The Circle of Life, and Photography

The Circle of Life, and Photography

This is the long and wonderful story of ending up right back where you started.

It dawned on me the other day that I am in the exact same place today that I was twenty years ago. And I’m okay with that. Let me explain.

Normally when one says that they occupy the same patch of life that they did over two decades ago, it is a declaration of stagnation. A melancholy admittance of defeat. It is a way of saying that the dreams and goals one once had as a youngster had failed to come to fruition. Lord knows I have made such pronouncements of self pity on multiple occasions throughout the years, usually at the end of a seemingly pointless day and rapidly depleting bank account. But when I found myself trying to explain to a colleague the other day that my life today was somewhat identical to the one I had when I was just starting out, it wasn’t an assertion of remorse. It was instead a revelation as to just how perfectly life can often come full circle. It was an acknowledgment that despite our circumstances, we all have our own driving forces that ultimately come to the surface.

Just over twenty years ago I found myself walking out of a nondescript office building in an even more nondescript office park in Gardena, California. Despite artistic leanings that seemed to develop just before I passed through puberty, I had chosen to follow my parents practical advice and major in the area of business when I went to college. Graduating with high marks lead me to a plum job at IBM, which at the time was the 3rd largest company in the world. Money, prestige, parental pride: I had it all. I also had a growing ulcer brought on by the daily stress of going to a job that I hated to the very core of my being. A cushy bank account and days spent golfing with corporate CEOs is undoubtedly the ideal for many a twenty-year-old. But, for me, they were a prison from which I yearned to break free.

I was already spending most of my non-IBM hours splitting time between watching movies and writing them. My dreams in life included winning an Academy Award, having something I made shown on Turner Classic Movies, and being the subject of an episode of A&E’s “Biography.” Rather grandiose goals I know. But their somewhat superfluous nature can’t hide the fact that nowhere within that list of goals did I include winning the coveted Golden Circle Award for being IBM’s top regional account executive.

So, one day, in a fit of passion much easier to initiate when one has less years in the bank, I marched into my boss’ office overlooking the 405 freeway, I steadied my suddenly wobbly knees, and said through a slight stutter, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Or, at least it was something to that effect. My recollection of my exact words is somewhat obscured by my memory that less than sixty seconds after they left my mouth, my boss accepted my resignation, but chose to point out that it came just weeks before they were planning to offer me an additional $12,000 a year raise. I didn’t see that one coming. But still my choice had been made.

I walked out into that parking lot, my keychain spinning around an extended finger and my heart spinning even faster, having just left the promise of financial security and community acceptance. I had broken the golden handcuffs.

And I had absolutely no idea what to do now.

Of course I knew it would have something to do with filmmaking. After a stint as a poet failed to have the romantic effect I was hoping for, I had turned midway through high school to screenwriting. That had developed through the years into my primary passion and my love of movies had only grown. My salary at IBM had afforded me the luxury of studying cinematography at an evening program at UCLA, although at the time I saw this more as an aide to my direction ambition rather than a career path. It also allowed me the funds to drop a little cash on what was, at the time, the hottest new camera on the market, the Canon XL1.

While 35mm film production was still king, film movements like Dogme 95 were leading the way towards more experimental video production for motion pictures. Shooting digitally to MiniDV tape may not have opened the door to Paramount, but it might very well get you some attention on the festival circuit. For those of you with a few less gray hairs, in the days before YouTube, this was one of the few ways a young filmmaker could actually get his or her work actually seen by audiences or executives.

Like the recent explosion of digital video in less expensive still cameras, the Canon XL1 also made it cost effective for me to work on my craft. After the initial cost of the camera, it cost virtually nothing for me to write, produced, and direct new work. A few more months spent learning nonlinear editing on an Avid provided me the skills necessary to translate to it’s less expensive counterpart Final Cut Pro.

I was off and running making a dozen short films and even a feature film. I was putting my skills to use. I secured an agent and several high potential prospects. I was taking meetings with studios and indie producers. I was living the dream. I was also quickly going broke. My first real life lesson about the mixture of art and commerce.

So much has happened in the two decades since the day I walked out of that office in Gardena. Act two of our story would take a novel, but suffice to say, finances have ebbed and flowed. I’ve had every day job known to man from driving limousines to corporate accounting. Drawing from my background in cinematography, I stumbled into a career in still photography. That stumble eventually became my firm footing and the basis for my career. So when I produced the sequel to leaving IBM several years later by walking out of a steady job at a movie studio, this time I knew the answer to what I was going to do next. I was going to be a commercial photographer.

It took me a long time to mentally and emotionally move on from my dreams to be the next Billy Wilder and instead be the next Annie Leibovitz. Not that I ever really left filmmaking behind, mind you. It simply took a backseat to my still photography, moving from center stage to creative outlet.

So, it was with extreme amusement that I have watched over recent years as motion has become an increasingly important part of many photographers' lives.  Having spent so many years trying to learn how to summarize my 120 page screenplays into a single frame, I now had clients coming to me asking not only for a still gallery but also asking whether or not I do motion. “Well,” I say, “As a matter of fact I do.”

With increasing client demand for motion in mind, I recently added a shiny new toy to the family in the form of the Canon EOS C200. It helps me to take my work up another level while also allowing me to better mentally compartmentalize when doing stills and motion on the same shoot. The C200 is awesome and a great fit for my workflow, but that is a subject for another article.

When I opened the box, and built out my initial setup, the first thing I did was to introduce the camera to a role model. I took the XL1 from its position in the display case, leaving a hollow area long shielded from the dust. I put the two cameras side-by-side to snap a quick picture on my phone to send to my friend and filmmaking cohort Henry who has been around since the days of that parking lot in Gardena.

I thought about the man I was when the XL1 was brand new: creative, and always searching for a new story to tell. Always in search of the right tools and outlets for the tales in my head. As I think about the man I am today, not much has changed. I am still in pursuit of art. Still photography holds a far greater role in my life than it did at twenty, but it has always been part and parcel with my motion work, which, thanks to changes in the market, is now again a big part of my creative output.

The years in between have seen a lot of changes. There have been dreams that have come and gone. There have been people that have come and gone. There has been triumph. There has been disappointment. But through it all I’ve circled back and ended up just where I started. Regardless of the details, the creative spirit that drives me remains the same.  

So next time you find yourself questioning your path, next time you find yourself asking what all the hard work is for, remind yourself that it will all pay off eventually. I had no idea that my cinematography studies twenty years ago would lead me a career in still photography. I had no idea that becoming a better director working with actors all those years ago would pay off by making me a better photographer working with models. I had no idea that when I was on the verge of putting my directing aspirations to bed, they would suddenly resurface in a new and exciting form and improve my ability to meet customer needs in an entirely different arena. All of those skills and experiences you are having now are what will train you for the life you are meant to have. Even if it doesn’t seem as though you are walking the straight line to get there. And if you stay true to yourself and your passion, one day life will come full circle in the best way possible.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Thank you for sharing your story. Had a similar experience in my life. In high school I looked into going to film school. Even visiting one. Decided not to go that route and went into journalism with the intent on being a writer. Got into cameras along the way and ended up getting obsessed in still photography. I practiced on the side and ended up starting a career as a freelance photojournalist. After 11 years of freelancing my business took a bad hit one year. A friend of mine offered me a gig as a Second AC on a low budget indie film. I took it because I needed work, but discovered I loved working on set. I slowly built up my CV getting work as an AC and eventually unit stills. Now film work has become and important part of my business and I've got a Local 600 union card. I didn't realize until a couple of years getting film gigs that my life had come full circle. If it wasn't for my interest in film school I would have never ended up in photography (which completely unplanned lead to a career in movies).

Great story. It's always the little things in life that we don't often notice as they are happening that prepare us for success in the future.

Fantastic article, Christopher! Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope this inspires those who are starting out in the business and steadies those going through the same ebbs and flows you describe.

Thanks Aneesh. I hope so.

What a lovely article, thank you for spending the time and effort to share it with us! (:

Thank you