Or, the long-buried story of my epic photo school failure.
I never thought I’d be writing about phoning it in; you know, the act of making a half-hearted attempt at something. Normally, half-hearted is not a word in my personal vocabulary. This week, on something important (to me), I phoned it in, and I feel like crap about it. So, forgive me for what’s sure to be a very “soft” post, but, I need some catharsis, a little piece of mental salvation. Today, this little piece of the web is a journal; if you don’t want to read it, I understand. It’s one of those personal posts, that, like this one about losing Gomer and a future one about miscarriage, had to be written eventually. I’ll try to at least have a sense of humor about it, isn’t that from whence the best catharsis comes?
Back in around 1997 or 1998, several lifetimes ago, seemingly (yes, I am THAT old), I took a photography workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, with the amazing documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark through Maine Workshops. I won an award for a photo of some Mexican Punks, and went to New York to receive it. Mary Ellen, whom I admired greatly (still do), liked my work and encouraged me to apply to the International Center of Photography in New York. They have an amazing documentary photojournalism program that at the time, accepted about 10 students from around the world each year. I applied, and I got accepted, and I quit my job at Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch, took a flying leap, and went to New York in fall, 1999.
And while living in New York was an amazing experience, my time at ICP was (still is) one of the greatest disappointments of my life. It started out strong; I had a great eye for “the moment”, everyone said. But technically, I sucked. I am really terrible with anything but natural outdoor lighting, and my printing skills were even worse. The director and teacher of the program, Joan Liftin, whom I greatly respected (still do), left mid-year, which really threw me off-kilter. I came home to Wisconsin for a break (met a guy) and lost focus, to say the least. When I went back to New York, my photos got more and more depressing. In January, we had a workshop with Mike Yamashita from National Geographic in which we had to go shoot Central Park in a snowstorm; I couldn’t muster anything more than a pathetic photograph of an empty slide. Mind you, I was in my early-30s and could almost hear the sound of my eggs dying. My final student exhibition was, laughably, a close up of myself and a close up of my bed, both taken with a plastic Holga toy camera, and a shot of my aging father walking into the ocean (the last of which, a gallery tried to purchase for an insanely low price, and I refused to sell.) I might as well have exhibited three large photographs of my navel.
Now, I’d been dreaming of being a photographer for about a decade already at that point, in spite of my burgeoning success in the *highly glamorous* business of advertising. So, needless to say, the glorious ball of flaming failure that I experienced in New York was a bit hard to handle. Never mind the fact that I didn’t actually want to achieve a lifestyle in which I’d earn $250 if I miraculously ever got a photograph on the cover of the New York Times, and I’d pay ten times that monthly for a tiny studio apartment. The point was, I’m not used to sucking, and failing, and I don’t much like it (who does?)
Fast forward a decade. I move back to Wisconsin, get a job, buy a house, meet a guy, get married, honeymoon in Paris, use one of my few remaining eggs to have a kid, get a different job, and another, then land, twice and for all, at Jigsaw. As far as photography goes, it doesn’t have much of a part in my life, although before New York it was a huge personal passion. Sadly, I haven’t taken a lot of good photos of my son. And, though we have been married for six years, my husband has never seen my photographs that got me into ICP or that I took while I was there. Boom! Passion buried.
Now we’re at the “phoning it in” part of this post. The lesson here is: kids, don’t phone it in. Ever. Jigsaw, you see, has a monthly photo contest on our blog, with some amazingly talented photographers. I decided I should start participating. But instead of actually doing that, participating, finding it again, taking some new photos for the contest, I just pulled an old photo from my blog and phoned it in (emailed it in, actually). And I’m extremely disappointed in myself. If I had put my heart into it, like the others did, and still not done well, that would be much more admirable than the fact that I couldn’t get over the disappointments of the past and find the passion.
So, I’m committing here publicly that over the course of the coming months, I will do my best to pour my heart and soul into photographs again and find it. I might still suck, but at least I’ll be trying. And that, I can live with. Fortunately, I have an incredibly inspiring group of people to learn from.
Have you ever let yourself down? How did you let yourself back up? Ever buried a passion? How did you find it again?
Thanks for listening.