It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.
*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.
Several recent discussions with friends and readers got me thinking about why exactly this is the case. Undoubtedly there’s an income/ financial component to it; you have to be reasonably comfortable to play the equipment game (especially Leica and medium format digital), which translates into a certain proportion of disposable income. Then again, this isn’t always the case: there are plenty of other people I knew back in the early days of DSLRs – myself included – who saved up several paychecks in order to be able to buy one. It was 2004 and I’d graduated only a year before; I was an auditor in London and making probably slightly less than minimum wage once you’d factored in the number of hours and complete lack of overtime. The D70 kit I bought represented about four months of disposable income, and a whole after-tax paycheck.
At the time, though, I was also interested in watches – though I didn’t have the money to do anything but attend collectors’ dinners, drool over the eye candy and make some photographs. Photographs and knowledge were free, however, and that’s how I started down the path of becoming a serious photographer and watch designer. In my case, it was one hobby that catalysed the other: I could see the same thing being true especially for travel, and to a lesser extent, cars.
I suppose the latter two things – and food – are all somewhat related; you could go on a road trip through Europe in a nice car, enjoying scenic routes, winding roads and challenging yourself to see if the curves makes your passenger lose it before the sheer amount of food eaten does; then intersperse that with a few on-food sojourns through interesting towns, camera in hand. Finally, top it off with a cigar and a coffee after lunch in the early afternoon when the light’s too harsh to shoot and the roads are too crowded to make much progress, and you’ve pretty much covered all the bases.
As we can see, all of these things are related in a way, and one thing leads naturally to another when you’ve got a limited amount of leisure time and want to maximize the epicurean pleasure derived from it. But there’s one other difference: depth. Though everybody has a hobby or passion, some tend to be more obsessively passionate over it than others**. A pursuit of relative mental passiveness, like reading, jogging, collecting [insert object here] or perhaps drinking – all lack the depth to keep your mind occupied for more than a few hours (the exact opposite for drinking), and the routine doesn’t vary much. You’re going to get bored of it. Sooner or later, you’ve found that elusive limited edition widget, you’ve read the entire Times best seller list, or you’re passed out on a floor somewhere. Game over.
**This isn’t always a good thing.
I’m sure I’m generalizing here. But on the surface of it, there’s a degree of depth to photography that isn’t covered by few other casual hobbies – the obvious ones being cookery and painting – for a start, to do it well requires both technical and creative skill, and involvement on the part of the photographer. (You can, of course, point your iPhone at anything random and run it through your favourite app without doing much thinking, but arguably you aren’t really a photographer, either.) The personal satisfaction rewards for getting it right are high, and it’s very obvious if you get it wrong. Yet the beauty of the medium is relativity: you can feel good about an image now, but wonder what on earth you were thinking back then when you see it again two years later. There’s room for various forms of intellectual satisfaction that don’t necessarily come from other pursuits.
I enjoy a good Cuban as much as the next cigar aficionado, and can generally tell the brands apart by taste, but there’s enough variation out of your control – most of these things making for a negative experience, such as poor construction, wrong humidity etc. – that you get the feeling that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to be able to smoke one. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy one without being able to identify the leather and fennel notes, for instance. The overall intellectual involvement is low; intellectual satisfaction derived is minimal.
Partagas Shorts. Vegetal, earthy with a strong tobacco flavor and some citrus highlights. Or at least that’s what my notes say; at one point I took the time to document what I smoked. I just remember it as being pleasant, but mostly one-dimensional with the same flavor throughout – some cigars evolve.
Though Maslow’s pyramid of needs might be mostly decried as something a consultant (or former, in my case) might use to make a point on slide 67, I’d just like to point out that once you have all the other things – food, shelter, family/ friends, confidence/ self esteem – intellectual fulfilment is at the top. It makes sense, because you generally have to not be worrying about survival if you’re going to have any time and energy left over to devote to mental exercises. We’re also social creatures: you need somebody to share the enthusiasm, celebrate the highs and commiserate the lows with; that’s where friends come in. It’s therefore also quite possible that people who take up one hobby are introduced to the others by friends with whom they have common ground already; I know I’ve passed on the photography bug to fellow cigar smokers, the cigar bug to photographers, and go for weekend drives with people who enjoy both. As for the friends I made early on in the watch community – most of them seem to have taken up photography seriously in one form or another; several are now my students.
Aside from cross-pollination and the common thread of creativity, one thing photography shares in common with the other more mechanically-inclined hobbies is of course the equipment. You can’t drive without a car; the more serious you get, the more serious your car. Mechanical watches increase in quality, tactility, rarity of materials and complications as you go up in price; everybody wants to, because it’s human nature to get bored with the common after a time – and in the world of horology, every brand is competing for the dollar of the collector by bringing out increasingly different products. This is especially true at the high end of the market, where stakes are high, watch prices have six figures and make medium format digital look cheap***.
***I’m not even going to get into hifi – after several expensive detours into headphones (I used to travel a lot in my corporate life, and a static setup would have been wasted) I settled on a pair I’ve yet to find an improvement on – at least not without an order of magnitude more investment. For the curious, they’re first-generation UE Triple.Fi 10 Pros with custom silver cables. The only thing I’d consider to be an upgrade – to my tastes, which run to the analytical and warm – are the Stax Omega IIs, but you also need a very non-portable amp to drive them, impeccable source material and a quiet area because they’re electrostats.
Personally, I find the specific aspects of each hobby I enjoy are actually relatively similar: the tactility and mechanical-ness of the equipment for watches and cameras; the variety in travel, and the consequential ability to be exposed to and see different things to capture; the feel and methodicality of driving; the escapism of reading a good book. But above all, the satisfaction of getting something right when you’ve had to make a creative investment to produce it takes the cake – it’s the reason I photograph, and the reason I write (not the primary reason I cook though, that’s due to hunger). It’s what keeps me coming back and seeking to repeat the experience – we press the shutter more often than not because we see something compelling in reality and just have to capture it and see how it looks. I suppose it also doesn’t do any harm that some shutter actions are plenty satisfying, too; and it’s an activity that can be done when you have small chunks of free time, unlike say baking, travel, parachuting, or marble sculpture. Doesn’t really have the adrenaline hit of driving fast, though; that said, I can (and frequently do) get in the zone with accompanying rush when I’m covering something relatively fast-paced.
Here’s the parting thought I’m going to end on for you to leave your thoughts on in the comments: I need a new hobby. Now that pretty much all aspects of photography have become my job, I’m looking for something else to do to unwind; it’s not so much no longer enjoying shooting as needing something to give my mind a break. Doing variations on the same thing for effectively all of your waking hours – something that has been the case from the time I turned pro last year until now – is a fast way to losing inspiration and burning out. Variety of mental stimuli helps keep your perspective fresh and your eye keen – I know for example an appreciation for mechanical watches definitely makes me a better photographer of not only watches but other still lifes and mechanical objects; looking at art helps my composition and awareness of light, and smoking cigars…well, gives me something to do while on location and waiting for golden hour. So, suggestions, anybody? MT
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