31 January, 2020

Retro: A long look back and a little peek forward

There's a saying, originally by André Gide, that "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore."

Every December, from 2012 through 2017, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill was a mainstay of my photographic schedule. It was always a huge challenge, as well as a huge opportunity.

The challenge was to see the race in a different way, from a new perspective, every single year. But the opportunity was a chance to witness facets of the race that are often hidden from view, and to use them to help people understand why that race was — is — so special and so unique.

In fact, when I made my first book, "Behind the 25," my approach was to gradually peel back the layers of the 2016 race, starting with the pomp and circumstance of the event, and ending with tense moments inside the control tower that even many racers might never witness.
That book reminded me of my love for physical media. And looking back, my experience with physical media has been a trait that continues to differentiate me from other photographers. Being able to work just as comfortably in pixels or picas is a skill that was and still is valuable. Knowing about things like bleeds and trapping and rich black makes it intuitive for me to make reasonable design and publication decisions.
So in late 2018, I decided to skip the 25-Hour race. I had no idea what would show up to fill the ensuing vacuum, but I had the sense that I wanted to find out.

In a lot of ways, 2019 was a year in which I returned to my roots, and then branched in new directions. And it's taken living through the year, and now looking back, to realize all the ways that I revisited aspects of photography that I have both loved and lost over the years. And at the same time, I also made inroads on goals that have only been on the horizon for ages.
Track and field was, in many ways, the genesis of my love for photography. I got my first camera while on the track team in high school, and I took that camera to every meet and shot the pictures that I could. It's what taught me to make do with the equipment that I have available, and to always keep a camera at my side.

Fast forward to 2019, when I shot the 2019 Prefontaine Classic. It's the first met that I've shot that is part of an international series (the Diamond League). It's the first meet I've shot where infield access is tightly controlled. It was a challenge and an adventure, and I came away with work that made me proud. I've come so far from that little point and shoot, but the fundamental enjoyment of being out there is the just the same.

To take this particular step, I started with a foundation that I've been building for the last three years, and then I made the case for another differentiating strength of mine: storytelling. Here's how I phrased it:
"[…] the venue has always been one of the defining characteristics of the Prefontaine Classic. And given that the original Hayward Field is gone, I can't help but imagine that this year's Classic will form part of an inflection point for the meet. I would love the opportunity to use my skills and expertise to help document this moment in history."
Later in the year, I was contracted to do technical illustrations for the newest edition of a textbook that has sold millions of copies. It felt peculiar at first to be pitching against people whose full-time professions were design and illustration, but what carried me through was again the focus on my differentiating strengths.

In this case, I have a background in pre-press work (owing to my time as photo editor of MIT's independent student newspaper, The Tech), I had previously published a book of my own, and I also have a technical background in a field that was relevant to the subject material. I could not only make the diagrams — I could understand what they were trying to convey, and make them better than the original designs.
Which leads us to 2020. I have so many ideas. I have so many goals. I want to do even more work that has a physical manifestation. I've been thinking about doing another book. I want to tell more stories that might not fit in the blog. I want to get to more big meets, and keep figuring out how to make a return on the value of the work I produce there.

I can't see the future, but I'm excited to do my best to turn 2020 into another great year. I've already started.

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