As a photographer, but not a professional, I would like to be able to hang out with others who share the hobby. It is enjoyable to talk shop. Yet if we want to do that, at least in a physical space, we have to pay for the privilege. We should realize that is how it works. Our yearning to interact should prompt us to support those who facilitate it.
I once knew an investor in a sushi restaurant. He was persuaded by a market study that showed in other cultures, conveyor belt sushi, with plates that went by, from which diners could choose at their leisure, was highly successful as a mid-price meal, not fast food but not fine dining either. I asked him what his favorite raw fish was. He told me, matter of factly, that he didn’t really eat the stuff. Since he was making more readily available a cuisine I enjoyed, I would be wrong to begrudge his motivation. He was a businessman.
There is an important lesson for me there. I might imagine myself as a regular patron of a dining establishment, with a relationship to the chef. Yet I also cannot escape being a customer. The enterprise is not a social club; if it does not turn a profit, it cannot continue to operate. Sometimes you have to restate the obvious. Although anybody who runs a business has that in mind, likely constantly including while asleep and dreaming, the rest of us forget it all too easily.
Throughout San Francisco, stores such as the venerable Adolf Gasser and the newer Rayko Photo Center, have struggled and closed. The Bay Area is among the most hospitable to such endeavors. More than anyplace else I have ever lived, people here are passionate about their avocation, which they subsidize through a “day job.” They have disposable income.
That is not enough, because we also have become accustomed to too much that is free or “freemium” (free with a premium upgrade available). People won’t part with their money when you tell them you are charging them for your company unless you are a celebrity, and even then they will be sour about it. They will do so, however, for a unique experience or for something special. If the local coffee shop said explicitly it was a quarter for the drink and ten times that much to lounge around, most of us would be reluctant about the deal. But if they bundle the cup with a bit of cachet, then we’re in.
That is why I make an effort to be friendly when I visit SF Photoworks, among the very last places that develops film, and Glass Key Photo, a tiny retail storefront. I want to chat up the staff, which means I appreciate I need to patronize them. It is not right, in my book, to check out a product at a bricks-and-mortar business and then buy it online. Since you are compelled to try it, you are obliged to cover the overhead of stockpiling samples for your benefit. No owner of a studio that hawks supplies on the side is going to get rich by renting it out.
My thinking is less a matter of principle than of long-term self-interest — principle can be equivalent to long-term self-interest. When enough of us are “free riders,” taking advantage of the largess of others not as devious as ourselves, we ruin it for everyone. There is an alternative. Instead of chipping in here and there in a conventional model that allocates costs to all consumers, we could form a co-operative darkroom or await an entrepreneur who in fact offer a membership for a fee in a workshop dedicated to our enthusiasm. Or perhaps the most novel, virtually insane, idea would be for friends to come together in a basement. How long, I wonder, will the notion of gathering, together in the same time and the same place, be valued, before our social bonds are weakened too much by social media. I am aware that there are still camera clubs. I doubt they are as prevalent as in days of yore, even with meet ups powered by the internet.
Photography documents the deterioration in our sociability — mine no different than the next person’s, lest a reader suppose I am, in the vernacular, being “judge-y.” Among the sub-genres of street photography I practice are the images of strangers staring at their smartphones, in crowds, seated next to people who are presumably family and friends, walking down the street, eating, and, essentially, while engaged in every form of human activity. They never object to me. They are always too distracted to notice.
I prefer to engage with the world. Even through a lens, it is better than projected from a screen. And I’d welcome others to join me as I join them. Even what can be performed as a solitary art can be enhanced by a community, especially with so much to be learned about technique. I hope we sustain the shops, the darkrooms, the studios, and best of the bricks-and-morter businesses that sustain our pursuit.