Not dead yet! Can you be too old to shoot?
“It’s a young man’s business.” I had challenged what Tim Lindsay, chief executive officer of D&AD, had said about ageism in advertising, during an interview, in London. D&AD, the most prestigious advertising and design awards programme in the world and the most prestigious educational charity in the world, responsible for training the next generation of creative professionals, is a staunch advocate of diversity. This makes its stand on age even more difficult to fathom. Except that it is endemic in advertising and editorial. Why are even champions of diversity so resistant to tackling ageism? Candide McDonald investigates.
Advertising and editorial are two industries that are primary sources of income for countless professional photographers. Both are primary catalysts for culture – how people feel about things, what they want, and what matters. So ageism in these industries is a twofold problem. To be fair, both industries are currently trying to address diversity and gender equality – two problems that are equally pressing.
Sadly, ageism is not yet seen as bad for business, although the seeds of this have begun to germinate. People are living longer. The world’s consumers are getting older. Global agency group, McCann Worldgroup, presented its Australian study, Truth About Age, in Sydney, in May, to unlock how people feel about getting older. In a recent event in London, held in support of Women’s Aid, prejudice against older women in creative industries became part of a headline topic. And magazines are beginning to celebrate older women on their covers and in features. (Although not one of the magazines we invited to have a voice in this article agreed to do so.)
In both these industries, the commissioners, the people who hire other creatives, including photographers, are young. The average age of an Australian journalist is 37 and half of our journalists are under 35 (Folker Hanusch, 2016). The average age of an Australian marketer is 27 (PWC, 2016). The obsession with youth comes from the two industries’ shared focus – the next big thing. Young people are seen as the bearers of fresh thinking, enthusiasm, and creative curiosity. Are they?
Old blood, meet new abilities
The aging brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain, according to Shelly H. Carson Ph.D. in Psychology Today. So is the creative brain. Aging brains score better on tests of crystallised IQ, she notes, and creative brains use crystallised knowledge to make novel and original associations. Older people are also better able to use the distracting information to solve problems, she continues. As the brain changes with age, people feel the need to please and impress others less, which is a notable characteristic of creative luminaries as well. And “intelligence studies show that older individuals have access to an increasing store of knowledge gained over a lifetime of learning and experience. Combining bits of knowledge into novel and original ideas is what the creative brain is all about,” she added.
Psychologist, Dean Keith Simonton, in Scientific American, makes two further points. The first is that creative “career age has more bearing on someone’s creative trajectory than chronological age. Hence, early bloomers who start young will have their peak shifted forward, whereas late bloomers who start older will have their pinnacle delayed. Some late bloomers do not truly hit their stride until their 60s or 70s.” The second is that “creative people vary greatly in total lifetime productivity. At one extreme are the one-hit wonders, who make single contributions; their creativity is almost over before it begins. At the other end of the spectrum are highly prolific creators who make dozens, if not hundreds, of contributions and who are often still going strong well into their 60s and 70s, if not beyond.”
So the idea that you can be too old to shoot is unlikely to be true. But can you be too old to earn a living shooting? This is a question that should be burning. Because if someone doesn’t light the flame, no one will bother to put it out.
Shannon Stoddart is the founder of The Kitchen Creative Management. Her answer is encouraging. “What we are seeing more and more is that older creatives are a valuable commodity. They bring with them technical and practical experience that you don’t always find with younger photographers who have been brought up in the digital age,” she says. “We don’t promote our photographers based on their age. What is important is talent and ability,” Stoddart adds. “Age does not define a photographer, their style does. If they are contemporary and their work has a timeless quality, they will have longevity in their career. If a photographer is married to a particular style, that has aged or is dated, then they may fall behind. It is exactly the same with design and fashion. Great designers have longevity, they move with the times, they stay in fashion. If a photographer is contemporary, if their work is current, if they are flexible to changing with the trends and styles in photography, then age isn’t really relevant.”
Old myths, meet new perspectives
Just how much age prejudice is there in advertising and editorial? “When someone books a photographer, they don’t ask or necessarily know how old someone is. They are booking them based on their style and work,” Stoddart notes. “If you are good at what you do, professional, confident, and can get the job done, that is paramount. The Kitchen represents some photographers who have been in the business for 30 years and are seasoned pros, and we represent some younger photographers who don’t have the years of experience, but are extremely talented and willing to work hard to gain experience. If budget is an issue, agencies may tend to go for younger, more inexperienced photographers as they will often do it for cheaper rates.”
Can you be too old to shoot? “No. If you can hold a camera, you can shoot,” Stoddart continues. “Just like great artists, some photographers do their best work in later life. I think it has been hard for some of the more seasoned photographers to transition into digital culture. Clients demand much more nowadays, and generally budgets are reduced which has an impact on the quality of the work. You are not crafting an image, so much as ‘getting the shot’. There is a greater demand for ‘content’, and the more content the better. It is a different way of working, there are different expectations. Photographers have had to adapt to a faster pace and deliver a wider range of shots in a day.”
Do older photographers get stale? “Yes,” according to Stoddart. “The ones who don’t move with the times do. They need to work hard to stay inspired and relevant.” What do young photographers bring? “They can bring a fresh perspective, a different approach. A lot of young photographers started shooting on digital cameras and cut their teeth on this new way of working. They have an excellent grasp on the latest technology. The biggest difference we see is that younger photographers embrace, and are skilled at, using social platforms, and this can open a lot of doors. Older photographers are not always as tech savvy and that can have an impact on the promotion of their work.”
The answer of Sam Montgomery, executive photography producer, Hogarth Australia, contains, instead, a challenge to older photographers. “I don’t think age is the first thought that commissioners have when deciding between photographers. The current trend in a lot of advertising, but especially fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), is to engage their audience with authenticity. For some brands, the strategy is to use young photographers, stylists, art directors to create this work because they live the culture and understand their audience. A lot of younger photographers have their own strong social brands that commissioning brands are leveraging in formal and informal ways,” he says. The best young photographers, he says, bring a sense of fearlessness. They understand their culture and can talk to it. But the best of the experienced photographers continue to see the world with fresh eyes and “for some sectors, their deep understanding of the craft is essential”.
New commissioners, meet real oldies
Gary Heery is 69. His business is thriving. He no longer relies on either advertising agencies or editorial assignments for income. He has a collection of long-term clients for whom he works and who respect his knowledge. “I don’t get a lot of art direction these days. I’m often asked, ‘What would you like to do?’” Most of his income now, however, comes from his print and book sales.
“If you’d asked me to talk to you about this ten years ago, I would have told myself, ‘Don’t go near it’,” he confesses. “I suppose there is a feeling that it’s a young man’s business. At 59, panic set it. Now at 69, I just say, ‘Oh well’, and get on with business. Five years ago, I did a retrospective book. It was the best work I’ve ever done, and since then I’ve been busy. I don’t give a shit any more. I’m embracing being old and I’m going to work until I drop.” Heery notes that it’s completely acceptably respectable in New York for older people to be photographers. “If they’re not dead, they’re working,” he says.
Heery still has to pay his bills, but he shoots because he still loves it. “You’ve got to make it rewarding. If it’s drudgery, it will show in your work.” This is one of the reasons he keeps a lot of irons in his fire. “In any business, you’re building a wall of success brick by brick. You’ve got to keep building it. I’ve got a lot of bricks laid down, but there’s still a way to go.” As for becoming less creative, Heery has found the opposite to be true. His most recent project is a book of portraits. But not just any portraits. Heery takes the initial shots, then gives each subject the file. That person is allowed to do “whatever they like” to the image. Heery then re-shoots it and adds it to the book. The project came with an unexpected bonus for Heery. “Usually, you shoot a portrait and the person leaves. With my project, I’m going back and forth with people, interacting with them, developing relationships with them.” When asked what he thought experience brings, Heery’s answer was decisive – “Everything. I can now look at something and see it as a finished picture. Even in black and white. I’m very fast at what I do, and very efficient. Heery’s book, Birds, won the People’s Choice Award in the 2016 Australian Photobook of the Year Awards. His documentary, Heery’s World, is being screened by Qantas and has just been sold though Amazon to six countries, including the US.
George Seper recalls that on his 65th birthday no one was handing him a gold watch. “But I supposed that this was my own fault, since I decided to follow the road less travelled and spend my working life as a freelance photographer, instead of a company man. Ageism, it seems, is a long-established tradition, but now I’m wondering if it is affecting me directly and if it’s always unfair, or just a fact of life?” To work it out, Seper, reconsidered his own youthful years. “I cut my photographic teeth in the mid-1970’s magazine industry, fashion magazines specifically, who by their nature embrace change and exalt youth and youth culture. There were a few ‘oldies’ around. I remember them as being all women, with fierce intellects, acerbic wit, vast cultural and historic knowledge, and style for days. My God they were intimidating, and I recall being terrified that they would discover how little I actually knew once I stepped from behind the camera and spoke. Those old girls were a treasure trove of knowledge, and I owe more to them than I can express, not only for my professional success, but also for generously sharing some of what they knew with me.”
Do his young work colleagues in 2018 treat him similarly? “Maybe...perhaps...maybe not so much,” Seper says. “Knowledge is much easier to acquire than it used to be. Easier than it has ever been, in fact. I have probably learned more from YouTube in the past few years than I did in seven years at university, so knowledge these days is abundantly free flowing and is not worth what it used to be.” Seper says he is kept youthful by his young wife and two daughters, who “predictably express their disdain for my antiquated ideals, ideas, prejudices, and values, and in a Herculean effort they drag me kicking and screaming into the early 21st century.”
Seper is aware that the technology gap divides the old and young like nothing that has come before. “It’s not just the gadgets, apps, and jargon. Digital technology came fully loaded with a lifestyle change that has infected modern times much like a virus.” And then there is social media. “As I was hitting my straps and started to become ‘famous’ there was a lot of currency to be gained by being enigmatic. Being enigmatic meant that you were hard to predict and somewhat known, but not well known, and this made people curious, and they sought you out to find out more. Being enigmatic is the antithesis of today’s social media landscape.”
So why do “oldies” like Seper still get hired? “Risking being accused of great hubris, I’d have to put it down to talent,” he says. “It’s not for no reason that old photographers like Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, Horst, Helmut Newton, and many others were prolific right up until the bell rang. Richard Avedon, one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, died in his eighties, and on the job. Like all professionals, in the end it’s talent that wins the day. Once your figure and looks go south and your patois takes a side street, talent in its stripped-down form is all we have to offer. No one visits the Louvre and considers that da Vinci, Rembrandt, Manet, Monet, Picasso, and others painted some of their best works when they were old men.”
It’s undeniable that ageism is a touchy topic. As with gender inequality and lack of diversity not so long ago, silence is considered to be the easy way to deal with it. A number of people approached from advertising agencies declined to comment, along with their editorial counterparts. So, too, did many mid-age photographers.
Does ageism exist? “Sure, and it always has. I was rarely tempted to work with my parent’s contemporaries when I was young, and little has changed I’d wager,” Seper notes. Does ageism affect everyone as they age? “It needn’t if you concentrate over the course of your career on amassing skills and refining your talent,” he says. “Remaining true to one’s vision and speaking with one’s own voice is paramount, rather than trying desperately to keep up, when this time is clearly not ours.”
Stoddart doesn’t think you can be too old to shoot. “Experience counts for a lot. With experience comes confidence and the ability to deliver on the brief without rounds of endless shooting,” she notes. “Having learnt to shoot on film means that a lot more preparation and consideration goes into crafting the image, lighting, and composition. Shooting on digital is a faster process, the results are instant, and so clients are not relying on the photographers’ vision and expertise.
Experienced photographers are great at improvising and problem solving, Stoddart adds. “They can find alternative solutions and improvise when something isn’t working, when you don’t have the right conditions, the weather turns, you lose your natural light. Younger photographers may not have the knowledge or experience to deal with situations like that. More inexperienced photographers also tend to shoot a lot more, without necessarily knowing when they have the shot. Digital can often mean more time editing and making shot selects. Instead of using five rolls of film and making shot selects from 30 frames, we are seeing selects being made from hundreds of images.”
And Heery’s thoughts? “The next generation better hope you can’t be too old to shoot. We’re them. We’re just further down the road.”
Last word: Meet a bloke in the middle
The final word comes from Craig Wall. He’s 49 and, he admits, no longer a “young, emerging” photographer. “All around me I see new up-and-comers, all ambitious and hungry for success. Some of these people I know are going to be stars in the not-too-distant future, purely because I can see their relentless persistence in growing their skill sets, continually developing and refining their signature styles, and most importantly, are exuberant and passionate about the craft to the exclusion of almost everything else.” But he believes that you can never be too old “unless you allow that to be your mantra, or if you lose your passion for the craft or become weary of the hustle required to stay on top of the game.”
“Most importantly, as photographers we should hold on to the joy of creating beautiful imagery first, and worry about material success second,” Wall says. “That’s not always easy when you have a family and a mortgage, but without the passion for image making, I think you will see people fly past you and you will be slowly edged out of the market. When that happens, you really will feel as though you are too old to shoot.”
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