• Justin Key

How Long Have I Been Doing This?

How long have you been doing this? I get that question a lot. It may sound like a simple question but the answer is more complicated than a timeline that started the first time I picked up a camera.


The answer I give isn’t to the question they asked but to the question they think they did. The answer they’re looking for is a number that quantifies my experience level within the discipline. They want to know when photography walked into my life and how long I’ve pursued the craft. I don’t have a number in my head and while it wouldn’t take much to find the timestamp on my first photo, I’ve always felt the need to answer like this:

A slender tree trunk weaves up the side of a tan rustic wall in Tuscany, Italy up to a block of green leaves in this vertical composition.

I developed a curiosity for photography at some point in my childhood. There was always something about the science behind cameras that intrigued me. Eventually, I saved up and bought a little film camera and have been shooting ever since.


I tie a nice bow around it by clarifying that my fine art career specifically is about seven years old. I skip over the years I spent lost, looking for direction. I never mention all the avenues I explored in high school and college trying to figure out what my specialty would be. My answer could just as easily be seven years and most people would be happy with that. For some reason, I’ve always felt it necessary to dive deeper and start at the beginning.


When it comes to photography my timeline begins on that fateful day my finger triggered a shutter for the first time. The moment I pulled my new camera up to my eye and snapped my first photo is a day I’ll never forget. I never would’ve guessed, at the time, that my life would revolve around that technology in my hands but something within me held onto that moment as if it knew how important that decision would be.


There are two brief moments in my life that have stuck with me vividly throughout the years. One of them was the first day of high school. I remember sitting in math class waiting for it to start. I was watching the door to see who my classmates would be when a brown-haired girl that I’d never seen before walked through the door. She was beautiful and I couldn’t help but follow her as she entered. Not five steps into the room a voice in my head said “you gotta marry that girl”.


I immediately called an internal meeting. What an absurd command to slip through unfiltered. I slapped my subconscious for essentially calling dibs on a complete stranger to be my wife. Never in my life have I had such a kneejerk reaction to someone but 11 years later that same girl and I walked down the aisle together.


At the time I was embarrassed that I didn’t have better control over the voices in my head. Something within me knew her and what she would mean to me. Somehow the universe fulfilled that unexpected prophecy and I’m still trying to make sense of it to this day.


The second moment was the day I took my first photo. My family was driving through Seymour, Wisconsin for a basketball tournament my sister was playing in. We were driving down a county highway when a barn on the side of the road caught my eye. Something about it stood out to me and I requested a stop for further contemplation. The high school was just across the street so my dad quickly dropped off my sister before doubling back so I could snap a shot.


Winters in Wisconsin don’t generally bring a lot of sun but that day had blessed us with some blue sky. The barn was painted the classic red and had minor integrity flaws giving it character. It was the dead of winter and the accumulated snowfall was still blanketing the ground that a few spotted dairy cows were frozen to. I remember thinking as I framed the shot, this is America.


Snow falling on a forest of evergreen trees in Crested Butte, Colorado.

Unfortunately, I knew nothing about cameras when I took the picture. My sky of blue was blown out which gave the scene the more typical overcast look. The rustic red barn was underexposed hiding the textures and imperfections behind the dark tones. My red, white, and blue composition became a world of white with a black barn and some cows. I remember the disappointment when I got the proofs back. It was hardly the interpretation of America that I had in my head.


The date was January 31st, 2003 which for those of you looking for exact numbers means I would have been 13 at the time and have been doing this for over 18 years as I’m writing this.


So there you go, the exact answer to the question that started this entire post. This concludes the lesson for today, class dismissed. Unless you’ve been paying attention then you’re still waiting for the real question to be answered. How long have I been doing this?


As I mentioned, the answer I typically give is not to the question asked but to the question they think they asked. Recently I’ve been peeling away the layers of that day in Seymour. That was the day I became a photographer, but that wasn’t the day that I started doing this.


The reason I found myself on the side of that frozen road leaning out the side door of our black Windstar wasn’t to start my photography career. I didn’t have an itch to pull the trigger and start winding film. My eye had seen something and for the first time, I decided to look at it.

A lone vine crawls up the black shutter of a brick house in Savannah, Georgia.

When I first started my fine art pursuit, I juggled the labels of artist and photographer. I typically defaulted to photographer but never could drop the artist debate. I saw what I was doing, like most of you probably do, to be photography. I used a camera and took photos, that’s the essence of a photographer. As I’ve developed and my work has matured so has my view of what it truly is that I’m doing.


My eye is always processing the world around me. It scans the surroundings and analyzes every detail looking for components of the scene that speak to it. Over time I’ve gotten more in tune with this force within me and its preferences for textures, shapes, and contrast. Like the moon to the tides, it’s always there influencing me. When this force arrived is unknown to me but on January 31st, 2003 is when I gave it a voice.


This creative force has always been functioning within me and for the most part, I’d internalized its calling. Eventually, I began to see what it was so excited about and began to agree with it. The problem became translating it to others. I could be enamored with a vine growing up the side of a wall but trying to show what I was seeing to someone else was impossible. They saw the vine but didn’t see the gradients of color in each leaf or the organic shapes disrupting the uniform field behind it. Their focus couldn’t hone in on the details that were sending my eye into a frenzy. The camera became my method of translation between my eye and the public.


That’s why that question is so hard for me to answer. I’m not a photographer, I just use photography as a tool to interpret the world with. It took me over 18 years to realize I’m not selling my photos but my vision. I think that’s why the memory of my first photo has stuck with me for so long. That day my eye finally shook me and said “LOOK!”, and for the first time, I understood what that force inside me was doing.


So to answer all of the questions, I now refer to myself as an artist, I’ve been using a camera for over 18 years, I’ve been pursuing fine art for the last 7, and I’ve been doing this my entire life.