One Photographer’s Struggle with “The Slump”.

I have been a photographer for nearly my whole life. I was probably 12 when my dad brought me into his darkroom to see the photographs we had taken that morning come to life under his little enlarger. I had never seen anything so magical, so mystifying, so utterly fascinating.

I begged him for a camera. And he got me one.

A Kodak Brownie.

After we visited Durango for the first time with my camera I couldn’t wait to see the photographs I had taken. My dad developed the film, made the contact sheets and I was so excited I can still remember every square inch of that first contact sheet.

And the photos. Those photos I had spent so much time creating. I only had two rolls of film for that week so I made every image count. I worked so hard. I was INVESTED!

And there they were, right in front of me in two neatly dried contact sheets. Glorious contact sheets!

And the photos… were god-awful. Pathetic. Stupid, And to my 12-year-old brain they were a washout, a crash, a non-starter.

I knew it right then. I sucked as a photographer. (This is of course before the vernacular of ‘sucked’ was introduced into our, uh… culture, but you get the idea.)

The next weekend my dad wanted me to go with him to make some photographs for a magazine he had a commission to shoot for. I begrudgingly went, and he brought my Brownie since I had no intention of ever making another photograph as long as I breathed air.

We got to the location a bit early so he started walking around and just looking at stuff. We got up on top of the car, we walked to the other side of the shooting range (the assignment) and then he started making notes with a pencil on a small notebook.

I asked to see what he was doing and there were some drawings of the range and where he wanted to shoot from.

“Do you want to take some photos”, he asked?

I declined as any spoiled brat 12-year old would. My feelings were hurt, I was incapable of this majestic act of artfulness.

He handed me his Argus, and he started shooting with a Voigtlander as we moved toward a line of people waiting for us to make photographs for some magazine, somewhere.

I remember looking through the Argus and seeing the picture so very clearly, nothing like my Brownie’s plastic viewfinder. I began to tentatively make compositions in the frame and eventually I took 6 or 7 shots on that roll of film. This was an early 35MM so I still had 15 or so shots left on that roll of 24. It was Panatomic, my dad’s favorite film (and mine too a few years later).

I finished out the roll around the neighborhood and when I saw that contact sheet I knew I had found something really awesome.

That may have been the last time my dad ever shot that Argus. I bought film with pop-bottle money, learned how to develop the film and kept on shooting like a madman.

Then one of my friends got a set of drums and I was off on another adventure… another story for another time,

Photography has been a part of me for as long as I can really remember. Even on the road with the band I would shoot and shoot and shoot. I had discovered SLR’s, Kodachrome, and telephoto lenses by this time and I used every opportunity I could to make photographs.

I have been asked why I make photographs and the only answer I can give is that I must. I really feel that way about it. I HAVE to make photographs.

I love making music, but I HAVE to make photographs.

I am not sure that makes sense to a lot of people but if you have ever felt the need to do something so much that you would choose to do it over nearly every other thing available, then you know what I am talking about.

As I got older I made photographs for clients all over the US. I did editorial and advertising, but my first love was fashion photography. I loved the challenge of it. I loved the freedom of it. I loved the discipline of it.

And then one day, I didn’t.

When Heroin Chic began to be the rage, I took my leave of fashion photography. As a father with two daughters at that time (later a third) there was no way I wanted to be involved with that aesthetic.

And I turned my focus toward commercial. Product, people, food, architecture… in Phoenix you do a little bit of everything to keep those doors open.

As I have matured, I probably take fewer and fewer photos than I did when I was younger. I still must make them, but I am very picky about those I make.

This year started out pretty exciting. I have several businesses going, and some creative long term projects are coming to fruition or at least beginning to.

Then COVID.

Full stop.

For 2–4 weeks, we were told.

I thought sure, we can do this. Take some classes. Learn some stuff. Write. Photograph.

Lots of plans.

But the reality is that it wasn’t a ‘creative interlude’ at all. In fact the farthest thing from it. It was stressful, it was horrible. People were getting sick. People were losing their businesses, their jobs, their families, their way of life.

And people were dying.

A creative interlude? No. Not really.

it is hard to be creative in a cell. It is hard to be creative when there is so much hardship all around us. It is hard to be creative when you are constantly waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Uncertainty doesn’t breed the best creative environment, especially when that uncertainly most certainly will change your life, your mobility, your interactions with others, and literally everything you do and have done for decades.

I began to get a bit, well, depressed I guess. I look forward with great expectations to my classes both the Project 52 classes and the free Tabletop classes we started when the great lockdown began. To see people creating and learning and WANTING to grow was the highlight of my weeks.

But it was equally hard to face some days knowing that as a photographer, a teacher, an artist that I and millions like me are simply non-essential.

I found a strange tiredness in my artistic endeavors. I started a project of the cactus and succulents on the front porch. I began planning a new agency (I should have much more news on that in September) and I tried to stay focused and positive. And for the most part, I succeeded rather well.

When I felt myself falling I would look at the work of my students, check out their websites and see so many incredibly talented people that I have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and mentor. I knew at those moments I was indeed essential.

I am an essential husband.
I am an essential father.
I am an essential Papa to two lovely grandchildren.
I am an essential mentor to my friends.
I am an essential part of this world as an artist.
I am an essential person.

So I planned a way to get out of the house and find something that had been lost while being cooped up. A bit of fun, a bit of freedom. A bit of two-lane therapy they call it.

I got on my motorcycle and took a ride.

Phoenix to Montana. I wanted to be on the top of Beartooth Pass on my birthday, and even with some really challenging bike issues, I was indeed able to do exactly that.

At the top of Beartooth Pass. The temp was about 38 degrees, I was freezing, the wind was brutal, and I was so happy I could have cried. I had planned this for a year, at the last minute it looked like it may fall through, but I made it. I am a happy dude when I took this shot.

But it was glorious. I took photographs.

I ate a Hostess Cupcake (actually two… heh) and all seemed to be right with the world.

As I drove little two-lane roads through Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming I felt the pressure fall away. Yes, there is a lot of devastation in our current world.

But there is a lot of beauty too. A lot of wilderness, and magnificent skies, and waterfalls, lakes, streams, rivers, and animals to be grateful for.

What changed my attitude was gratefulness.

Grateful to realize that while so many things change, some things remain the same.

Motorcycles still love twisty roads.
The wind is cold on the top of the Rockie Mountains even in August.
Rivers run clear and cold in Montana and Wyoming.
Deer, Elk, Antelope, and Skunks will stand and watch you pass before running off.
Tacos can be amazing even in Montana.
The ability to make a photograph is still a gift.
Being alone is a powerful time for growth.

I ride my motorcycle alone. I don’t even have a back seat for a passenger and I do not have any friends that ride who live nearby. I get on the bike and rarely speak unless it is getting keys at the motel or ordering tacos (BBQ is a great substitute) or chatting with strangers when looking over the most incredible landscapes you may ever hope to see.

Being alone, feeling the elements, being in the wind, and the total concentration it takes to swing a 900-pound bike through the tightest curves you have ever seen while also on a 9% incline… that is all concentration, baby. And it is good for the soul.

I don’t want to ruin it with small talk, disappointment, arguments over politics or what coffee shop we should stop at. Blech…. I stop whenever and wherever I want. No consultations with others, no consensus needed. Total freedom. (Except for gas stations, I stop at a lot of gas stations. My bike has a big appetite for Premium, and I never want to run out of gas in the places I go. Could be months before anyone comes along… heh.)

I am going back to Colorado this Fall, but I will be in an automobile. A motorcycle is conducive to deep thinking, long and lonely two-laners, and the thrill of the twisties.

But it is not conducive to making great photographs. And this time I want to take my real gear and spend 14 days making the photographs I cannot on a bike.

The desire to photograph has returned with a vengeance now. I am making 30–40 images per week. Not stuff to share, but stuff to remind me how much damn fun it is to simply capture the world as a photograph.

“I photograph the world to see what the world looks like as a photograph”. — Lee Friedlander.

Hey Lee… dude that works for me.

See you guys next time.

PS:
I am currently writing a book about my travels around the western states of the USA complete with photographs, maps, fun suggestions and hopefully entertaining stories of being on the road, alone, and going to places that are new and exciting.

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Don Giannatti

Don Giannatti

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.