“Really, you’re an auto mechanic?”

The steeple of the North Church in Portsmouth, NH stands tall above the downtown rooftops. The late day sun casting a beautiful pink-orange glow on both the church spire and the clouds in the sky. Hints of the seasons first major snowfall still cling to the many rooftops. 

For some strange reason the thought that I fix cars for a living takes people by surprise. The idea that an image they profess to love was created by someone who gets grease under his fingernails seems completely foreign to them. As if creating art and having one of the bluest of blue-collar jobs is somehow mutually exclusive.

I don’t get it. Is there some “standard” career path that artistic people are supposed to follow that I’m unaware of?

While a few people upon seeing my photographs have expressed surprise that my “real” job in not that of a professional photographer, (I can’t thank you enough for that one Cindy!) Most know that is just a dream for the time being, and that I do “something else” to pay the bills. So when clients or buyers find out what that “something else” is, a look of total bewilderment comes across their face. I can almost see their brain working as the try to reconcile the art before them and their image of a dirty, greasy, auto mechanic.

I’m not complaining nor am I even the slightest bit offended by their surprise, I just don’t understand it. Maybe if more of my photographs looked like the one below, would they be less surprised?

air brushed skull and flames on a Chevy El Camino drag car

Maybe I’m not alone in this, what is your “real” job? And are people surprised that someone in your field can create something beautiful, whether it’s photography, painting, or some other art form? Id love to hear your experiences.

Or, if you’re one of those that are surprised at the images I make coming from a “grease monkey,” Why Does That Surprise You?

38 thoughts on “Why Does That Surprise You?

  1. I’m not surprised at all that you are a grease monkey – lots of people have hobbies that are far removed from what they do every day to pay the bills – but I still believe that you could have a very successful career in photography :). I can honestly say that your work is some of the very best I have ever seen!!

    Unfortunately, life does not always allow us to be in a job we love. I am a perfect example of that. I took two years of engineering at university, and now I am working as a legal assistant. In my heart I knew that I wanted to be the best mom I could be, and I didn’t believe I could do that with a big career. I chose a job very close to home with flexible hours so that I could be there after school for my kids to help them with homework and give them the guidance that kids are so often not getting nowadays because the parents are never home. So, does my job fulfill me? Nope, but my family and my many hobbies do. I just wish there were more hours in a day so that I could learn to be a great photographer like you :).

    1. Thank you Cindy. I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. Even though I pretty much lived in the art rooms in high school I knew that college or art school wasn’t for me. I “knew” when I was a senior that I was headed for the Air Force, and that I wanted to be a mechanic. Since I could always take apart and put back together pretty much anything.

      Maybe If I had discovered photography earlier in life I’d be a famous landscape photographer by now. But I’m not losing any sleep over the fact that I have yet to be discovered by the masses and become the next Ansel Adams. All in due time 😉

  2. “Grease monkey. I don’t care for that term.” – David Puddy (Seinfeld)

    All in due time. You have dedication beyond dedication and it’s sad that some ideas still exist (that is blue-collar types have no inner life of the mind). It’s something I had to put up with when I was a kid because my dad worked with his hands (he spent the last decade as a floor mechanic at Osram). A good mechanic is a craftsman in my opinion and so people shouldn’t be surprised.

    1. Thank you Kris. I do put a lot of effort into improving my craft, to have that effort recognized by someone with your talent is greatly appreciated.

      I have to mention that you sent me to work this morning with a big smile on my face, almost laughing as I left the house. Huge Seinfeld fan here 😀 and as I read that quote I could actually hear Puddy saying it. Thank you.

  3. I’m a graphic designer for a pretty big ad agency, so the average joe has no problem marrying my job to my artistic hobbies (like painting). But because I work in the studio, which is essentially an internal Kinko’s, whenever art directors pay us a visit to get some books printed and bound, or some digital comps mocked up or retouched, they see some of my sketches or watercolor pads laying around and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could do that.” That almost offends me sometimes.

    I would actually love to see you soot some crazy close-ups of custom or classic cars, capturing the curves and the way light hits the metal. But I get it if you’re sick of cars by the time you pick up the camera.

    1. When a graphic designer asks to see my work I’m more than happy to oblige 😀 On my website all you need to do is take a look in the Art Of The Car gallery. While nowhere near as extensive as my other subject matter, I do occasionally find myself at the drag strip for some high octane imagery.

      As for the “Wow” comment, though it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that a graphic designer has an artistic streak (imagine that :-D), I don’t think it’s meant in an insulting way.

  4. Actually not surprised you are a “greasy monkey” that requires some critical thought about composition and creativity. I was under the impression that you were a full-time pro photographer though, so that did surprise me.

    1. My list of favorite people just grew by one more! To hear that someone thinks my photos are good enough that they assume that’s how I make my living is something I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. I’m honored you think so.

  5. I supposed it’s a left brain/right brain assumption. Personally I can’t think of a better talent than auto mechanic. We would all travel more comfortably if we knew we could fix our cars if theymstoppedmworking! Hopefully you are as good at that as you are with a camera (which you could probably alsomfixmif needed!)

    1. Thank you Tina. My customers seem to think I’m good at what I do, and I do take pride in doing it well. As for fixing my camera, I’m quite comfortably cleaning the sensor and that’s about it. If I ever need anything more than that it’s off to Canon Service. Having had to bail out far too many do-it-yourselfers of the years when it comes to cars, I refuse to be “that guy” when it comes to my camera.

  6. I’m not shocked. Most creative souls keep a day-job. Even one of my favorite writers, Charles Bukowski, spent many years of his life working for the postal service.

    «Is there some “standard” career path that artistic people are supposed to follow that I’m unaware of?»

    I believe the standard artistic path is the self-destructive one: become alcoholic or a junkie (or even better: both!), create some stunning art and then die at a young age of an overdose…

    To me the non-standard, safe path (boring path some might say?) seems like a better way: you get to develop your skills over time and you also get to enjoy life for a longer period of time and at it’s different stages – not only the relatively short time span while you’re young.

    1. I think you are very right. I’ll bet there are far more artists hidden out there than people realize. To make it big as an artist takes a dedication, hard work, and a ton of luck. Regardless of what a persons “real” job is.

  7. I was never that surprised …. If you were here you would earn much more than many other professions. Here nobody buys photos 😛

    1. I do make a decent living as a mechanic, that’s for sure. But it sure would be nice to make a career change, my body isn’t getting any younger 😀

  8. It doesn’t surprise me and I can totally relate. I hear it all the time. You do what? for a living? Yes I work in a garden center, and previously I was a tire delivery man, before that a woodworker (custom garage doors) and corporate world office worker, and auto inspection mechanic etc. College wasn’t for me either…spending time in the great outdoors was/is where I would rather be. Most folks just don’t understand the fact that one’s profession to put food on the table can be at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the creative process. I’m with you “in due time”.

    1. I think it is that “opposite end of the spectrum” that people need. Photography is so far removed from what I do every day that it makes me forget the stress of everyday life when I’m behind my camera.

  9. Jeff, our society defines blue-collar workers as lower class and Wall Street thieves as high-class. It’s screwed up. In school, the smart kids take college courses and the dumb kids study the trades. You’re right – it is surprising to hear that a talented photographer or musician or artist is an auto mechanic, but why not? After reading your blogs and thousands of your posts, I can say for sure that you are no dummy. Your choice of career may have more to do with following your passion than following societal rules. But I know one thing: If you devote as much care and craftsmanship to your day-job as you do to your photography, you’re a very good mechanic indeed.

    My photography friends are teachers, medical workers, cooks, and cafeteria workers. Is it more valid to have tartar sauce under your nails?

    I have been a waitress, a prep-chef (my favorite job), a store clerk, a bookkeeper, and a software developer. Most artists have day jobs. For every Ansel Adams there are thousands of artists who produce beautiful photographs and paintings which enrich our lives and beautify our homes. In fact, having a reliable job that doesn’t require 80 hours/week of total commitment allows you to be a fully-developed human being – husband, father, craftsman, photographer, friend. And that balance, that richness of experience, goes back into your art.

    I dreamed for years of being able to do photography full time – and after retiring, I found that I really couldn’t. I spend much more time on the business side of things than photographing. No one just takes pictures! The best balance I ever found was a 4-day paying job and 3 days to photograph/travel/live.

    But you’re in good company. In fact,
    Nathaniel Hawthorn was a custom house measurer and later a farmer.
    Vincent Van Gogh worked in a bookstore.
    Johann Sebastian Bach worked for the town council.
    O. Henry worked as a bank teller, was convicted of embezzlement, and wrote 14 short stories in prison.

    Even Ansel Adams had a day job which he hated – he was a commercial photographer, working for magazines like “Life” and “Time”. In fact, he complained that he was “swamped” with commercial work! He also gave piano lessons for money. He taught photography and trained military photographers.

    So get over it, I love your art AND your job.

    1. Thank you Sue!

      Let me start by reiterating that I am in no way offended or insulted by how others are surprised when they find out what pays the bills and that it isn’t my camera. This was definitely not meant to be a rant of any kind. Purely an observation of people’s reaction.
      But you are right, I have met photographers from all walks of life, and from professions all over the map. I bet I’m far from the only one to experience this type of reaction either.

      It’s also good to know about some of these other famous artists. I knew a bit about Adams past, and had an idea that a lot of the other people you mentioned had to have done something to keep a roof over their head before they were noticed for their art.

      Lastly, considering how much time I spend trying to promote my photography, edit/enhance photos, etc., I can only imagine how much more work will be involved should the dream come true.

  10. I have to admit, I too had the impression that you were a full-time photographer. I can’t say for sure why I thought that. I guess since I hadn’t read any posts from you about a day job, my mind filled in the blank and assumed photography was it. And, of course, the fact that your photos are stunning helped my brain believe you could make a living that way. Now that you’ve said you’re a mechanic, my brain is now rationalizing. Of, course! That’s why he understands the hardware so much. He’s got an engineers brain. Mechanics are his game. Color me jealous!

    1. First I have to extend a heartfelt thank you! Though initially I was hesitant to pursue my photography as a career for fear that having to create new images would take some if not all the joy out of it. Then I began to realize that that just wouldn’t be possible. Earning a living with my photos, photos that are made in places I love being, how could I not want that?

      The reason you’ve never heard much about my other life away from the camera is the simple fact that in an ongoing effort to get my name recognized as a photographer, this blog is solely focused on my photography. I have one older post here, and one post on the New England Photography Guild blog, having to do with some of my automotive images where I do mention my “real” job( I’ll add links tonight when I get home from said real job). But that’s about it.

      You may be right on my understanding of the gear, I’ve never considered that. Food for thought that’s for sure.

    2. Here is a link to one of my earliest entries in the Weekly Photo Challenge, though I realized upon re-reading it that there isn’t even a hint of what my chosen profession is.

      And here is my first article as a member of the New England Photography Guild.

  11. Doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I think it’s kinda cool. Of course, I’m a photographer too, and my “real job” history runs through academia and software engineering.

    Our society, sadly, thrives on stereotypes. When someone violates those stereotypes, it surprises, and sometimes offends people.

    Auto mechanics are “supposed to be” crass, vulgar, slightly dim-witted folk who are good with their hands rather than their brains.

    Artists are “supposed to be” flighty, intellectual, eccentric, latte-sipping hipster types who loudly crow about making art, instead of doing something that’s “actually productive”.

    When someone like you comes along who violates BOTH of those stereotypes AND their underlying assumptions, people experience cognitive dissonance – which is extremely painful to many, and is a root cause of the sticking of fingers in ears and the shouting of “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!” …

    In truth, the only thing that really matters is that you make images that please you.

    To make a living doing it consists primarily of finding other people who are *also* pleased by them.

    1. Rich, I think that sums it up nicely. And that last part, the part about making images that please me, is exactly how I pursue my photography. I would keep at it if I never sold another print. That people like my work is fantastic, but until enough people like it enough to hang it on their walls I won’t be hanging up the wrenches any time soon. 😀

  12. You gave me an idea. Perhaps I should write a post.
    I don’t have (yet) job in my educational background(Accountancy) but I paint icons for a living and from time to time, when some persons receive/ see one painting of me say : “Really, have you painted this? Can’t believe it!? Isn’t printed? I was SURE it was printed…”
    And this why?
    Just because I live in a small village and I have no studies in painting?
    Some people don’t believe me I painted it, and some painters say I am not an artist because I have no academic degree in art.

    I still fell bad after I hear this but I hope soon I won’t mind.

    1. Cornel, I’ve seen your paintings and they are quite beautiful. The idea that you need a degree from some fancy art school to be a “real” artist is in my opinion crap.

      With my photography I’ve taken exactly ZERO classes. I’m 100% self taught. Between the internet and the gracious help of others along the way my photography is where it is today. Without any fancy or expensive degree. I’m sure there are plenty of things I would learn if I ever do go to school or take a class, I’m just not sure the investment in time and money would make me that much better.

  13. Doesn’t surprise me one bit. Everyone is blessed with some talent or other, many with several; some find theirs sooner than others and are able to develop them more fully. But so many of us have artistic talents that may bear no apparent relation to other life activities that we have chosen—and that only serves to enrich our lives through expanded passions in diverse areas. It’s an additional blessing when the things that we learn in one area facilitate mastering the intricacies of another. My real job? That’s an easy one: Doing whatever is most important and meaningful—not only for myself, but especially for for those I love and care about—at any given point in time.

  14. it is no surprise. my real job is completely unrelated to my joy of photography as well as to my university studies but it pays the bills and also has allowed me to forge some long-lasting friendships which have continued even after others have already retired or left.
    at the same time it is nice to be able to have time for travel and to give expression to artistic passions, and share images from close to home and from the afore-mentioned travels, and thoughts that these have inspired with people from around the world through the avenue of blogging. it’s a win-win situation 🙂
    thanks for sharing your talent and experience and your very practical advice. much appreciated! keep up the great work!

    1. Yes! One of the biggest, and unexpected, benefits of starting my blog is the interaction with people from all walks of life and many, many cultures. Being able to share my creativity, and have it appreciated by a world wide audience is really quite fulfilling.

      Thank you very much, another benefit that took me completely by surprise is how much I enjoy helping others and sharing some of that “practical advice” you mention. I started this blog for purely selfish me-me-me-come-come-look-at-my-photography reasons. What really gives me a boost though is when someone seeks my advice. That is a shocker, and I can’t get enough of it!

  15. Hi Jeff, really enjoyed your story and the responses you have had. In my humble opinion, the job does not define who or what we are. I know a long distance lorry driver, at the photography club and some of his images are the best I have ever seen.

    Clearly, you enjoy your photography and have a flair for creating great images.
    If you were a professional photographer, you would most probably be producing what will sell if you were self employed, or what your employer wanted you to produce. Also being a “professional” photographer only means you get paid for it. It does not necessarily mean that you are creative or are good at it. (You are probaby “good” in your employers eyes, because you produce what he/she wants … that’s why you get paid)

    In my opinion, many amateur photographers often produce better work than some of the professionals. This is usually because amateurs take their time, pay more attention to composition and detail, take greater care and spend more time on post processing and are often more creative. If you are depending on the income from your photography/photography job, the business dictates what you must do.

    I have been fortunate to have had a few paid assignments, which I enjoyed, and if other opportunities arise, I will probably take them on. But if it was a full-time job, it might become something I “had to do”

    It strikes me that you have the best of both worlds, a good job as a mechanic that you obviously enjoy and time for your passion ….. photography.

    1. Jim you brought up a very good point. I do sell a fair bit of work, and I am willing to take on “assignment” work, but I do it in my own way. I may be given a subject that a client would like to see photos of, but I then photograph them as I see fit. Should I have to rely on my images to keep the mortgage paid, I would have no choice to place more concern on what will sell as opposed to what moves me.

  16. Jeff, you are an exceptional artist / photographer. As an artist that has made a career out of doing art shows, I can tell you that the public is a tough crowd. They have perceptions of artists that they have created in their minds. The information I have is too long to put into a comment but I will say this to you – the customer wants to have his fantasy fulfilled. No need to say more than is necessary. Either your a straving artist which they like because they feel they are helping you by buying your artwork or you are a successful artist that charges a lot of money for your artwork that they want because it is inacessable which makes them crave it more. My advise to you …. speak not of you only of thy photography.
    p.s. As a jurying judge at 3 art shows presently, I can tell you that you would be accepted and an award winner at all of my shows.

  17. …….Because you are good at what you do both ways. Your photography is a passion, but often passions don’t feed family. Keep on doing it Jeff, your photography is speaking.

    1. Thank you Valentina. Knowing that my photography is speaking to people is very gratifying. I’m not speaking in the monetary sense either. That I have created images that engage the viewer is of great satisfaction to me.

Comments and thoughtful critiques are always welcome.

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