Not Good Enough

The City Still Sleeps

Just not good enough.

Man, what a set of words. What powerful set of words. Thought provoking, if you may. Can incite an incredible deal of emotion from thoughtfulness, to anger, to hate, sadness and depression, tears from any beat down man or woman. This phrase, this question, this realization is such an evil thing, albeit a necessary evil. So, what in the hell has this have to do with taking photos? Buckle up, yinz guys, grab a sandwich with fries on it, a pierogi or two, a beer born in Pittsburgh and read on, n'at.

I wrote an article/blog entry a little while back titled I saw the light. In that little story, I outlined at what point I started to see things photographically speaking entirely different, where a style and the way I make images was "born". I wrote how confidence behind the camera is key, and to be honest any form of artistry whether it be being a photographer, a musician, poet, writer, whatever it may be has, in my opinion, a lot of reliance in confidence. Some people on this earth have a natural ability in the arts, some people on the other hand have...the word I want to use is issues, and that's what I'll have to use at the time being because I can't think right now what other word I can think of to use. Some people in the arts have issues with the talent they're trying to take part of.

In the I saw the light article, I wrote about how I struggled with this confidence. The ups and downs and ups and downs and it went on and on and it never seemed to end. No end in sight. But when things started to change, they changed fast, a style was born into what I am today in the photography world and I wouldn't change a thing. Here we go...

When I started taking photos I literally had no idea what I was doing. I'm sure that's how 99% of everyone who picks up a camera for the first time feels. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, composition, light angles? Sure, yeah those. Yeah I push those buttons all the time, no problem. But as you're saying that, you're really thinking what in the three rivers is going on here. In train photo speak, in my spare time only on sunny days I would go trackside to shoot eastbounds in the mornings, shoot westbounds in the afternoon. What's that? A cloud, time to go home. Rain? Time to sit at home and have a frosty beverage or two and pig out on ketchup chips and sheetz. Another sunny day, time to slap on the telephoto, zoom all the way in and shoot fish in a barrel on the straightest track I could find. Over and over again, but I was content with it. I was enjoying it. And that's all that matters right? After all this a hobby. I'm not getting paid for this, there's no stress, it's what I liked to do in my spare time.

The downturn

After a couple of years of shooting the same thing, the same way over and over again, I wasn't so much getting bored but just complacent. I was ok with settling with images that looked the same, that didn't have any creativity at all. I tried branching out of my comfort zone, and honestly just by luck I came away with some different images. One of those right place at the right time sort of things. But after a while, I in fact was starting to get bored. But as per usual, I was ok with that. I never strove for better. Again I didn't care what anyone else thought, I'm still not making trillions over railroad images, my name wasn't in lights, on billboards, etc. And just to clarify, I don't expect any of that. What I do today, I'm very happy with at the level I'm at.

I discovered a website that all, and I mean all, railroad photographers know very well : I was introduced to crazy good images and the photographers that produced them. I would go out and try to mimic what they were doing. But this is key, it's very important. Photography is very subjective, ones style or even simply the photograph itself is the creators own mind. They can only see what they're seeing, they can only portray the scene and subject in a way that is unique to them. It's their style. And I never realized this. This was my biggest fault, this was my downturn.

Very, very quickly I took a nasty downward spiral and eventual fall to rock bottom. I was amazed at the likes of photographers such as Travis Dewitz, Walter Scriptunas, the Danneman's, Scott Lothes to name a few out of a few dozen that still knock it out of the park today. They were in my eyes celebrities in this niche "market" of rail photography. I wanted to not only be like them, but be them. I never realized at that point in my work that they had a style unique to them. And believe it or not, this was the start of a very long journey of what I've accomplished to this day.

What am I doing wrong? Am I not good enough?

So, when I tried to mimic what others have done with their images I expeditiously realized that I would fail. I would fail each and every time. With this failure came a host of feelings, from anger to sadness to just plain frustration. And that nasty set of words first planted itself in my creative mind in a form of a question. Am I not good enough? I became obsessed with this. Not that good kind of obsessed either. Is there a good kind of obsessed? I think so, below I'll explain, but for this point in my life it wasn't good guys, it wasn't very good at all.

When I would go out, I would force it. Not try to force it, I was full fledge forcing images. Creating some really terrible stuff. Why? I was forcing someone else's style on myself. And at the time I had no idea that was their style, something created that's unique to them. You see someones style in photography is like DNA, everyone on this earth and beyond has a unique DNA. Same applies to images. I often say "I can teach you how to take a photograph, but I can't teach you how to see." What was my camera settings? Sure, I'll tell you, but my brain processes a scene that's unique to me and I was naive to this concept.

Frustration built, taller than the tallest building you can imagine. I was fighting myself, I wasn't having fun anymore. This felt more like a job, and again, a job I wasn't getting paid for, so is this worth it? My young dumb self wanted recognition, notoriety, purpose in the rail photo community. My nastiest of Ben Sutton came out, my frustration spilt over to lashing out, being a complete douche, an asshole (sorry for the language). I wasn't a pleasant person. But I knew I had a passion for being behind a camera, so I didn't give up quite yet.

Man, maybe you're just not good enough, brother.

I needed a break, I needed to stop trying to be a photographer that I wasn't. I knew I had to change drastically or I would just end up quitting. You see, I'm naturally competitive. I'm always planning to be one step ahead of everyone else. Is it a fault? To an extent, maybe, but I always plan for the worst in my life beyond taking images. I can never be too careful, I can never crane my neck enough to watch my back. It's a trait that I've tried to improve on, but that's another story for another time.

I took my best friend Ross up to the mountains around Altoona. Rail friends call it the West Slope. A very popular area, less now that the old PRR signals are now gone, but still an enjoyable area none the less. I just wanted to have a fun weekend with my friend, I needed to rediscover the fun in the hobby. We spent a couple days up there, and that's when the feature image in the I saw the light article was born. The turning point, you might call it. When I took that sunrise photo, as I said in the article, I knew a train was coming up the mountain westbound. Perched up at Tunnelhill. And as mentioned, I was pretty pissed that there was a train against the sun and I was so over trying to be everyone else I decided to shoot it anyways. See, we were up there camping out of the car because it was quiet and far enough from people that we could get some rest.

What happened next, was nothing short of a figurative lightbulb in my head. I took that sunrise shot, the sun just over the mountains as the train appeared. All the rules I've been following, all the guidelines, all the "normal" ways of taking a train photo, were thrown off that mountain we were standing on. The scene in front of me that I was snapping photos of was like an act of God. That finally, my demons of mimicking of everyone else's style paid off and I was set. Every image from there on out, I thought, would be spectacular just like this one. I'll show everyone, I thought. And man alive, when I thought I was up, I fell even harder and further before. True, I realized I could break the rules. I realized you don't have to have the sun at your back, I realized that it could be done. But I still tried to be like everyone else.

That old frustration, that old pent up anger, that nastiness crept back in. I became depressed with my work. I thought way too much, take for example the sunrise at Tunnelhill. I somehow managed to revert back, thinking that shot was pure luck. Ok, yes the sun rising at the same exact time a heavy westbound appeared at the exact right moment might have been luck. But me forgetting about rules, and trying to not copy others and beginning to rough draft a style that I was still oblivious too wasn't luck. But like I just said, I didn't realize that. Countless nights, I would sit at my desk. Staring into a blank space, looking through others photos, arms crossed, more often than not head in my hands. Looking down, just telling myself and convincing myself : "Man, maybe you're just not good enough, brother." I often get reminded whenever I have a bad day of something I would always say "I'm just gonna go ahead and sell all my gear" and it may have seemed like I was starving for attention, but it was a battle I was fighting and I was 100% serious. This wall I've been climbing, clawing with bloody hands, would almost get to the top but just fall right back down. And that phrase, that nasty phrase of you're not good enough would be waiting for me. At the bottom. If it had arms and legs just poking and prodding at me telling me I'm not good enough over and over and over again. I had it, I had enough, I couldn't and I wouldn't take it anymore. My confidence as a photographer was gone. Depleted. There wasn't anymore to have. I was done. Until...

What I've tried to be is what my style is today.

If you look through my portfolio, you'll see that I take great pride in shooting against the grain. Fast forward to maybe 5 to possibly 7 years ago from that very rock bottom, I asked myself what is it that I can do, or try to do, that no one really is trying. At that point I was trying to throw things at a wall and see what sticks. And, of course, that didn't work. Again I was trying to force it way too much. And that freaking never ending cycle of confidence to no confidence over and over again reared its ugly head yet again. And at that point I was over it, just completely "whatever". It is what it is. And that's it right there, I stopped caring. I stopped caring what others thought, I stopped caring, truly, about rules. I stopped caring about weather conditions, I stopped caring about taking a "proper" image.

This was the turning point.

Again, if you look through my images, I there's one common theme. I like, no, I love to shoot in weather conditions any photographer "following the rules" would keep their camera in their camera bag for another day. I'll shoot at ISO 1000 and beyond if need be, I'll slow my shutter to as slow at 1/80 if need be. I put all technicalities aside (to a point) and just shoot what a see. 5 to 7 years ago, I believe, is when my style was born. And at that point, I realized it. I finally took a hold of it, and I ran with it. And I'm still running with it today. We as human beings, in my observations, love a cinematic look. And I'm not sure if it's a look we all love, or if it's a "how in the hell did he do that" question that begs to be asked. The world, let alone rail movements, don't stop for a rain drop or two. What I've tried to be is what my style is today.

What does that mean? To me, I personally feel that looking back I was developing my style, but I didn't realize what was happening because I was so concerned about what everyone else was doing. But don't mistake it, it can take a lot of hard work. As I said in the beginning of this, some folks are blessed with natural talent in the arts. For most it takes time, but YOU have to develop that eye. Whether or not it takes you over a decade to discover your eye and ability to see is up to you. I can't see what you see, you can't see what I see. Sure, we can be standing next to each other and we can literally see the same thing, but what we do with it are going to be totally separate visions.

Going back to my style and preferences to how and what I shoot, I take a lot of pride now in what I capture. At the point when I realized what my style, which changes a little bit here and there and that's OK, I started to think like a cinematographer. I carefully coordinate and plan out shots in my mind. And that "you're not good enough" parasite that burrowed into my brain has turned into a well oiled machine that's always thinking about what I want to put out there. And it's not limited to only cloudy rainy photos, if I have this big shot thought up in my mind I'll go weeks if not a month watching weather patterns, sunrise or sunset angles, rail traffic patterns, and that is where it usually hits a roadblock.

I can plan out everything except the trains. I'm just a dude who takes photos of trains, I'm at the mercy of the railroad. At the time of this writing, there's a shot that's in the years of the making. Not even kidding. Conditions have to be just right, but also a train has to appear in those exact conditions within a 20 minute window and it hasn't happened quite yet. It's come close, but hopefully more trials will turn into the image I have in my mind. You see, this is the fun part of it for me. I love planning, it keeps me going. Rainy weather? I love that too, so much that again, it's been my style. I'm a moody person, and it's what has molded my style to what it is today. I was recently told through somebody else this : "You can't always shoot on rainy days".

Well, no you can't, but that's what I want to do. That's what I do. That's how I shoot, and I don't intend to stop anytime soon. You see with low light, no light or muted light, you're given a literal raw scene. You can do whatever you want with it. You don't have to worry about harsh shadows, you don't have to worry about being on a certain side of a scene, the time of day, etc. I love it. It allows me to freely use my creative eye as much as possible. And not every shot I take comes out a "winner" either, there's many that will just sit on my hard drive that will probably not see the light of day. Ha, pretty ironic, eh?

But, I'll tell you something. I can plan out and execute these shots I have thought up in my mind. I can storyboard as much as I want, plan as I outlined above. I get excited about a shot before I even attempt to take it.

I can take a train photo against a rising sun against the city of Pittsburgh.

Grainy Steel Sun

I can take a train photo in pouring rain at the very last light beyond blue hour.

Untitled photo

I can take a train photo against a sun that's already set.

Sun and Steel

I can take a train photo in faded light.

The Original

I can take a train photo before the sun even thinks about rising.

Untitled photo

But there's one thing I can and I will tell you, that those words that can be taken as a doubt "Am I not good enough", or a self inflicted beat down "Man, maybe you're just not good enough, brother", has transformed into a style that pushes me beyond the next shot and keeps me striving for something better. A phrase I tell myself every time I take a photo that will push me to create an even better image, a phrase that will have me plan and storyboard the next creation from conception, to executing and editing. It pushes me, it inspires me, it doesn't let me go back into my old ways. It forces, in a very good way, me to strive for something better more and more each time. It reminds me I've got something here, I have finally developed a style. Wanna know what that phrase is every time I take an image and present it to you guys?

This isn't good enough.