From the 1920s until he died in 1975, Walker Evans’ work set a high bar for documentary photography, revealing poetry in the ordinary. He was a photographer’s photographer, already accomplished by the time of his unique collaboration in 1941 on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a groundbreaking book written by his friend James Agee (himself a unique talent – a writer’s writer).
Evans’ career was not a straight path to what he became famous for, not least because he drew from a much larger culture than photography alone.
Known for being a most American photographer, documenting ordinary lives and environments, his focus came out of an early antipathy for his own country; he started as a writer influenced by European taste and culture, where he got assigned to see the conditions he would choose to document on film.
Every photographer in the Western world, documentary, commercial, or fine art, can trace a link in their work back to Walker Evans.
Meredith Mendelsohn, writing for the terrific Artsy website, has written a well-informed, thoughtful piece on the opening of a major museum retrospective.
Attending a conference can give rise to either longing or loathing, whether attending or working.
It is of course fantastic to be around people excited about the same things. Yet, going to a conference requires spending time in enormous, sterile, noisy rooms with bad light, bad air, with bathrooms hidden hundreds of yards from anywhere. It’s enough to make you want to stay home, but that would be a miscalculation.
I’ve been on both sides of the booth. To the attendee, conferences present calculated features: There are vendors in their booths to sell you a thing or a service or both. There are teachers running workshops to sell you on an idea or a skill or their thing or service. Or all four. There is the conference producer who arranged the whole event whose idea is to sell you the idea that you should come back next year – and bring your friends! Everyone wants your attention – and your money.
It’s not a one-way street, though. Conferences, conventions, and exhibitions are usually oriented towards helping you figure out how to generate more success with less effort, or at least with a more informed effort. The focus is: knowledge translates to professional advancement. Everyone is there to learn more about their field, and that includes the vendors, teachers, and producers.
On offer for people on both sides of the booth, not obvious but in plain sight and even more valuable, are people, and plenty of them.
Everyone wants to leave the event with more than they came with: more sales, more skills, and the most valuable thing you can take home: new contacts and colleagues, even friendships.
Professions are built on relationships and people skills, which can be considerably more important than technical skills. Lots of people have technical skills – those are relatively easy to acquire from school, from books and magazines, on the job, from online tutorials.
In the world of work, whether as a freelancer or employee, people get hired because of who they are and how they behave as much as what they know how to do. Careers – particularly freelance careers – are built on getting re-hired and referred. In the end (and the beginning), people want to work with people they like. Those people have soft skills.
So how does this translate to the value of attending a conference? You can’t develop soft skills – people skills – without spending time with people, in the same way you can’t develop camera skills without spending time with a camera.
That means hanging out and reaching out, exchanging business ideas and business cards (take lots of cards!), asking questions, finding out from others how they do their jobs and sharing how you do yours, and what you know or want to know. Connecting with other people in your field – including the vendors, teachers, and producers – can lead to unexpected places. It can be fun, no trivial thing when you consider that fun is an important factor in any business relationship, because…people want to work with people they like.
So go breathe the bad air, be sure to rest your eyes from the bad light, remember to find the bathroom locations well before you need them, and find some folks to hang out with. It’ll be fun.
Here is a lovely piece – not an interview, but a profile – on the terrific cinematographer, Roger Deakins, by way of reading Deakins’ blog. ByNoah Gallagher Shannon in The Paris Review.
Read the piece by clicking on the link at the bottom. Meanwhile, a few quotes from the article:
…The highest achievement a cinematographer can garner, Deakins says, is to have his or her work go unnoticed. If the viewer is made aware of a frame’s composition, the thinking goes, they’re taken out of the narrative, maybe not unlike a reader noticing a novel’s font as they stumble over a cluster of adjectives. A cinematographer should have style, in other words, but only in service of story. Deakins puts it this way: “people confuse pretty with good cinematography.”
…Asked by “rileywoods,” a film student, how he came to master lighting, Deakins replies, “I have been lucky over the years and have been pretty constantly working.” He continues, “I do think observing is important in learning”—meaning, observing the world, not others at work. In a recent thread about how to create the look of a thunderstorm, film students go back and forth on the right diffusion gels and light screens before Deakins chimes in with a one-sentence solution: “You could always shoot at night.”
…Which is partly why I understand him to mean it humbly when he says he’d rather have his art go unnoticed; as a cinematographer, it’s professionally unwise to develop a recognizable style. But now that I’ve read Deakins blog for a few years, I also understand how he might mean it artistically, and honestly so. How having one’s work go unnoticed might in fact be an achievement.