What does it take?

I have to thank Art Wolfe for sharing the following quotation today on his Facebook page:

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.'”  –Sam Haskins

This quotation says a great deal about how little people understand what it takes to “get the shot” or to even be a good photographer in general.  Whenever I teach a class or conduct a workshop, one of the things that I frequently stress is that it really does not matter what sort of camera you own; taking good photos requires being able to see and understand how cameras see light.  But this understanding is only the bare basics of how one can create good compositions and capture the correct exposure.

Creating a good photo requires yet even more.  It is one thing to learn how to visualize the world around you and understand how our eyes see light differently than cameras.  It is another thing to actually be out there, to be out on location at the right time to actually create a strong image.

For example, I would like to tell the story of my photo, “Wolf Tracks on Ice.”  The photo was captured on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  To get there, I drove to Fairbanks, which, in the winter, is about an eight hour drive.  From there, I flew in a Cessna 185 to the remote town of Bettles, which is only accessible by river or air; there is no road into the town.  The morning after I arrived, we loaded up the base camp equipment into the plane so it could be flown out to the base camp location on a sheet of auf eis on the North Fork of the Koyukuk.  When the pilot, Park Ranger Seth McMillan, returned, we loaded up the dog team, and the park ranger who was also the team musher, Zak Richter, headed out with his team to set them up at camp.  Once those two flights were completed, there was no more flying for the day; winter days are short in the Arctic.

The next day, I waited most of the day for the fierce winds to calm down so Seth could take me out to the base camp.  Winds finally calmed down enough to allow us to take off, but on the way there, we hit several wind pockets that made me, for the first time, put down my camera and simply hold on.  We arrived only an hour or so before sunset.  The next day, Zak and I headed out with the team to scout the river and break some trail.  We stopped to give the team a break on an open patch of ice on the river.  I was deep in the midst of a 9.4 million acre wilderness, and probably, along with Zak, one of only two people in the park that day.  It was during this break that I found the pattern of wolf tracks imprinted in snow on the sheer ice as I wandered around, exploring the frozen river.  And I only found them because of extraordinary logistical convergences and my ability to see compositions.

But the ability to see and capture images by being out on location is only one part of how photographers are simply not understood, or appreciated.  People generally lack an understanding about the business of photography.  That is, people do not generally understand what lays behind the prices that photographers place on their finished product.

To illustrate this point, I will share a story about an older woman who came into my gallery one day a few years back.  She came into the gallery, I greeted her, and she proceeded to browse the flip bin containing some matted, but not framed, prints.  She pulled out a photo of a bear fishing for sockeye salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park & Preserve, examined it, looked at the price, and then turned to me and stated: “Fifty dollars.  That’s too much.”  Responding with perhaps what was not the most customer-service-oriented assertion, I said, “Well ma’am, if you can fly out to Katmai National Park and take that photo for less than fifty dollars, more power to ya.”

The most common way to get to Katmai’s Brooks Camp is via King Salmon.  Air fare from Anchorage to King Salmon is about $580.  Yes, that’s $580 for a 40-minute flight.  Then, you need to catch an air taxi out to Naknek Lake, which runs about another $200.  While you can just do a day trip out there, it makes little sense to spend that much money and only stay an afternoon.  It also decreases your chances of actually capturing a satisfying image.  So, let’s say you might stay for three nights.  You have two lodging options.  You can stay at the Brooks Lodge or you can tent camp.  Rates at the lodge run $1,600 for three nights’ minimum for double occupancy.   Of course, I always stay at the tent camping area, which is only $15 per night, but puts you out in the open with nothing separating you from the bears but a vinyl wall and an electric fence surrounding the camp area.

And let’s not forget that I actually had a camera that captured the photo.  I used a Nikon F100 with Provia 100F film and my Nikon 500mm f/4.0 lens for the shot in question.  Luckily for me, I purchased the equipment used from another photographer, but it still cost me $3,000.  Then there were the actual costs of creating the print and matting it, but also the regular ongoing overhead that any photographer experiences in a business.  Fortunately, at the time, my gallery location had some rather low rent compared to other downtown locations.

Yet, I doubt that any of this occurred to the woman when she commented on my pricing.  It’s not her fault, though; I think it is fair to say that very few of us ever think of what it takes to create any given type of product, whether artistic or otherwise.  But, perhaps we should think more about what it takes.


2 Responses to “What does it take?”

  1. Al Musy Says:

    Great article, Carl. Like many artists perhaps, it takes one to appreciate another. This has been an issue for many years now, perhaps since the very first camera was made. Even without the costs associated with buying the gear, and getting yourself out to a location, your time is worth something, too. Waiting patiently at the Falls for just the right light, action and moment takes alot of time. How long would one have to stand there, with eye pressed against the viewfinder, waiting for just that moment when the salmon jumps into the mouth of a grizzly? A lot longer than that woman would have wanted to wait, I’m sure! Personally, I think that while your answer to her may not have been in your best interest in making a sale (not like she was likely to buy, anyway), you gave her the correct response.

  2. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] it is so easy to take a photo these days, photos aren’t worth much. Quite the contrary, as a lot of work goes into creating spectacular images, and doing so as a […]

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