I should have known. I did know. But I didn’t want to know. YouTube is both a cool place and a terrifying little glimpse into the collective mindset of those who like to watch. I’m really glad I started making YouTube films. I am, actually. (Considering what is happening in the world, this is a trivial post so keep this in mind.)
I’m learning how to make films, that is number one. I am a long, long way from making anything that works or anything that is truly good, mine, unique, etc. I am not yet skilled enough with the software to create what I see in my mind. But this was the same back in 1988 when I began making pictures.
I didn’t know light, timing or composition. I didn’t know how to process film and I didn’t know how to print. I didn’t know how to read a negative, read those highlights and shadows to determine my exposure time, filters and agitation. I didn’t know which paper grade or developer would work best with a particular negative. And I didn’t know how to ensure my best negatives while still in the field. In short, I didn’t know sh%$.
What transpired over the following decade was akin to a repeated pummeling from a schoolyard bully. The bully being the reality of professional photography. I took my lumps. Over and over again. My first three or four years were mostly a bizarre parade of mistakes. Bad images, bad edits, and bad prints. Days, weeks, months in the darkroom. Nosebleeds chapped fingers and a cough. This was the price of admission. But what these things did was teach me the power of coming full circle. These things taught me that print is the best way to express photography. It always has been and it always will be.
But print is terrifying to YouTube viewers. Why? Because print exposes us. If you don’t print you are a consumer/prosumer and for a lot of folks pretending to be pros, this doesn’t feel good. Case in point, my last two films. These films were done for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons was to prove a point. The first film, about gear, gets traffic. The second film, about print, gets a fraction of the views. Watching a film about print, anyone’s really, reveals a long line of skills required to do it well and it’s FAR easier to sink back into the idiotic bokeh argument, or which 50mm is better argument than it is to realize you never learned how to edit, or sequence, or design or even chose a trim size and materials. The absolute basics for being a professional who takes their work to print.
Let me give YouTube viewers a little gut check. Pros don’t sit around talking about gear. They may ask why someone used a particular system but then the conversation shifts toward a standard set of topics. History of photography, what others have already done, influence, inspiration, current projects, failures, prints, books and book deals, gallery shows, museum shows, getting in collections, assignments, travel, their families, friends, etc.
Really high-level photographers are often really interesting people doing really interesting things. Topics can vary dramatically but hardly ever is anyone talking about gear, especially trivial, nonsensical lunacy like bokeh or what 50mm is better. And for the record, YT brought us the term “bokeh.” Historically, and in the actual industry, this is called “fall off,” and in thirty years of being a photographer I never once had the conversation.
Now, for the haters. This doesn’t mean being a professional eliminates the need to work in the digital space. Far from it. In fact, regardless of skill level, actual working pros do need to work in the digital space and far more often than the print space. But when all is said and done, nobody remembers the digital space. If I named a photographer and asked “Hey, do you remember the digital piece that so and so did in 2002?” I’d bet every penny you couldn’t remember what they posted last week. But their books are eternal.
I have roughly 400 monograph photography books in my collection, many printed decades ago from projects that go even further back. I remember the images, the layouts, the copy, the author pages, the designers and the IMPACT of each one. The digital space is throwaway no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. Here for the moment, gone forever. Consumed in a massive tidal wave of average.
When I ask serious photographers about goals, and I mean the real-deal, high-level folks whom I only encounter a few times a year, the top two responses are book deal and museum show, which by the way, often coincide. Never once has anyone mentioned Instagram followings or YouTube views. These are different worlds. And oh, by the way, this you will love. The ONE time a year when I get to hang with the highest level of photographers I ever get to see or encounter…what do we do? We make a box of prints and people are asked to refrain from anything on social media. THAT is how it works.
My advice is this. If you haven’t printed or don’t’ know how to print or feel terrified of the entire process then just relax. Look at this moment as an opportunity to realize you have two-thirds of the photography experience you have yet to explore. You could learn something new every single day. And realize to nothing is perfect. Making prints or books means making mistakes. Ask any editor about the perfect edit or any book designer about the perfect book rarely if ever will you hear “Oh ya, I nailed that, it was perfect front to back.” But trying and failing sure beats returning to the same dead horse on YouTube. And most importantly, putting your work in print is FUN. It really is. It’s like trying to hit a home run during a company softball event but instead, you hit a line drive into the skull of the guy that works in marketing. Sure, this sucks but you still got on base.
I’m going to keep making YouTube films because I enjoy it but also because I’m in a perfect position. I don’t need YouTube. I can still be honest, make films about what I want and let the chips fall where they may.