When I graduated from college, I was equipped for two professions. I could be an electrical engineer; I had a BSEE to testify to my training, and summer and part-time jobs gave me a limited amount of experience. I could have been a photographer; I had no formal training, but eight years of working on school newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks had given me a useful set of skills. In my mind, the decision was so easy that it wasn’t really a decision. I became an engineer. Was it money that swayed me? Not at all; this was in 1964, in the days when it was rare for engineers to enjoy big paydays.
Let me back up a minute. I love to read (I loved it a lot more before I took the Evelyn Wood course in the early 70s, but that’s another story). I’ve always enjoyed reading. But sometime in high school, I developed an aversion to reading things that were assigned to me. For the final exam of my English course my sophomore year of high school we were going to have some questions on Bleak House. I had no problem with Dickens, but I couldn’t (or didn’t) force myself to read it, and paid for it with a lousy grade for the course. However, in the six or eight weeks before the final, I read all four of Thomas Wolfe’s long novels, just because I felt like it (Actually, I read Look Homeward, Angel, and could think about little else until I’d read the whole series).
The same kind of thing is true in some other areas of my life, and photography is one. I’ve made pictures for money many times, mostly in my youth when I needed the cash. It was hardly ever any fun (One exception stands out for me; in my senior year at Stanford, a very attractive woman asked me to do a set of photos of her that she could give to family and friends on the occasion of her graduation. She told me that she liked my work, trusted me, and that I could make any kind of pictures that I wanted, as long as she kept her clothes on.) Whenever I picked up a camera to put food on the table or money in the bank it became no fun, or at least less fun.
I’m not sure why. Part of it was not having a free rein in the kind of work I did. But that’s not the whole thing; I hardly ever had a problem doing an assignment for a school newspaper editor, and most of my work for the Stanford Chaparral was standard commercial photography.
However, when it came to circuit design, the situation was reversed. Doing a design for myself seemed meaningless in comparison to doing a design to solve an important commercial or scientific problem. Also, I loved having the resources available to support my efforts. When I worked for my first company, doing research on speech and hearing. I didn’t have to build what I designed; I had techs to do that. That was great, since I liked the designing and testing, but not the construction, and, to be truthful, I was pretty bad at the building part. If I designed more stuff, the company was happy to hire more techs. Later, when I started managing as well as designing, I loved the way that it enabled me to take on bigger, more difficult, and more significant tasks.
Then there’s risk. At the level that I’ve seen the world, a photographer working for money has to be risk-averse. You need to always come up with the shot. No excuses. If the shot turns out not to be all if could have been, tough. You’re probably the only one involved that realizes that. I understand that in the rock-star stratocumulus things may be different, but I have no personal knowledge of that world, only one in which there was more emphasis on not screwing up than on fantastic results. That’s not the tradeoff calculus that appeals to me.
In much of the design work that I did, you were encouraged to take risks. If something didn’t work right – and there were prototypes and early tests to try to find out how well things worked — you’d pick yourself up and design a fix. If something was falling-off-a-log easy, your competition could do it that way, and probably wouldn’t stop there. If something had never been done before, why not do it? I admit to some sleepless nights, and I’m glad I don’t live like that anymore, but the challenge was intoxicating and addictive.
Since my retirement from the tech world, I’ve been working as an artist. One part of that is getting the work out in the world. How does someone who can’t stand being paid for something handle that? Give the work away? That’s OK, but I want some indication that the work means something to people. So, if you want one of my pictures, make out a check to the Center for Photographic Art or some other charity of my choosing. Somehow that feels different.