Brace yourself. I’ve come to a conclusion about something. I will address this in depth via an upcoming film, but I was too excited to wait. When you find out what I’m referring to you might find my choice of word, “excited” to be a bit odd, and I can understand that. I’ve come to realize, with certainty, my days of long-form, people-based documentary work are over. For the past few years I found myself continuing to think I would somehow be able to kickstart the kind of projects I used to do on a routine basis, even when I was working for Blurb full time.
That last time I had a project like this in mind was spring of 2020, right before COVID came to the party. I had gained access to a small, two-mile parcel of land in Northern New Mexico. This small parcel has over fifty claims from fifty plus families dating back several centuries. They each have a legal right to the land and the water that flows through it. My plan was to start slow, family by family, and work my way through all of those willing to allow me to invade their lives. I wanted to use this small parcel to represent the entire state, and the entire region. Lineage of the land.
But this location is an hour away. Although we now sit in April, the first chance I would have at working on this story, if I could even gain access again, would be October. I would then need to make multiple trips, most likely without photographing, to gain access, explain myself and build trust. And then I would have to go as often as humanly possible. My job would simply not allow for this. Not even close. I could fake it. I could act like this was doable. I could go once every few months trying to convince myself the project was still alive but deep down I would know it isn’t.
For some strange reason, even after all these years of making pictures, I still feel like I haven’t started. I feel an overwhelming need to record and to produce. Something else you might find odd, the first thing I think about when it comes to producing is writing, not photography. I consider writing to be the “high art” and it truly is my first love. I don’t consider myself a good writer, but who cares. I love to put pen to paper and that is all that matters.
Birds will be my future, at least in great part. I know that many of you came here because of my documentary and people-based photography, so have no fear. Birds are my future, with a twist! Think birds, then think conceptual art. Somewhere in the middle is where I will live. I have intense desire to create an online database of bird photography. Yes, I know the world is filled with world-class bird photographers with existing archives of incredible work. Nothing I can do about that other than say “good on ya.” Mine will be different. Am I after the “straight” bird portrait and inflight moment? Yes, of course, but I’m also after the ephemera of the bird life. The people, the places, the sideshows.
The pens I use for my journaling. A portrait of a campground host. A hand drawn map. A written essay that might be historical, scientific or stream of consciousness. Yes, yes and yes. This project will be about my life in pursuit of the birds. I know this will work for several reasons. First, birds are everywhere. They most often require no permission, no special access and don’t require model releases. And more importantly, I know this will work because I can see the books in my mind. I can see the images and the layouts from the pages of my future books. And my friends, these books won’t look like what you’ve seen before. You will not be able to define them or place them in any convenient category.
Since starting my great bird hunt, without the shotgun this time, I’ve probably made a dozen images that are strong enough for public consumption, but also strong enough they might have commercial value. I am contemplating a return to Photoshelter, but haven’t quite convinced myself to go that far, at least yet. (I had an account for over a decade.) The world has thousands of bird species, as it stands now, and starting this pipe dream at fifty-four isn’t the smartest thing in the world, but again, I don’t care. This ideas gives me intention, focus and also reminds me of how much I have to learn.
IMHO the biggest challenge for multi-talented people is picking which things to focus on. Once the choice is made though everyone watching has to hold onto their hat… 🙂
I have such diverse interests that this IS a real issue for me.
Looking forward to this new chapter of work mixing birds, people, and the personal, Dan. So, along these lines, I happened to be in a bookstore in Seattle (Magus Books – excellent) recently and came across the work of Jean Luc Mylayne. It was a revelation, and I don’t say that lightly. https://twinpalms.com/products/jean-luc-mylayne
Totally fascinating – maybe you or someone else will find some inspiration in his work if you don’t know it.
Twin Palms is one of the best boutique publishers in the world. Everything they do is top-notch, so if he’s published by them….he’s got to be good.
I had to smile. Nope, nothing odd at all about your not wanting to let go of project types you used to do. I can understand that completely: like me (a great deal older than you) with my model shoots, the realisation that time has moved on and the economics no longer support the desire, has done little to strangle the ghost of the memory. I often think about starting over, spending some money on getting back into stock, but always, reality comes to the rescue and reminds me exactly why I am no longer doing any of that stuff. There is no market left willing to pay the cost plus a healthy profit. At least, none that I have discovered, and open to me.
As you and the birds, I have also gone in other directions in attempts to find substitutes strong enough to motivate and, once motivated, maintain momentum. One such ploy was to steal a glass Coke bottle from a local bar and take it with me everywhere, and photograph it in any location that seemed to offer a little story that I could weave around the series – or even the individual shot. It kept me going for quite a while, until I realised I’d actually run out of ideas, and was simply shooting anything and everything, making up and writing nonsense to fit whatever image I’d made.
Later, I returned to non-themed snaps, mainly of reflections in windows etc. and filled oodles of galleries in my website with the stuff. During all this time I was reading up on the classical street shooters and trying to find out why they did what they did. There seldom seemed any clear reason beyond just enjoying it. I couldn’t think of any commercial outlet for their efforts, and after a bit I realised that many had to go into teaching in order to survive. It has always seemed to me that, in any of the arts, teaching must be the place of last resort: if you can’t hack it with your art via business, then you can’t hack it, and your product is probably pretty much without merit. Galleries? Well, make up your own mind on that one.
People have often speculated about the reason that some noted street shooters have gone to meet their Maker whilst leaving behind hundreds – if not thousands – of undeveloped or at least unedited films. I think I know why. As with moi, they have reached the point where they lack the energy even to keep fooling themselves. Once a person has recognised the worthlessness in something, it is pretty much impossible to unsee that vision away again. I used to find it amusing in myself, and thought of it, my determination to keep on truckin’ as a human version of the Duracell Bunny. Really, it is far from funny at all. I guess it’s often easy to spot on youtube channels that deal with street images: early enthusiasm, some nice pictures, and then, slowly, less and less new or interesting imagery and more and more talking. Then the product merchandising.
I wish I had the answers. All I see is a world where people and their efforts – in almost all spheres of activity – are increasingly redundant.
Does this depress me? Actually, not really. There is a certain relief in shedding decades of ambition and battle. Of course, were I young, I would see this an a totally different light. But hey, today’s youth probably never expects photography to offer anything much. It grows up knowing that, today, it is cheap – if not free.
“I guess it’s often easy to spot on youtube channels that deal with street images: early enthusiasm, some nice pictures, and then, slowly, less and less new or interesting imagery and more and more talking. Then the product merchandising.” Hilarious but oddly accurate. I’m not sure people know what good imagery is anymore because it’s impossible to keep up with the deluge. I am reminded of the Michael Douglass character in Wonder Boys who when asked about why he he continued to write a book when he didn’t know what it was about said, “I couldn’t stop.”
That bald eagle is beautiful! I’m still hoping to find some mojo for documentary projects. Photos + writing. I’m under no illusions about my skills in either category.
Just start small and throw things at the wall.
Please …. Please include some flyfishing…Please
Oh ya baby.
Does the 1.4x degrade the image quality of the 50-140 enough to really matter? I like to shoot critters with it occasionally and anything longer isn’t in the budget anytime soon…