For the sake of a little fun, rather than drone on about gear for yet another week, in today’s article, I’m going to talk about socks. And yes, I promise it relates to photography.
To be more specific, I suppose the article isn’t so much about a pair of socks as it is about one particular sock. A long gray sock with bright red and blue stripes and the remnants of the Atlanta Braves logo fading away at the shin. For those who have shot with me, they have more than likely seen me arrive on set wearing said sock, combined with another wholly unrelated one on the opposite foot, and wondered to themselves if the previous night had in fact allowed for me to get enough sleep. No doubt, they were made aware of the sock while I was contorting my body into any one of the pretzel-like positions I am known to take upon set in search of a better angle. Most who see the obvious fashion crime are likely too polite to inquire. Those who do brave the obvious question are likely to be on the receiving end of the story I’m about to tell you now.
As you might imagine, this lonesome garment, like many of its kind, did indeed start life as part of a pair. Sadly, its brother has long since disappeared into the laundry bin of history, and he is all that remains. I didn’t just buy a single sock. In fact, I didn’t buy them at all. They were actually a gift from my sister sometime in the early 1980s when we were both of the age where a pair of socks might cost enough to put a serious dent in our respective allowances. But, it was Christmas, and holidays are what trips to Target were made for. I was never a huge baseball fan, but I was always a big sports fan, so it was a perfect gift from sister to brother. We were living in Nashville at the time, and Atlanta was the closest city with a pro team, so our local department stores would stock lots of Atlanta sports gear. Hence why this particular pair was so readily available.
As years went by and I had moved to LA and grown into an appropriate image-conscious high school student, the rather gaudy old-school pair of socks were constantly pushed further and further towards the bottom of my dresser drawer. I was a star (in my own mind) high school football player by that point, after all. And the only time I would change out of my Karl Kani jeans or my Cross Colours overalls would be to slide on my football uniform carefully adorned with the ideal color of tights to add contrast to my pants and the perfectly structured face mask to compliment the shape of my navy blue helmet with the silver eagle wings. I don’t mean to say that I treated football as a fashion show. But at 16, I certainly spent inordinately more time trying to replicate the spatted cleats and shaded visors I saw all the pro players wearing than I did on perfecting my spiral.
But then, one day, I had a breakthrough. I can’t really remember what caused it. My performance on the field hadn’t dipped. I didn’t somehow stop being a self-conscious teenager. But it did suddenly occur to me that all this focus on how I looked on the field was somewhat superfluous to my reason for being there. I was not out on the field to look good. I was there to get to work and put the ball in the endzone.
I was always inspired by the story of how Michael Jordan’s shaved head was a result of a decision he made following what he considered to be a poor season when he was at the University of North Carolina. Wanting to shed pretense and redouble his focus on creating a new beginning, Jordan shaved his head during the offseason. What was originally meant to temporarily signal a new start ultimately became one of his trademarks and the likely reason why, under my football helmet, you’d see that I would shave my own head bald throughout high school as well. Nowadays, no need to shave it bald, since male pattern baldness seems to have taken care of that particular chore for me. Thank you, genetics. But Jordan’s peculiar fashion choices, which also included wearing his UNC practice shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls game shorts for luck, all spoke my language as another person with a certain fondness for symbolism. Sure, I might not be able to dunk from the free-throw line, but still, I wanted a totem to call my own.
I wanted to create my own small reminder of the reason I was on the field in the first place. Out came the socks. No one could possibly think I was putting appearance over hard work if I was rocking these old crazy looking Atlanta Braves tube socks high on my shins. If you’re wondering what the socks looked like in their heyday, just close your eyes, think of if the 1980s were embodied in a ball of yarn, and you’d have a pretty good idea. They were already a decade old by the time I reached high school and would, no doubt, bring me in for a certain amount of ribbing from my teammates and various opponents who might have the misfortune of getting a closeup view of these fashion monstrosities at the bottom of the pile at the goal line.
But of course, the more important aspect of that situation was that I would be in the end zone. They became my gameday socks and a subtle reminder each time I took the field to focus on the work and not how I look while doing the work. They were a tangible reminder to focus less on how others might view me and more on what it is that I wanted to accomplish.
Several decades and one missing sock later, I still bring out the sock on my current version of game day, those brilliant days where I get to put all my hard work and preparation into use on a photo shoot — those days when my name and my passion are both on the line and it requires ultimate concentration to both satisfy my clients and my own creative expectations.
When I show up on set, it’s not about me. It’s not about how cool my camera looks or whether I have the latest and greatest gear. It’s not about awards or past accomplishments. It’s not about telling people I’m a photographer; it’s about actually being a photographer. I may be there to make the products and subjects look their best. But for me, I’m just there to work.
Just like a 16-year-old confusing looking good for playing well, it is easy to get wrapped up in the off-screen aesthetics of our profession. We confuse having an expensive camera with knowing how to use it. We can allow our resume and reputation to cloud our view of the current task at hand. One of the many reasons why I love my profession is that every single time I step on set, I have the opportunity to create the best work of my career. There’s also a chance that, regardless of my experience level, I’ll fall flat on my face. Like an athlete, in the minds of the audience, you are often only as good as your last game. So, every opportunity you have to step on the field or behind the camera is a chance to shine.
Of course, you are more than welcome to do so wearing a pair of socks produced sometime in the 21st century. I, if you haven’t been able to tell already, have a flair for the dramatic. And there’s nothing wrong with a little style on set. I know photographers who shoot in a three-piece suit, although my proclivity for rolling around on the ground at some point during every photoshoot somewhat suggests that might not be the best styling option for me personally. But no matter what you choose to wear or what symbol helps you to keep your focus fully locked on the job at hand, cherish the fact that every trip to set is a chance to put aside pretense, focus on what’s in front of you, and get to work.