When David Bram invited me to write a monthly column for Fraction, I naturally asked—after verifying his sanity—about his mandate for the work. It seems my brief is promiscuously broad: to write about photography as the muse impels me, from an outsider’s perspective—as someone whose primary residence is not in the Fine Art Photography neighborhood, but who drives, agog, the mean, beautiful streets of that gated community every chance he gets. I’m grateful for this opportunity to inflict my meanderings upon a wider audience under the Fraction masthead.
You’re surely wondering, “just how far “outside” is this guy?” (or more likely, “how do I unsubscribe?”) I’ve been making pictures since grade school—that’s a long time. But in my youth, a career in art didn’t seem feasible; it was just not done. Instead, my path went through med school, two residencies, and private anesthesiology practice. I’ve been doing that for about sixteen years, the latter half in a small community hospital in central Kentucky, my wife’s home state.
The nature of my specialty is that we don’t have practices full of permanently-attached patients. We do our thing, the patient does well and goes home, and I move on to the next operation. As a result, my work schedule can be made amenable to the pursuit of happiness outside of medicine. It took me a while to figure this out, though. So, not quite eight years ago, I downshifted to create just such a family- and photography-friendly situation for myself. As a result, I’ve been able to earn a living and still try to be a husband, father, and photographer.
I had assumed in my ignorance that part-timers like myself were the exception in the fine-art photography ecosystem. But when I began putting my work out into the world in online venues, in contests, and at portfolio reviews, I realized that many—if not most
—fine-art photographers make their living around the genre’s edges, or even entirely outside photography. I shouldn’t have been surprised—this reality is certainly in keeping with art photography’s spartan economic traditions. But evidently there are quite a few of us dilettantes out here photographing assiduously, even as we work at some other job. Hopelessly infected, we simply can’t not
make pictures. All of us carve out time for photographic work around the stuff that keeps the lights on.
Meeting others of similar situation has made me ponder what might lead a person both to photography and to a certain, seemingly unrelated, vocational field. Among my medical colleagues there seem to be two kinds of doctor-artists: those whose art is inspired by medical practice, and those whose art coexists with it. I’m among the latter; in my experience, neither type is plentiful. How, then, does one find his way both to medicine and to the arts?
Medical practice, like other highly-technical fields, requires a sturdy ego, independence of thought and action, perseverance, discipline, and the ability to quickly organize masses of information into coherent mental wholes
. Sound familiar? Photography calls upon those same traits; both a photographic series, and a complex medical history, are stories that must be condensed painstakingly from background noise.
But while photography may make use of procedure, consistency, and rote, medicine is understandably dominated by them, but without the creative payoff photography provides. I like the comforting rituals of doing, the mechanical tasks that comprise the operation of a camera or the administration of an anesthetic. But I especially crave the sublime sense of discovery that accompanies fixing an image in my head in tangible form, or seeing this done by the many others more gifted than myself.
I think about photography and photographs constantly; in my field of dreams I’m a full-timer, and I’ve often bridled at the frustration of this fantasy. But I have also gazed upon the lurid neon greenness of the grass Over There; on this side of the paddock, I’ve learned to appreciate the freedom accorded me by the day job to photograph on my own terms. In my own modest artistic life, I take nothing for granted, and acknowledge my good fortune.
Pardon this long introduction. And fear not, for such tedious me-centricity will not be a fixture in future columns. In those, I hope to provoke thought, and to stimulate discussion, across a wide range of topics relating to contemporary photography. To that end, these columns will appear here on the Fraction blog, but will also be archived with each month’s edition of Fraction itself. David and I both feel the blog is better suited than the magazine itself to accommodating the reader to-and-fro we hope ensues. So let fly here—we want to hear from you. (You can also email me at mike at michaelsebastian dot com.)
My thanks to David for publishing this column—I only hope it goes live before his ether wears off—and to all of you for your continued support of Fraction.