Not that it's surprising but I digress... Anywho.
If you didn't know already, I am a bicycle commuter. I had to take a few months off last fall and into winter due to a herniated disc in my neck but generally, whatever the season, whatever the weather, I ride my bike, any and everywhere. Indeed, I am one of those people you see riding in the snowbank at -30, through sheets of rain, and when it's so hot you feel like your face is melting off and you are wondering, are they poor, stupid, or just crazy? (mostly crazy...)
I have a favourite route I like to take each way. On the way to work I stay on mostly main roads that are direct and fast, and I use a slightly different one on the way home that is a tad more scenic as it takes me through a couple of residential areas. There is one stretch of the ride home, down one specific street, that is particularly fascinating. I have watched it evolve over the past 5 years, and it makes for nice metaphor about photography. This is what I will ramble on about now.
About 5 years ago when the real estate boom had peaked and was set to start its descent, I think a lot of people must have used their home equity lines of credit to renovate like it was 1999, because 1/3rd of the houses were being gutted and another 1/3rd were already finished and up for sale, while the last 1/3rd just left well enough alone and went about their BBQs and lawn mowing as usual.
Now. This street was filled with a pretty typical collection of houses for a mature part of town - a gorgeous canopy of tall trees hanging over the gently sloping boulevard featuring a mix of tall and majestic pre-WWI and miniature depression "starter" homes and several cookie cutter 50s bungalows commingled with a handful of modern homes that had been newly built where the older houses were too small or in such disrepair they couldn't be salvaged.
There was one house on this street that stood out though, not because it was the biggest or prettiest or the newest, but because it boasted the most obnoxious paint job. Perhaps someone did a Facebook poll and took the first 5 responses to "Choose your fave colour" with no black-balling, or maybe they just went to the paint store and requested a colour scheme that would stand out and the paint mixing person had a great sense of humour, but it was (if nothing else) completely unique and unmistakable. I overheard on more than one occasion conversations drifting from people on the street or from friends who lived nearby - "eyesore" and "hideous" and "tacky" were the adjectives used.
The next spring, as people scrambled to sell the newly renovated houses they had wintered over in, hoping to cash in on the last of the real estate wave, the first house to sell was (of course) the one with the crazy paint job. Literally 2 or 3 days on the market! Several weeks later, with sales not coming, there were a couple of other houses that got equally wild colour treatments and sold as quickly. So by the next summer there were double, and as of last spring this street had taken on the garish appearance of what community development would look like if Joker was the real estate planner.
People are funny this way, how they adopt trends, even when they first feel opposed to it. Someone starts a trend to set themselves apart from the pack. While few copy it precisely, most at least attempt to mimic but with a twist. It's definitely like this in photography, and trends that have ebbed and flowed in the past 15 or so years are equally fascinating to consider as house paint. Post-process evolution has included the rise, fall, and levelling of spot colouring, vintage/cross-processing, grain and texture, the "peach" and "yellow" wash thing, and plastic-smooth skin with razor-sharp details. Genres have been updated with hip new names: intimate and glamour photography has exploded as the newly dubbed "boudoir" genre, while on-location and photojournalistic have been renamed "environmental." And while certain styles have emerged and faded relatively quickly (like "melancholy") others are still gathering steam in a way that will leave an indelible mark on the face of photography, like babies doing yoga or hanging off branches in knitted things, which will probably one day be considered a "classic" style.
The times, they have a-changed. These trends are what both clients (regardless of taste and familiarity) and photographers (regardless of experience or skill) view when they surf the web for a shutterbug. The "bar" (or expectation) has become set at a point by popularity more so than individual expression. I'm sorry to state the obvious, but by having a purple and green sock monkey toque and fancy organic blankets instead of a traditional red and grey sock monkey toque and a cheap imported grass basket, it's not *really* doing it differently, it's just unique just like everyone else. This doesn't matter, because as both consumers and producers of photography, we need to realize that the one and only thing setting ~insert style of photographer here~ apart from ~insert same style of photographer here~ is their personality and price. Anyone not paying attention to this is going to miss the point, and maybe the boat.
Regardless of what you do, it's sometimes impossibly difficult to actually set yourself apart from the crowd, fulfill client expectations, and still stay true to yourself. Some of us happily follow trends and pocket fistfuls of money, never once stopping to think outside the box that is so readily available if you sign up for the workshop, follow the formula, master the technique, and collect the fee. Some of us adopt trends but only reluctantly, somewhere deep inside feeling like a traitor, a follower, an imposter. Others will be the forerunners, setting new trends that will hopefully catch on and earn us some notoriety as pioneers of the style, while some of us will stick relentlessly to our own aesthetic, refusing for a myriad of reasons to bend, learn, or change. That's how it goes in fashion, art, photography, and apparently even house painting if you happen to live on just the right kind of street. And except for the weird house painting, I admit that I've been in all of these royal "we" categories over the years.
There are now only two houses that stand out on that street, both newly built in the past couple of years. Architecturally they are almost identical - boxy 2-storey houses with large flat panes of glass that resemble the cardboard box Barbie houses I made as a kid with shutterless windows cut out of the stark, spartan, square facade. Yet they are completely distinguishable from one another because the owners made it so. One house, freshly painted in the last couple of weeks, can be approximately described as "fluorescent mint green" with dark forest green trim, accents, and doorsteps. The other is clear-finished natural wood with a stone walkway and a rock garden. They are, without exception, the most memorable and remarkable houses on that 5 or 6 block stretch of glorious tree-lined boulevard. Considering the current market, I feel confident in saying that neither of them would be an easy sell.
I think, in photography, it's the same when you're trying to set yourself apart. The trick to success isn't following trends so you can be unique just like everyone else but finding out what you truly love and doing it unapologetically. That doesn't mean you don't borrow ideas and try on other hats, but it does mean you need to subscribe to one of two camps. a) doing what everyone else is doing then going above and beyond no matter what the neighbours think, or b) paying no attention whatsoever to what everyone else is doing. I think that when we stop trying to be what everyone else is or is not and just do what comes naturally, we have the time and space we need to decide what our proverbial houses should look like, and we can get comfortable living in them.
In the past year I have had a lot of time to think about what it is that I am as a photographer, and while I can't accurately describe everything I *do* (that would be a novel and a half I can only describe as picturing love) I *do* have a pretty clear idea of what I'm definitely *not* as a photographer. To sum up:
I like awkward and I like weird. I like honesty and relationships represented and accepted at face value. I like goofy expressions. Eye rolling and *facepalms* are both valid, and awesome. Laughter, regardless of a person's age, whether a tiny giggle or a full-out guffaw, is the sweetest sound in the world, with sighing a close second. And having a camera with me is like recording what I experience in real life that way. I'm not interested in (therefore haven't bothered to master) putting babies in yoga poses while wearing knitted things and removing their unsightly infantile pores, flakes, and uneven skin tones with photoshop, but I can take a mean picture of a baby in a suitcase and getting nuzzled by Mommy and Daddy with the contrast or hue set to "stun" though sometimes I like to play and get creative. I'm also aware that I am not real talented at mimicking natural sun with controlled lighting or putting women in slinky underthings and drawing out "sexy" BUT I've mastered some clever lighting and with a bit of coaching I think I am pretty good at helping women look and feel classy, beautiful, and confident. And I can make almost everyone laugh, both in real life and in front of the camera, because other people smiling makes ME smile. Therefore, I love pictures of people laughing and "melancholy" as a style of portraiture just doesn't appeal to me on a very fundamental level. I'm WAY not that serious. Ever. I just can't pull it off like I mean it.
If I had to describe myself, if I lived on that magic street where personal expression comes in house-sized proportions, I would come with a sloped tin roof and humble and sturdy natural wood siding with a lovely stone pathway that leads up to my front doorsteps... which happen to be painted in a double complete rainbow and are accessed via the the rock garden in which there are an obscene number of ceramic gnomes hiding in the petunias. I also have my lawn sprinkler set at just the right spot that I can sit on my little wooden rooftop deck and enjoy the ability to discover to whether you are the type of person who smiles like no one is watching to tiptoe through it like a kid, dodge it like it's acid, or stops to dig out your phone and take a picture of the rainbow in it. (I'd take a picture THEN run through it!)
Ansel Adams is credited with saying that there are two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. As a client, I hope you respect that the fee you pay is for the photographer's vision, talent and skill to engender enjoyment of the creative process as much as for what you can view on a print, canvas, or just your computer screen. As a photographer, I hope that you will endeavour to create images that resonate with you so that when you see yourself in your clients' pictures, it makes you smile, too.
Whatever it is that lights your flame - hair, make-up, architecture, machining, sewing, fishing, computer programming, painting (of houses or canvas) the key to doing what you do best and not hating it every day is remembering who you are, then letting people SEE who you are. I am Hope Walls and I like to pictureLOVE. Who are YOU?