the dread that time has moved on and the work has lost any meaning to anyone else. I felt it and starting tearing up prints. Very cathartic.

We are all producing a great many photographs. More importantly, we’re all sharing too many photographs. In the past, you’d open a photo book and only see higher quality imagery, stuff that had been sifted, edited, thought through. Now it’s a flood of imagery everywhere that does bring us more greatness to look at, but we are forced to find it in oceans of mediocrity and wasted time and things that are funny for five seconds then forgotten. Junk food. Junk photos. Junk.

I was talking to a sports videographer for a local university. He told me that he only ingests the video that he’s going to use. Everything else gets deleted. He said, there’s no point in keeping anything you’re not going to use.

Good advice.

This whole digital archive situation is a f*ck-all mess. I can’t go quite as far as him, discarding so much, but I’m going to take his intent and raise the bar on what I save for myself. I’m holding on to a lot of stuff I will never feel the need to show you. It’s not good enough and I won’t waste your time.

And another thing, photography is dead, photojournalism is over, I’m not saying either of those trite things. But I am thinking this: Don’t call me a photographer anymore. I’m an observer. Because everyone is a photographer now, but I observe things and do it quite well. Wait, maybe I won’t so quickly ditch the title of photographer. I’ve held it for a quarter century. I’m confused. Just make all the bad photography go away, please.

Some things are not worth sharing, like herpes.

-Two Paragraphs Were Deleted From This Space-

As you can tell from my tone, ripping up all of those prints wasn’t enough to get all the poison out of my system.

But it was a good thing. It helped me decide to stop putting my work on sites I don’t own, sites that strip out my metadata, etc. Thirty readers or thirty million, slow load times and all, I’ll be right here on my own site doing what I’ve always done.

Internet Strategy

Changing things up, as always. I’m about to stop posting my work on Tumblr and that sucks. I love Tumblr so much. Like my friend always says, it’s the punk rock of the Internet. But, sorry, I gotta cut it off. Not enough feedback to keep going.

I put, what, four years into Tumblr? At least three. Whatever. I’ll keep re-posting the crazy on The Clunk and daily book covers, too.

Going Weekly

Note: I’m getting off the treadmill of posting daily. I’m not slowing down at all, just posting once a week from now on. The idea came to me at 3:53am. At that dark hour my mind was either crystal sharp or red fogged. I’m not sure which. We will find out soon enough.

This was a very productive week for photography. The photos are out there every minute, everywhere. You just have to go out and get them.