The Unexpected Gift of Finding Your Subject

“When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. Yes, photographers do position themselves to take advantage of good fortune, sensing for instance when to stop the car and walk, but this is only the beginning. As William Stafford wrote, calculation gets you just so far – “Smart is okay, but lucky is better.” Days of searching can go by without the need to reload film holders, and then abruptly, sometimes back in their own yards, photographers use up every sheet…. Why is photography a kind of intoxication…so that occasionally photographers discover tears in their eyes for the joy of seeing? I think it is because they’ve known a miracle. They’ve been given what they did not earn, and as is the way with unexpected gifts, the surprise carries an emotional blessing” – Robert Adams

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5 thoughts on “The Unexpected Gift of Finding Your Subject

  1. Christopher Dubea

    In my opinion “Luck” is a four letter word. The “luckiest” people I know work their asses off to be in a position to take advantage of a situation when it arises.

    Photography is no different. If you, the photographer, had not made the effort to be prepared and then been exposed to a notable scene which presented itself, you would have not been “lucky”.

    Be prepared, think, look, see, do. These are all things that go into being lucky as a photographer. Much (most?) of it is mental.

    Being aware of your surroundings is a major factor. The vast majority out there go about their busy lives, not noticing the world around them. Pity them.

    Those amongst us that call ourselves “photographers” are “lucky” enough to be in the minority. But it’s hard work maintaining your ability/willingness to see the world around you. It’s much easier just to put the mental blinders on and trudge through life unaware of the amazingness around them.


    1. Rob Campbell

      Chris, maybe the luck can come in before you are ready to grasp it; I certainly had opportunities in my early career that I either didn’t, at the time, recognise for what they were, or didn’t always know how to exploit them if I did. That sure didn’t mean I wasn’t willing to work my ass off. The luck came around, but sometimes there was nobody at home, as they say. Little comes your way if you just sit and wait, but you can also fish the business streets all day and not even a minnow for your efforts.

      Of course, it depends if you are talking about hobby or career: they are very different beasts, when the price of being or not being ready to grasp opportunity varies considerably in importance. Missing a sunset, a perfect wave or misty valley bears little comparison to failing to catch an important client – or to losing one you already have. Nope, I won’t – can’t honestly – deny the function of fortune in my own life; I’d love to say whatever I might have achieved was all down to my efforts, but that would be a fib. Sure, you have to know how to do the job, but that you get that job isn’t always in your hands. Lady Luck watches everything, and makes the calls at her whim. I’d go as far as to say that some good things came to me despite myself standing in my own way.

      You suggest that being a photographer makes us lucky. Really? Have you any idea how many successful ones have taken themselves out because of photography and how it screws with the mind; how much ego rides on it, how much of a photographer’s life is controlled by it? How a life can be measured in terms of whether or not a particular gig comes your way, how if it doesn’t, a sense of failure can knock you off your feet, regardless of however many other good gigs you have had?

      I will never forget my late father-in-law not understanding why, one precise day, early on, I refused to do any more weddings. He ran a successful surveying business; his take on the matter was that a palace or a public toilet, measuring either was just the same, and the bank didn’t ever ask. He was right of course, for a surveyor, but not always for a photographer. We are all different, we all seek different prizes, however much they appear the same to the people outside.

    1. Rob Campbell

      It’s having been round those same damned corners most days for the past 41 years that kills photography for me. Hence, “the good old days” that can never return, because everything in life that created them for me has vanished, as it probably eventually will for many of us.

      I’ve been listening to some amazing podcasts of late, about folks in photography, mainly, and almost every one of the interviewees who’s notable enough to have been selected kinda comes to the same conclusion: you live in hope, in a state of constant uncertainty, even – or especially – when things are going well. Another common, recurring phase is that of feeling an imposter, however far you get.

      If there’s an overriding piece of advice they offer, it’s persistence, never accepting defeat. If you think about that, it’s cool if you have family money behind you, but what if you depend on getting cash in every week to pay your basic bills? That was what Leiter faced for much of his later life before he hit the gallery jackpot. I guess it might exclude many people from even trying. I had enough gathered together to survive for six months. That three month gap between invoice and payment, so beloved of the ad agencies, almost put me out of the game that first year.

      It’s no country for old men. 😉

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