“Are you a photographer?” the woman seated next to me on the airplane asked. She had spied my camera bag with two bodies and three extra lenses.
“Are you a model?” I replied, attempting to be funny and complimentary but coming across as both snarky and creepy. Needless to say, that was the end of that conversation.
The truth is that I would not claim to be a photographer. I would say I’m a guy who takes photos. I am reluctant to exaggerate, in part for fear of inadvertently insulting professionals who would scoff at the pretense of those who have acquired gear and believe they possess skill. Nowadays everyone fancies himself a photographer, meaning perhaps none of us is — at least very few of us should be bestowing the title upon ourselves.
I have known people I consider “real” photographers. My wife and I lived down the street from a French photographer, assigned to cover American NASA operations when we were sending men to the moon, and on the one occasion he invited us over, to sample the kir royale aperitif (of which he mixed several types), he complained about his son, graduate of an American Ivy League college, who despite his fancy education decided to follow his father, earning a living with a camera. He showed us black and white images of men who had “the right stuff,” ready to blast off when America had the confidence it would win the competition for space circa 1969, and one shot of the woman who would become his wife and then ex-wife, in a go-go outfit that likewise exemplified the era.
My nephew by marriage won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years back as the director of photography for the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper, for coverage of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and he worked in the White House prior to that, overseeing the official website and publishing books. He now runs the leading international photography contest, housed at University of Missouri, his alma mater, where he started his career producing highly technical pictures for an archeological textbook.
Assessed by such standards, I am an amateur, a hobbyist, a dilettante. I could hardly be offended by that status, because photography has been an important avocation since the Kodak Brownie made the art accessible to ordinary consumers. It has been integral to family life. The “Kodak moment” is one of those advertising slogans that became a cultural touchstone.
Yet I do carry two cameras (three counting my smartphone). That is a sign of earnest obsession more than it is of any expertise.
I suppose in a sense I am a photographer though. I qualify by the measure of sustained interest despite intermittent breaks. When I met my wife, I was enrolled in a college-level course at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an institution since defunct. I was pursuing self-improvement, and I had signed up to re-learn darkroom techniques. It was the last moment for analog formats before digital technology overwhelmed the world. We were required to bring our own single-lens reflex. I was frugal. I bought a new Sigma with a 24-70mm zoom lens for about $225.
Before I started dating my wife, my primary subject was my dog, Ding Ding, a stray I had adopted as a puppy. Once I started seeing my wife, she became a secondary subject. Sometimes, I had them pose together. Ding Ding was, and my wife remains, long-suffering, as are many of those around any “photographer.”
This past Christmas, relatives made me a pair of coffee mugs. They depicted me photographing my wife, twenty years ago. Added as a caption was the statement the family has heard me utter more than once was they waited, “Hold on, it’s manual focus. . .” These mugs are another marvel. Various vendors will produce them, at rates reasonable enough for middle-class families to order as keepsakes, with your choice of photo reproduced in dishwasher-safe high-resolution. We take for granted an ease to photography and an ability to disseminate even a simple snapshot that could not have been imagined when I developed, enlarged, and printed the original frame of film.
Maybe we cannot be so sure about defining ourselves. A person also can be deemed a “photographer” without great exertion. A single viral selfie seems enough to turn a person into a celebrity, even an icon. Andy Warhol is remembered for declaring that each of us would have our fifteen minutes of fame. He is not recalled for his subsequent quip that all of us would be famous in fifteen minutes. Warhol was always in on the joke. He would be amused by our narcissism.
There is a difference between what we do and who we are. If we do it enough, however, it becomes who we are. For me, it is enough to try my hand at an art and science that continues to fascinate me. Although I have enough jobs and honors, I am aware of how much more I need to learn to be worthy of “photographer.”
I offer the same query to others, because we have diverse conceptions of the matter: “Are you a photographer?”