If you counted up all of the hours I’ve spent recording conversations with photographers and artists — including six years worth of On Taking Pictures episodes — the number is somewhere north of a thousand hours talking about creativity and the creative process. On the last episode of Deep Natter, Sean asked me who some of my influences were and one of the names that came up was Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and broadcaster most known for his recorded conversations with people from virtually every walk of life — some famous, though most were not. I first learned of him through a project called Working in which he recorded conversations with everyday people about what they did and how they felt about it. It was a landmark project and helped to change my approach to podcasting. In fact, I was so inspired by it that at the end of 2019, I started laying out a new project for myself that in my mind was sort of a spiritual successor to the work that Studs did. I wanted to see what, if anything, had changed in the 50 or so years since Working was released. It was also an opportunity to get out of talking only to creatives, which is something that I enjoy immensely, but I do feel like it sets up an unfair hierarchy. In some ways, it positions creatives — specifically those who are visually creative — as somehow more interesting than those who aren’t (or at least don’t specifically identify as creative), which is just not true. I was going to call the project A Day’s Work and the core of it was to be purposefully very similar to Working: talk to people about what they do and how they feel about it. I also wanted to try to answer questions around what people bring to their work and what they get from it, beyond a paycheck. Additionally, up to this point all of my recordings were done remotely and A Day’s Work was going to give me the opportunity to record in person and physically share the same space as the people I would be talking to, which frankly I was more than a little nervous about. As it turned out, I had to postpone the project because the world started to fall apart in the wake of COVID. Leaving the house was rarely an option, let alone traveling around the country to record with random strangers.
Fast forward 15 months or so. On the back of several effective vaccines and COVID-19 numbers dropping, I came back to the idea of getting out into the world to record stories. The forced hiatus allowed me to refine the idea of the project to make it more my own. Rather than simply follow the path that Studs created for Working, I made the focus of the project more personal to my story. I’m the first male in four generations of my family not to work for the railroad, something that disappointed my father greatly. He never could understand that it wasn’t that the railroad wasn’t good enough for me, it just wasn’t for me — mine was a different path. Despite the fact that I never took up the family business, I have enormous respect for “blue collar” laborers and tradespeople, and I suppose I always have. In that spirit, I retooled the focus of the project and renamed it “Blue is the Collar: Conversations with American Workers.” I even decided to pay homage to my own family history. I reached out to the marketing department of the Union Pacific Railroad outlining the project and asking if they would be willing to help me with access. The idea was to start in Omaha, Nebraska (where both sides of my family come from) and visit some of the train yards between there and Los Angeles (where both sides of my families moved to), talking to past and present rail workers along the way. The UP loved the idea and asked for an “official” proposal to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to be done with COVID-19 and it looks like the project will have to be postponed…again.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why not just record remotely until you can get out and record in person?” Good question. I think it comes down to how I approach the work. For more than a decade, I’ve recorded conversations remotely and I do my best to allow the person on the other side of the mic to feel heard. Within the limitations of the medium, I try to create space for them to share their stories. With the new project, I want to expand that and allow people to be seen as well as heard. From the beginning, I’ve planned on adding a portrait component to the project to help accomplish that. Inspired by photographers like Alec Soth and Richard Beaven, I want to show people in their spaces as well as record a conversation with them — and I’m not willing to compromise on that part of it. I feel like this could be a legacy project and because of that, I want to give it the respect it deserves. I’d rather not do it at all than cut corners and do a watered-down version of it.
One of the most difficult parts of being a freelance creative professional is the relentless pressure to keep producing and sharing new work, something I’ve spoken about at length. The various social media algorithms don’t reward quality, they reward quantity. You are only as good as the last thing you posted. But sometimes, I feel like we have to draw a line in the sand and say, “No, I will not put this out simply to feed the beast.” It deserves better. WE deserve better. I feel like the change in focus from “A Day’s Work” to “Blue is the Collar” was a necessary refinement that makes the project better — at least on paper — and I want to give it all of the effort and purpose and intent that I can. If that means postponing again, or not doing it altogether, so be it. There are more ideas where that came from, and a few of them are already in the works.
Last week, Austin Kleon posted something on his blog that I’ve been half-chewing on ever since. It’s not so much a review as it is some of his thoughts around a book called I and Thou by Martin Buber. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but Austin something about the book that makes me think that it might be worth checking out. He wrote, “The sacrifice is that doing The Thing requires not doing everything else we might like to do, at least when we’re actually making The Thing.” As someone who has a ton of different interests and gets easily distracted by them, there’s something about this that really speaks to me.
Photographer Liam Wong has recently launched a funding campaign for his new book, called After Dark. He calls the project “an evocative, cinematic exploration of global cities after midnight” and if it’s half as good as his previous book TO:KY:OO, it will be a must buy for me. I already wanted to visit Tokyo, but seeing the city and the people who love there through his eyes has put it at the top of my list once the world opens back up.
Here’s a terrific documentary on 93-year-old Graham Boyd, a fantastic abstract painter from the UK. In the film, he talks about his life and inspiration and the early development of his painting into pure abstraction. I won’t say too much about it other than it is definitely worth 45 minutes of your time.