When Craig Wetjen realised the business of photography was making him sick he knew he had to make some changes. A project photographing men in their sheds turned out to be the perfect tonic. He shares his story with Robert Keeley.
When Craig Wetjen realised he had to change the way he worked as a photographer, it came as a revelation. Several years ago the professional wedding and portrait shooter found he was facing an increasingly hard grind getting work and it was taking its toll. Wetjen arrived from the United States several decades ago and in 2000 he started his own wedding and portrait photography business. But as the digital revolution rolled over the world of photography, he found it increasingly difficult to promote his skills to an audience no longer convinced they needed professionals.
The downside to the amazing flexibility and convenience offered by digital photography was that a mindset developed that commercial wedding and portrait shooters cost more than they were worth. After all, digital cameras were so good that anybody could take a good picture any time they felt like it! Why pay a professional?
To pros like Wetjen the answer was obvious, but as he found to his detriment, not everyone recognised the benefits of employing a trained professional. Work became much harder to find, and combined with the pressure of supporting a growing family and all that entailed, the stress finally got to him. Now a teaching coordinator at the Photography Studies College in Melbourne, the veteran pro says, "Three years ago I made the decision to pull the pin on my business shooting weddings and family portraits. There had been an utter decline in the area caused by anyone who had a camera and called themselves a photographer. The stress and strain involved in maintaining a single-income family was also telling. I felt I needed to broaden my horizons."
But the stress didn't go away immediately, and Wetjen suffered the onset of extreme high anxiety. He had surgery to remove his appendix and he says he also sought help for his mental health. "It wasn't worth killing myself, so I put shooting weddings and portraits completely away."
Unfortunately in this process he discovered he also had signs of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (a type of cancer in the bone marrow), which he believes can be caused by stress. Wetjen knew he had to change his life.
"My family and health were more important than pursuing a business and living in photography," he says. "I had to either give photography away, or do something for my personal gratification, rather than the business side of it."
Avid sign collector Darryl Williamson with his restored 1948 Sunbeam-Talbot 90 four-door saloon. Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 24-70mm lens, 1/4s @ f/11, ISO 200. Canon 580 EXII Speedlite for hair light and Elinchrom Ranger RX Quadra with a 72in octa softbox to illuminate signs in the background.
FIRST STEPS Wetjen's enthusiasm for photography began when he was 10 years old and living in Connecticut in the US northeast. A keen sports enthusiast, he started taking photographs with his father's old film cameras, taking pictures of his brother playing ice hockey and baseball, when he wasn't playing the games himself.
As a teenager he scored a job in a one-hour minilab. He worked there for four years, and it was invaluable in teaching him the mechanics of printing. Through his work at the lab he managed to get a job shooting sports for the local newspaper as he dreamed of working for Sports Illustrated magazine.
At one stage he even started a wedding photography business. Then, during an assignment for the paper, he spoke to another photographer who advised him to head to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara in California. So, in 1991, aged 21, he packed up his belongings and drove across the country with the aim of expanding his skills.
He learned about everything from making documentary images, to shooting landscapes, fashion, portraiture, as well as colour processing and printing. But the biggest influence he picked up there was a fascination with scientific photography. He specialised in industrial and scientific microscopy and high-speed imaging.
"I just liked the thrill of photographing what you couldn't see," Wetjen says.
He fell in love with high-speed photography, shooting hammers smashing through glass and bullets in flight. He also undertook practical work as an assistant photographer to expand his real-world skills. He graduated in 1995 at 25, prepared, he says, to "see where things took me". As it happened, they took him to NASA.
Gordon Millet collects miniature steam engines and clocks. He's also a general machinist. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 17-40mm f/4L lens, 1/30s @ f/8. ISO 1250. Available light only.
JOINING NASA The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration was seeking interns, and through a personal contact at the college Wetjen, with his knowledge about scientific imaging, was able to secure a two-year paid internship working for the space agency.
It opened up a world of amazing photographic experiences for him. It was the mid-1990s, and digital imaging was at the cutting edge of scientific photography. Wetjen was the right guy in the right place at the right time. While a lot of his work involved scanning slides for archiving, he would also get out in the field, photographing objects as diverse as satellite parts, meteorites and moon rocks.
"There were so many highlights," says Wetjen. At one point he assisted with recording images from the spacecraft Galileo as it observed the impact of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's collision with Jupiter. "I was there to witness it hot off the press," says Wetjen, still clearly amazed by the experience. "I enjoyed it no end."
Eventually, however, he decided he wanted to experience a broader range of photography, and he landed a job as a second assistant at a studio in Seattle, Washington. "It was a more permanent role," he says.
Graham Wier with the 1965 Mack truck he restored. Canon EOS ID Mk IV, 17-40mm lens, 1/30s @ f/8, ISO 800. Available light only.
MOVING TO AUSTRALIA Around this time another opportunity appeared on the horizon. Through a friend who had moved to Australia a couple of years before he found out that the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) was looking for a lecturer who could help establish the institute's digital imaging photography course. Wetjen worked in Seattle during the latter six months of 1995, then moved to Australia. While it was part of the plan to secure his masters degree in photography at RMIT, that never eventuated. "Circumstances intervened," he says. In 2000, he went out on his own to start his wedding and portraiture business, which he continued successfully until about 2011.
Around this time his wife asked him to photograph her father, and he set up the image in the older man's shed. "He loved the shed," says Wetjen, so it seemed a natural setting in which to get him relaxed. Situated in the central Victorian town of Seymour, he drove up from Melbourne and completed the shoot. Afterwards the idea evolved that he might shoot a series of images of men in their sheds, and he could offer portraits for sale. But when his physical health deteriorated, along with his mental well-being, the project took on another perspective entirely.
Panel beater Guido Gatt with his restored 1965 Buick. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 17-40mm lens, 1s @ f/11, ISO 400. Canon 580 EXII Speedlight for rim light and Elinchrom Ranger RX Quadra with a 72in octa softbox.
MEN IN THEIR SHEDS When the realisation came that trying to make a living from photography was literally making him sick, Wetjen had to seriously reconsider every aspect of his lifestyle.
He understood that earning a living in his craft wasn't working, but he also knew he had acquired a wide range of skills. "I had to find an alternative good use of my skills," he says. The idea of photographing men in their sheds, and listening to their stories, began to form. He also contacted Julie Moss at Melbourne's prestigious Photography Studies College about the availability of any teaching opportunities. He signed on as first-year coordinator for the college's advanced diploma program, but also began to search out more men, so he could photograph them in their sheds.
It was an organic beginning to a project which has assumed more significance as he has pursued it. And he still fits the odd wedding shoot into his schedule, though they come from word-of-mouth recommendations.
At the time of writing, since early 2010, he calculates he has photographed 39 sheds. Much of what he's achieved has been through word of mouth. "I've photographed quite a few sheds in Kyabram (also in central Victoria). I did one, and then others followed through the Men's Shed group in Kyabram. I also visit craft fairs, where I meet and talk to people. Most are happy to get involved. I hand over a business card, and then a week or so later I turn up. I usually have a chat, to relax them. Mostly I shoot one a day, but the most I've shot is two sheds in a day. I just enjoy chatting with them, and the photo is a small portion of that experience. Listening to the story they tell is a part of building a rapport."
Wetjen works with a basic lighting set-up, and often uses natural light where he can. No money exchanges hands, and so far the project has been entirely self-funded.
At one point he approached the Beyondblue mental health organisation, seeking funding for a book about the project. Though the finance wasn't forthcoming, he did get the opportunity to photograph the Beyondblue chairman, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, is his own shed. Kennett is a busy man and the shoot was confined to around 10 minutes which resulted in five frames, but the contact was extremely valuable, and Wetjen is now an ambassador for that mental health organisation. At the time of writing, he was continuing to search for funding to publish his images in a book format.
He describes how his life has moved on as, "a very big change."
"There's always going to be a requirement for professional photography, but I think the days of specialised photographers – those days are numbered. Diversification is going to be paramount. Photographers will need to be able to shoot anything from weddings, to products to fashion. The cream at the top will always be in demand, but the days of the freelance photographer are likely to numbered," says Wetjen.
He says the photographers of the future will need to embrace diversification. "They will need to be persistent and worldly." He even sees some photographers embracing the aesthetic of film once again. And he still finds a persistent stream of customers for his wedding portfolio, if not enough for a full-time career.
"If I could have $100 for every wedding I've photographed where somebody attending has said to me 'I wish I'd hired a pro wedding photographer', I could retire now! Everyone can fire a camera like a machine gun and spend months editing stuff on a computer," he says.
It's a long time since Wetjen worked in a minilab but he still gets a kick out of printing. "The only archival area is print. It's tangible and you can feel it. That's where we're coming from with my project. All my stuff is getting printed." Of the way his renewed interest in his craft has developed, he says, "It's going to be an arduous process. But persistence will pay off."
He says he now leads a less stressful existence. "I teach the fundamentals of photography and seeing the light. We're light painters. It's time for me to give back, and to give back to the general community," says Wetjen. "My story isn't finished, and my life is very much more satisfying. It's extremely gratifying to see the light bulb go off above my students' heads."
Ian Jenson is an accomplished machinist and he can recreate a part if it can't be bought or found. Canon EOS 1D Mk IV, 17-40mm lens, 1/100s @ f/8, ISO 800. Canon 580 EXII Speedlite and PocketWizard TTL flash triggers.
INFLUENCES AND GEAR Craig Wetjen's early influences were photographers such as landscape master Ansel Adams, fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, fashion shooter Irving Penn and landscape and wildlife proponents Galen Rowell and George Lepp.
He has worked with a range of equipment over his career, but he currently uses Canon bodies and lenses. He has an EOS 1D Mk IV body, as well as an EOS 5D Mk III, and an EOS 1D Mk II N. His lens collection includes a 35mm f/1.4, a 70-200mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and a 17-40mm f/4 wideangle zoom.
All his 'shed' images are shot with his camera on an old Manfrotto tripod. He has two Canon 600EXII Speedlights (one with a softbox) as well as an Elinchrom Ranger RX Quadra lighting kit, consisting of two lights and a battery pack. He will often shoot his shed images using rim light on his subject, but employing natural light where he can. He says it takes around five minutes to set his lights up, and he's mindful that too much time spent on the technical arrangements can lose the moment.
At the time of writing he was planning an exhibition of his shed photos sponsored by Kayell Australia and Canson papers. When working from home he uses an Epson 3880 A2 printer.
He works with a 2009 Mac Pro computer and an Eizo ColourEdge monitor, backing up with a 6TB Netgear MU+NAS storage system. He always creates a dual back-up, storing one back-up off site. He is currently using Lightroom software for post-production, as well as the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop. "It's the best thing that ever came along," he says.