Shtick: A characteristic attribute, talent, or trait that is helpful in securing recognition or attention: waiters in tropical attire are part of the restaurant's shtick.
“Do one thing, do it well” is great advice, and I’d like to think that here at CalArti and www.markcassino.com, that advice is fully demonstrated. Whether taking digital infrared, using a toy camera, shooting a close up of an insect, experimenting with cross processing, taking micro photographs of snow crystals, or shooting medium format B&W landscapes – I’m just doing one thing – and I like to think I’m doing it well.
For a long time I thought I was doing many things. After all, the techniques and subject matter in the photos on this site run a wide gamut. I’ve often been advised to specialize – “Be the bug guy!” being the most usual refrain. I’ve even atteneded worshops where people try to tell you how to ‘define your brand identity’ – which seems to mean narrowing your focus down to one, predictable, outcome.
Branding may not be just for cattle anymore, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Anyone engaged in creative pursuits has to ultimately ask themselves why, and if the answer is to ‘create a brand identity to maximize revenue’ then they have truly picked a frustrating path. With rare exception, the arts are a generally inefficient means of accumulating capital.
And yet, when push comes to shove, I’ve always felt that my photography has been highly centered, and focused on doing one thing. On a good day, behind the camera, I experience what Aleister Crowley meant by “knowing your own true will.” I indeed feel the momentum of the universe behind me – whether focusing in on a snow flake, spending an hour getting just the right shot of a wildflower, or intuiting the best time, temperature, and agitation scheme for the film shot earlier in the day. It is that sense of connection to something beyond myself that keeps me going – and that connection is independent of outcomes. Product, or results.
On a good day, that is....
“Do one thing, do it well…”
Great words - but more often, the real meaning behind them is "Get a shtick."
The definition of this word is at the top of this essay, and it’s worthy of consideration. In a sense, ‘shtick’ is “do one thing, do it well” reduced to it’s most basic, simplistic, formulistic element. A shtick with kitsch makes for a powerful combination in the artistic world, especially when focused around the goal of establishing a ‘brand identity.’
The Beatles did one thing, and they did it well. They made outstanding music that not only captured the spirit of their generation, but continues to speak to people of all ages, all around the world. On the other hand, the Bachman Turner Overdrive had a great shtick – they produced formulaic music that sounded great the first few times you heard it, but eventually wore thin. They managed to tap into the spirit of a few years in which they played, and then faded off, producing ‘brand identifiable’ songs that, well, just sounded like the last song. And yet BTO was a successful brand.
A non artistic example: When you read about Henry Ford, you generally read about his shtick – he ‘invented’ the production line, you could get any color Model T you wanted (so long as it was black), and he was driven by a vision of providing transportation to the working class.
All this is true, but it misses the distinction between Ford and his competitors, who focused on providing high priced automobiles to the elite and affluent.
Ford’s contribution was to revolutionize industrial society, freeing it from the mindset that people were best exploited by being kept in proverty, like serfs or peons. With his $5 a day wage for caucasian workers, he expolored the great opportunities of exploiting people as middle class consumers. Ford helped built modern economy where indentured workers live lives of relative opulence, subduing their sense of outrage, while being so in debt as to be even more penniless than the serfs and slaves of bygone eras. His contribution - his 'one thing done well' goes far beyond the shtich of the Ford brand. And his efforts certainly improved the maerial lot of many.
So – what does all this mean to the struggling photographer? Do you pick a subject or style, drop a claim on some sort of brand identity, and hope that the shtick works? Or do you do what you will, shoot as you wish, and let the chips fall where they may?
Clearly, the path to commercial success is via the shtick. A dash of kitsch will usually help you along the way as well. In the cacophony of voices all competing for attention, the most focused message will clearly win out.
But personally, I plan to follow my heart – which seems to be beating a path of its own. So in this photoblog I’ll be putting up whatever the heck I’m shooting, so long as it contributes to my personal goal of understanding the world just a bit more, just a bit better.
It won’t result in a coherent brand image, it won’t even result in an predictable shtick. Maybe it’s a road to getting truly focused, maybe it’s a waste of time. But as Iggy Pop put it – “I don’t need no heavy trips, I just do what I want to do.” And for now, that’s enough.