Mark Mahaney and Julian Richards
It’s been about eight years since Mark Mahaney weaned himself fully off assisting. After a dozen years of New York living under his belt, he recently moved to the Bay Area with his wife and daughter. They have a brand new dog named June. During his free time, he tries to figure out how to have more free time.
Two decades in the saddle as a reluctant photo agent proved to be more than enough for Julian Richards and the people around him; so two years ago he hung up his chaps. Subsequent involvement in the farm-to-table restaurant business cemented his conviction that beginnings are fun, middles and endings less so. And that most stuff that’s purportedly cool is actually 90% nonsense and it’s not easy to swim in the glittering current of the 10% that isn’t. And Instagram is a giant, infantile ship of fools.
“Which is why I ask you, after roughly two years of being away, what’s it like?”
Mark Mahaney: It’s been about two years since you walked away from being a photo rep and it’s been about half that since you and I have really connected. Knowing what I know about why you walked away and knowing how I could/can very much relate to so many of the deeply-seated reasons you did so, I’m curious if you’ve found life to be more satisfying on the other side? For a while, I was really struggling with certain aspects of this line of work. The feeling of being constantly at the mercy of clients regardless of the time or day, regardless of any boundary attempted to put up. The life/work balance can be a serious challenge. There are times when I’ve come across as negative to some of my assistants, but then they start to get work on their own and suddenly come back begging for advice, someone to lean on or vent to. This is a pretty odd industry and I know I’m one of the lucky ones (and I think you’d agree that you were as well), for whatever reason… And I’m grateful for that, but it’s been a non-stop job for the past decade. And by non-stop, I know you know what I mean in a way some likely don’t. 2-3 hours of sleep is just not enough and that’s even with having a studio manager. I forced myself to take much of the beginning of 2016 off of taking on new work so I could actually spend time with my wife and daughter, so I could sleep, so I could get caught up on about three years of work no one has seen because I had no time to properly finalize any of it, so I could exercise, so I could experience for the first time since moving to the Bay Area 2,5 years ago why I actually moved here. The work related to-do-list is still a mile long, but I’m chugging away at it and am able now to start tackling things I’ve wanted to do but deadlines kept previously getting in the way of. Little by little. The smile is surfacing again, but it’s been a lot of effort. Which is why I ask you, after roughly two years of being away, what’s it like? Are you less grossed out by the current state of the industry? Feeling more inspired? Feeling like a more involved father? Feeling like you’re delving into things that your post as a photo rep was getting in the way of you delving into? Has your relationship around stuff like money or self-worth shifted? Has nothing shifted? I mean, you walked away from a lot.
Julian Richards: Yeah, the ‘negative’ accusation is a familiar one, and I can’t help rolling my eyes a little. Pollyanna tyranny, whereby failure to greet each new encounter with a beaming grin and fistful of aspirational hashtags makes you a bad news bear. It’s so infantile. But hey, we live in infantile times. Reasonable skepticism is a turd in the swimming pool, rather than a responsible reaction to stuff being fucked up. It has become synonymous with cynicism when it’s actually a quantum characteristic of the human condition; we’re here and one day we won’t be. The universe is indifferent. No amount of persimmons on Instagram is going to change that. Choosing to smile and be decorative is not actually optimism; it’s an abnegation of the creative mandate to look through the glass darkly.
MM: Have the messages from this side of the fence tailed off at all?
JR: I still get to see tons of pictures. I guess that’s a testament to the tenacity of mailing lists. After the alien lizards return to harvest human souls, we’ll still be getting photographer spam. And it’s not that the whole story grosses me out: just leaves me perplexed. In the old days I had skin in the game, it was incumbent upon me to fluctuate between advocacy and despair. Now everything’s mitigated by a sigh and cocked eyebrow. But was it always that lame? Or is it the product of a glut of bodies on a sinking ship? Those Yeats lines (which seem to apply to everything these days):
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
But maybe the mistake is in holding the wrong yardstick. Because we’re talking about commercial photography here. Material predicated upon flogging shit or trying to appeal to people with shit to flog. What house-painting is to painting. So maybe me flouncing about like the Bard in Asterix bemoaning its mediocrity is missing the point. It’s supposed to be mediocre. That’s the point. The measure of its worth is whether some VP of advertising thinks it will move more sneakers. Painting houses. Still, you always ache for a few Tintorettos out there slapping an Annunciation on the ceiling. And a patron rich enough to pay for it. And that was always your dilemma, even leaving the issue of family aside. How to engage in the Faustian bargain but hang on to your soul.
MM: Exactly. We spoke about that so frequently, seemingly almost on a daily basis. And yeah, it is a sort of endless Faustian bargain. It’s a slippery slope, and there are moments where there are legitimate reasons to feel disrespected or angry… Like those moments when a photo editor writes an email that reads something like, ‘Hey Mark, we’ve got a shoot in your area on the 23rd, let me know if you’re interested.’ There are no additional details about the job, what you’d be photographing, how the photos would be used, budget, nothing. It’s as if everyone is so desperate for work that they’ll just jump at the opportunity to do anything! Receiving an email like that, which I do often… It’s like I’m being viewed no differently than a day laborer standing outside of Home Depot who is ready to hop in the car with anyone who needs temporary help. ’Oh you need me to do masonry work today? Great! Oh, yeah, I know how to install a sink! Great!’. The pay grade is different as a photographer typically, so I’m aware of the asymmetrical aspect of that comparison, but the underlying sentiment is the same. The industry is largely predicated on this general feeling of desperation. Like never before, schools are releasing graduates who flood the industry, more each year… All hungry to do anything. Meanwhile, budgets, at least for initial sort of work are going down and there are more people trying to get the same number of jobs. I can understand why some photographers purely out of necessity need to take whatever comes their way, but it seems truly like a departure in a sad direction for a client to approach a photographer in this way. As if they’re so desperate that they don’t deserve to know what they’re even being asked to agree to do or how they’ll be compensated.
JR: Yeah, I didn’t do so great with the Mephistopheles thing. My soul was pretty much on the table with a price tag on it, at least in the last years of the agency. Before then I’d always been able to retain some semblance of soul by fucking with the syntax of the job. Y’know, the website in bad Italian, weird essays on the Homily blog, under-the-table no-panty shots with Perkin Lovely. The blow-up sex doll (with gyrating penis) we sent to represent us at LeBook Connections. Being a bit naughty in a prevailing culture of wooden-toothed sincerity gave me a personality and a place to park my disappointment at what I’d become. Then suddenly I was blindsided by a failed marriage. My reaction, in retrospect, was to shore up the shattered levee of my self-confidence with sandbags of money. I couldn’t be a loser if I was throwing parties at my converted stable in New York, flying all over the world, scrambling round Angkor Wat in APC espadrilles, right? But that meant going flat-out for the dough. And it worked. We made changes, some people left, more overtly commercial people came in. We tweaked all our interfaces, making them more client-driven. Perkin went to jail. Till then the core praxis had been to fly the banner of our best stuff, knowing that we had enough conventional drivel in the bank to fulfill any request. Thereafter we started to rob the drivel-bank more frequently and stick it front-and-centre. It’s a corrosive process. You run to the pantry for some old mac ’n cheese, and everybody loves it. So you pull out the baked beans. Soon enough you’re warming up pot noodles and slopping on Cheez Whiz. And it didn’t matter because I’d involuntarily abnegated life in favour of this other thing that looked like life, but crudely painted with neon Sharpies.
JR: But then life came back. In a good way. Friendship, love, work. All shot through with a kind of irresistible madness. The agency phone was still ringing, but it was becoming harder to understand the peculiar voices on the other end. Billing stayed high. But the fissure between this rediscovered life and the cartoon thing required of me by the agency was widening to a chasm. I was increasingly unable to reconcile the two. I jumped. Well, I was pushed. The denouement was replete with comic ironies, but suffice to say that I was up the end of a remote dale in Yorkshire and twenty years of work were gone in a minute. A huge reservoir of collectively-earned goodwill was still there, but not for me.
“There was a part of me that wanted to walk away.”
MM: I wish I’d been a part of the Julian Richards ‘gyrating penis doll at LeBook’ era. Back in college and during the first few years of my career, I was amazed by your approach as a photo rep and that not only were you able to get away with being so pleasantly outside of the box, but that it fully set you apart from the pack. Since I’d never had a rep before, when you and I talked over the course of about a year, you cautioned me to really look around at all the options so I could truly see what everyone else was doing. Twenty or so meetings with different reps later and they all seemed to be going about things in the same, cookie cutter way. It was incredibly surprising and still is. Few seemed terribly motivated to think differently, so many overly eager to push portfolios in any and all directions in hopes of landing something … Anything. The way you went about your business was such a welcome divergence from the norm. It was clever and gutsy and not for everyone, but that was entirely the point. If you turned some people off, that was okay, or even preferred as long as you stayed true to your heart. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think you were already knee deep into the shift toward being ‘flat out for the dough’ by the time we officially started working together. There were, of course, still elements of your clever naughtiness still alive, but it became apparent that it was no longer the driving force. The first time we actually met though, you were dressed up in an elf costume at your holiday party and gave me a wet kiss on the mouth. So clearly you were still you somewhere underneath it all, but by that time the LeBook sex doll had been deflated and banished to the corner of the basement and I never actually ‘met’ Perkin … just heard the name uttered a few times. Don’t get me wrong, going ‘flat out for the dough’ and what resulted came at a truly convenient time for me as I joined with you a few weeks after Veda, my daughter, was born. I certainly got a bit hooked to that expectation of money and I worked pretty non-stop for so long, hungry for more. Once hooked, especially now with having to balance being a new father, new husband (and all that comes along with that, for better or worse) I never really allowed myself a moment to reflect back on what I was actually producing, and more importantly, what I was no longer in pursuit of. Saying yes to everything with lots of dollars attached to it didn’t feel lousy at first. I, like you, had a family to feed, a mortgage, etc.. In such a competitive industry, it can feel entirely irresponsible to turn down work. And while there were numerous projects along the way that I felt undeniably thrilled to be in the running for or to end up securing, it wasn’t until getting your email two years ago about your decision and reasons to suddenly close up shop that I too realized I’d largely become a ‘flogger.’ There was a part of me that wanted to walk away. A part of me that felt gross. Not gross that I’d been in the pursuit of money, because that pursuit is an undeniable necessity whether one has dependents to support or not. Instead, I felt slimed by the fact that I hadn’t been following my heart or evolving as a creative. Your departure certainly inspired me to chart a different course and I’m grateful for that.
JR: Well that’s nice to hear. These days I only occasionally gaze across at the bay; but when I do it generally appears unchanged. Like Icarus plunged into the water, an unimportant failure, and the ship sailed calmly on. Same pictures, same clients, same sheepish characters lapping away at the water’s edge.
MM: Yeah, but in the end – stay or go – it’s ultimately about integrity and staying aligned with it. Not only creative, but personal integrity and how this goofy industry is often not conducive to maintaining that alignment within ourselves. I know your obnoxious experiences with some clients toward the end really served as inspiration to walk away. Art buyers straight out of college trying to educate you on how the industry worked, calling you at all hours of the day and night, having zero respect for any boundaries that’d be deemed normal in most lines of work. And all these sorts of examples are true, and once a photographer gets deeper into doing this line of work the more they’ll see these frustrations at play. However, I think it’s easy to blame the client, whether editorial or commercial. But that’s not really fair. It’s largely projection. While there are clearly areas of legitimate frustration and disrespect we all experience, pointing the blame at a client for the direction our careers have taken is definitely, as you said, the mistake of us all ‘holding the wrong yardstick.’ We, after all, are supposed to be creatives and should take ownership of the fact that we’re ultimately the only ones able to make the decisions that shape our individual paths. We can say no instead of yes if something seems out of integrity with our morals or the direction we want to go.
JR: Absolutely. The idea that we were the victims of a coterie of rapacious, vulgar clients is childish absurdity. We were complicit in the degeneration you’re talking about. They had stuff to sell and they wanted to sell it their own way. We were prepared to give them what they wanted in exchange for cash. Bleating about how they force-fed us like geese with funnels down our throats is sophomoric nonsense.
MM: It is largely an industry predicated on flogging shit. And the conditioning to go the safe route to do so has worked successfully for most companies for decades. For most, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
JR: I think there’s a whole other conversation to be had here. Because we’d have to define ‘successfully’. I don’t actually think most advertising is successful. The vast majority is utterly trite, lowest-common-denominator garbage. Aspirational lies that nobody actually believes. They just figure that if they bury everybody in an inescapable avalanche of it, we’ll have no choice but to remember their names by sheer attrition. But advertising is a bloated industry, with tier upon tier of market-researchers, administrators, opinion-staters, box-tickers, all intent on not losing their jobs by avoiding significant risk. Whatever pearls you put in the top of the machine are likely to end up swine-feed at the bottom. The word ‘creative’ applied to the advertising industry should be cause for embarrassed chuckles. But I get your point; for whatever reason, the audacious route is only available to the few.
MM: Right, and the rest still need to hire photographers to create content and we have the choice of saying yes or no. And much of the creative approach is attempted with good intentions. So many projects are introduced during initial client meetings by creatives sitting you down and saying things like, ‘we’re really wanting to do something different, and that’s why we’re wanting to work with you.’ Mockups of their intended new approach are pinned to the walls using images they’ve stripped largely from editorial projects you’ve done and there’s this general excitement permeating through the conference room. But so often, somewhere along the chain of command, even in the middle of shooting, there’s a whisper in your ear from someone saying, ‘hey, yeah, remember all those examples we showed you of things we’ve done in the past that we wanted to do the opposite of for this project? Yeah, we need to go back to doing them because so and so feels this new approach is too edgy.’ Time after time the ideal approach so often morphs back into the safe approach. Frustrating, but futile to really get too bent out of shape about. The reality is that the intentions were fully there by all to do something different. It just wasn’t the right moment.
JR: It’s almost never the right moment. People want to keep their jobs. Walking away with your principles intact and empty pockets would be an entirely pyrrhic victory. And that’s why we come to every shoot with the tools to make the same old crap in our back pockets. It would be a derogation of our professional duty to do otherwise.
MM: For me, the core struggle is that it’s hard to imagine aligning truly compelling and creatively rewarding projects with the ability to sustain a good living and being able to support my family. Based upon my early experience and what’s to be found on so many websites of photographers and reps, it didn’t initially seem like those two things could be regularly reconciled. But thankfully, there have been numerous glimpses over the years that have offered a light at the end of the tunnel; namely the projects I’ve done for Nike, where there is actually a lot of creative freedom … Where I’m not only hired to ‘do what I do,’ but where the end result doesn’t get watered down to something different. The initial idea is improved upon, not diminished. With some of the Nike projects, they’ve just sent me out with an assistant, shooting whatever I wanted to. The client wasn’t even there. I was given total creative freedom and I think it shows. I’m proud of so much of that work. The key for me is in actually remembering ‘what I do’ or ‘what I want to do’ and seeking out projects that put that to use. In some regards I have the luxury of doing so because of the compensation for the couple years where I was fairly blind to that Faustian contract. As time goes on, I’m increasingly more and more selective about the projects I take on. This is the only way forward that’ll work for me now. I turn down about 80% of the work I’m asked to do, including some higher budget stuff. I’m wired to think this is a horribly irrational approach, but I’m so much happier because I’m in control more than ever and I’m not blaming others for my unhappiness. Of course there are some projects that are taken on because they’re more lucrative, but even those are becoming more and more aligned to ‘what I do.’ A lot has shifted for me as a result of stepping outside the comfort zone and saying ‘no.’ It’s opened up all these things to excitedly say ‘yes’ to. And taking on the jobs that pay well allows me to take on ones where I make nothing or even lose money, but feel proud of in the end. And that lead to more work. Because doing good work leads to other good work. While there are some pretty maddening things that happen from day to day with clients, I’m done being angry and projecting any frustrations I have about my trajectory on others. It’s odd so many of us do this in what is ostensibly a creative field. Seems like such an uncreative reaction. But then again, I feel like it’s actually a pretty uncreative industry as a whole. Cookie-cutter template websites, not much collaboration because egos are too huge, everyone thinking they need a portfolio that they then need to romp all over tarnations with, paying for email blast services (as if anyone receives those in a favorable way), everyone thinking they need a rep in order to be truly successful, people studying PDN line-by-line, like it’s the only way. I guess there’s a conditioning everywhere to go the safe route. Again, few stray.
JR: Yeah, bravo. It’s kind of the lonely 3AM dream, right? What if I concentrated on doing good work? What if I learned the word ‘no’? Maybe I’d actually thrive? But then most of us look over at our naked, vulnerable babies sweating in the crepuscular light and by 7AM we’re saying yes to girls putting whipped cream on each others’ noses for banks. I’m saying ‘we’; I was never actually holding the Reddi-Wip® can. But I ordered a whole mess of them for you lot. I was vicariously whipped.
MM: Ha. True. And hence I’m really interested in how things are for you now? Two years away from all this stuff we’ve been talking about, do you feel like you’ve found an integrity with yourself again, now you’re basically doing the opposite of ‘flogging’ or ‘going flat out for the dough?” Have relationships with friends or your children shifted? I’ve always felt so pinched between finding balance of life and work and I admittedly have a history of being quite envious at times of others who have tons of free time to reflect, exercise, travel, sit and do nothing, etc. It’s the whole grass is always greener thing… But that’s nonsense too. After all, the grass is only greener where you water it.
JR: The only epiphany I’ve had is that they are no epiphanies. I was just doing an interview with a magazine about the restaurant (yup, more flogging) and amongst all the fay, foragy stuff the same two-part question came up over and over: ‘how do we make the change’ followed by ‘what does it look like once you’re over there?’ They were speaking to an anxiety that is apparently endemic to millennials; ‘I went to school for creative writing, but I think I should be a butcher. Or surf-instructor. Photographer. Yoga-teacher/mother/tarot card designer.’ But when asked about the root of this persistent restlessness, the answer is always ‘well, I don’t think I’m happy’. Trouble is, turns out the universe is indifferent to your happiness. It actually couldn’t give a shit. And if it’s a bummer to find out that elevating one’s personal happiness to the status of societal imperative will not convince the world to sing in perfect harmony, maybe better we find it out now before you’ve bored us all to distraction with your narcissism. Because despite the manliness of our tattoos, seems we’re actually a pretty effete little crop of edelweisses, mired in dilettantism. Crafts that were whittled over generations we now perfect in a season. I’ve been a chef, cobbler, farmer, artist, blacksmith, wheel-right and stevedore; but I’m still kind of antsy. It’s worth mulling the possibility that happiness as a cosmic birthright might turn out just to be infantile entitlement, a blurry aspirational blancmange whipped up by over-indulgent parents, teachers and all the people who love your Instagram feed; it may not have the muscle to sustain a prolonged crossing of the Alps in winter with elephants.
“Before the food industry stole its crown, photography was the go-to kingdom of the dilettante.”
MM: But how did they all end up in the photo industry?
JR: Maybe because it looks easy, fun and seemingly all about me, me, me! I mean, who wouldn’t want to make a boatload of money wandering the world taking pictures of shit? Beats proctology, right? And every university in the nation now offers a freshly-burnished degree in photography, with attendant promises of prosperity through shameless self-involvement. And all those mums and dads – worried that Caleb might otherwise become a ukelele-strumming backwoods carpenter – are prepared to cash in their 401K’s to make it happen. I think before the food industry stole its crown, photography was the go-to kingdom of the dilettante. For obvious reasons. It’s nuts-and-bolts are pretty easy; so everything’s predicated upon vision. Which is something of a fucking disaster if you’re at all averse to pretentiousness, vulgarity and pomposity. As an agent, I’d be lying if I said that smothering my astonishment at people’s capacity for self-importance wasn’t a daily endeavour. When somebody can take pictures maybe twelve weeks a year, do nothing much with the other forty, make ten times the median family wage and still be steeped in umbrage about how underappreciated and undersold they are; well, you’ve either got to laugh or send their coordinates to Isis. And the obvious question – ‘what have you actually done to deserve this?’ – is always met with the hauteur of Miss Jean Brodie, like you just shat in their geraniums. So when people say ‘man, you got out at the right time, everything’s turning to shit’, I can’t help but see it as a kind of uncomfortable Darwinist correction. We didn’t need the photographers we already had. The fact that boatloads more are arriving when the beach already looks like the assault on Gallipoli, is cruel irony. But it isn’t an injustice, nor a crime against humanity. Just a giant bummer for the fatties who’d been sunbathing. Sniveling about sand on our focaccia is silly.
MM: Absolutely. But dude, can you stop waving your hands about while you’re talking? You’re getting sand on my focaccia.
JR: Yeah, sorry, I’ll sit on them. But really, something had to give; and realistically it couldn’t just be one thing. There had to be a broad-front adjustment reflecting the diminished currency of photography, exacerbated by the glut of childless, asexual acolytes who’ve spent their parents’ savings being told they’ll be able to get on the carousel. Unless we’re one of the anointed (there will always be a few pandas absent-mindedly munching on twigs), the jobs will get fewer and pay less. We’ll be asked to provide more – time, material, licensing – and our gasps of pious indignation will go increasingly unheard. We’ll blame our agents, families, the Gods and Donald Trump whilst continuing to churn out twaddle or nothing at all. Some of us will go extinct gracefully in eucalyptus groves, others will have a rougher time. All will whimper. And a few will be canny, artful, witty and talented enough to thrive. Arrow fletchers howled at the arrival of the musket; but there are still arrows. A few; and of high quality.
MM: Yes. Let’s fletch us some arrows.
JR: Sorry, no time. I’m too busy positing myself as Prometheus bringing fire to the troglodytes. Truth is, there have been no epiphanies for me either. I was probably more guilty than anybody of believing my act of rebellion would have a tectonic effect upon the lives of nations. That the movement of the spheres had been off-kilter with me as a photo rep; this little tweak would put everything back on the rails and pretty soon we’d all be sipping nectar with Charlotte Rampling by the Orinoco in an eternal 1974. And maybe that’s still on the cards; just taking a bit longer than expected. Next time I shuffle my cart out of PriceChopper, Route 10 parking lot might be transformed into the Fields of Elysium and you’ll be there, Mark, in a Speedo, waving me over to nibble ambrosial tempeh.
MM: I’ll get started waxing. You’ve seen what’s going on over here. It’s gonna take awhile. I very much dislike tempeh though.
JR: But so far things look roughly the same. Seems I am not actually the glue that sticks the cosmos together. On the down side; much more anxiety about money. On the up – having jettisoned the collective neuroses of 10 adults – less guilt. In the middle; pretty much everything else. Which takes me back to what I said earlier; any criticism of narcissism in others is rooted in visceral horror at one’s own. Shit doesn’t get great just because you want it to. We know that on paper; how many times have I reminded 9 year-old Dusty of this towering Socratic dictum as I drag her out of the bath and stuff toast down her face five minutes before school? But I still sort of suspect the rules don’t apply to me. Well; now I’ve got freedom. Vast vistas of it, sprung with tumbleweeds. And resources enough to start tilling. Yet for two years the overwhelming sensation has been one of paralysis. Like you’ve spent the last 20 years in the back of the car whining about when we’re going to get to the pool and now you’re here and it’s huge and empty and blue and looks like it might be cold. And the only words you can muster are ‘oh fuck’. So no Tiresias, I’m afraid, coming back with tits. More like a rusty Soviet-era satellite piloted by an alcoholic monkey smoking Woodbines and listening to old Grateful Dead bootlegs blasted out from Vladivostok to explore the dark side of the moon. Comes back two years later singing ‘Scarlet Begonias’. When they ask him what it was like he says ‘pretty fucking dark’.
MM: You’re just rolling around in the poetry of it. You know there are epiphanies out there.
JR: Excuse me, you’re interrupting me listening to the sound of my own voice.
MM: But maybe they’re so obvious that they don’t seem special. For me, the biggest epiphany is in taking full ownership and responsibility for where I’m at, for better or worse. I want to be happy and happiness for me ultimately lives in my personal responsibility for how I frame and interact with my life. If things aren’t going my way or if I’m pissed or feeling down, it’s on me. It’s about getting behind the wheel again. Of course, so many things can’t be in my control. Great projects come in and many either disappear or are awarded to someone else. It might sting for an hour or a day, but I own it and realize there will be others and I for whatever reason, wasn’t the right person for that project. If there’s something stagnant in my career, it’s on me to shift it. It’s not something a photo rep can do for me, or a single client. We always project our anger onto the client, how competitive things are, that our rep isn’t bringing in big money jobs, that our career can’t take off without a rep, that there’s no time, etc… Because, to your point, the common belief is that it’s impossible the stagnancy is a result of anything we’re doing on our own end.
JR: It’s just so much easier to be the victim. Shouldering the burden of ourselves is a heavy yoke.
MM: Just like in any profession, we have to take stock of what we’re putting out into the ethers. If the shelves aren’t consciously stocked, we can’t complain when no one’s buying anything. It’s a fairly self evident concept, but when you’re an infantryman on the front lines, the clear line can get blurred swiftly. It didn’t start out blurred for me, but definitely became so; concurrent with becoming a father, husband, buying a house, getting a rep, taking on big jobs and expecting more, thinking that I had to work non-stop in order to get ahead. It’s only in the past 6 months or so that the line is becoming clear again. It’s pretty liberating to see a clear line again. Liberating to not feel the need to be constantly envious or angry or exhausted, and to not project all those unsavory feelings onto anyone else. And that includes not projecting my unhappiness onto my obligations as a family provider; as if that wasn’t a decision I made in the first place. I had a photographer email me the other day with questions about how I balance work with life, specifically family life and relationships. I tend to get this question a lot since I’m married and have a child, which – uniquely to this profession – is a rarity. And of course it’s laughable to say that I’ve found a balance, because I haven’t and likely never will. It’s fair to say that this industry isn’t really conducive to striking any sort of balance between work and life or even balance within ourselves. And you couldn’t be more right in saying that photography is a diminished currency, one with which we’re often expected to provide more, to provide it faster, cheaper, for longer, at any hour of the day. And there is the prevailing fear that if we don’t say ‘YES!’ more excitedly than the next person, we’ll get passed up next time around. It does horrible things to those in the mix. Egos roar. Original intentions are lost once fear comes in. The product often gets weaker. Folks feel like they’re constantly in survival mode and some are … Even if they’re making plenty of money and don’t have to be. It’s about giving yourself a big slap in the face; enough to jolt you out of the orbit of that nasty hamster wheel. It doesn’t have to be that way.
JR: All true. I guess my point about epiphanies was that even after the big face-slap you still can’t necessarily count on waking up to the heavenly host gazing down at you holding the big-door prize. The slap is where the work begins. Same old stuff; concentration, discipline, empathy, application. The hamster-wheel is a bummer; but sitting around in a grubby cotton wool bolus, nibbling seeds and shitting; that’s no fun either. Both have a powerful gravitational pull.
JR: Followed by atrophy. It’s amazing how much space a person can carve out in which to get nothing done.
“In saying no much more than I say yes, it’s the closest I’ve come to finding some sort of balance.”
MM: For me it’s still about the fact that I work within the orbit of the hamster wheel and sometimes can’t help getting sucked into its gravitational pull. A large part of my efforts over the past few years has been spent figuring out the best way to escape that. There’s no way I could’ve done it without giving myself the time and the space to take stock, not only of what I was producing, but examining what wasn’t working for me and gracefully obliterating it from my day-to-day experience as a photographer. There’s an incredibly power in saying ‘no’ to things. Of course, it’s easier to say no if you can afford to. But it goes beyond money. It’s about recalibrating and thinking, ‘is this project really going to bring me closer to where I want to be?’. ‘Do I really need another picture of a tech CEO in my portfolio?’. ‘Do I actually need any portraits of tech CEO’s?’. There needs to be a level of measuredness and rationale in making the decision to turn left or right, but if the answer even remotely lands in the no category, I say no. In saying no much more more than I say yes, it’s the closest I’ve come to finding some sort of balance. It’s working for now. If someday that well dries up, I’ll move onto something else and do photography as a hobby. Being pulled into that orbit is not a pleasant experience. I’d rather be a farmer or a furniture maker who takes pictures on the side than put myself and my family through that.
JR: Uh-ho. Blacksmith, knife-maker, barrel-cooper, masa-grinder. So what did you say to the photographer who wanted you to balance his life?
MM: I gave him your email address. After I’d told him I definitely don’t have the work/life balance figured out yet. Not sure I ever will. But that things are better than they were, without a doubt. The balance is not an achievement but a mindset you can maintain… One that only allows fear to creep in in a healthy. It gets really tough when a child comes into the scenario; the balance is difficult because this line of work so often revolves around living, breathing, sleeping, dreaming photography and if I want to be an involved parent and husband and want to create space for my own needs, I can’t be as immersed in photography as others can. That fact took me some time to come to terms with, but then was sort of a relief. I love this craft and am so fortunate to be doing it, but it’s not all of who I am. I love my family much more than I do photography. Some feel the inverse of that and that’s okay, but that isn’t me. My daughter’s the best thing I’ll ever do in my life. Realizing that – whatever ’that’ might be – and having something you can honestly say that about has really shifted my view of work and life in general. I also go so far as to specifically use social media as a way to humanize myself to clients. That I have a life outside of work. I mix photos of my family in with more professional ones. This approach has helped facilitate some balance. Clients ask about my family; it’s something personal. To some extent it’s deepened my relationship with certain clients.
JR: I’m with you on children being the best thing we’ll ever do. I mean, of course. Everything else is a two-dimensional crayon drawing. If we’d listened to the pragmatic, self-serving devil at our shoulder we’d never have done it. But then our lives would be cartoons. Still, how we embrace this particular epiphany is an entire library in the writing; obsessing over them is counterproductive (not to mention a little bit revolting). They don’t want us to be 100% available. It’s too much. We’re not doing them any favours by being at the bottom of their beds gazing up like beatified nuns every time they open their eyes. They want us to be engaged, yeah, but also productive, fulfilled, funny, stupid; ambassadors to the outside world. They basically seem to like us being happy, and not simply at the repeated daily revelation that they exist. Who’d want the spirit of two fully-functional adults rolled up into a ball and stuffed under their pillow every night? Gross. Winnie and Dusty are my secret license to explore everything that matters. It’s a conspiracy of naughtiness that only we understand. For them, a wonderful, weird universe replete with the extraordinary; for me, redemption, another staggering bite at the cherry. How I parlay all this into what everybody else gets to see? Well, I guess that’s part of the post-post-modern marketing of our lives as career adjuncts. Separation of Church and State is quaint anachronism.
MM: Yeah, tricky. Obsession of the kiddos is certainly not the right path toward finding balance. Veda is only 4 and she’s already needing her space from us. We all need space. Back to photography though… It’s important not to take yourself and your work so seriously. Just do the best you can, put your full heart into things whether you’re making a lot of money or losing it. And be nice and grateful along the way. Talent only takes us so far. While I’m proud of what I do, I certainly don’t think my pictures are changing the world. In fact, the most painful aspect of the reality you presented earlier about the boatloads of new photographers storming the shore when we didn’t fully need the ones we already had, is the fact that very few – myself included – are really doing anything with their creative voice to improve the world. Haven’t artists forever been the ones who’ve used their work to comment on and shed light on injustices? There’s really no one out there creating their version of Guernica. It’s not that everything has to have incredible meaning. There is a favorable result from creating something purely beautiful. But, I’d love nothing more than to see my peers, and those older and younger, use this medium as a vehicle for change. We don’t all have to be James Nachtwey dodging bullets; but let’s all do some personal work or pitch stories to publications where the end result has some impact other than a pretty book that someone likes to flip through. I don’t get it. And again, I put myself in that fold, but we live in crazy times. Perhaps fewer images of our friends on the beach and more stuff about social issues that need to be explored and unearthed.
JR: ‘Here be Dragons.’ territory. I’m completely with you. But putting the political cart before the horse is embarrassing. All this stuff has to come from truth. When we’re motivated by guilt or the urge to do the world a favour it tends to precipitate the exact opposite.
MM: Without a doubt. You say ‘come from the truth.’ I say, ‘follow your heart.’ Same difference, I think. The reality is that I have no idea how long I’ll be able to do this. It’s a luxury. I write this on the plane to a shoot in Brazil, then New York, then Minneapolis, then Chicago. I’ve been to the White House, I’ve drunk scotch with Christopher Hitchens in his parlor, met murderers in San Quentin, taken pictures while hanging off a boat in on the Chao Phraya while on a job for Apple. There are so many moments where I’ve had to pinch myself. That awareness is important, and to not take it for granted or feel like you deserve it all. The fact that any of us are able to make this thing work is remarkable. I remember my dad telling me he chose being an airline pilot because he loved flying; and how great it was to be paid for something he would’ve done as a hobby. That’s how I feel. It’s a tiresome, frustrating ride at times, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to do this and to make a good living.
Aside from your grievances with certain things, I think you’d feel the same about your experience with it too no? You were an incredibly involved rep, often traveling with photographers, actively playing a role in creative approach. Seems like everything goes to shit once someone starts to expect things and becomes removed from the fact that it’s pretty astonishing to be compensated and be able to sustain a lifestyle and raise a family by going around pointing your camera at things.
JR: I had an incredible ride. Photography put me in astonishing places and situations with Sian Kennedy, Chris Buck, James Smolka, David Barry, Michael McLaughlin, Henrik Knudsen, Rob Howard, Mark Ohe, Greg Miller, Constance Giamo, Andrea Gentl. And loads of others. As absolute equals. Some stuff was on assignment, most wasn’t. I’ve slept alongside these people in tents, huts, hammocks, boats, fields, shacks, by the sides of roads, in the backs of cars and the worst motels civil war Guatemala could offer. It literally took me around the world, gave me homes and children. Deprecating its contribution to my life would be utterly churlish. For the first 15 years we were like tittering schoolboys, viewing every offer, no matter how paltry, as an opportunity for naughtiness and adventure. We unashamedly piggied life on the back of work, and in the process both flourished. Photography’s like a panda; it only eats one thing. Curiosity. Without a constant diet of curiosity, it’s dead. So when you’ve reached the point where venturing away from your living room without a business class ticket seems like a hassle, or extending an assignment in Ulan Bator when nobody’s paying for the hotel doesn’t make sense; you’ve ceased to be a photographer. You might be a high-level technician, but your photographs – no matter how much money tech companies will pay for them – are shit. Because the only thing you are curious about is the day rate.
MM: One last thing, though. Can you hone in on a favorite experience along the way? Something a bit dirty maybe? Maybe some skin?
JR: Ha, skin! Well, one of the great things about photographers is that they’re all, in one way or another, geeks. Or nerds. I mean, think for a minute. True, right? And the few who try to be cool? Complete cheeseball embarrassments! So when it comes to skin, it’s always in the mix, but more as a wormhole to a dimension where weird shit happens; shit we can shoot rather than touch. So I was spared the ignominy of traveling with dudes who were looking to get fucked (the most boring people in the world). Still, skin was tangentially in play, particularly with Chris, David and Sian. I once spent a week trailing Bruce LaBruce around Paris with Chris. It was the period when he was obsessed with Cinéma Vérité – Wiseman, Pennebaker, Maysles Brothers – and had spent a fortune on some early-incarnation shoulder-held DV camera. Growing up in Toronto, Bruce had been a punk-rock hero of his; now the French were doing a small, underground retrospective of the early films. Chris decided that a documentary about this guy’s week in Paris would be a great idea. I’d be his sound guy. But this would be brutalist vérité: no concessions to artifice or auteurism. We’d sleep in the shittiest hotel close to where he was staying, be at his door before he woke and shoot till he passed out. Instead of alchemizing magic, we’d slowly extract it from the relentless sledgehammer of truth. Trouble is Bruce didn’t do or say anything of interest. I mean, he sat in the bath and played video games on his Japanese key-fob. He stood by the wall at one or two openings, had dinner at a friend’s apartment, visited Oscar Wilde’s grave in the drizzle and attempted a few limp bon mots. His efforts at being Andy Warhol in interviews were wince-inducing. The most interesting thing about him was that two dorks were walking backwards in front of him with a camera and boom mike. But Chris was so painfully committed, so dogged. There had to be something, we just needed to trust the camera and time. And if, in the end, it just looked like a lonely middle-aged schoolteacher taking a short winter break in la Ville Lumière, then maybe that was great, right? Right? After a week of seamless, witless uneventfulness even Chris’s resolve collapsed. We took Bruce to a hard-core leather bar. Knock on a steel door and a little window slides back to reveal a face like a furious, mustachio’d shar pei. Bruce was in leather; more Joan Collins than Tom of Finland. Chris and I were probably in Dickies and ironic Salvation Army t-shirts. But for some reason they let us in. It was really dark. Naked men were strung about the room in harnesses, bound at the wrists and ankles, their faces to the walls, spotlights trained on their exposed anuses. Cocks everywhere, like after hours in the sausage shop. I ordered a drink and smiled like the Queen Mother as a gagged gentleman was thrown over the bar next to me and rigorously, serially ass-fucked mere millimetres from my Caipirinha. Bruce sat on a barstool, legs crossed, hands in lap, his mouth a puckered asterisk. We did a quick tour of the dungeon, which was like a Francis Bacon rendering of a Stasi torture centre with shades of abbatoir, concentration camp and 1970’s English public lavatory. And then we left, got an early-morning croissant on the way home. The film exists. It was whittled to a merciful hour which nonetheless feels like watching all 14 episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz in a single sitting. Ask Chris.
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