All the best things in life take time… great BBQ, fine wine, true love, and real wisdom. No one meets a 14-year-old and thinks they’re incredibly wise. If you do then I’m gonna go ahead and need to meet this kid who has their shit together because I sure don’t. Since I love the stuff and it works well for the premise of my argument, I’ll use whiskey as my metaphor-du-jour and tangent off accordingly.
Let’s talk about what it means to experience the passage of time as a liquor and I’ll bring it back to how it relates to an artist before the end of this blog… I promise. Whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels for a period of time that varies from brand to brand as well as within the same brand. The general consensus is the longer the aging process, the better the whiskey. I’m not sure how you’d argue the opposite, but I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it’s wrong. During this YEARS-long process, the wood expands during the warm summer, allowing the whiskey to soak into the wood’s pores and take on its unique flavor profile before being expelled when the wood contracts during the cold winter. With every change in the season, this cycle begins again but can only happen once each year… once. THERE IS NO WAY TO SPEED UP THIS PROCESS, AT ALL. Some have tried to duplicate it with science-y stuff by forcing whiskey through wood chips under pressure to try to make the same thing, but it never works and tastes like crap. There’s your brief lesson via TJDS, but you can click here if I wasn’t detailed enough.
There are literally thousands of brands of whiskey out there and dozens of types within each brand and four seasons that change from year to year, bringing an endless combination of variables that eventually find their way into a bottle. You are the bottle in this metaphor, so stick with me. At this point you could be a 3-week-old moonshine or a 60-year-old Glenfarclas (bucket list booze for me). I like to think of myself as somewhere in between those two. There are millions of factors that lead to what’s in any given bottle, but you have to allow the time for these factors to materialize in order to become truly unique.
Above: Heaven in a bottle can be yours for only $14,180.90.
The main point to take away from this is that you cannot manufacture time in the world of liquor in the same way you can’t fake experience in the creative industry; you can try, but the creatives who have been through the entire aging process will see right through you and you’ll fail. Today’s society is full of the opposite notion. For fuck’s sake, people need only tap a physical button in their house to order laundry detergent these days. With the “I want it now” attitude being applied to nearly all physical things, it was only a matter of time before this notion began to creep into our mental well-being. Except this is incredibly dangerous and painfully arrogant, because when we don’t get what we want, we get frustrated and angry and often lose sight of what we even wanted to accomplish in the first place, putting the blame on external forces and projecting this bravado that inhibits us even further from being taken seriously. Which when you think about it… sounds a lot like when someone who drank too much moonshine.
Some of you may be reading this and already rolling your eyes at me(again) thinking that the next time you stand on top of a building and take a selfie that you’re a rebel and changing the world in some epic way, that what you’re doing is groundbreaking and edgy because no one has done it quite like you. Right??
Above: This just in…
I want you to understand that I’m not mocking your work… in fact, quite the opposite. I’ve taken hundreds if not thousands of images that probably border if not blatantly cross the line of copyright infringement, because I was emulating the work of someone I respect. That emulation allowed me to discover the work I’m good at… and the work I’m complete and total rubbish at (AKA food photography). The emulation process for each photographer is different, but it is there and to deny that is to deny a major step in your artistic growth. You’ll have to put yourself in the shoes of those you admire creatively to understand that not everyone can do what the other guy/gal does. The sooner you realize that just because you have a dark colored Oliphant backdrop and an old timey Mole Richardson in your shot won’t make you Annie Leibovitz, the better… for all our sakes.
Every successful photographer and creative I know has a voice and a style that is unique to them, and they discovered that voice in themselves OVER TIME, some even taking decades. The vast majority or creatives only get a few years into this process or reach a certain level of creative/financial success and settle, congratulations… you are now a bottle of Jack Daniels along with millions and millions of others. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that it’s impossible to simply invent an original voice or style. I say this because for you to wake up one morning and switch your entire way of approaching art to something that’s never been done before would be quite the feat. This process surely takes less time now with the advent of digital and the sheer number of creative images being published, but it still takes years to figure out what you have to say, beyond the usual “coffee shop cliches” of pointing out the hypocrisy of capitalism while drinking a $7 latte in $300 jeans and typing on a $2000 laptop.
Above: The wifi password for today is F-U-C-K-O-F-F… all caps.
Side note: And I’ll probably get in a significant amount of trouble for saying this, but feel free to quote me on it later… “The market is not oversaturated with photographers, it’s actually oversaturated with clients who have never met one.” It’s my personal belief that if you haven’t been shooting consistently and doing nothing else for at least 7 years, you are not a photographer… YET.
The main problem with this years-long process is that it leaves a lot of time for variables to creep in and disrupt the process. It may come as a shock to many that we artists are not typically working in a bubble of happiness, endless budgets and puppies without a care in the world where we can solely experiment with and hone our craft. The world is littered with proverbial potholes… financial troubles, moving, injury or sometimes additions and subtractions to the family can all sideline a creative career. In whiskey terms, this could be a forklift operator knocking over a barrel or a bottle breaking during shipping; hell, someone may just send the drink back to be poured down the drain because they didn’t like it. These variables, if not prepared for or mitigated, can cut short someone’s career in an instant, but if properly managed will often lend themselves to that individual’s voice and style. For example… while in Manhattan when shooting on major commercial sets, I was often required to wear all black from head to toe and expected to act “professionally” at all times… crazy, I know. Now that I’m running my own studio, you’d be hard-pressed to find me beerless with shoes on… ok maybe I zagged a bit too hard but it’s part of my process people!!
Above: The most common footwear in the studio. Photo by Graham Smith
Another point I’d like to stress is that anyone who has gone through the “aging” process can spot someone who hasn’t from a mile away. Any creative director or art buyer you’d actually want to work with will size you up in the first five minutes of conversation, or just won’t email you back. There are subtle things that will give you away, such as not owning your own name as your website, still having apple boxes in your studio that aren’t completely beat to shit, or constantly posting vague questions/comments on social media, but there are also much more glaring things to worry about. The fact that you’ve never worked with anyone in the industry before, or you’re still using your social security number rather than a government issued EIN, and don’t even get me started on working without business insurance!! Can you imagine hiring a babysitter who you’ve just met, hasn’t worked with anyone you know, and tells you to “check out their Instagram page?” I didn’t think so.
Side note: A three-week-old moonshine that bought themselves a camera, a flash and 50,000 Instagram followers is still shit whiskey.
Above: A Banksy that speaks to the times. © Banksy
In “You Are Not A Photographer,” we outlined how it’s impossible for me or anyone to have an intelligent conversation about being creative if you don’t even know the first thing about art. Expanding on that and slightly farther down the road, you’re going to have to know at least the first thing about business. There’s even something that I can’t really explain that you gain after a certain amount of time at the wheel of your own business: you just get a feel for other businesses, how well they’re doing, what they need, and the natural cycle of busy seasons and fiscal years. I don’t know how you’d know anything about a busy season without having at least a half dozen Aprils under your belt. Ask my friend and kick ass Entrepreneur Nick White of Tremont Athletic Club about his busy season… Just don’t try to snag a whiskey with him on January 2nd.
At 14+ years into my drinking/artistic career, I like to think I have a fairly well-developed nose for both nicely aged whiskies as well as un-aged artists, and I want to let you know that I am rooting for you. Nothing would make me happier than to see you poured into an expensive highball glass and sipped next to a fire by a client who truly appreciates your creativity. There’s probably some sort of regal dog in this scenario as well. We often welcome “young” creatives of all kinds into TJDS, as either a part of our internship program or as colleagues to chat over a drink(or nine). If I or anyone here can help you make even one less mistake than I did coming up, then those are nine drinks and 3 hours well spent. It breaks my heart to see a bottle of talent being washed down the drain because unfortunately for us and unlike whiskey… That is a far more common fate for a creative these days.
Sidenote: During the edit process of this blog it was brought to my attention that there is a quality over quantity argument to be made about the amount of time you’ve put into your artwork. While I agree you can probably stuff seven years worth of quality work into two or three, if you’re going at it 24/7/365, but I can’t imagine you’d be a stable or well rounded individual. It’s also worth noting that even if you shoot 200 fashion editorials in one season that’s still only one season’s trend. While you’d be experienced in that trend in particular, you’d still lack an understanding of the fashion industry as a whole, and thus unable to innovate or react to changes in that market. This applies to every field of photography, wedding, still life, landscape, portraiture, etc.
It was not easy to admit to myself that I wasn’t as good, wasn’t as experienced, or wasn’t as creative as I once thought I was… in fact it was probably one of the hardest things that I ever did in my career. When I finally realized where I was in the aging process, I had a timeline and realistic expectations for the kind of whiskey I’d eventually like to become. Apparently I’ve got twenty-four years to go…