016: Frames [and the future]

Ambition is both a curse, and a blessing. It’s a blessing, because without ambition, you are kind of just treading water. It’s ambition that makes you swim to places you never imagined. It’s ambition that takes you everywhere that you would want to go. But it’s a curse, because it’s not getting to that destination, it’s not achieving what you hoped to achieve that satiates or satisfies your ambition, it’s the actual chasing. It’s the doing. Ambition is the monster that is only fed if you are constantly spoon-feeding the doing, not the accomplishing. So every time someone who is really ambitious tries to stop, you stop feeling satisfied. The curse that is ambition always demands more.” - Casey Neistat

(Yeah, I know quoting a YouTuber is something on the lamer side of suck, but Casey was a filmmaker first, and got that fat HBO check, so he’s a certified Real Artist as far as I’m concerned.)

A dear friend once called me a dreamer, and mentioned that they admired that about me. I shared that I admired their boring life of having a child and owning a home, because they seemed happy with those decisions, and by choosing a “simple” life, they were satisfied and thriving in their journey, where as for me, my “dreams” weren’t that, they were in fact check list items I needed to tackle, and all them completely realistic, thus not dreams. Some people confuse dreams with ambition, and maybe they are attached in a ‘second cousin jerking off to pictures of the hot one in the family’ sorta way, but I don’t think they are similar in the least. (Dreams aren’t truth, but that’s for later exploration.)

The dark child I have been parenting all of my existence has been ambition, and survival through attempted excellence. Do I love this dark entity that haunts my every second? Oh, I do. Whatever chemical incantation that is above obsession and love is my truest mistress. A brain disfunction that causes me to take any minor interest and ruin it by challenging myself to drive it to its most extreme result. 

As a child, I collected NASCAR diecast cars. I loved auto racing, and had plans of either taking over NASCAR or launching a competitor (The Slim Jim SuperCar Series) with a more aerodynamically interesting vehicle that left more competition in the hands of the drivers. I still have the track blueprints somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain that I drew up when I was 8. 

I liked reading the newspaper as a teenager, so I started a pro wrestling newsletter, with the logical conclusion that in a decade, it was going to grow into a fire brand conglomerate with a sister title for every imaginable sport, and a monthly journal magazine that would eventually buy out the Sporting News or Sports Illustrated.

I went to an independent professional wrestling show when I was 15, and immediately started making plans to befriend the promoter, and yes, obviously learn how to wrestle, but also take over the writing of his promotion, and then launch my own company by 18, because there’s no actual money in wrestling unless you’re the boss. (Obviously that has changed in the 20 years since, with t shirt and video game money buying multiple houses for even the most basic of talents.)

By my twenties, I got a job selling printers for an office supply company, Sadly, no one in upper management ever listened to me about my re-branding idea to combat that digital revolution that would cripple the paper supply industry while driving channels that funneled profit streams to absorb the changes of the coming decades.

So by the time I picked up a camera somewhere between figuring out how to date in my mid twenties (who wouldn’t want to date a dude whose answer to the “what do you like to do for fun?” Is “writing business plans”) and figuring out how to fund even a single one of aspirations, I should have identified my trend taking the smallest kernel of interest and driving it beyond obsession. 

Ten years ago, right around this time, somewhere between October and February, the idea of being a photographer cracked in my head. I had no idea what the fuck that meant, besides for some random vlogs and videos I saw. So I quit my job, one where I was on a decent career path for a life that would have paid for as house or two by now, and bought a DSLR. I was in my mid-twenties living on a diet of Fuck You and Mountain Dew so this seemed like a good idea. [Also it’s been 19 YEARS since that Pigeon John song Cheerleaders, which I think about every time I utter the words “I was in my mid-twenties….]

I rationalized it a number of ways, the most specific being that I spent the previous 7 years stocking shelves and selling paper clips, and I didn’t want to that the rest of my life, which while is absolutely true, is perhaps not the deeper cause of my resentment towards my job at the time. 

In September of that previous year, 2009, I accomplished the biggest promotion of my entire existence up till that point. One I had been fighting to get for over three years, one I spent countless hours planning, rehearsing, studying, and practicing for. I had finally accomplished one of life’s my biggest ambitions. And I remember that night like it was yesterday, I am sitting on my fiancee’s couch, cuddling with her, and it hit me like the biggest truck ever hit anyone. 

“What now?”

9 months after that night, I found myself turning in my store keys for the final time, and driving 2 hours north to photograph my first MMA show in hopes to one day create beautiful photographs and pay my rent with a camera. I was called crazy for quitting my job, my boss laughed at me, a few of my peers privately told me they wished that could do the same, but they just couldn’t conjure up the courage.

10 years later, we’re in the now. I’m still at the photography thing. I made it to New York City. I’m paying my rent with jobs in the photography industry, some of them even as a photographer. Some of my pictures are objectively beautiful. It has taken me ten years of part time gigs, full time “real” jobs, thousands of miles driven, numerous shutters shattered, and an internal drive that won’t stop spinning. Scratch that shutters shattered line, it sounds lame, even though I did have to replace broken shutters on two cameras (one I blew out cause I was spraying and praying all the time, the other it got fucked up at a Devil Wears Prada show.)

In a way, I’ve made it. In another way, the art of photography is one that one never truly “makes it” in. But I’ve had some minor successes, and I’ve accomplished a lot of large goals. “Making it” is a false narrative in any persons life, really, because we do just keep moving the goal post. The first time I “made it” was getting a press pass to do the three songs/no flash deal at a real big time concert. The last time I made it was a few months ago when I cashed a check from Conde Naste. The goal posts move, the ambition drives the body and brain between the posts, and along the journey I am constantly looking around like that John Travolta GIF. 

What is “making it” now for me? Having my own studio? Getting a fashion-based portfolio together and some meetings at agents? I still don’t have one of my pictures on a vinyl record album cover. What the fuck is actually important to me to accomplish over the next few years, and am I actually working towards something or just filling my time with ambitious ideas but never following through enough to accomplish? Are the pictures I take just reboot of the patterns I developed as a child, when I mapped out a touring schedule for the Slim Jim SuperCar Series that was athletically challenging but also geographically realistic for small budget teams to underdog themselves to success? Is this blog attempt another manifestation of unfocused ambition that started with a grand idea but fell apart because I just get distracted by the next shiny idea on my personal Appalachian Trail?

This all seems extra discombobulated and rambly, but if there is ever anything that is on brand for me, it is various stages of combobulation and hours of rambling questions with no real answers presented, because life is [a highway] a journey and if you have answers you are probably lying to yourself about something.  So I sit here on the couch, pondering the future, the past, the patterns, the turning of the clock on a new decade and new year (and my birth) and the next decade of my life, I can’t help but to ponder,

“what now?”

015: Swift [and selects]

Sorry Mr. Swift but there’s no radio

That likes to play the songs of your lowest sorrow

Just sing us a jingle and we’ll float you some bread

And all it’ll cost you is your heart and your head

Sorry Mr. Swift but you’re much too fat

And could I persuade you just to wear a cap?

I hope you forgive me and I hope you forget

The hurt that I’ve caused ya that you can’t feel yet

Sorry Mr. Swift I know times are tough

We all have plenty still we don’t have enough

I know it’s not funny so I try not to smile

We made you believe that we were worth your while

Sorry everybody for the things I said

Got a wife and kids and a gun to my head

So try to remember, try to hold it near

My name will go missing but the songs will be here

No don’t you feel sorry for I must pay my debts

Still feel like I’m losing but I’m placing my bets

 - Richard Swift [1977-2018] “Artist & Repertoire”, 2007.

Photographs by Michael Todaro, iPhone, New York City, 2019.

014: Monday [and Fever 333]

“If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant.”  - Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903.

My modern relationship with poetry is evolving. I wasn’t educated very well growing up, so my forced exposure to the greats is limited. Throw in an early 20’s avoidance of university, and I end up as a full blown adult, somehow, without dancing with the grand laureates of time. Honestly, my truest desire to learn about poetry was when I was 15, and thought I could use romantic prose to will unsuspecting emo girls into the cyclone of my dating career. A few attempts at memorizing Edgar Allen Poe later, I decided I would be better successful if I crashed my bike in front of the cute jogging girl, and she would help me tend my scrapes, and I’d have a real life female person to talk to. I gave up on this attempt as well, after two practice crashes returned data that I would have to probably harm myself more than anticipated in the original brainstorming session.

So this Rilke dude, I guess he’s famous and big shit in the written word world. The above quote seems challenging, putting down the gauntlet to the one who requested advice. A more modern version of the same statement, is a quote from an unknown orator, and more appropriate to the visual artist rather than the lyrical creator, is that “there is five great photographs waiting to be made all around you at any particular moment.” Whether it be a light and shape study of the pencil cup on your desk, or an intimate profile of the Bic you dropped on the floor a few days ago, it is your job, as a visual explorer, to find the story in the shadows, bring out the feelings from hiding in plain sight around you, and communicate that emotion to the correct audience. 

If we are to re-write the Rilke quote, for the picture generation, perhaps it would be stated as thus: “If you sense there are no pictures, then your sixth sense is not honed or educated. Do not blame the lack of gear, the location, nor the light, but only blame yourself, for you are simply not muscled enough to pry the frame from the air around you.”

Photographers love buts. Not the Nicki Minaj butts of the current zeitgeist, but the excuses we lament upon ourselves for bad images. ‘I would have shot a better, more interesting frame, but the autofocus on my crop sensor camera is shite.” “It was too dark the ISO is noisy.” “I forgot my memory card.” “The subject was late and then he was an asshole.” If photography is to be an honest exploration, and that is a conversation we can have at a separate occasion, we must first be truly honest with ourselves. Look in the bathroom mirror at why our images don’t communicate. Look deep into the eyes of the one holding you back. 

And now it’s Monday, time for the work to begin. Let us take a deep breath in the moment between us waking up and the sun rising, and prepare for the war of artistry we shall embark on this upcoming week. Let us shake off the feelings of inadequacies and unworthiness, let us cast aside the shiny objects that are demanding attention at this moment, for us to allow focus on the greatest cause, our life’s work of an artistic journey. Let us not not accept last week’s excuses, and let us not craft new ones. The internal rants of the previous seasons can be closed up, we’ve listened to them, and now it is time to move on. The successes or perceived failures of the yestermoment are gone. It is a new week, a new season, and a new chapter on your journey.

Let’s go exploring. 

Here’s The Fever 333 from a few months ago: 

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