3.05.2009

Short Term Bleak. Long term unknowable.

I have some friends who claim to have lost half their money in the collapse of the stock market. I try in vain to remind them that it's just paper losses until they actually sell off the stocks and take the loss.  We've heard much about the "lost decade" in Japan and I worry that we're about to have our own period of loss but in a different way.  While the Japanese were paralyzed by their inability to move spending and wealth building ahead we are losing the idea that the arts matter.  That Art matters.  That there is more to life than profit and loss.  We are abandoning the liberal arts in an ultimately failed attempt to monetize every facet of our lives.

I've been in the photography business in one way or another for nearly thirty years.  I've run a freelance photography business for over twenty years.  And I've lived through four or five nasty recessions.  But I've never seen the overwhelming fear mongering and terror that this downturn has brought.  A day doesn't go by that a colleague doesn't call to ask if I want to buy some of their equipment.  To ask if things are slow for me too.  To ask if I've seen any glimmers of hope. All I can tell them is that the markets have always seemed cyclical to me and that perhaps in a handful of months, at the most a year, all this will pass and life will go on.

And down deep I believe it.  I believe that so much of what's gone wrong with the economic machine is just abstraction.  The profits didn't exist so the losses can't exist.  I know it is naive but I think we should stop right where we are and reset the whole machine just the way we would reset a laptop computer.  Whatever you have right now is what you start over with.  No one gets bailed out but everyone gets three square meals a day and shelter.  I don't want to bail out billionaires but I don't want to be callous to the victims who have no resources.

The most important thing photographers can do in this time is to get out of their studios and keep working.  "What? Work without clients?"  Absolutely.  Work to stay engaged.  Work to provide a continuing discipline of eye/hand coordination, but most importantly work to create the new body of work that will push you into the next upcycle with a fresh vision and a fresh offering.

I included a photo of Austin's Barton Springs Pool as a testimony to longevity and endurance. The city has grown up all around the pool and yet it still flows down to the Colorado River every minute of every hour of every day.  Our resolve and vision should be like that stream.  When confronted by a boulder we'll never have the sheer power to move it aside but we can keep our fluid agility and sweep around the boulder and by doing so continue our journey uninterrupted.

I understand today that the photography I did for corporations before the fourth quarter of last year will never return in the same way just as the water in streams is never the same water as that which passed the day before.  And, as in a science fiction movie, I understand that my commercial survival hinges upon a hyper accelerated evolution into new markets and new ways of selling.  But all the things I hold dear; swimming in clear, clean water,  helping Ben with his homework, listening to beautiful music, being loved and loving people are not contingent on my financial success or the return of the traditional photo business.  I am a person first and a photographer second and as long as I don't confuse what I do for who I am I will be happy.

Examine the roots of your happiness and understand that everything comes with two opposing forces.  Lack of business means more free time.  Free time means, potentially, more time to do the art you always wanted to do.  Life is weird and we only get to do it once.  If we focus on the stock market we invite our own pain.  If we focus on a beautiful subject we are rewarded with a connection to beauty and a connection to art.  What price to put on that?