12.18.2009

A non-photographic mentor. Learn more from people who know more.


Mike Hicks, circa 2007.  Austin, Texas.


If you woke me up in the middle of the night, at gunpoint, and demanded to know who has taught me more about photography and creativity in general, I would blurt out, "Mike Hicks."  Which is interesting because Mike is not a  photographer.  Mike is the consummate "Renaissance Man" of advertising and creativity.  I first met Mike back in the early 1980's.  He ran the most respected graphic design firm in Texas, Hixo, and he taught graphic design at the University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts.

I didn't meet him in either of these contexts.  I met him at a restaurant called La Provence.  It was an amazing restaurant for Austin, at the time.  Patricia Bauer-Slate, the founder of the world famous, Sweetish Hill Bakery, decided Austin needed a classic, haute cuisine restaurant and for several years her restaurant set the standard for Texas, a land festooned with lots of chicken fried steak, BBQ and Tex-Mex food.  It was amazing.  And Mike is always at the forefront of good food in the capitol city.  We were introduced by Patricia one evening.  My wife and I were already in awe of Mike for his design work.  Now we came to know him as a "foodie".  In fact, many years later, he gave me a copy of the Larousse cookbook as a birthday present......

But this is a story about photography and mentors.  For a while I ran a competing ad agency and, when the opportunity presented I convinced Mike to joint venture with us on a big, multi-year project.  His command of the field was amazing.  His concepts were both timeless and cutting edge.

A few years later I left the ad industry to become a photographer and Mike was one of my first and most loyal clients.  What I learned from him came from almost weekly assignments for an ongoing, black and white newspaper campaign for a major retailer.  Once a week I would get a comp from his agency and I would be required to find the props and models and shoot, with rigorous precision, the exact set up described by the comp.  In those days we were shooting most studio shots on 4x5 film.

Sometimes Mike would indicate on the comp a very specific lighting style.  This was before the days of the internet and sometimes I would research and refine techniques for days before I got them to work.  One time I was asked to illustrate a baseball for an ad for Nolan Ryan's book.  The baseball needed to be clear and crisp but look as though it had been thrown so fast that it was on fire and trailing smoke.  Easy enough against a black background, but our whole campaign was shot against white.

I researched everywhere I could.  I called every pro I knew and came up blank.  Finally, after destroyed ten or so baseballs I invented a technique that gave Mike exactly what he wanted.  When he looked at the 11x14 inch fiber based print (that's how we presented back then) he chuckled a bit and said,  "I thought that would be impossible.  Nice job."   This happened more than once.

I didn't learn anything directly.  It has all been osmotic.  But I've learned so much.  The biggest thing I've learned is that clients look at things differently from photographers.  We need to make work that works well for both sides of the camera.

Another thing I've learned from Mike is the importance of constant, personal reinvention.  He made the leap from analog to digital as seamlessly as a teenager learns a video game.  He's been able to translate a print sensibility into television commercials. He's a brilliant writer for publications like Graphis and  CA. And he understands the importance of a good lunch.

He's in his early sixties and has the energy of a 30 year old.  He never lives in the past.  Doesn't talk about the good old days.  He looks ahead, figures out how to do things in new ways and always finds a way to make it profitable.

You could do worse in choosing a role model.

I asked Mike to come by and let me photograph him a few years ago when some company lent me a medium format digital camera to test.  I like this image because it shows his relentless intensity.  Maybe it will be lost in translation but it is one of my favorite portraits.

5 comments:

jkt said...

survived translation… and i can clearly see why its among your faves. Oh and nice story to, thanks

John Krumm said...

He sounds quite interesting, Kirk--thanks for the write-up, and thanks again for posting those high quality larger linked images. It's a pleasure looking at them.

Danté Bell said...

Kirk, you're making me miss Austin! I loved the food there, and the music, of course, but mostly the people. There's a powerful, creative vibe in that city. I was only there for 4 months working at the VA Data Center, but got to know so many people in the creative fields like, jewelry, ceramics, music, videography, dance and even a few fine actors! But to your point, I agree that you need to be open to learning your craft from people that aren't directly involved. Open you ears and you may just learn something :)

Nicolas said...

It's a very cool portrait and a very cool story. :)

kirk tuck said...

Mike is pretty amazing. Widely acknowledged as one of the premier graphic designers of his generation (and still working at the top of the field today...) he's authored really good books, invested wisely and consistently mentored designers who've gone on to create successful advertising agencies and design firms. It has always been my goal to do projects with Mike and to never let him be disappointed with what we collaboratively create. When you have a chance to work with people of his stature the last thing you want to do is let them down.

All photographers need clients who are scary good at what they do. It pushes us to reach for that same standard!