You Have to be a Photographer FIRST

I have been a victim of the economy; I've been working but doing consulting which means the jobs are temporary. As my most recent assignment was ending, I began to look for another job and have landed a permanent position. My start date is April 30 and thus have a few days to play with my new Nikon D800.

Two days ago I arrived at my parents house, located 30 miles south of Green Bay,Wisconsin, USA. Yesterday morning I was up before the dawn, driving through the dark to be at a specific location when the sun broke above the horizon. There is an old, abandoned farmhouse I've been trying to photograph and I have yet to have all the elements come together and capture a landscape full of magic.

The glow to the east told me the sun was dutiful in its never ending journey. I noticed too the best colors appeared a full 50 minutes before the actual sunrise, a detail missed by many landscape photographers. You never know when the colors will be best but they're usually peaking well before the sun shows its shining self. I wasn't too concerned about this; the sun, when it comes into view, can produce a very special light. When this happens, you turn around to face the west with hopes the glow will perform some sort of magic upon the landscape.

I arrived at the farmhouse just as the sun brought forth the morning, and was disappointed. There were no clouds in the sky to add elements of interest and there was a slight haze which filtered the light and made it dull and not so magical.

You have to get used to this, though. Most sunrises and sunsets are generally unspectacular despite the many fantastic images out there. The sunrise/sunset is always occurring somewhere in the world so there is always someone in the right spot at the right time. The only way to be that someone is to keep trying.

However, this blog is not about sunrises and sunsets. Driving through the dark at the break of dawn is an experience of itself, and it's part of the journey you take as a photographer. You usually have the world all to yourself in the pre-dawn, and in that it can be a special moment.

I was punching the buttons on the radio, drifting from one station to another, trying to find music that fit the mood of the moment. Popular music seems to dwell on the subject of love, but there are different kinds of love. New love, old love, good love, bad love, true love, lost love, cheatin' love, and the lack of love. I'm also told that Jesus loves you.

The sun is up now, and I am in the heart of dairy farm country. I purposely wander the back roads, looking for something to point the camera at. The old barns are becoming curiosities, relics of another era as the dairy industry embraces efficiency and maximum profit. Corporate dairy farms have no use for the barn so the new structures and infrastructure reflect the new way of doing business and the barns slowly rot, fall over, burn down, or are razed because they're in the way. They are not being replaced.

You can still sit down and talk to someone who grew up on a family farm, who milked cows by hand, and even plowed fields with horses. Farming was essentially the same for thousands of years but in the span of one lifetime technology has ripped through an entire way of life and changed it forever. That's just one demographic, in the past 200 years, for an indigenous people to go from sticks and rocks to having a gun and horse, or from writing a letter on paper to email, change itself has become a way of life.

In this part of Wisconsin, the roads generally run north-south or east-west so despite me not knowing where I am, I have a general sense of where I'm going. I meander the back roads and can see how change is changing everything, but I slowly make my way to Green Bay.

Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city-town of 100,000 people, probably would never be on the map if it were not for the Green Bay Packers, an icon of American football. Football may cause one to yawn outside of the United States but people throughout the world know of Green Bay because of the Packers and have heard of the stadium where the games are played: Lambeau Field.

Lambeau Field is being renovated for additional seats and other upgrades, so I'm interested to see the changes and how the stadium is looking. The project is supposed to be completed by the 2013 season. I arrive to see the construction well under way. New iron beams are being welded together in the south end zone, cranes lifting material up to the workers, new scoreboards are going up, etc. The stadium opened in 1957 and has virtually been under construction ever since over the years with various upgrades.

I sign up for the Lambeau Field tour, guides taking you through the venue and providing all kinds of facts and legends about the Packers.

Not too far from the stadium is a greasy spoon called "Skip's Place" and I head over there for lunch. It's the kind of joint where your hands might stick to the table. I order a hamburger, onion rings, and a chocolate malt. The attraction is it's a real place with real people, small town folks who come to sit and talk. The chain places give you a microwaved hunk of meat that was cooked days ago and a toy that spoils the kids in always expecting to be entertained.

Some old farts at the counter banter back and forth, the one recently retiring and thinking about getting a part time job.

New retiree: "I'm thinkin' about getting a part time job, but I don't want to go back to truckin."

Friend: "Why don't you drive a tour bus part time?"

New Retiree: "I don't want to haul no freight that talks."

Friend: "How about being a greeter at Walmart?"

New Retiree: "Me? I'll be tellin' the women where the kotex is and the men where to get the rubbers!"

Then they laugh and the conversation wanders onto other subjects. Yeah, real people here, no political correctness, just humanity in the raw.

After I finish lunch I head over to the National Railroad Museum located in the south side of Green Bay, hoping to exercise the new camera some more. Railroad history and many old locomotives and coaches can be found here, some well kept, others rusting and rotting hulks of another era lost to change. The engines and weathered cars make for artful photography, me focusing on details and parts and textures, colors, and rust.

It's time to head back to my parents house, but there is no hurry, so again, I take the long way back through the rural areas, passing by the modern farms but with an eye for the relics of a life that no longer exists. I make my way to a town where there is a gas station that doubles as an A&W restaurant, and I sit down with an ice cold glass of root beer.

I don't know if root beer is an American confection but it certainly has been perfected here and it's hard to find it better than A&W. The ice cold glass causes a thin layer of root beer to freeze on the inside of the mug and it goes down good after a day of back road photography.

Virtually all of the photography I did today was non-stock. I may upload some of the images from the stadium construction for editorial, but it was essentially a day of me and my camera being out in the world.

Today, I did not chase the sun as it was cloudy with rain coming in later. My goal was to explore the back roads west of Appleton as I've never had the opportunity to do so. Once I arrived in unfamiliar territory I again pointed the car away from the main roads and tried to get lost. As it turns out, this section of the state was more woodsy and there weren't many farms. The ones I did see were fairly generic or reconfigured. Some of the old barns get a new life by being clad with red, metal sheets but then you have a barn in red, metal sheets. They are modernized and lose the charm of the old, aged wood. The Reviewers ding us with "Not what we're looking for." Well, modernized barns are not what I'm looking for either.

It begins to rain off and on which can make things difficult for photography but it doesn't matter much; I don't see many things worthy of stopping to shoot.

For lunch I find a small joint called "Patti's Place." It's located in a small town in an old building and I guess perhaps the building may have been a hardware store at one time. The tin ceiling provides a hint as to the age of the structure. Men sit on stools at the counter jabbering in meaningless man-talk while in the back a group of old ladies lunch it up and socialize. I order a grilled cheese sandwich, onion rings, and a glass of water. Grilled cheese isn't exactly a favorite but I'm low on cash and they don't take plastic.

On the way back I check out an old one room schoolhouse. One room schoolhouses are fairly common here, having been used into the 1950's and maybe even 60's but the ones left are generally more new and made of brick. Many have been converted into homes.

However, this one is made of wood and I've been watching it for several years, now. The schoolhouse sits by the road in a huge cornfield and whoever farms there has been slowly taking the schoolhouse apart. I've seen this before where old structures are taken out in order to have that much more field to grow crops. On the cornerstone of the schoolhouse, scratched into it is "1915." The schoolhouse faces north so it has been difficult to get a good photograph since it never faces the sun. I've been content to document the slow demise of the schoolhouse but the farmer seems to never have time; half the roof is off now and he has yet to finish the job.

I go down a road I've been on before and discover a barn that had collapsed from age. I photograph the rubble merely to record the death of a barn. It's not a great image but sometimes photography is the means for recording facts. It will be part of a project I've been working on regarding farming in Wisconsin.

Tomorrow is my last day of freedom before going home and getting things in order before going back to work. I have yet to decide for what to do but it's supposed to be sunny so I may rise early again to chase the sunrise and to greet the day.

As you take the journey of being a photographer, do you ask yourself why you are a photographer? What is it about photography that motivates you? Most important of all, what do you see when you look through the viewfinder?

Remember the old farmhouse I mentioned? It's rotting away, the foundation is crumbling, windows are broken. I've been coming to this place for years, always hoping to capture the scene in a way that makes for stunning photography. In the front yard, there is a rosebush that has grown wild, the mass of the stems and plants probably the same size as a utility van.

People used to live here; perhaps it was a wife who planted the roses, proud to be living there because she cared enough to make the place look nice. No longer do you see a crumbling old property, but a story of the lives of the people who lived here. You can see children running through the house, perhaps a puppy bouncing along behind them, and hearing laughter drifting from within.

Surely children used to live here, because even though the house is no longer fit to live in, and has been that way for years, someone still comes here to cut the grass. Someone still mows the lawn! Children grow up so who else comes to maintain the property? There is nothing here worth taking care of yet someone still comes to care for the place, regardless.

What do you, the photographer, see when you take a photograph? Do you see the ruins of an old building? Did you see the roses and wonder why they are there? Did you notice the lawn is still being cut?

Do you hear the stories the landscape is telling to you?

If you're going to do stock, that's great, but I think you have to be a photographer FIRST before you dabble in stock. Understanding f-stops to create a technically correct image is one thing, understanding what an image can say to you, that is something very different. Pretty pictures and great photography are two separate things. Pretty pictures and conceptual ideas are what differentiates success and failure in the stock world.

If you take the journey of being a photographer, then you will begin to see and hear the world in new and different ways. Is it no wonder the arts are represented by Comedy and Tragedy? These all translate into successful stock concepts. No matter how simple the concept, a good stock image should tell a story.

Come tomorrow, I know not what the day will bring, but as a photographer, I won't just be looking for pretty pictures, I will be looking, listening. You start to see things differently when you're chasing the sun. The barns talk to you and tell you stories. Humanity is all around you and is always filled with despair, triumph, love, pain, and success. The challenge of being a photographer is capturing the essence of a scene. It is a difficult thing to accomplish because the result usually is a pretty picture or a technically correct image. But if you're looking and listening, there will be those times when the photograph can tell the story of what you see and hear.

Photo credits: Wisconsinart.

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May 07, 2012


Great article, I really enjoyed the read. Being from Wisconsin I see many of the same types of things you mention, but will see them in a whole new light now - thank you!

April 28, 2012


nice article

April 26, 2012


Great story!

April 26, 2012


Wow, great blog, I really enjoy it.

April 26, 2012


Wonderful story, thank you. As always. Good luck with your new job. I am sure whatever the job is it will not stop you from being a photographer (and a writer!). Once a photographer, always a photographer :-) There are some photographers who write beautifully - one of my personal favourites is David duChemin. Wonderful man and an amazing photographer. If you have not read duChemin yet then do try his books - I am sure you would like his writing.

April 26, 2012


Very interesting and creative read. I can personally relate to your article as I grew up in North Dakota with a farming background, and use to go around photographing abandoned homesteads.

April 26, 2012


Enjoyable read. It's certainly all about the journey. I agree with Clearvista, you have a book in you. Among all of the technical photography books out there, you don't see too many that talk about the non-technical aspects. Take the fishing books market for example - there are tons of books that deal with stories, tales and wisdom involving the pursuit of fish besides the ones that deal with technical issues. Sports is another area. Why not such a book in the photography arena?

April 26, 2012


Thank you for a very interesting blog. Write a book I will be your first customer, I didn't want it to end. :) Good luck with your new job.

April 25, 2012


Wonderful words, beautiful blog. Your story could be mine too.

April 25, 2012


Wisconsinart, could you explain to me: why reading your blogs I always have an impression that you are talking personally to me? What a talent indeed! :))) My wholehearted congratulations on your permanent job! I am yet to find one, always being on contracts, and now have to move on...

April 25, 2012


Congratulation for your new job. With that in the pocket one sees the world in a much more optimistic light. I enjoyed your blog. Hope you will keep up with photography and writing even if a full time job may restrict time.

April 25, 2012


    Content Filtered Image Id 23632076  

I understand what you said....but it's more difficoult to be an illustrator! Sometimes I think to give up, but then I remember why I started to draw, my promise, my devotion and my "heroes" and I continue to draw. I know: sometimes can happens something magic ;)

April 25, 2012


I'm feeling homesick now...

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