On The Job

The Fine Art of Scooter Parts

My scooter
The studio
The relic
Scooter brake pads
Mobility scooter
Scooter transmission
Inside of the warehouse
What's your profession? Please describe it.

My business card says "Senior Web Producer & Photographer" but I enjoy telling people that I just "make pitchurs [sic] and write stuff." In a nutshell; I write the content and make the product shots for two e-commerce websites: www.monsterscooterparts.com

Prior to this I worked as a web producer at a big media company in Washington DC but became a victim of a massive downsizing soon after JP Morgan acquired the company. Luckily I was picked up by an online scooter parts business in rural Maryland.

One Friday afternoon the two guys who own the company brought me into a conference and said "Andy, we need an in-house photographer, and it's your job if you want it." They offered to buy any camera, lenses, lighting tools or equipment I needed -- as long as it was digital. Prior to that, I resisted using digital cameras, but I now had one short weekend to learn an entirely new set of skills. Who says you can't teach this old dog new tricks?.

Where do you do this?

Monster Scooter Parts and its sister company Living Motion are stuck out in a small industrial park lost in the rural wilds of backwater St. Marys County, Maryland, about an hour's drive outside of Washington DC.

We created a loft studio in one of the warehouses and rigged up a light-table, a diffusion cube, and a number of light-stands to make a functional but very spartan photographic workspace. It ain't pretty, but it works pretty well, even if I am often surrounded by boxes of battery chargers and crates of carburetors.

When I get home my wife Pauline can always tell when I have been shooting scooter tires or inner tubes. She says she can smell the aroma of new rubber on my clothes.

Do you enjoy what you do?

At first I was a bit apprehensive about the whole product photography thing. Frankly, I wasn't too optimistic about converting my B&W aesthetics and film-based workflow mentality over to the new digital technology. But maybe it's easier to adapt to the brave new world of digital imaging if you already have an optical or mechanical understanding of how light, aperture and shutter speed all work together.

Despite all of the superfluous bells & whistles and utterly useless (to me) scene-modes programed into today's cameras, I always shoot in the all-manual mode. My focus, aperture settings and shutter speeds are all set by hand. Although my work camera is a mega-pixel modern marvel, I try to use it just as I would use a large-format view camera. It is my belief that only a stupid photographer needs a smart camera, and I like to think that I am at least a tiny bit smarter than my tools.

Do I enjoy working this way? Oh hell yes!

When you were young, what did you want to "be" when you grew up?

As a kid, and later as a teenager, I wanted to be an artist, but life had other plans for me and it wasn't until a few decades later that I was able to wrestle and dance with my creative demons in the lightning-shot sky. The intervening years found me in the US Navy, working as a commercial crab and oyster fisherman, a custom countertop maker, a foreman at a boatyard/marine railway, and I was even a film projectionist in a drive-in theater. At the dawn of the 21st century I switched careers to e-commerce and web production.

I had dabbled in B&W film photography when I was in high school back in the very early 1970s. Being a student at a tiny overseas military base on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, there wasn't a whole lot else to do. We didn't even have color television in the Azores at the time. Spending a good part of your youth in a place like that gives you a different perspective without the constant bombardment of popular culture, and I never acquired the fetish for the latest new status symbols.

Do you feel stuck doing what you are doing?

Never... well, not with the photographic aspects of the job anyway. In today's shitty economy I am rather grateful to be doing what I love to do. How many people can claim that they are having all this fun and and are getting paid to do it?

There are times however, when the web producer part of the job feels like it is bogging down on a strictly creative level. One day it can be exciting to write about a zippy new line of tires for Vespas and Honda scooters; but the next day may find me having to write marketing text for wheelchairs and mobility walkers. Perhaps I am now at an age where wheelchairs and walkers are a daily reminder of my own mortality.

It is at times like this when that big black Nikon is more than just a tool; it becomes an instrument of spiritual solace. Close-up product photography is my way to retreat into a zen-like world of light & dark, spacial relationship, depth of field, and form & composition. The camera washes my brain of the choking dust of writer's block.

What are the most and least satisfying parts of your job?

According to the two business owners, the cost of outsourcing product photography used to eat up a lot of the company's cash flow. Some times, it could take a month or more between sending the parts out to be shot, and receiving a usable set of images for the websites. Today the turnaround time can often be measured in minutes. And yes; I think that my pictures are sharper, clearer and better composed than the ones that they used to pay out the ying-yang for. I feel a lot of satisfaction in that. Perhaps I am not Helmut Newton, maybe my commercial work will never grace the cover of Vogue, but I still take a lot of pride in what I do.

The worst things are shooting chrome, and those white plastic connectors on electronics. It is very difficult to get chrome looking good in a small studio environment. Even with a diffusing light-cube, the chrome finish on many scooter parts reflects too much light and ends up with those burned-out blocks of pure white that is both the proverbial fly in the ointment as well as the hallmark of digital photography. Ditto for the connectors.

How do you combine photography with your job?

I have a genuine fascination with marketing photography that masquerades itself as fine art. This has long been accepted as the standard for fashion photography, and increasingly with home decor and a few other commercial genres. Lately I have noticed a slight but very noticable return to traditional B&W -- real B&W film-- photography to represent high-end, up-scale products. There is just something classical and elegant about it that the sterile world of over-saturated pixels cannot begin to replicate.

Close-up product photography pays my bills, but fine art photography is my true love. Whenever I can, I try to find the intrinsic sculptural or abstract beauty in my inanimate models. Like a post-modern Man Ray, or Warhol with his soup can, I endevour to see the hidden form in things that others simply pass by without seeing. Sometimes I sneak a few pieces of "art" into the online catalogs of scooter parts and mobility products, and no one knows about it but me.

Anything else you'd like to add?

For years I was a traditional B&W film photographer with a Rolleiflex and a Speed Graphic or some arcane all-manual 35mm relic left over from the Polyester Age. Those remain the tools that I still prefer to use when I am making the photography to soothe the fire in my belly; photography made to no ones' standards but my own. So despite the fact that a big Nikon digital camera pays for my mortgage, I remain faithfully married to silver-halide B&W film and that pungent smell of fixer in my basement darkroom.

Product photography certainly isn't glamorous or appreciated by the general public. I don't even get to shoot bikini-clad scooter babes for a company calendar. But I like where I am at and I love the people I am surrounded by. Although the Washington DC salary was nice while it lasted, I no longer miss it or the long commutes that the urban rat race demanded of me.

Photographic happiness can be found anywhere, even in a smelly crate of brand new rubber inner tubes.