I get to thinking about MTV every so often, and then I try to stop because it makes me sad. I’m old enough to remember when the channel first went on the air in the early 1980’s, and the absolute mess they made of the television dial in those early days. Production values were rough around the edges even for the time, the programming was an eclectic mess (you were as likely to see the Charlie Daniels Band or King Crimson as Modern English), and everything about the channel gave the impression of something being made up as everyone went along.
Over time, things changed. While I miss those freewheeling early days, I realize looking back that the creeping change from a DIY ethic to the slick, corporate, non-music playing behemoth that the channel has become was probably inevitable, mirroring the death of free form radio at around the same time. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the whole debacle that MTV has become, and it’s one that artists of nearly any stripe can learn from.
To quote a song that was big in ’83 or thereabouts, “Money changes everything.” It doesn’t have to, of course, but it tends to do just that. If you stop to think about the early look (and, for that matter, the early playlist) of MTV, you start to realize that it was cobbled together from whatever was available and affordable at the time. A mix, in other words, of improvisation and desperation. As the money started to roll in — reflected both in the channel’s slicker production values, and also by the attention (not to mention cash) paid by bands and record industry types — much of that improvisational spirit started to wane. Innovation, such as there was, fell by the wayside, to be replaced by programming that had the look and sound of that one person at every party who talks and laughs just a little too loud to let you know they’re edgy, or having so much fun.
What’s that mean to the rest of us?
When we start out in our craft, most of us (there are, of course, always exceptions) are broke, relatively speaking. We can’t afford all the best stuff. We don’t have the same tools, or knowledge, or sense of history, that the heavy hitters in our little niche have. Some people piss and moan and flame out, but others look at what they’ve got and decide that one way or another, they’re making this thing work. They improvise. They break rules they don’t even know they’re breaking, then invent new ones on the way to learning the old ones.
I don’t subscribe to the O’Jays school of thought on money… it’s not the root of all evil. At the end of the day, it’s a means to an end; in other words, like anything else in your kit, it’s a tool, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on how you use it, or misuse it. Some of this gets back to the idea that if we just had a bit more (x many more lenses, x many more dollars), it’d all be better. We’d be better. We’d have more tools, more time at our disposal, and we could finally get around to that project we’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s street photography in Melbourne or photographing polar bears on the ice floes.
The thing is, just the same as the gear doesn’t make us better photographers, the money doesn’t either. Your net worth and your artistic or human worth are not one and the same. I’m not suggesting that we should all subscribe to the myth of the “Starving Artist,” since artists who consciously decide to suffer for their art for the sake of some kind of misguided “purity” generally want us to suffer right along with them. But we ought not to mistake the means for the end, or think that there’s a single magic bullet that’s going to get us where we want to be.
You have resources now. Use them. Use the gear you’ve got, granted, but also don’t forget to use the time you’ve got in the best way you can. Don’t wait for a set of conditions to be met in order to do what you want. Wing it. Can’t get the polar bears in their natural habitat? Head for the zoo (just don’t pass those photos off as something they’re not). Can’t make it to Melbourne or Mumbai? Unless you’re living in a ghost town, there’s things going on and people living their lives just steps from your door. Improvise! And later on (or right now, if that’s where you are as you read this) when you have the resources to burn on anything you’d like, and can shoot whenever and however you’d like, remember where you came from. Revisit it from time to time.
Don’t let what you’re doing now — the creativity you’re bringing to bear on your craft, whether it’s born of desire or necessity or some combination of both — be overtaken by the desire to shoot, or to be, something else. Shoot as though you have nothing but this camera, this shot, this now to get it right (or interestingly wrong). Shoot as though nothing but the photo matters. And, perhaps most important, shoot each time as though the only payoff you’re going to get is the love of the process.