Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Big Math, Bad Numbers 4: The Prick & The Photographer

Metal clanged and squeaked as our bus tumbled downhill to the North Central Avenue of Duluth. Double Bogey (our bus) must have been akin to Keith Richards in that it looked to be knocking on deaths door at every angle of its appearance, but somehow defied reality and all logic by living/driving  on. The Blend, my band, was on their last year of motivation to tour as broke and independent as we had been. The night would prove our final show in Duluth, a cursed and cold town housing the most recent lynching of an African-American in U.S. history.

It wasn’t the lynching or blatant prejudice toward people of color that made this our last run to Duluth. Honestly, the place was just too damn cold.

Arriving to Beaner’s, a warm-lit and well-taken care of coffee shop, the audience of a dozen or so people waited to either leave once we started blaring our amps or to stick around to see just exactly what the hell we were about. Without fail, as in the past several Duluth shows, a young white guy with his hat flipped backwards persisted in snapping shots with a high-powered camera worth as much as our drumkit. I’d met him once or twice, but would only recall his name when seeing it online next to the albums of live-show pictures he would post.

The show mule’d its way to the finish. We took our cut of just enough cash to cover half the gas it took to get there, and drove a lonely path back to Minneapolis in a short bus devoid of heater, full of fading spirits.

Back in the city before the night was finished, the fraternity was abuzz with whatever socialites dared conjure past midnight. Doug, fatefully nicknamed as Doug E. Fresh by our fraternity chapter, always held an open door at the house. Seeking anything other than Duluth, and just checking to make sure we didn’t drive through a wormhole on the way back to Minneapolis landing us in an alternative universe where Duluth was the last town on earth, I stopped by Doug’s place to chat.

“So…”, Doug said mid-conversation, a little confused how to even phrase what he was about to say, “Where do you get your money from?” It was an honest question, admirable in a way as Doug isn’t really the type to break etiquette and push an off-the-cliff rude natured assumption. More so, it was understandable. I hadn’t held a full-time job since knowing him, and only ever really talked of touring with music and theater troupes.

“I- uhh, I do music… I just travel to different cities and do shows” I answered. My retort was delivered sheepish as the question was asked. Doug and I were on foreign water. No one had ever asked me how I make a living up until that point, but it forced me into an immediate recognition of my purpose and career. Sadly the two of these don’t fall into the same pot for some people. I know many to have passion for a career outside of their job. The fear of stepping into undisclosed financial waters weighs a Westerner down- down far enough to take on a job & boss they loathe, but a paycheck that would repress rage from setting forth.

Checking the internet later, I saw the pictures from the Duluth show posted on Facebook. They weren’t bad, they looked almost as expensive as the camera that took them. Click, copy, paste- now, one of’em is my Facebook profile picture.

No more than five minutes passed- my inbox rang with a new message. “I appreciate you posting my photo as your new profile pic, but could you please credit me in the description on the pic? Thanks, Cal Carlyle.” Aha! The photographer from the show… Cal Carlyle. A name I had forgotten several times over, but would remember it from now on.

Easy enough, I credited his name in the picture, moved on… but not quite. It tumbled in my mind “Who asks a question like that? Does he seriously think people will look at my profile pic description and say “holy shit I wanna hire that guy”? I guess he’s trying to get his name out there, but what does it matter if I credit him on Facebook (the community enquirer, the local star, the gossip girl of little to no credibility)?” None of it mattered no matter how I phrased it. What lurked in the deeper recesses was far more simple than what I was asking: How did he know I changed my profile pic within five minutes of it happening?

Months later at a Blend show in Minneapolis, there he was again surveying our live performance, snapping shots with an even bigger camera than last. The lens protruded from the camera’s base as if he should be courtside at a Lakers game more so than our show. It was clear, Cal Carlyle wasn’t fucking around. Photography was his game, and he made for damn sure you credited his name. His business grew and flourished online dawning a website of wedding photos & crisp snap shots from live music shows to beautiful cityscapes. Between Cal and The Blend, one was swimming above water.

Cal Carlyle & I would make acquaintance a few times after his move to Minneapolis from Duluth; he helped me buy my first camera and traveled with The Blend on tour to document our life on the road. Time passing, shows accumulating, audiences growing and dissipating at the same time, Cal’s name began to dominate the Twin Cities for live show photography. What remained in the background that most of us musicians didn’t see was his wedding photo work. A hired photographer can charge a minimum of 3000 for a wedding, while a live band might make 1000 performing at a festival. Trust me, I was offered it for a festival on the east coast this year, no flight included. The disparity between the paycheck of a freelance photographer and a blue collar, independent, unsigned musician is Grand Canyon-esque, and was clearly out of my mind’s grasp as Cal & I began to drift apart… in business, and in good standing.

The Blend had finished recording its most recent, and what looked to be final, album “Breathing Without A Pulse”. The project lay unmixed in a northeast studio where I would need at least 2000 more to get it mixed and mastered, and possibly another 800 to get it printed. I couldn’t kid myself anymore, the guitarist had vocally expressed his want to leave the group, the bassist was as elusive as Edward Snowden and the drummer had moved four hours away from Minneapolis. I had to pull the plug.

Biking from the studio on a ratty 18-speed back to my apartment, the conversation with Doug bounced off the walls of my skull. If he had asked me the same question now “Where do you get your money from?”… I would have no answer for him. Something would have to give, otherwise I’d have to find a 9 to 5 and put writing on the back burner. I didn’t want to do it, and me being the stubborn asshole I am, I wouldn’t.

I reached out to Cal for a possible favor to shoot the cover of The Blend’s final album. We lined up a model and a concept, however the restaurant I worked at once-a-week called me in at the last minute detaining me from showing up to the shoot. Cal was pissed, and how could I blame him? I don’t know a soul that wouldn’t find it distasteful that I’d schedule a shoot at the same time I was on-call. I could have skipped, but getting fired and losing the extra hundred bucks a week would’ve pressed me against a wall I had no business being near in the first place. The shoot came out ok. However, when “Breathing Without A Pulse” was finally released, I went with a shot from a different photographer for the cover.

A text shot through the day to twenty some phones… one of which happened to be mine. I can’t recall the words in the text, but I remember the picture associated with it: my sister’s left hand with a giant rock tied around her ring finger. She was engaged… oh, and how we all knew it would be her before me (I look back, wink, drop on the shades and hit the gas to the motorcycle, here). As any good brother should do, I posted my congratulations to her and my future brother-in-law on facebook. In similar fashion to his photo credit inquiry, Cal Carlyle texted me less than 24 hours later “Never knew you had a sister? Sooooo, if she happens to need a photographer for her wedding, let me know.”

Always the business man Cal Carlyle was and still is. When all other options fell off the table, my sister took my advice to check out Cal’s website and covet him as a potential photographer for the wedding. My sister, blown away by his work, decided to go with him. The price tag was 2000 or more, but I knew Cal was worth it. Watching his work evolve over the years was a privilege and special opportunity I’d never had outside of music. To see an artist go from college freshmen to being hired year-round as an entrepreneur was a beautiful thing. Cal relayed a story to me of how he couldn’t even listen to his photography professors at the U of MN – Duluth for the sheer fact he knew more than they did. “If I’m sitting in your class, and I already know more than you about what you’re teaching… what does that say about you?” Cal exclaimed in a moment of humorous braggadocio.

Months passed, the wedding still on the horizon, I had started solo work rapping & singing over mixtapes with an producer/friend of mine Dr. Wylie. The solo project was reaching across the globe and catching online momentum faster than I had expected. In need of photography for the release of the 2nd mixtape, I decided to call Cal. He responded via facebook message- The bane of distancing yourself from anyone. You want to stay in touch, email. You want to get in touch, text. But if you want to convey “I don’t really have the time or want to expend energy on dealing with your ass… So, what’s up?” go with facebook message. Even without the prompt of facebook messaging, Cal made it clear his fees were above my head at this point in his career. He simply messaged that I most likely wouldn’t be able to afford him. “Christ man. Not even a number- just a “you can’t afford me”. Blasphemy!” I said to myself. I retorted with “try me”. Cal responded with “700”… and then hours later resent the initial number with “Actually, not even 700 pays my bills anymore, we’d be looking somewhere in the 1000 range.” And there it was, the nail in the coffin.

Give a man a week and he can come up with a G. It may not be legal or pretty, but given a week a man can get it. The number he threw out didn’t offend me, it was the condescension. Cal had a natural tone for talking down whilst talking casually, but this was the first time I could tell he was speaking it with intent. I cared nothing for it and wanted only to throw cash in his face like P. Diddy at any club in the late 90’s. To say the least, that shit hurt- it stung because it was a taste of the world passing you by while you do your damndest to keep up.

Cal was a fan from the start. There was no press inquiry or invite for him to take pics at all The Blend shows he did. He was there because he dug the music- now, he was anything but. The flight of a photographer during the plight of a band… it was a beautiful thing to watch both creative trains pass in the night, one crashing into oblivion, the other off to support a lifestyle, a family, a future. However, if I’m to become as much a prick as Cal became with that kind of money & work… then I want nothing of it.

Anyone can grab a mic or a camera and self-proclaim themselves an artist, but it takes talent to be a working photographer or musician. The devil between the two is the photographer is already an efficient entrepreneur only having to depend on him or herself, working jobs with one piece of equipment (a camera), and already at a vantage point for pricing. The photographer can slip in and out of any environment while chalking up their client’s tabs. Cal might’ve mistook the opposing natures of music and photography as something of the same. He could not have been more misinformed. I responded to his final message “I’ll pass on the thousand-dollar photo shoot. Hope my sister’s wedding can pay your bills”.

Months later at my sister’s wedding, carousing a ballroom floor in a tux more expensive than my car, I paced from the bar arm-in-arm with a woman to my right and a whisky-coke on my left. We stopped at a table with a laptop displaying photos from earlier in the day taken by Cal- He was still snapping shots throughout the night. “Ooooh, those are beautiful!” the woman on my arm swooned. She was right. Cal may be a rapscallion son of a bitch, but that man can take a picture.