doug menuez 2.0: go fast, don’t crash

April 26, 2009, 9:47 am
Filed under: Field Notes & Essays


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“The ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. “

I’m still buzzed from the wonderful, warm bath of good vibrations that made my visit and talk with the photographers of Richmond, VA and the ASMPCV such a blast. Giving one of these talks can be like any performance; entertaining, hopefully inspiring, or…not, and the outcome is more than half driven by the energy of the audience. This was an outstanding audience from which I learned a few things. These folks down here have their heads screwed on right, especially the talented John Henley, who helped arrange my visit. John started in fine art and continues to bring an artist’s eye to his commercial work. In other words, he gets paid to shoot what he loves to shoot. Thinking about John and a conversation we had on the way to the airport got me reflecting again on the merits of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous incremental improvement.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

©2009 John Henley, from "Midway" series.

These are strange times and I hear from a lot of people struggling to figure it all out, just as I am, and yet for the most part my sense was that life is quite good in Richmond amongst the photo community. People are working, things are happening as reflected by the challenging questions raised by this sharp group. Gathered in a former tobacco warehouse that is now the beautiful studio/gallery of photographer Guy Crittenden I couldn’t help but be impressed with the whole Richmond thing: the town, the people, the almost irritating friendliness (hey I am a New Yorker once again) and the tremendous talent on display on the gallery walls from a show of personal work by the local chapter members.

My talk was based on the themes from my EP essay “On Chaos…” which examines the core challenges we all face in order to create a creatively satisfying life in photography for the long term. These challenges include how to get paid to shoot what we love, building a proper business structure, balancing work and family, thriving and not just surviving kind of stuff. Most photographers are well aware of these issues and working on them. But when I’m listening to someone else articulate ways to address these questions it helps me to recognize my own challenges and to take what is useful from the speaker to apply in my own life. I’m hoping the same can be true for my audience. It really helps me to bounce these ideas off an audience in order to sharpen my own thinking and evolve the dialog. Everything about photography is changing so fast right now so I can’t even pretend to be any kind of authority. I just share my experience and what worked and did not work in the past. Hopefully some of this is useful for the future.

The feedback was very positive so I know I was on the right track for most people. But I had an interesting conversation afterward with Elli Morris who talked about her life and career in terms of having applied most of what I was talking about from the get go. She had acted all along with integrity, following her heart and saying no as much as possible to the bullshit that kills us. This to me is a rare person in photography and her ability to live in that way is exemplary. I was never that mature. Funny, but it does seem that the creative brain is often a beast that must be tamed, and many of my peers have become expert at self-medication. Sometimes this could be a chemical thing– art and madness do seem to go together– and other times it’s related to how we were raised or just the stress of putting your ego on the line. But Elli is also a mature individual, clearly raised with the right amount of self-esteem and gumption to weather the storms of a creative life. Much of what I’m talking and writing about is figuring out how to live like Elli already is living.

On the way to the airport John described similar sentiments that helped me crystalize a thought I need to add to my talks: the ideas I’m expressing about true success are scalable and can be modified to fit individual needs. That’s where kaizen comes into play. When I get rolling I tend to rant a bit, and I try to stress the urgency I feel about how short life is and coming to terms with what you feel is your true voice, putting that in your portfolio and figuring out the proper business structure to support that. For me it really is all or nothing and I can come on a bit strong with my swing for the fences philosophy. That works to get some people motivated, but for others it might be less helpful. If you are feeling trapped by the economy, or in a rut creatively, and trying to feed your family and without resources to change, then my call to action might be frustrating. But if you can make one tiny change such as everyday shooting one picture for yourself to replenish your creative well, you are practicing kaizen. And you can take other small steps, slowly turning your ship around until you are going in the right direction.

To me true success is measured in terms of how satisfied you can be creatively while still getting the bills paid. It is a question of balance, of first defining the goal and step-by-step progress to that goal. It’s doubtful anyone can ever achieve 100 per merger of art and commerce all of the time. There are compromises in reality, the trick is to keep tilting the scale toward your dreams. It’s not going to happen overnight and your version of success is yours alone. John pointed out to me that not everyone will be in the top 20 photographers in the US, nor will they even want to be. Everyone has a different level of ego, ambition and way of defining success. John is not saying people should accept mediocrity either, but to examine what works and does not work for them and begin to look at what their choices have been. What photographers do want is to find a way to make a living from the work that gives them the most joy so their lives are meaningful.

Yet it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you are moderately successful. There is a keen fear now of rocking the boat. And even if you decide to push yourself to change, practicing kaizen everyday, you will never stop paying your dues. Even the top 20 superstars, whoever they are, will never stop paying their dues if they want to be creatively satisfied. That’s just the reality of what we do. We never reach the ultimate goal. Life truly is a journey––true cliché alert––and needs to be treated as such, appreciating each stage in context.

The inspiring news is that there are many photographers finding ingenious ways to drive their careers into satisfying orbits, even in this economy, and certainly it seems so in Richmond.


6 Comments so far
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Very encouraging words. This is exactly what I needed (wanted) to hear. Thanks for the inspiration.

Comment by Younes Bounhar

I just emailed you a Thank you before remembering you mentioned a blog at your talk, and here it is.

I just wanted to send you a thank you on behalf of myself and my fellow VCU Art students that I could encourage to come. In the 10 years or so that I have been in this photographic realm, the industry has changed significantly and it is often in a discouraging direction for anyone trying to start out and balance an income with a passion. Your talk was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this new modern photography business model, as well as reflect on where a successful artist has been. Thank you, and I hope to see you back. There’s plenty of southern hospitality to go around down here.

Comment by Casey Billups

Hi Doug,
“Yet it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you are moderately successful. There is a keen fear now of rocking the boat. And even if you decide to push yourself to change, practicing kaizen everyday, you will never stop paying your dues. Even the top 20 superstars, whoever they are, will never stop paying their dues if they want to be creatively satisfied”

You have explained this extremly well both here and in you EP feature. I have been working as a moderately successful photographer for a while, but for a long time I have been dissatisfied with the work I am doing, I mean I am producing nice pictures fit for purpose and do a good job for the client etc but there is an emptyness.

I have described this feeling before as an itch that needs a good scratch, you know when you are satisfied with the work, it is akin to just getting that little itch on your back scratched, the relief the satisfaction the contentment…bliss.

I have not been getting this for quite some time now, so I have been dissatified with my work, so not proud of it, not wanting to shout about it, so less jobs come in, and on and on.

I have recently embarked on a couple of self motivated projects, no money, no assistants, no agenda except my own…… what a great feeling, great shots I am proud of – this is really beginning to clear the fug away, it is bringing back that clarity of thought and vision and motivating me to say NO to the jobs that don’t suit (if I can afford to) and also to shoot jobs with my vision and not with my perception of what the client wants. God it brings back self worth.

Cheers and have you seen


Comment by ian aitken

It’s amazing how something so simple as doing something “self-motivated” can recharge your batteries, but it’s true. i will check out and thanks for the note

Comment by menuez

Hi Doug, sorry I posted the wrong URL it should be it is a magazine rune by magnum photographer David Alan Harvey.



Comment by ian aitken

Oh yeah, burn is a magnificent outlet, David Alan Harvey is showing the way, thanks for the reminder, I’ve added to my blogroll

Comment by menuez

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