On being a has been

November 30, 2022

Around 2017 or so I was messaging a young female photographer. I liked her work and purchased her self-published book of autoportraits. I found her look interesting and wanted her to pose for me so I asked her. She replied she had looked at my work and didn’t like it. Even as insecure as I am, I was still On surprised. She went on to explain what she didn’t like. It was not that most of my work was female nude as that was the bulk of what she did. She said that she did not like that my photography looked too perfect, and that it looked “vintage.” She said, If I wanted to go for a vintage look [she asked] had I ever shot any film? I thought for a few moments and replied that, I was not trying to be vintage but that I was vintage, that I was Sixty years old! I said as far as film I guessed I had exposed and developed tens of thousands of rolls of film both B&W and color, starting as a teen in the ‘70s. She asked why I used so many antiques in my photographs. I replied that the house I was using as a studio was built in 1850 and was filled with antiques and that I was not “trying” to look vintage, I was trying to look timeless but I was just using the props I had handy. We never worked together.

Recently, the word Vintage came up again. I was photographing a model who needed a new “book” of photographs; she wanted to get signed with an agency in Atlanta because of all the movie stuff here in Georgia. She specified what she wanted, I said cool, that I was out of practice but used to do it all the time. I said “back in the day,” other regional photographers would send their daughters to me for their model portfolios. So for her, I tried hard and got everything “just” right. I even went to one of the agency web pages she was interested in to see what they were using. When she saw the pictures she said they were just perfect and she was excited. She sent some of her favorites to someone in LA that was advising her. That person told her that our photos looked “vintage.” I thought to myself are we talking Richard Avedon vintage or other dead photographic greats I grew up on? He sent an example of what “everyone” is using now. I looked at them and said, Those look like high school senior photos! Not bad, nothing wrong with that. Just a girl standing in the shade, lens wide open, background out of focus. I said I can do that, it’s easier than what we did. Find some shade late in the day and I will shoot wide open. I said I hear the new iPhone does a great job, The software will blur the background for you, though not the same way as an 85mm 1.4-1.8 lens. In the end, I think she seems to have gone with what I did and what a photographer friend did. The other photographer did just the opposite of me but still what I would call Classic or maybe “Vintage.” I did white background with 3 lights for very flat lighting. The other photographer went with a dark background and single light for more sculpting and mood.

For some reason today I decided to look up the word Vintage. I admit, when someone says vintage and it refers to my work I hear “has been” and I still think that is the way many mean it. Search for vintage online and you will get pages of random old stuff on eBay and Etsy. One definition said, “Denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.” I like that. As a noun, the Oxford dictionary says “the year or place in which wine, especially wine of high quality, was produced.” I do know that words can change meaning over time or context. I still haven’t gotten over calling something [the] shit and they meant it as a complement. Even back in my teens if we said something was “bad” that meant we really liked it. So from now on I will wear my “Vintage” label proudly and ask for my senior discount at the movie theater.


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