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The Photographic Long Game : A classic approach to photography

Let’s face it, in photography, things have changed… a lot.

Photography has become a game of instant gratification

The world today is very different for photographers than it was even a decade ago.

It has become tied to social media, turning the general population of photographers into some sort of weird math monsters that crave nothing but numbers and stats. Gaining likes and follows means more than the art they are creating. We’ve lost sight of the long game.

I recently discovered The Creative Bar, a podcast by photographer Jon Wilkening. He chats with other artists and creators about their creative process.  In Episode #42  he spoke with fellow photographer and podcaster, Thomas Skrlj. It was a terrific conversation that covered a lot of ground, but towards the end was a section that really resonated with me. The long game in photography and how that has changed in today’s world. I won’t recap the exact conversation here, you can go listen for yourself if you like. But the gist of it was how photography used to be a lifelong pursuit and today we shoot just for the short term projects. Trying to chase that elusive bigger following.

To understand, let’s look back to the times of classic photography masters

We’ve all heard the names. Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Saul Leiter, William Eggleston. The list could go on forever. They cover all different genres of photography from landscapes to portraits, street to still life. But they all have one important thing in common, photography was a lifelong pursuit not a race to see how many pats on the back they could get from their peers.

I know what you’re thinking right now. “But Dave, there was no internet back then so they didn’t have to worry about those types of things!”

Sure, that’s a fair point. Though I suspect that for most of those photography masters it wouldn’t matter even if they had today’s internet society. They put their focus on the big picture(no pun intended). They didn’t create work because they knew it would be popular at their photography club. Today we know that if you want to see an increase in likes and follows you just need to put out work that is pretty. Work that matches all those travel/lifestyle accounts you find on Instagram.

But does that work have any real meaning in the long run?

What if we realize our photography doesn’t really mean anything in the long run?

I’m going to get a little personal here for a second, but only for a second, so stick with me. Very recently we had a horrible family situation come up. I’m not over it yet, likely won’t be for a long time, but I realized something about my photography. During this difficult family situation I’ve been thinking a lot about photography, it’s my happy place. While scrolling through photos on my computer I realized I have segments of my work that I really don’t care about. I don’t feel a connection to it at all and after listening to the episode of The Creative Bar that I linked up above I think I finally know why.

As much as I tried to stay true to myself over the years, there are times when I can see in my work that I’m shooting something because it fits a certain look or aesthetic that will do well online. Sure, they are pretty photos with lots of great sunsets or sunrises, but often times they just feel a bit hollow to me. They lack a personal emotional connection, they were images made for the purpose of getting my numbers fix. Even if I didn’t realize that as I was making the photos. And honestly, I’m ok with that. Sometimes we need to just indulge ourselves, scratch that itch, so we can move on to our real work.

There are times and reasons why we need to find a way to bring some more eyes to our work and sneaking in a pretty photo with our real work can be a good marketing ploy. But we need to be careful not to get sucked into over doing it. The more you get sucked in the harder the struggle to get back to your true visual voice.

In photography, we all struggle.

This is where the reminder comes to step back and look at the bigger picture. I need to remember the reason I put the camera to my eye, which is enjoyment of the photographic process and a desire to continue to learn and grow.

If you’ve been reading my Journal for a while, you’ll know that recently I’ve been struggling a bit with the issues all artists or creatives face at times. Lack of self confidence, frustration with feeling like my work doesn’t stack up when compared to so and so. If I’m being completely honest, I’m still struggling with it, but I think I see a path forward.

Maybe not out of the woods completely, because I don’t think we ever fully get over that feeling of wanting to improve. Even the “Masters” I mentioned before pursued this craft with a desire to continue learning and exploring the vast world of photography. Pushing their own personal boundaries in an effort to never be just “good enough”.

It’s an old cliche, but it rings true. The day I feel like I’ve mastered photography and have no room for improvement is the day I sell all my cameras and quit photography for good. That will signal to me that I’ve lost my drive, my motivation, and my passion for the art of photography. A flashing neon sign telling me I no longer have a connection to or reason for continuing to make photographs.

So what is the long game in photography?

Simply put, it’s the ability to shoot that which we feel a true emotional pull to shoot. Create work that means something to US. Avoid spending too much time creating work to pander to our social media followings. Do your best to stop comparing yourself to the highlight reels you see online.

See, the long game in photography is what happens naturally over time. It’s the natural outcome of staying true to yourself photographically. Make an effort to shoot only what you are truly interested in, even if that is jumping genres. Being a specialist can be great for getting photo work in that specific genre, yet horrible for your creative health.

It’s too easy to burn out when you put yourself in a tiny specific box. Interesting things happen when you can blend elements from different photographic genres. In The Creative Bar episode with Thomas I linked above, they talk about this as well, really you guys should give it a listen. The example they give is shooting sports and instead of focusing on the action, shooting the moments between the action. Taking a documentary approach to a traditionally fast action style of photography.  Telling the story of the team rather than just documenting a highlight reel of great plays.

Don’t ditch social media completely. Just keep it in check.

Before you get mad at me for just slamming social media again, hear me out. I’m not saying to totally ditch social media. Don’t ignore it. Don’t underestimate it. It is a very valuable tool, without a doubt. All I’m saying is that we need to, I need to, keep things in perspective. It’s ok to shoot some of the “pretty” work from time to time that will go over well on Instagram. We all can use a pat on the back now and then.

But do your best not to get lost in that warm fuzzy world of meaningless numbers.

Create work that speaks to you on an emotional level. Even if that work is street photography one month and abstract portraits the next. Follow whatever your heart is leading you towards. 20 years down the road I’m betting that you’ll be able to look back at your body of work and see a clear thread through all of it.

Let social media be just that, social. A way to connect with and engage in meaningful conversations with your peers. It’s a great networking tool and I’ve had countless examples of meeting terrific people simply because I put myself out there on social media. Make connections, build friendships, and use it as another tool to learn from other artists. Just be careful not to get lost in the popularity contest.

The long game, a classic approach to finally finding your personal visual voice.

By staying true to yourself, I believe you’ll find you’ve created great pockets of work over the years that you will be able to look back on with pride. You’ll see your evolution and growth, mistakes and failures, soaring successes. But most importantly you’ll see a body of work that means something. Maybe it means something only to you, maybe the outside world is right there with you taking notice of greatness. Either way you’ll feel better about that body of work than you will about those likes you got on that pretty picture yesterday.

Here are some fairly recent photos from a long time trend I’ve noticed in my work.  An odd juxtaposition of technology and nature in which the world slowly moves on while nature reclaims the remnants of man. Other times it’s man attempting to change the natural landscape to suit our temporary needs.

I know, that sounds pretty deep and comes across like pretentious prattle. In the end they are some photographs of mine that I’ve both rediscovered and created in the last year or so that I truly enjoy.

Hopefully you do as well, but if not I hope that you will at least listen to that voice inside of you that is guiding your visual voice. Let it tell YOUR story, not the trendy story of a million other photographers on social media.


Links referenced in the article. I seriously recommend checking them out.

The Creative Bar Podcast

Jon Wilkening

Thomas Skrlj

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