Hanging Out With Photographers? For a Price?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Hanging Out With Photographers? For a Price?”

  1. Great subject and good comments. I don’t know if a local camera club exists, though there is a co-op darkroom near me. It is populated by artsy types who smoke incessently, and I’m afraid I will need a tatoo to join.

  2. For all intents & purposes, I now live in a photographer/photo store free area. Our home is situated in a rural area of Connecticut. Our local store closed about 8 years ago (due to graft & incompetence on the part of the owner & store employees.) There’s no place to gather, to tell ‘lies’ about the almost perfect shot and to resupply.
    I use both B&H and Adorama for film & darkroom supplies, so that’s not an issue. The issue is shared experiences & love of craft.

    I’m not on social media, but I do have an active flickr account. That provides photo sharing and some give & take among members.

    You people who have access to the face to face photo/art community are lucky. Keep it nurtured & alive.

  3. Speaking of which, when’s the next beers and cameras meet-up?
    With regard to buying supplies online after checking out a real(not virtual) store, how far to the good do we take this philosophy? Were I to purchase a similar service at the expense of advice (no help from a computer screen), I would be financially better off, but no wiser. To present an example; at my local camera store, I purchased 10 rolls of Portra 400. I was advised to rate it at 200, but have it processed normally. The few pennies I would have saved buying it online were not worth the excellent advice I received from the working professional in the shop. So far, so good.
    BUT – if I take work off a professional – isn’t that just as reprehensible? I am not a pro, I make my living elsewhere. If I deny a pro the opportunity to put food on their table by being cheaper/more available, then as I happen to see it through my very dodgy eyes, I am as guilty as the person who checks out the merchandise and then buys online. The pro has the experience I don’t have. The pro has the back up I don’t have. I am not even a semi-professional, not a weekend warrior, not an uncle Bob photographing weddings. The pro is/should be someone who can supply what the customer wants – and it pays the pro’s bills.
    Can I justifiably deny him/her an income that day? If enough people do that, they go out of business. Like the camera store. And there is a loss to the wider community.
    Argue with me?

  4. There’s no magic to it. Nor is it complicated. Quite simply, if you want something to exist in the world, you must support it.

    This is the second piece I’ve read by this writer, both on this site. Both were well written for such a compressed form. They were also intelligent, informed and pertinent. Thank you. More please.

  5. I think I get the point you’re making- if you’re going to use the skills of a bricks and mortar shop, you need to help pay for it by buying stuff there. However, if you want to hand out with photographers, there are other ways to do it; find a way to do local photo walks, My friends and I use Talk Photography, which is a UK-oriented site, but there must be others suited to different parts of the world.

  6. Like your comments and agree. The large French city where I live has an association which I joined, meets monthly (Coronavirus notwithstanding) members are both professionals and enthusiasts, people are there networking, showing their work, sharing and learning. It welcomes both digital and film. I refuse all social media and believe that far from connecting people, it’s done the opposite and made people less capable of meaningful interaction. The ease of digital image creation and manipulation has cheapened and to a large extent spoiled photography, nowadays we’re literally saturated with images and in a world where everyone can suddenly become a photographer all of a sudden, as the writer says, the profession of photographer is endangered. Oh, but this is ‘progress’ we’re told, just as the profession of a taxi driver who knows a city inside and out is superseded by geo location apps. That taxi driver has built up over time specialised skills and knowledge. I refuse to use the term ‘digital photography’ . I’ve returned to film, and the darkroom after an absence of some twenty years and I realise there is an art to film, you have to put a considerable amount of effort in. You need to make a note of what you’re doing at every stage. Digital, you’re just pressing buttons. Sure it does away with the tedious leg work but at what cost? My interest in photography dwindled as digital took over but it’s now been revived by meeting much younger people who have, paradoxically, come to film photography after starting with digital and are finding that the effort and demands it places on the photographer and the investment of self leads to an understanding of its true value.

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