Market View

Holy smokes, May sure went by fast. It was kind of a weird month for me. A month full of transitions as I quickly went from school to no school and already back again, prepared to start my summer job, tried to get some things rolling with a PR project for Hardacre Community Garden, and snuck a few (but never enough) photo shoots into the mix.  On top of that, May saw the return of Iowa City’s Downtown Farmers Market. This is my third season doing the Saturday morning market, and my first as a full-time vendor. I primarily sell handmade greeting cards featuring my photography, and some larger matted and framed prints as well.

Like I say, this is the first season I’ve had a permanent slot at the market. The two years prior I’ve been a substitute, filling in any time there was an opening. I’m really excited to have this opportunity, as it finally allows a bit of consistency for my fledgling business. I’m also still a little surprised to have been given this chance so soon. The waiting list contains hundreds of potential sellers and usually only a handful of people are chosen to fill vacancies each year. I have, however, worked very hard the past couple of seasons to prove myself as a reliable vendor. I offer a quality product that enhances the overall market selection, and have managed to build a small yet loyal following, and to develop a good relationship with market organizers. In that I guess I have earned this opportunity.

When I speak of how this has taken hard work, it’s really not an exaggeration. While we’re not talking heavy physical labor, photography requires a great deal of time, patience and dedication. Through the learning process, which I am still very much immersed in, there is much trial and error. Sometimes this means analyzing weather forecasts and rising well before dawn to attempt a shoot, hoping conditions are right. Others it means grabbing my camera and rushing out the door on a whim. A lot of my photos are taken in the backcountry, and some locations might be twenty or thirty miles from the nearest road. That of course presents its own unique challenges, which I discussed in another post (here) a few months back.

And that’s the fun part.

You also have editing. With my focus on nature photography, I prefer to let images speak for themselves. I never attempt to drastically alter a photograph, because hey, who am I to think I could improve on the appearance of the natural world? There is still a lot of work to be done, however, processing photos on the computer. For example, if I’m out taking pictures and come across something I really like, I might spend a half hour shooting it from every conceivable angle. This leaves me with hundreds of nearly identical images to sort through, and hours spent at the computer searching for minute details that will ultimately establish one frame as better than the rest. I might also make occasional adjustments, maybe do some cropping or minor color correction if needed, to develop an end product that is most closely aligned with the way things really appeared. It’s tedious work, and consumes a lot of time.

Once the photos have been processed and printed, I have to get them ready for sale. This is generally done on Fridays as I prepare everything for the next morning’s market. Matting and framing large prints is relatively painless, it’s making cards that requires the greatest deal of focus. The process starts by choosing photos then stamping and hand writing locations on the backs of blank cards. Next comes affixing the images, which requires painting coats of rubber cement onto the card stock, and onto the back of each photo. I do this for hours at a time, prepping new cards while waiting for others to dry. Once the glue is set, I remove all excess rubber cement from the card and, with an envelope, place it in protective packaging.

All in all I estimate that on average each card takes about ten minutes to make. I usually wind up making anywhere between thirty and fifty cards a week. I’ll let you do the math, but more often than not I’m up until two or three in the morning the night before a market, then sleep for a couple of hours and hit the road at 5:30 to get to Iowa City and set up on time.

But I’m not complaining. I enjoy the markets quite a bit, and only wanted to offer a behind the scenes glimpse to set the stage for what this post is really about.  What I’ve told so far, especially in detailing how Fridays are often spent, should allow you to draw certain conclusions regarding my mental state on any given Saturday morning. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, maybe it’s the residual effects of rubber cement fumes from the night before, but somewhere in the dance between excitement and delirium that dominates each outing, I am able to gain a pretty unique perspective of the Iowa City Farmers Market. This is one of the largest, oldest, and best run markets in the Midwest so many of you will already be vaguely familiar with the scene, if not from this market then perhaps from another near you. However, things look a little different from behind a vendors table. With this in mind, I’ve decided to start noting some of my random observations and sharing them in monthly summaries on this blog. There’s no rhyme or reason to a lot of this, just a collection of passing thoughts that struck while watching the crowds pass from within my Saturday morning stupor. Without further ado, here are my observations from May…

–  One thing you’ll notice from being at the market each week is that there are a lot of regulars. People that you can pretty much count on seeing every Saturday, often even in the same time frame, making their usual rounds. Some stop to visit me and have become good friends, others smile and nod as they pass by.  There’s this one guy, an older bald-headed gentleman, that I swear must have the shiniest dome in all of eastern Iowa. Seriously, you can see the entire market scene reflected on his head. Every week I see him, and every week I can’t help but stare, wondering the same thing. “Do you suppose he polishes it?”

Sometimes I wave at myself after he’s walked by.

-To answer a disturbingly common question, one I get every week right after a person has walked up to my booth, looked over my work, read the sign that says Josh Meier Photography, then settled their gaze on me with disbelief…

Yes, I am Josh, and yes, I did take these pictures “all by myself…”

-Another common question I get is if my photos were all taken in Iowa. I have literally had a person ask this while holding a picture of Mt. Rainier, and another with a shot of saguaro cactus in hand. Generally, if the person asking has a foreign accent I’m willing to cut them a little slack. If they’re wearing a souvenir RAGBRAI jersey however… then not so much. I once told a guy that Grinnell Peak (Glacier National Park) was “out a ways, just past Solon…” Wonder if he ever found it.

-One thing I’ve noticed that’s kind of cool is the market has its own perceivable energy. There’s kind of an ebb and flow to everything, be it sales, attitudes, or just the flow of patrons in general. It’s really hard to explain, but I’ve noticed my more successful days are those on which I can find a way to tap into this and really become absorbed in my surroundings. Then again, that could be the glue vapors talking.

-It’s awesome to see the things people will strap to their bikes and haul away. Last week, I watched as a guy somehow bungeed two large potted ferns atop his rear panniers, secured several dozen eggs between them, and then cruised off without a care in the world.

-A market doesn’t pass without someone looking over my selection of images and casually telling me I’ve got it made. The misconception is that all I do is drive around the country taking pictures all week, then come back and sell them as greeting cards in Iowa City for a few bucks a pop. “That would be great,” people tell me. In reality, this is far from my full-time job. I go to school full-time, and work part-time at my old high school as an evening and substitute janitor. While there is a certain degree of prestige that comes with scrubbing toilets, I somehow doubt my life is as glamorous as what these folks have in mind. The photography business is just something I do on the side. Any meager profit I make goes directly toward saving for photo gear, and I hope an eventual workshop or two to help me improve my skill. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to become a professional nature photographer one day. Driving all over the country taking pictures and not having to rush back to buff floors… that would be great.  

-As for my booth location, I’m right next to the two nice ladies who sell greeting cards like they’re going out of style. I, of course, also sell cards. Apparently mine are under no such threat.

-How’s come I see so many people walking by licking empty caramel apple sticks? The apple guy is only three stalls down. How in the hell do they eat them that fast? And why don’t they have any on their faces? Don’t get me wrong, his apples are delightful. But I had one once, it took me 45 minutes to carefully eat, and I still wound up with caramel on my face.

And on my shirt.

And in my hair.

-Finally, being at and observing the Iowa City farmers market serves one constant reminder… There are some truly beautiful spirits floating around this town. It’s great to be able to just sit back and soak up the phenomenal atmosphere, and be a part of the greater market community.

With that said, I’d better get to work making cards. It’s gonna be another late one tonight, but I’m anxious to get back out there tomorrow. We’ll soon see what new revelations June has in store.




2 thoughts on “Market View

  1. Josh….I’m totally in awe of your great photo shots and fantasic writing skills. I’m right there with you….as you describe everything. I think you should really think about making a book….with your life writings and photos.

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