I wanted to publish this in 2020. It seemed appropriate as a year to look back from. But… you know. Then 2020 happened.
I’m the last of a dying breed, I became a photographer the hard way — a long multi-decade journey of starts, stops and a protracted cycle of hope, loss of hope and regained hope. This article will give you the highlights from it, with perhaps a few navigational attributes to them. But, just as importantly are all the spaces between the highlights. That’s the real story here — count the years undocumented between the highlights. If you can, imagine all those moments in all those years, unknowing and unsure.
Music is the space between the notes. — Debussy
Today, the craft of creating imagery with a camera is an easier endeavor than it once was. Great cameras abound. But more importantly, education, confidence and inspiration abound, which is the greater necessity for success than equipment. With social media personalities and gurus, accessible video instruction, immediate feedback loops and the democratization of tools, the motivated photographer can get up and running in ways I never dreamed of.
For whatever it’s worth, this is not only my journey but that of many creative people, from so many creative fields. This kind of journey — meandering in and out of alternate careers that pay the bills, both enabling and disabling our more artistic endeavors — is age old. And, as it turns out, finally making it is more ethereal in nature than the path itself, which after all, may turn out to be the only thing that matters.
I grew up next to a racetrack and I could hear the races being called through my bedroom window. The folks who worked at the track meets during the summer months would come stay in some rental units across the street from us. And my mother was a horse race enthusiast. I was not only at the track as a 9-year old, I had a bizarre amount of access to its behind-the-scenes areas; like the booth where the race was called, the off-track betting room and… the photo finish booth.
It was in that dark cave of a room that I first witnessed photography, in its purest form. I was fascinated and enchanted. The photographer who worked the strip camera (the first of its kind), had under a minute to develop the film for the waiting crowd, who held on to their tickets with clenched fists and bated breath. It was a fast and furious process, but the photographer was a calm man, cooly in charge and tolerant of my questions. However, when the race started, you had better pay attention and stay out of his way.
The stopping of time. The seeking of answers in the stillness. The physicality of film and, of course, the audience that waited and wanted. My love of photography began at a finish line.
12 years old. This was the year I received my first camera. My grandfather was a hobbyist photographer and he and a cousin got me what I needed to start in on it. The brand was Nikkormat — a cheaper version of Nikon’s popular SLR. Metal construction, solid in the hands, tough as nails — though I continually found ways to break it. And fix it. We could hardly afford film. I shot random things for about three years, but my sense of how to shoot came from the pages of National Geographic and Time Magazine. I spent many hours imagining what it would be like to be on assignment. Most of these images never even got developed, as we couldn’t afford it. Eventually, those rolls must have gotten thrown away.
The important thing for me was not the pictures then, but holding and looking through it, foggy and grungy as the camera’s viewfinder was. When I held it up to my eye, my mind went to work in wild and excited ways.
Also, at this time, my mother bought a photograph, framed and hung it on the wall. This was a rare occurrence; a new piece of art in our home. The image was a signed black and white print of a photograph taken by Carl Mydans — a well-known Life Magazine photographer. My mother loved that image and it became the bar by which all my photographs would, and still do, attempt to live up to. It currently hangs above my own desk.
In this year, I was brought into a darkroom for the first time by a family friend, who was in his early twenties. It had a clandestine feel to it, as the darkroom existed in a small side house on a giant plot of land where he grew up. His parents still lived there, but he didn’t like to see them, so we snuck into it at night and he showed me how to develop film. These were incredible evenings, it felt like something from a Tolkien novel as we pulled magic papers from black sleeves, telescoped the enlarger, used old timers and red lights.
This all felt beyond me. Because while I learned the process well enough, including how to dodge and burn, I had no idea how one came into possession of the chemicals and equipment necessary to be in full control of anything. So, actual photography seemed like something only rich people could do. This became an ongoing theme and retardant to my development, where my fascination gave way to overwhelmedness. I felt this about everything; lenses, tripods, lights, film — I liked taking photographs, but was always keenly aware of how much I didn’t know or have and, so, felt incomplete. To compensate, I spent an inordinate amount of time on things I could control; namely, manual focusing and learning to expose my photos correctly. As I use primarily a manual focus rangefinder today, this has turned out to be a useful thing — but it would be many many years before I’d get to actually use that skill professionally. For the large majority of my development, I played around in the small areas I could control: framing, exposing and focusing. I learned to live with the idea that doing that — being, essentially, a hobbyist, as my grandfather — might be as far as I ever went with it.
Three years into college, I’d finally declared a major — Fine Art. Like everything, the decision was slow coming and filled with uncertainty.
This was perhaps the biggest turning point in my life. Many forces were pushing me toward a different major — anything other than art. I had taken to “secretly” enrolling in life drawing and painting classes every semester. My professors were very encouraging, though, and I finally committed to it. For the next two years, I would do almost nothing but create art. I didn’t go out at night or on weekends, preferring to spend every hour possible in the studio. As I’d completed all the necessary general education courses by then, I took only art classes from then on and ran between courses in sculpture, print-making, painting and the darkroom relentlessly. I learned to stretch a canvas, to sand a lithography stone, fire in a kiln — but I also honed my skills in the darkroom, getting far better at dodging and burning, cutting my own tools and stencils. But the real work was in developing themes and ideas. My university did not have grades, but evaluations. So, your success depended on your ability to push your concepts, describe and realize them. This, as it turns out, became my core strength throughout my career — ironically propelling me, not in fine art, but in commercial art.
After graduating college and finding some early work at The Walt Disney Company, doing mostly coordinator work, I landed a sweet gig as a photo retoucher in 1995, in Los Angeles. A lot of the deeper technical aspects of things like light, grain and detail were learned in these long late nights working on massive files, as an apprentice.
This might have been a good foray into photography, but instead, I was lured in another direction — using my skills in Photoshop to build a career in a burgeoning new field of web design. The next five years would be highly-creative, but nearly entirely focused on creating websites. I worked on the first episodic shows for the Web, did the first website built entirely in Flash (it was called FutureSplash at the time), as well as websites for any number of musicians and brands. The ethereal draw of momentary success in commercial art was intoxicating to a twenty-something, as was the money and the once-impossible dream of stability.
With the birth of my first child, I took the opportunity to buy my first digital camera, a Nikon D300 — as I was able to use my lenses from my Nikkormat on them, saving me a bit of dough. I dove in all the way on digital photography, mesmerized by the opportunity to shoot more images, more often and in more ways. By now I was a creative director at a meteoric new ad agency. Agencies have a way of creating a sense of all-importance to the work they do, with long pitches and self-generated conflicts and resolutions. I was caught up in it by now, stressed and anxious — if a bit too sensitive for the pressures and meanness of the industry, talented enough in the creative process itself to keep up. I used photography and this love affair with fatherhood as my escape. But it was a secret passion at this time — few knew about it.
I turned 40. This was the year that I had told myself I’d return to what I truly loved — fine art. To begin the process of extricating myself from commercial art and try to work my way back to something more rewarding. It turned out to be a difficult extrication. Far harder than I thought it would be.
Going through a difficult divorce, I bought myself a D700 to fill in some empty space. The new, full-frame sensor was a big leap in digital photography. Images were better, richer, more filmic. I got deeply into online communities for photography: Flickr, The Strobist. It was pre-YouTube, but I had YouTube-esque self-learning sessions to try to make up some ground with the things I hadn’t learned in college.
A year later, I’d started talking more about photography with anyone I could. I was manic about it. A producer at the agency I worked with sold me his set of three Alien Bee strobes at a remarkable price and I suddenly had light to work with. My kids were my usual subjects. I would set them in front of the TV and move the lights around them, experimenting and learning. It was here that I really started to learn more about how to make a shot, rather than simply just take one.
Four years of this experimentation and self-education on the side of a growing career in commercial art, I was just good enough to get the occasional photography gig. Usually some kind of family thing: maternity, portraits, events. I’d switched agencies and was Chief Creative Officer at a new firm with monthly trips from L.A. to Manhattan.
I met my friend Paul, a professional photographer, on one of those flights across the country for work. He was carrying a photography case and had the misfortune of sitting down next to my insatiable curiosity. Over the years, he would add professional level suggestions and refinements to my shooting.
On another one of these trips, I was visiting a good friend of mine in Manhattan who wanted to sell off his Leica M240 and 35mm Summicron lens and I bought it from him for a great price. Suddenly, I had… a real rangefinder.
When you grow up, as I did and when I did, feeling that photography, as a career, is beyond you, you direct the focus of what you lack on equipment. If only I had that light modifier. If only I had a backdrop. If only I had a better lens. Better computer. It goes on and on. And the holy grail of “if I only had” is the Leica M rangefinder and a 35mm lens. This is probably the set-up Carl Mydans had when he shot that image my mother bought and put on our wall. It’s not just hand-crafted, fine equipment, it’s the confidence of history in your hands.
There was something about that camera, as difficult as it was to go back to manual focus and an optical viewfinder, that changed the dialogue in my own head. I no longer obsessed on what I didn’t have, but rather on my own personal themes and ideas. It was liberating.
In the year that followed getting the Leica, I shot constantly. At least three times a week. I worked insatiably at refining my work flow and honing my ability at composition. At this point I was dreaming heavily of what it would be like to be a pro photographer. By the end of the year, I had a solo show called Life Itself, featuring 30 or so pieces of my street work. People came, co-workers came, family came. There were tacos. It was, in many respects, a coming out party more than a show. I was probably looking for a way to announce, even if just to myself, that I was a photographer, after all.
I took 2015 to study photography in a more concerted way; as an artistic medium more than a technical one. I bought photography books by the armful. I took workshops. One of them with legendary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. She was gravely ill at the time and passed away only days after our weekend together in Palm Springs. She and I got off to a rocky start- she was a notoriously brutal critiquer and managed to single me out from the group. In the days after the workshop, though, we were on the phone together, promising to keep in touch. When she died, her assistant told me that she had really liked me.
During one particularly difficult moment of going through my work, Mary Ellen was quickly dismissing image after image, she suddenly stopped on one image, paused, took a deep breath. It was an abstract shot of a bicycle.
“Do more shots like this.” She said.
By 2016 I was back working in my own themes, nearly exclusively. By now, I had established a very distinct line in my life between commercial art and fine art. Perhaps with a career in a creative field, it was a line I more easily drew. I didn’t need photography to be commercial. I just wanted to do interesting things with it. Things that felt personal and touched on something deeper.
I hardly slept this year as I worked on various themes in nearly every off-moment I could find for it. I’m still very proud of the series The Standouts, which I continue to create for even today. But there were many other themes I worked on this year and I began to get my work in various art shows, magazines and galleries. More importantly, I started to discover my voice in photography.
I was motivated this year by small successes, not the least of which was a takeover of Leica’s Instagram feed during a trip I took to Hungary and Romania. I don’t put a ton of stock in social media, but it was the kind of recognition that helps you stay on track and motivated to keep going.
By this time, I’d started to develop a name for myself as an artist/photographer, but really mostly through that ethereal kind of success that social media provides. But while the value of this success was nebulous, the effects on my work were real. It was in this year that I committed to a style, or emotional territory, that started to define my work. The narrowing down of what kind of work I did made it much easier for people to know where to fit me in.
I ended up working with a number of different brands, and my work was being featured regularly. I was getting thousands and thousands of views of my work, within the context of other brands’ feeds. I was being interviewed by online magazines regularly and asked to lead workshops and take on photography assignments, though I was still employed as a creative director.
At this point, I was wrestling internally with these two lives I was leading: as a commercial artist and as an artist/photographer. It’s a common dilemma for anyone trying to make it as an artist, and certainly anyone trying to make it as a photographer. You start to wonder — how much more could I do, would I do, if this were all I did? If I opened myself to more opportunity by being more available for it?
Then, in 2018, that all got answered for me. While my photography was taking off, the agency I was at was floundering and they let go of a number of high-level people, including me. Just days before my 50th birthday.
This was a complex time; my partner was pregnant and we’d just started in on some major construction on our property. It was unclear whether we’d get to stay in the house or have to sell it — possibly move out of the city. We just didn’t know. And work was scarce.
This, for me, was hanging over the abyss. Money was running out. Time was running out. I needed to think calmly, but I was riddled with anxiety.
With all of this swirling, I took off across the country for a project I called America At Work. Medium was an enormous help to me at this time by providing a place to publish what I was doing, as well as support in getting it done. When I got back, I found that the journey itself resonated with others. As community often does, I felt comforted in knowing how similar we all are.
(If interested, here’s an interview I did on the experience right when I got back: The Findings Report.)
And, as life often arranges things, from this, doors started opening. The America At Work project was both a conversation starter, but also a proof-of-concept for work I would do thereafter. I started working for some startups in developing their social media creative, I fell in with the dance community in L.A., including getting to work with Benjamin Millipied and the Los Angeles Dance Project which brought a lot of real world attention to my work, I got a rep, I did a number of high-profile celebrity shoots, event shoots, I won some nice awards for my work and I got an artist-in-residence at CalArts. All within a few months of each other. It had that kind of sudden explosiveness that I’ve seen happen to other people. It comes at the tail end of a lot of work, maybe even a valley of darkness, but things unfold very quickly when it happens.
Suddenly, people were calling me to shoot. They wanted my eye. My look. From there, I’ve shot for some big brands like Ford, Nike, Zadig Voltaire. I traveled the world with a rock star. I was with a major league baseball team for a few weeks. A number of local brands came calling, too: skateboard companies, bike companies, clothing companies, local sports teams. The dance work has lead to new projects with choreographers and dancers throughout the world. My work has appeared in magazines… It happened — I crawled through the tunnel and came out the other side. I’m a photographer now. I say it with a lot of caveats. I’m not a famous photographer, nor the best photographer. I still have to supplement the endeavor with other work. And I haven’t even accomplished half of what I’d like to, yet, in the medium. But, on the flip side, I have successfully made good on the dreams of a little 9-year old kid, standing in awe and wonderment of photography at a horse race, not knowing how I’d ever get the opportunity to do it. It was a photo finish. It could have gone either way. But the long shot came in.
Thank you for reading. The Art of Photography is written by Josh S. Rose. Follow his photography journey here.