Against Professionalism

Majordomo restaurant, Los Angeles. Photo By Barry Schwartz

I’ve had two careers as a self-employed professional; now as a photographer and educator, previously as a journeyman carpenter, contractor, and kitchen designer. Early in each career I was told there were rules I must follow; other people suggested there are no rules. I was just smart enough to know either could be true; it was important to distinguish the signal from the noise.

I got more efficient at repairing my mistakes, learning from my mistakes, and ignoring my mistakes and just getting on with it. Feeling unsure is a standard-issue component of being a professional; it keeps one on one’s toes. Ignoring those feelings of insecurity can self-destructive, with the result that one starts looking for the rules.

Creative entrepreneurs occupy a peculiar status in the world of work, whether they went to school or invented their own career; supporting a career requires a basic foundation in marketing, contracts, achieving technical proficiency and a sense of one’s own aesthetic, but that’s about it as far as the rules go. We’re all in our own bubble, producing work. People skills helps.

Part of my practice is to take in lots of information about the things I’m interested in; I tell myself this behavior will somehow monetize itself, but the truth is I have no choice. Really, I just gotta. Here’s a few of those professional influences.

Six Spreads: Ralph Gibson Visits Sacred Land

By Bill Shapiro in blind, January 08, 2021

Ralph Gibson has been making photos like no one else for decades, and is an esteemed teacher as well. He has plenty to say, and it’s all worth hearing. Shapiro was Life Magazine’s last editor, and he has plenty to say, as well (check out his Instagram).

“…when he was assisting the great photographer Dorothea Lange in 1961, he received a lesson that he relies on to this day: Know your point of departure. That is, before going to shoot, have a sense, however vague, of what you’re trying to find. ‘It’s not a confining thing,’ he explains. ‘It’s liberating, because having something in mind leads to pictures; and could lead you to something even more interesting than what you were looking for. ‘This has been the backbone of my career,’ he says. ‘It brings the eye and emotions into clearer focus. I don’t touch my Leica without knowing my point of departure.’”

And the power of stories that are unshakably true

By Lin-Manuel Miranda in The Atlantic Magazine, December 2019

Miranda wrote the hit Broadway musical In The Heights, which earned him a Tony while still in his twenties. And Hamilton after that. But you’ve heard of him.

On writing In The Heights. “As we wrote about this Upper Manhattan community on the verge of change, we looked to our musical-theater forebears. In Cabaret, the upheaval facing the characters in Berlin is the rise of the Nazi Party. In Fiddler on the Roof, the town of Anatevka struggles to hold on to its traditions as the world changes around it, and the threat of pogroms looms. For our musical world, upheaval comes in the form of gentrification. This is obviously different from fascism and pogroms; it’s not even in the same moral universe. How you begin to dramatize something as subtle and multifaceted as gentrification poses some tricky questions. We threw our characters into the same dilemma faced by their real-life working-class counterparts: What do we do when we can’t afford to live in the place we’ve lived all our lives, especially when we are the ones who make the neighborhood special and attractive to others? Each of the characters confronts this question differently: One sacrifices the family business to ensure his child’s educational future. Another relocates to the less expensive Bronx. Our narrator decides to stay, despite the odds, taking on the responsibility of telling this neighborhood’s stories and carrying on its traditions.”

Elliott Erwitt: ‘Photography is pretty simple.
You just react to what you see’

By Nadja Sayeij in The Guardian, November 9, 2020

Erwitt, now well into his 90s and still working, is one of photography’s great stylists and documentary and advertising photographers. An actual, real and true living legend.

“He says remaining an amateur photographer is key to keeping his curiosity alert. It’s also just plain and simple work.

‘The fact that photography is international working, and people have to work,’ says Erwitt. ‘Most people have repetitive jobs; it doesn’t last very long before you get bored.’

But photography is different, he says. ‘It’s elective, you don’t have to spend much time doing stuff you don’t like, in the end,’ says Erwitt. ‘You are able to get up early in the morning and even have real choices.'”

How Ming Cho Lee Taught Me to See

By Susan Hilferty in American Theatre, November 4, 2020

Ming Cho Lee, who recently passed, was one of the great theatre designers of the last century, equally well known for his work an educator at the Yale School of Drama, where, among other things, he not only helped train legions of working designers, he helped change how design is taught in universities all over the U.S. and beyond.

“I can see his hand smoothing the yellow trace on top of my drawing, and I can hear his words guiding his pencil and my eyes as he helps refocus the design beneath. There are so many lessons from that image, even in the choice of materials. The yellow trace torn from a roll is humble, unlike an expensive piece of watercolor paper, which seems to question whether the mark you make is ‘worth’ it. The pencil is quotidian; it makes it easy to toss a sketch aside, tear off another piece of trace, and sketch new thoughts inspired by the first.

The most important lesson, however, was that the trace protected the original design. Ming did not draw on or over my drawing. He was protective. He meant to guide, not to force a change. Deep in his method of teaching was the inspiration that the design for a set is constantly unfolding and that the designer needs to be available to sketch quickly—in model or on a piece of paper—to allow the full idea to be revealed at the end of the process. Ming’s eyes had razor-sharp focus as he weighed scale, proportion, and value in what he was looking at, while also tightening up the point of view of this student designer. He helped me see.”


By Shaun Usher in Letters of Note, April 8, 2021

Usher has been producing books of letters for over twenty years, about an incredible range of subjects. He is a first-rate curator of great writing. And has a wonderful newsletter. This one is from the great artist Saul LeWitt.

“In 1960, pioneering American artists Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse met for the first time and instantly clicked, quickly forming a strong, deep bond that would last for ten years and result in countless inspirational discussions and rich exchanges of ideas. Indeed, they remained incredibly close friends until May of 1970, at which point Hesse, still only 34 years of age, sadly passed away after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. In 1965, half-way through their relationship, Eva found herself facing a creative block during a period of self-doubt, and told Sol of her frustrating predicament. A few weeks later, Sol replied with the work of art seen here—a wonderful, invaluable letter of advice, copies of which have since inspired artists the world over, and which now grace the walls of art studios in all corners of the globe.”

“…Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the ‘world’ and ‘ART’ alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are going. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything….”

‘To Get Things More Real’: An Interview with Ira Glass

By Claudia Dreifus in The New York Review, August 8, 2019

Ira Glass is best known for This American Life, and is himself a great interview. He knows how to describe his own processes.

Are sources who’ve been through psychotherapy better at interviews than those who have not?

I haven’t observed that, but I believe that is probably true. It doesn’t have to be psychotherapy, honestly—even if they’ve been through a decent twelve-step program where they’ve been forced to be introspective. We have to kill stories sometimes because the people are just not capable or in the habit of reflecting on what happened to them in a meaningful way.

Are you a workaholic?

Workaholic implies a problem. It’s more like I get in a little over my head. I’m not the greatest at managing my time. I’d like to work a little less.”

Keep it on The One

By Austin Kleon, September 8, 2019

Kleon is an author (Steal Like An Artist, among others) and has a terrific blog. Subscribe to his newsletter. Comes out on Fridays. You will be glad.

“Prince would get mad when people called his music magical: ‘Funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules.’”

“Here’s Miles Davis at the end of his autobiography:

‘I have never felt this creative. I feel like the best if yet to come. Like Prince says when he’s talking about hitting the beat and getting to the music and the rhythm, I’m going to keep ‘getting up on the one,’ brother, I’m just going to try to keep my music getting up on the one, getting up on the one every day I play. Getting up on the one. Later.'”

The Dark Art of Pricing

By Jessica Hische

Hische is a wonderful type and graphic designer, and author; well known for giving back. Her advice is sterling; here it’s for designers, but it applies to any creative entrepreneur. Following is the footnote to this superb article:

“A footnote for the haters:

For whatever reason, whenever anyone writes an article like this—asking designers to raise the standards for themselves and others, calling out companies for unfair pay or empty promises—there are always a few anonymous contrarians that berate the author for preaching from an ivory tower, not understanding what the masses are actually going through. I have been lucky enough to have success in my career, and I want to use the knowledge I’ve gained to help others have success. Why anyone would complain when someone is advocating for better wages, I do not know, but it always happens.”

Knife Skills Are Bulls*it

By Mark Bittman on The Bittman Project, June 9, 2021

Bittman was for many years a food writer at the New York Times (The Minimalist), producing many videos at the paper and on television, and has written many books. His level of common sense about food, cooking, and their place in the culture is priceless; he is a man of the people in the very best sense. Cutting to the chase here, so to speak, is that it can be a mistake to emulate other professionals’ technique, because technique does not matter. What matters is the end result, and there is little connection between the two.

“Me chopping an onion is not a pretty sight. The crew on The Minimalist set used to try to shoot me doing it — ‘Teach people how it’s done’ — but I demurred. I’ve shown people how to chop an onion — how I chop an onion — but it’s not how you want to learn to chop an onion. And yet I get by.

I know how you’re supposed to chop an onion, but since no one ever threw a 25-pound box of onions at me and said, ‘Chop this, I need it fast,’ I never had to rush. Consequently, it takes me maybe 45 seconds, even a minute, to do one, and as I said it’s not pretty: A good chef can do it in 10 seconds, and it’s a thing of beauty.

So what?

Even Nigella Lawson has admitted to having no knife skills. When I talked to her for the podcast, she told me when she’s chopping for her TV show, ‘my director more or less has to put a hand over his eyes as he’s checking the monitor. Because he can’t bear it when he sees that … when I’ve got the camera just on my hands, it makes me so panicked that I can barely hold a knife, let alone chop… But it’s good for people to see bad chopping.'”

And how are all of you?

By Shawn Usher in Letters of Note, June 8, 2021.

Usher reproduced several letters and a telegraph cable from Dorothy Parker in this post. Here is his introduction, followed by one of his selections. There are more in his post.

“The great Dorothy Parker wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, was a much-loved book critic for The New Yorker, co-wrote two Academy Award-nominated screenplays, and was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. AND YET, despite it all, there does not exist a published collection of her many letters. Instead we must make do with the relatively few letters and snippets that pop up tantalisingly in books such as the excellent The Portable Dorothy Parker. See also: What Fresh Hell is This?, The Last Days of Dorothy Parker, and Alpine Giggle Week.

For such a book to be absent in the year of our Lord 2021 is nonsensical and an unsustainable state of affairs, and I’m this close to starting an online petition. In the meantime, however, here are some Flashes of brilliance.”

“Dear Mr. Thalberg,

Yours of March 6 received and its contents duly noted. In reply to your query as to my inability to attend the script meeting, I can only offer the explanation that I was too ****ing busy and vice versa.


Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker to Irving Thalberg, Mar 1935″