the diary thing 
sp - spoonOF COURSE I DIDN'T go out and get my flu shots, like the doctors were all saying we should. There was an epidemic roaring across the country while we were in Nova Scotia for the holidays, and as we boarded our plane home, we were headed right into its coughing, wheezing, aching frontier.

I came back to a set of increasingly panicked messages from Clare in the art department of this English magazine that wanted me to shoot some teenage girl heavy metal band that I'd never heard of, but who seem to be one of the latest crop of "next big things". It's okay -- I don't get upset about this kind of thing anymore. I'm now so far out of the demographic loop that I never see the "next big thing" till its already nearly passé. In any case, the shoot was off but now it's on again and a couple of days earlier, at that. Can I call her and let her know that it's cool with me? But no matter -- she calls first thing New Year's day, anyway.

It transpires that the shoot isn't really here in town, but in London, a college town a hundred or so miles east of here, but I don't know this until the day before the shoot, which sets off a frantic set of calls to Rod, my assistant, who miraculously gets back to me at midnight and says he's free. He shows up the next morning with a bit of a cough and the news that he sure needs the money since he's quit his job as a bouncer after eight years. We pile the gear into his car and head off.

Now, of course Rod has the flu, and of course I get it, and two days later I'm arranging to UPS the photos to England when the avalanche of symptoms begins -- a tickly throat turns into a roaring cough, aching bones and congestion that makes my head feel like a snot piñata. I'm looking at at least a week of Nyquil™ and fluids, listless napping, sodden sheets and more fluids. At least I'll get some reading done, I say optimistically to myself.

"The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore."
H.L. Mencken
- Prejudices

Sick as a dog, and whiny as a spoiled child. I'm a real joy, aren't I?

THE THING I HATE MOST OF ALL about being sick isn't the pain or inconvenience or twinge of mortality, but my own pissy, distracted mood while playing the invalid. I'm a lousier patient than I ever was a student or employee. When I lived on my own, at least I only had myself to make miserable, but with K. around I feel an obligation to keep all the bad mood and self-pity in check. It only seems to work half the time, but miraculously, the fight against ill temper and impatience turns into a real effort to get better. One more thing to add to the list of positive effects of a good relationship.

On Friday, I dose myself with pills and head out to print the girl band photos in time to make the day's UPS deadline. At the rental darkroom, I shuffle around bleary-eyed, hacking into my sleeve, but that doesn't obscure one major, sobering fact -- the photos are crap. While not the worst things I've ever done, they're definitely well below par for the best of my current work. I was on autopilot for the shoot, and no amount of printing will make the results any nearer to okay. I'm also aware that the magazine probably won't notice; rock photography isn't the most demanding of genres, especially when the job is little more than coverage, in a time when most bands seem like novelty acts.

I generally don't make resolutions for the new year, but I have to do something about this -- I might not have too many illusions anymore about rising to the top of the photo world, but I should at least be able to produce work that doesn't make me cringe. If I'm getting a bit tired of pop celebrity portraits, I have to try to do something else, even if it's just shooting eggplants. In any case, I should try to discover what I like about shooting eggplants, and apply that to the pop celebrity work. Something, anything -- I could go on for years coasting on half-assed work, and still have a career, sure. I've seen it happen to other photographers -- the paycheques are okay, but the sense of self-loathing grows exponentially; in a city like this, just outside of the big time, very few people know what really good work is, and in any case there are pages that need to be filled, and more than enough time-servers and journeymen who can fill them. With a jolt of recognition, I began to realize that I could have become one of them.

On the crowded streetcar home from the UPS drop-off, I stifle my cough and remember one thing -- it's been a couple of years since I bothered asking my clients if they liked my work. At first, if was a defensive tactic -- I had been trying some new things, and didn't need to hear if they didn't get it. In any case, I didn't get a lot of complaints. After awhile, if became a habit, and a bit of a point of pride -- I liked what I was doing, and didn't much care what anyone else thought. In any case, I've always been as bad at taking compliments as criticism, so I put my trust in my own taste. 

I suppose I'd have avoided this if I'd been a bit more enthusiastic about showing my portfolio around. But I hate that -- I've heard too many off-putting excuses, insincere compliments and glad-handling brush-offs like "It's nice, your work. Very, uh, european." (Translation: I don't get it. It doesn't look like the stuff the other photographers show me. Maybe you should try getting work out of town.") I should probably have an agent selling my work, but I can't get an agent unless I have more work, or at least no agent worth having would contact me until it was worth their while -- which is kind of a catch-22, if you think about it, isn't it? 

Still, a thicker skin and a bigger client base would give me some sense of the competition, and an obligation to keep things fresh -- whatever that means. In any case, there was nothing fresh about the photos I shipped off to England this week, except for the flu germs I'd packed in with the prints, contact sheets and slides. Happy coughing, folks.

writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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