Zen and The Assembly Line Portrait

“Wow, that was a good shot.” Dad says as I capture his two year old daughter smiling and clapping her hands.

“She’s a cute kiddo.” I say and smile.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance several years ago and I really liked it.  Might have something to do with my own mild form of insanity easily relating to the madness of the main character.  I have always liked the idea of Zen, the idea of the eternal now.  A few years later I read a book called Flow, which talked about that rare state of being where the rest of the world floats away and you are totally immersed in whatever activity you are doing.  I most often achieve flow while I am writing, finding myself lost in that small universe of my own creation.

A busy day at work can induce flow as well, and being a portrait photographer is all about being in the moment, and then capturing that moment.  I learned very early on how to live in that zen essence of now where someone has that perfect expression I am looking for.  I tend to like smiling portraits myself, though I still run across the occasional Old Timer who likes to talk about ‘pleasant expressions.’  I knew one photographer who told everyone he wanted just a pleasant expression, and this tended to confuse them.  What, exactly, is a pleasant expression?

I learned to juggle in the 7th grade, I found a book in the library and spent three weeks mastering the three ball cascade, circle, and floor patterns.  I also learned to juggle clubs, rings, and pretty much anything I could fit in my hands.  This has been a skill that I have used ever since, in one way or another.  There is a kind of meditative quality to juggling, and it usually impresses the parents of small children.

There is a lot of doing nothing involved with being an Assembly Line Portrait Photographer.  The Passers have to spend their time with the Subjects, but the photographer never really has to say much more than Turn This Way, Turn That Way, Smile.  We can read books, listen to the radio, surf the web if the Shoot has wifi, juggle, or even meditate.  There is a lot of solitude, a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of it all.  But mainly, we just spend our time bitching and moaning about The Company and the presence of evil PreSellers.

During the Busy Time we don’t have that much time, but we still have a few long drives, a few empty hours when no one shows up, and a bit time alone in the motel room to flip through the fifty channels we have little or no interest in.  I sometimes feel like George Clooney in Up In The Air, this is a near perfect job-except when it isn’t.

The job is ever changing.  We seldom see the same people twice, seldom go to the same location twice, and rarely work with the same Passer. And yet, the faces tend to blur together.  Everyone looks alike, as there are only so many ways a human face can be put together.  The locations offer a bit of variety, the rooms are seldom the same size or dimensions, but after the Studio is set in the Camera Room, it feels exactly like every other camera room I have ever been in.

I tend to remember the restaurants I eat in, the tourist traps we go and see, the neighborhood around the Motel.  The Shoots themselves are forgotten almost instantly.  There are days when I forget to call in My Numbers-every Company I have ever worked for wants to know My Numbers-because I get to the room and start watching a movie, or go out to get something to eat, or become wrapped up in my latest blog post.

I think about taking a trip back to London, back to Maine, back to Pittsburgh.  I think about going to Hawaii and Alaska and Australia.  I read the latest get rich blogging program and try to make $500 a day like that guy who wrote The 4-Hour Workweek.  So far my best day has been a bit over $60, with most days bringing in nothing.

I have a handful of Portrait Photography books that I read-they are the ones in the Amazon Widget.  I can duplicate lighting patterns and poses, but I rarely go too far beyond The Standard Set.  Most people don’t know the difference between Butterfly Lighting and Rembrandt Lighting anyway.  And the Camera Rooms are often crowded, making some lighting patterns more difficult to execute.  I can do more than I do, but there is seldom any reason to.

So I try to be mindful of the moment, occasionally watch my breath, and wonder how long it is before the next Subject shows up.

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