Episode 19

Have I been ‘cosplaying’ a photographer?

If you don’t feel inspired by your subject matter, maybe you’ve outgrown it. Perhaps you need to move the goalposts farther out to challenge yourself. Or maybe, it’s time to pass the torch.

Show Notes

Transcript

If you don’t feel inspired by your subject matter, maybe you’ve outgrown it. Perhaps you need to move the goalposts farther out to challenge yourself. Or maybe, it’s time to pass the torch.

Hello and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

Last week I made my annual Labor Day Weekend trip to Atlanta for DragonCon, the largest pop culture con on the east coast. I’ve been to this particular event almost every year since 2012. Of course, no one attended last year because of the pandemic.

The usual 85,000 or so fanatics that take over downtown Atlanta for five days, were numbered about 42,000 this year. I don’t think anyone minded the lower attendance, since lines were shorter, crowds weren’t as dense and hotel elevators weren’t as jammed up as they usually are. That being said, the vibe was certainly “off.” I guess that’s what happens after more than a year and a half of isolation and Covid fatigue, mixed with volatile political division, and various forms of uncertainty.

Masks were the norm almost everywhere, even on the streets. Proof of vaccine or negative covid test results were required of each con-goer. The safety measures were certainly a plus, as I think this was the first year I didn’t return home with a case of the dreaded “Con Crud” -- a nasty little two or three-day cold and sore throat souvenir that always makes me vow to never return.

DragonCon has always been my favorite photographic testing area. It’s a huge con for cosplayers, and there are opportunities everywhere, all the time, to shoot photos of interesting people and costumes. These folks want to be seen and photographed, so even if you’re shy, it’s easy to approach people.

I’m not sure I was even aware of the term “cosplay” when I first arrived in 2012, and I didn’t know what to expect at DragonCon, but I was eager to put some new gear to the test. I’d just managed to buy a Canon 5D Mark II and the 50mm f/1.2 lens, which turned out to be the perfect combo for shooting portraits, full length and close-up, in everything from broad daylight to the low light inside hotel lobbies. As soon as I arrived it was a sensory overload, and there was something to photograph anywhere I aimed my camera.

DragonCon, Atlanta, Ga., 2012

The images I shot that year remain my favorites, even nearly a decade later. In a way, they established a template for my “con photography,” for better or worse.

Cosplay, largely a Japanese phenomenon that rose in popularity from the 1980s, really seemed to explode in popularity here in the U.S. in the 2010s, and some photographers capitalized on it. A new sub-genre of photography was essentially born, one that involved fantasy, craftsmanship, creative lighting, dramatic posing, and in some cases, extensive pre- and post-production. Cosplay photography, done right, is a creative collaboration; you’re more than just a hired gun. Cosplayers fabricate their costumes, and it’s up to a photographer to tell that character’s story, while showing off the features and craftsmanship of the costume. Some of you may recall several television shows on the Sci-Fi network dealing with this culture, the notable one being “Heroes of Cosplay.” DragonCon itself started taking notice of the intersection of photography and cosplay, and hired “official” con photographers to provide Olin Mills-like services to cosplayers.

One of the greatest areas to gather for cosplay photography was the rear courtyard of the Hilton, where perfect light was possible at all times of the day owing to an abundance of open shade, and reflective surfaces. The buildings, and even the ground, are light, neutral colors that provide wonderful fill light. The Hilton, noticing the popularity of this area as a gathering place, eventually turned it into a party destination, complete with a bar and a very loud DJ. In doing so, that ruined the exclusivity of it somewhat, transforming it into a chaotic space for drunken revelry. Fortunately, you can still find some quiet areas on the opposite side, and it’s not unusual to see a shooter setup multiple lights in the open shade and work with subjects they’ve just met or through some pre-arrangement.

Another very popular gathering place for photographers is Hardy Ivy Park, which features a stone archway that looks somewhat like a medieval castle. This pairs up well with certain cosplays, and on busy days, it can be hard to find a spot to use, as some photographers bring lights and stake out a spot for the day. There are endless other options around the city that can be used, after all, it is downtown Atlanta, you have everything from abandoned buildings and historic facades, to glassy skyscrapers. You can even visit the so-called “Walking Dead” bridge for the ultimate cityscape backdrop.

So, as a subgenre, shooting cosplay can be really fun. It’s somewhat adjacent to another subgenre I’ve enjoyed shooting in years past: Ladies roller derby.

After my first DragonCon I was eager to shoot more cosplay, so I attended a few local events, a steampunk con in the upstate, and small events here locally. I was even assigned to cover Columbia Comic Con for a local magazine in late summer of 2019, just before the world turned upside down. But year after year, DragonCon was the main attraction that I always looked forward to every Labor Day Weekend. Other cons paled in comparison to it.

Each year I’ve been trying to recapture the magic of my first DragonCon experience. For the most part, I’ve been successful, but I’ve noticed a decline in my work in recent years, and I certainly reached the nadir of uninspired portraits this year. I shot so few photos, compared to how much time I spent lugging gear around, that I must have looked like I was cosplaying a photographer, rather than being one. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t feeling it.

So, I’ve been trying to parse what exactly happened to me and determine why the thrill of this subgenre that I once embraced has seemingly vanished.

This year was going to be different, in that I finally had the kit I thought I needed to be successful. I was carrying two full-frame cameras and had my favorite street portrait lenses with me. I was covered from 14mm to 85mm with fast zooms and primes. For the first time I had two identically featured camera bodies, one for wide shots, the other for telephoto.

I’ve had a few years where I tried to do something atypical, with mixed, but interesting results. For example, in 2017 while in the midst of my photo-a-day project, I used nothing but a Fujifilm X100F at 35mm. Those were very different from my usual con shots, but they were interesting -- more like documentary photography. The next year I decided to take a Mamiya RB67, a heavy medium format film camera that required a tripod and handheld light meter. That was an extremely slow method, but again, the results were unique -- gorgeous, shallow depth of field and rich detail, even in wide shots.

DragonCon 2017, Fuji X100F

I quickly discovered this year that gear had nothing to do with my images. I lacked motivation. The images felt like work, as if I was trying to hit some kind of quota. I just didn’t feel like shooting them. The subject matter didn’t interest me.

For me, it’s never been about the costumes, because in general, I don’t find the costumes themselves that interesting. I do consider myself a huge nerd, but more in a computer geek, hobby, and science kind of way. I can’t ID the majority of the costumes people wear at these cons anyway -- If they are carrying a big weapon, I assume it’s something related to anime. If I see brass gears, then it’s steampunk. Superhero bodysuits and capes? Well, Marvel or DC, one or the other. I know Star Trek from Star Wars, and that’s about the best I can do.

However, that’s never stopped me from enjoying the photographic process. But this year I just felt like I was trying to repeat a formula -- one that had gone stale. I think subconsciously I knew this before I even tried to shoot a photo.

The problem is that too much time has elapsed. Too much water has gone under the bridge so to speak. I was in my mid-30s when I started attending DragonCon. Naturally, my attitudes and philosophies have changed in nine years. I’m now closer to age 50 than 40. There have been major life changes: For instance, I’ve had four different jobs in the past decade; there are family members who are no longer with us; I’ve had a health scare or two that caused me to re-evaluate certain aspects of my life.

Collectively, we’ve all been dealing with the stress of the pandemic. Suddenly, taking these photos felt frivolous and pointless.

But it wasn’t just that. I realized my entire approach had changed from that first year I attended. In 2012, I wasn’t photographing people because I thought their costumes were interesting. I was taking their picture because there was something about THEM that was interesting. Something in their face or eyes, or even the way they were standing -- not posing.

DragonCon 2018, Mamiya RB67, Kodak Portra 400

In fact, I asked almost everyone for their permission before I took their picture, and often I instructed them to remain standing just as they were. I wasn’t trying to make photos of superheroes or fancy costumes. I don’t like superhero poses. I just wanted my subjects to stand there and give a deadpan stare into the lens.

My goal was simply to make photos of people who just happened to be wearing costumes. And I was trying to photograph them all the same way, without camera tricks or pretense. The work of August Sander was always in the back of my mind -- the German photographer whose best-known portraits were of citizens in the Weimar Republic -- who photographed the homeless with the same dignity as artists and professionals.

At some point through the years, I lost that philosophy. My images became more about quantity, rather than quality. Maybe it did become more about the costumes than the people. I treated con photography like a job, and there were times when it caused me anxiety -- for instance, if I felt like I wasn’t shooting enough, or getting good quality. The images, which I thought once looked unique, started to look very generic. I wasn’t communicating with my subjects anymore; I was running and gunning and sniping shots alongside other photographers. That’s not how I like to work.

This year I intended to get back to my roots a bit, but like the old Thomas Wolfe novel, I discovered “I couldn’t go home again” and I think my nostalgia of that time is actually holding me back from producing better or more evolved work. Well, at least as evolved as one can get at an event like this.

I never thought something this light and maybe even trivial -- cosplay photography, of all things -- would force me into an existential crisis, causing me to seriously reevaluate what the hell I’m doing. After all, this was supposed to be a fun weekend -- partying, seeing old friends, and being among like-minded people. Not sitting in a hotel room wondering whether I should sell all my gear and move on.

It’s easy to zoom out on the situation and just think “hey, why are you taking this so seriously,” but the microcosm of this convention echoed the bigger picture of what I’ve felt for some time now. If I couldn’t have fun shooting these types of images, how could I have fun shooting anything?

DragonCon 2021, Shooting the Shooters

Fortunately, I managed to get re-engaged with photography, at least somewhat, before the end of the trip. The difference was, I had a goal. Big surprise right? I’ve talked about setting goals before on the show, and it seems like I forgot my own advice in regards to my own work, because I was so hung up on doing things the way I’ve always done them. You may also recall a few episodes ago, I talked about how sometimes we need to let go of what has worked before, in order to move forward. This was one of those times.

Rather than chase down random cosplayers, I had the opportunity to do a series of portraits with a friend and veteran cosplayer, who was looking to get some decent shots of her newest creation. As it was later in the day, we managed to take advantage of the last rays of light, and the golden hour. I felt like I was shooting roller derby portraits again for a moment, as we quickly bounced from spot to spot, using the remaining light and varied scenery to create a series of images. Using the camera’s built-in Wi-Fi, I was able to send a few shots over to my phone, edit them and send them to my friend for Instagram.

This afternoon of shooting gave me a sense of purpose -- helping someone else -- with the clear goal of delivering images.

Additionally -- and this is something else I’ve suggested before -- it’s fun to team up with a friend and shoot photos together. That way, even if the subject matter gets boring, you’re still hanging out and sharing an experience. I’ve been fortunate to have a DragonCon veteran -- who happens to be my brother in law -- accompany me on many photographic outings through the years. We always have a good time, and I’m pretty sure we both shoot better images as a result.

While I wasn’t crazy about the images I made this year, I’ve come to accept that maybe this is just not the style of photography that I want to do anymore. People change, evolve and hopefully grow. Should I attend this or any other con again, I’m happy to leave the cameras at home, or at least, just bring a minimal kit. I don’t have to treat it like a job, especially since they were all just personal photos anyway.

My final takeaway from this year’s trip is this. Once you learn a skill, be it photography, or playing music, coding or whatever, you will eventually reach a point where you’ve learned so much that you want to teach other people about it. I think there’s an old quote that says something like “As you teach, you learn.”

I do enjoy teaching others about photography. Every now and then I encounter someone who has a great camera and some lenses. They might lack the foundational knowledge to use it, but they have a strong desire to learn more about it. I really enjoy helping folks like this, and a pop culture con is a perfect low-pressure environment to mentor someone in composition, lighting, aperture and so on.

DragonCon 2021

No doubt, it’s time for me to let go of this genre of photography and offer some light to those who appreciate it far more than me.

Folks that’s going to do it for this episode of Photo 365. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where your work wasn’t making you happy anymore, let me know what you did to get back on track at photo365podcast.com. There you can find every episode, along with complete transcripts.

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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time.