Ten Years of Down the Road

Ten years of Down the Road

Today marks ten years of this blog.

Down the Road, v. 1.0

I’ll spare you the usual blogiversary gushing and just say that I love doing this. It’s my favorite hobby. I can’t imagine not doing it.

I started this blog to scratch my itch to write. I had written professionally early in my career, but ten years ago my work had long since evolved away from trading words for pay. I missed the process of expressing myself.

But I didn’t know what I wanted this blog to be. My first post was essentially a sermon. I tried a little diary-style blogging, and I wrote articles about old TV shows. I’ve left the proselytizing and most of those other topics behind. I kept one element that has characterized this blog from the beginning: stories from my life.

Masthead banner from Down the Road, v. 2.0

What I could never have predicted, however, is that this blog led directly to my love of photography. I’ve collected old film cameras since I was 8, and even put film through a couple of them to see what would happen. But when I started reviewing cameras from my collection on this blog, you photographers found my work and offered encouragement and constructive criticism. Bit by bit, in no small part thanks to you, I came to care more about photography than the cameras, and now I’m a devoted amateur photographer interested in doing better and better work.

Masthead banner from Down the Road, v. 3.0

And so now this is a photography blog with the occasional story from my life thrown in. Will it stay that way? Who knows. Probably for as long as you keep enjoying it.

It turns out that’s the whole point of blogging: interacting with you. What writer wants to send his words into the ether, never to be recognized, never to be praised, never to be cursed? (Well, hopefully seldom cursed.)

I have a lot more to say about ten years of blogging, and about writing and blogging in general. I’ll share those thoughts in several upcoming posts.

Essay, Photography

Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for a long time. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filed with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software, which wasn’t remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid fairly well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing for pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work intrinsically rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

438933770007_ proc.jpg
Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the value necessary to capture your attention is much lower than the value necessary to make you pay even a little bit.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, I feel sure that most if not all of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. And I’m just one small voice on the vast Internet. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue started to fall, and hard. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

Here’s the fatal flaw in my argument: if your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. It’ll be ten years in February. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’m working on ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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To learn what you think about something, write about it

I’m growing as a photographer. I can see it in my photographs. It satisfies me deeply.

But I don’t know what I think about photography.

Self-portrait (crop)
Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.7 F.Zuiko, Fujicolor 200, 2011

I originally wrote “I have no idea what I’m doing” in the previous paragraph, but as I typed those words I knew they weren’t exactly true. I have learned the mechanics of using cameras, even fully manual ones. I have picked up decent composition skills. I have a growing understanding of which camera and lens to use with which film to use to get a look I want. I have learned how to show you what I see in a few kinds of subjects — old cars, for one.

Yet I lack two key things: knowledge of what makes a photograph great, and a solid understanding of what I see that most others don’t.

I know that learning what makes a photograph great means studying the work of other photographers, especially the great ones. I’ve done a little of it. I bought a book of Ansel Adams’ Polaroids some time ago and spent a lot of time in it. Time and again, Adams layered three intersecting horizontal planes. I liked the effect, and ran right out and tried it myself. I need to keep practicing it.

Canon T70, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD, Fujicolor 200, 2014

But to understand what I see that others don’t, the only thing I know to do is keep writing about my work. Writing about something I don’t understand almost paradoxically helps me come to understand it.

I think this is true for a lot of us. We think we believe a thing strongly, but struggle to articulate why. Or we have a whole lot of disjointed thoughts about a subject, but struggle to say exactly what we believe about it. The process of writing can help us reason through and understand what we think, and then express it clearly.

This process can also clarify and even reveal flaws in our thinking. Writing even this post has helped me come to understand something: that knowledge of what makes a photograph great is separate from understanding what I see that others don’t. When I started writing this post, I hadn’t yet separated those ideas. It took a lot of writing that I have since deleted from this post to come to understand that.

This kind of writing is hard work. For me, writing camera or film reviews or expositions of a photographic subject takes time and effort, but is not terribly hard. I do some research, I think about my experience and impressions, I organize all of this information, I write. It’s a well-worn, familiar path. It feels sure.

To write a post of original thinking like this is anything but sure, anything but easy. I write and rewrite. Sometimes a post like this one languishes in my drafts folder for weeks while I think about it. Then I’ll come back to it and write four paragraphs and later realize they’re not genuine, and cut them. Along the way, I’ll realize something important that changes my thesis and causes me to start over.

It’s a wrestling match. It consumes hours and hours. I can write five camera reviews in the time it takes me to write one post of original thinking.

But when I’m done, I’ve thought deeply about the subject and know very well what I think.

Do you find yourself to be a clear thinker, someone who can process and synthesize information and feelings in your head? Or do you think you might benefit from writing to discover what you think?

Personal, Photography

How to make your life sound interesting

This blog, like so many, is ultimately a vanity project. Look, over here! Look at what I’m doing, listen to what I’m saying! Isn’t it interesting?

I think it is. I think every life has interesting stories to tell. But it takes skill and practice to become good at framing a life’s stories in interesting ways. Fortunately, after this many years of trying, I’ve learned a few things along the way about how to do that.

Dining table
Not interesting.

I took an online course last year about how to write about your life. I’ve been writing about my life here here for years, but I wanted to be better at it. One key, the course said, was to make each sentence interesting. The other is to be bluntly honest about your life, telling stuff that scares you for anyone to know. Wow, hs it ever been easier to focus on making my sentences more interesting. It’s much harder to tell life secrets. I’ve gingerly shared a little scary stuff lately. I’m not sure how I feel about having done it.

But here’s the key secret I’ve learned about making things interesting: it needs to be about you, the hearer or reader. You need to see yourself in what I write, or learn something valuable from it, or feel deeply touched by its universal humanity. Preferably all three.

Old alignment, US 52
Also not interesting.

I have to work pretty hard to do that. I know easier ways to get your attention. My favorites are to post a pretty photograph or write something that tickles your nostalgia. But those are cheap thrills for both of us.

I share a lot of photographs here because I’m interested in photography and am trying to be better at that, too. Judging by your response, you find my photography posts to be interesting. I get a lot of nice compliments from you about my work. That feels good.

Sooooooooo not interesting.

Photography and writing about my life are similar in that both are about finding interesting perspectives. And both involve a lot of experimentation to find those perspectives. Some things just don’t work.

Because I take so many photos, I can choose the best of them to share here. If you were to follow me on Flickr, you’d see that I take plenty of uninteresting photos. I dump into Flickr every photo I take that wasn’t an abject failure. More than 10,000 of my photographs are publicly available there.

Fledgeling hedgerow

I share a small percentage of them here. This is where I curate my photography. I don’t enjoy that luxury when it comes to my writing

While I can take and upload a photo in seconds, it takes considerably longer for me to write a post. And I keep a regular posting schedule, which sometimes makes this blog a beast that needs to be fed. So I post nearly everything I write.

More sky

Your response, or lack thereof, tells me whether my posts are interesting. The series I did about songs I sing in my car didn’t work. I can see it in the stats — few of you read them, and fewer of you commented on them. One of those posts got just eight views!

Fortunately, this blog is just a hobby. Your response to my work affects only my ego. But this is ultimately freeing, as I can openly try new things. I’m free to fail hard.

Car and truck
Yer killin’ me, Smalls.

And so, my advice: if there’s something creative that you want to do, just do it. Critique your own work, of course. But also put it out there into the world for others to see, and then pay attention to and think about the response you get (or don’t, which is also instructive). Keep experimenting and sharing the results with the world.

I’ve laced this post with uninteresting photographs I’ve taken with my film cameras lately. Sometimes the subject is simply uninteresting. Sometimes I didn’t frame the subject in an interesting way. Sometimes my mechanics were off and it robbed an interestingly framed, interesting subject of some of its interestingness. Sometimes I just wasn’t feeling very interested on the day I took the photograph, and it shows.

Bethel Church
Oh lord make it stop!

But through trying things and seeing how they turn out, and paying attention to the feedback I get (or don’t get), and weighing what I think and feel about the outcomes, I get better. So will you, if you try it.


Welcome to the post-blog era

I’ve noticed a shift in this blog‘s audience during the almost nine years I’ve been writing it. Early on, bloggers and non-bloggers alike read my posts. But in recent years, if you read this blog regularly you probably have a blog, too, and it’s probably on WordPress.com. So say my stats.

Those stats also say that most visits to this blog come from Google searches. Someone finds Grandpa’s old camera in a drawer, or wants to get film developed, or remembers the CBS Late Movie, and searches to learn more. It’s easy to be an authority on the Internet: write about something arcane or obscure, and searches will drive visitors to your door! But those search-driven visitors never become regular readers. They came here for information about that subject and, once satisfied, go away forever.

Views and visits to this blog, by year

Yet those searches have made 2015 far and away the best year this blog has ever had, at least as measured by page views. A handful of my posts about photography have become relatively popular, and drive 200 to 300 page views a day.

On the one hand, I’m glad to have published a few things that people find useful. On the other, what makes me keep blogging is engaged readership. I love it when you comment. I like it when you click Like.

But because I write of the obscure and arcane — old cameras, old roads, the dusty corners of my faith — well, my fantasies of Internet fame with thousands of adoring readers will just have to remain fantasies. I’m grateful I have regular readers at all.

I figure there are on the order of magnitude of 100 of you, people who look at each of my posts on or near the day I publish them. And I thank the Internet that we’ve found each other. Our blogs link us through our common, but unusual, interests. For example, I’ve collected cameras for 40 years. It was a lonely hobby until I started this blog and met you.

And that, I think, is where blogging shines: in the niches. It didn’t used to be that way. Blogs used to be like online diaries that anyone could read. But Facebook fills that need now. And in blogging‘s early days, it was possible to gain a large audience and make money directly by blogging. Some of those early big bloggers are still at it. But today, too many voices clamor for attention. Anyone who wants to attract a large audience on the Internet pretty much needs to write for a site that already gets lots of traffic.

And now I see that possibly even niche blogging could shift toward sites where traffic is already high. Facebook’s new Notes feature looks suspiciously like blogging. I could move there easily enough. I already have my account set up so anyone can follow me, and most of my posts there are public. And Facebook’s easy sharing might bring me more readers. All I’d have to do is start writing there.

Or I could move to Medium, an upstart writing platform that’s doing a stellar job of building an audience. It’s not on Facebook’s scale yet, but my read is that the audience there is engaged, where sometimes Facebook’s sharing can be a little mindless. I occasionally repost something from my software blog on Medium, but have yet to figure out how to get many readers.

WordPress does a pretty good job of shifting with the times. After all, WordPress powers one out of every four Web sites on the Internet! But notice I said Web sites and not blogs. This is a broadening of their original mission, a tacit admission that the personal blog‘s heyday is long past over.

So who knows where I will be blogging in a year, or two, or five. Regardless of platform, I will persist. I crave connection with like-minded people, and by keeping at this for almost nine years and by commenting on your blogs, you keep coming back here. I’m so grateful for you.

Stories Told

On blogging and privacy

I have three sons. None of them feature on my blog.

While most of this blog’s posts are about photography and history, sometimes I tell stories from my life. I try to lay myself bare in them, to go right to the places where I struggle and am scared, because I think that’s interesting. I like to read stuff like that, and based on the comments you leave, so do you. And so I’ve told you about deep depression and a time I contemplated suicide, about resentment and pain after my divorce, about struggling to let go as my sons grow up and prepare to leave home, and even about the time I got fired.

Penelope Trunk

I model these posts after the blogs of Penelope Trunk and James Altucher, who tell startling things about themselves and the people close to them as a means of giving life and career advice. It’s usually interesting — and sometimes as compelling as a train wreck. Both hold radical positions that privacy is outmoded. Because all of us have broken places and messy lives, their thinking goes, to improve our lives we must first embrace who and where we are. We’re all bozos on this bus; we are only as sick as our secrets.

James Altucher

I have a lower need for privacy than the average person. But I can’t go as far as Trunk or Altucher. I have stories I won’t tell here, no matter how interesting.

I’ve told you a little bit about my sons and even my ex-wife, such as hereherehere, and here. But I never name them, never give details about them, never show photos of them. Well, you have seen the backs of my sons’ heads a few times in photos. But you know nothing important about these people from me.

Calling my older son a chip off the old block is no exaggeration. His personality is startlingly similar to mine. But there’s one crucial exception: he is deeply private. He recently cancelled his Facebook account because mom kept posting photos with him in them. Seems harmless to me, but he is clear: that’s over the line. So’s this paragraph, probably; I beg his pardon. Point is, my sons have a right to their privacy. So does my ex.

I wrote several times last year about the brutal time in my life after my wife said it was over. (Here, here, here, and here.) I deliberately framed those stories to focus on me and experiences only I had. There are so many more interesting, even shocking, stories to tell of some breathtakingly destructive things my ex … and I … did to bring our marriage down. I learned so much from those times in my life, and I could write some really compelling posts that would really reach you. But this is tricky territory, for three reasons.

First: I don’t want professional colleagues or someone who might want to hire me to read these stories. My co-workers sometimes find my blog and say something to me about what they read. Some things that happened don’t need to be part of any at-work conversation. Penelope Trunk and James Altucher arrange their lives and careers around their blogs, which I think frees them. That’s not where I am.

Second: I don’t want my sons to read these stories. I’ve told them what I feel is appropriate for them to know. I’ve been pretty open about my part in it, actually, but I’ve done little more than vaguely wave my hands past “bad stuff” their mom did. Those are her stories to tell. Regardless, the first place they hear these stories should not be from their dad’s blog.

Third, and most importantly: No matter how balanced I would be in telling these stories, they would be from my perspective. My ex’s reality was probably different. The truth probably lies in the middle more often than I’d like to admit. And I’m not going to drag anybody through the mud here, even if it is the truth from my perspective, no matter how interesting it might be to read.

Maybe one day, when we’re all a lot older and these stories are of antiquity, I’ll change my mind and tell them. I’d like to tell them. But not now.