10.17.2011

We're back. Both of us. All of us.

This is a small slice of time in the story of Belinda.  A snapshot view into an arc of stories.


It rained in Austin a week ago and we were all happy that nature nudged some benevolent clouds in our direction.  My trees and flower beds seemed happier than I've seen them in months and the two inches of moisture, wicked into the ground, moderated temperatures for the rest of the week.  We finally have a bit of Autumn.

One of the consequences of the rain, and my inattention to our gutters and French drains, was a little leak into the corner of my studio.  The floor of a closet where I store photo props got wet and one of my favorite grey canvas backgrounds got soaked.  I had elaborate plans to clean the background by hanging it over the fence and scrubbing with a sponge but finally decided, when Belinda wasn't looking, to dump the whole 10 foot by 12 foot hunk of dark grey canvas material into the washing machine and see what happened.

It's the first time I've ever washed a background and it went well.  After the spin dry cycle I hung it up in the middle of the studio, on its background stands, to dry.  And then, yesterday in the late afternoon, just as the sun was setting and the afterglow started to light up the evening sky, I looked over my shoulder from my desk and noticed how beautifully the soft, diffuse light was brushing across the gentle undulations of the background fabric.  The light was directional but without force.  It was almost like of mist of gray light.

I walked into the house and asked Belinda if she would come out to the little studio so I could take a shot.  I put a digital camera on an old wooden tripod and turned Belinda into the light.  The shutter speed was a slow 1/20th of a second and the aperture around f2.5.  The light was low enough to require a sensitivity setting of ISO 400.  I used an electronic cable release to shoot with.  We shot eight or ten images and that was enough.

Belinda went back into the house and I yanked the memory card out of the camera and went to the computer to see what I'd gotten.  From the beginning my intention was to make the final image black and white.  I chose this frame because Belinda seemed bemused.  The other frames were all good but all different.  Some had serious expressions and some were blurred with Belinda's laughter.  This one said it all.  It said, to me,  "I understand your frailties.  I understand your impulsiveness.  I understand your desire to photograph.  I understand your frustrations.  I understand the elation you feel when you get something just right."

I told Belinda all the reasons I stopped writing this blog.  She listened.  I told her all the reasons I wanted to start writing and sharing images again and that "look" up at the top of the page is the answer she gave me.  That's all.

I've been re-reading Susan Sontag's book, On Photography, for the past few days.  I'd read it years ago when I was filled with more hubris and impatience, and I'd dismissed too much.  The one thing that really touched me was her assertion that people in cultures with punishing work ethics (Her list:  Germans, Japanese and Americans) enjoy the hobby of photography because it seems like work and makes us less nervous about taking vacations and leisure time because we are convinced that we are still dutifully at work when we pursue our photographic creations.  It's a disturbing explanation for our desires to photograph.  But one that I believe is somehow mixed into the amalgam of our pursuits.

I prefer to believe my own conceit.  I think human beings, as members of tribes, families and elective groups, are story tellers at heart.  The photographic image is a crystallization of a part of a story that makes the whole of the story tangible.  If I show a photograph of a pretty, young girl at a coffee shop the image becomes part of an instant framework that brings you to the story with a ready supply of clues and facts and background.  You know what the girl looks like,  how she's dressed, her expression and posture, the surroundings, the visual feel of the coffee shop, and more.  You slide into the story with instant exposition.

But there are two ways to look at the individual photo.  One way is to approach it as a fully encapsulated piece of freestanding art and the other way is to look at the photo as a frozen selection in time from the continuum of a story.  I choose the second interpretation because, for me, every image I take cues me to think of the arc of actions and time connected to the image.

Here I'll make a confession.  I believe that I am a photographer without much natural talent.  There is nothing I bring to the table that anyone else cannot bring with the exception of my interpretation of stories.  There are hordes of people more technically adroit than I.   If you've done all of the exercises on Strobist.com and have read hundreds of technical blogs I don't doubt for a second that you can handle the technical aspects of image generation masterfully.  I'm also shaky at the ins and outs of composition.  I'm never quite sure how to handle the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into my frames and I'm generally no more than proficient when it comes to designing with colors.  Interpreting the technical stuff into art is a stretch for me.  When I say "no talent" I don't mean bad, I just mean, "not gifted."  "Not a natural."

I came to photography in an interesting way.  I always enjoyed writing and it came easily to me.  I feel like words are fluid and flow smoothly when I'm in my writing groove.  But all things visual and design are difficult for me and I struggle with them.  I started adult life as a writer but I always had the idea that good writing (story telling) depended partly on having good stories to tell.  When a writer is young they may be facile in the mechanics of a story but the foundation of the story is sometimes missing.  And, the work from younger writers tends to be like a brash wine that could stand aging and breathing.  I always assumed I would write something good but I also assumed I would do it in my 50's and 60's.  You know, after I'd amassed something interesting to say.

So I waded into photography to confront the challenges of my visual illiteracy.  My visual clunkiness. And every step has been like slogging through mud.  But the stories are there.  I've learned enough of the technical work to make the birth of my images reliable and I depend on the implicit and integral stories to bear the weight.  So there's always a conflict.  What is a photograph?  A fixed work of art or the slice of a story transformed to a visual symbology?  And do my own limitations inform my answers?

I come down on the side of narrative.  I secretly wish every photograph had a well written caption.  A way of contextualizing the image and the art.  When other photographers sit and share coffee we talk more now about why we photograph.  The dispirited wonder why they go through the motions and question their motivations.  At the heart I think we all have stories to tell and that the sharing of the stories assures us that there's a certain universality to our existence and experiences but at the same time there are little twists and inflections that make a story uniquely yours.  The storytelling is like a road map.

In Buddhist teachings everyone and everything is interconnected.  Our suffering and joy are interconnected.  And your story is equally important.  All our stories are of equal value in the big scheme of things.  If you tell your story people become newly aware of how things look to you through the filters of your experiences.  It becomes part of the ever changing matrix of their understanding of our existence.

When I question my involvement in photography I come around to the idea that I have a story to tell and, just as importantly,  an audience to tell it to.  The stories exist with or without photographs but become, in some ways, more concretely accessible with them.  When you have doubts about what moves you to take images, when you are frozen by the indecision you might ask yourself, "What is the story I want to tell?  What are the feelings I want to share?  How can I tell you how beautiful this thing in front of me is?  Here, let me show you.  We'll know this one thing together...."

Where do the stories come from?  They come from your own passions.  From your own curiosity.  From the things you love and the things you despise.

I understood that when I photographed people but I didn't understand what pushes me to photograph little details of my city's downtown.  Now I do.  I am trying to understand the story of people's interconnectedness and shared space.  I am trying to understand how we continually change our context to create a new world in each moment, anchored with the only objectivity available = our concrete surroundings.

In effect, it would seem that we capture images to tell long term stories about the past.  "Here is Ben at 2 years old and he was doing this......"  But there's more to the collection of images then the final chapter; which I always imagined would be me sitting on a small bed, in a small room, old and dressed in a worn suit and tie but with nowhere to go and nothing to do, holding small album or book of photos in my hands and remembering a life in the past that had moved on like water in a stream.  And the images in my book would be a last, desperate attempt to hold onto the life line of life and memory.

But stories are now.  Stories are in the present.  We make them now and they become part of an infinite ball of rubber band cosmos....rubber band by rubber band.  We add our stories because they are part of the continuum, part of mankind's story.  And no matter how small the story might seem it also seems to be our destiny to tell it.

And that's why I think we photograph.

Welcome back to my blog.  I appreciated everyone's feedback.  I can't promise you anything but that I'll write about things I think and show images that have some meaning for me.  Everything else is a crap shoot.

It's monday.  It must be time to get back to work.

59 comments:

Simon Lupton said...

Kirk, Words cannot express how much I admire this contribution ......... you know how to operate a washing machine!

:o)

Jeff Damron said...

An extraordinary first post for your return. Thank you for this.

John said...

Stories are an absolutely beautiful thing to have and to share. Very frequently I venture to the coffee house right down the road from my apartment, every single time bringing a camera. Pretty sure I have an image of every barista to ever have worked there in the past 3 years. And it seems like every time I arrive, I run into familiar face - not necessarily people I talk to, but people who, like me, frequent the same spot to sit and enjoy the morning. Sometimes I won't go to that cafe for weeks, but then I pop open my catalog of images from there by accident or curiosity, see all the people, the faces, and with every single image the circumstances surrounding it, what they said, what they were doing, how I felt, what the sky looked like that morning, it all floods back into focus. Then I usually can't wait until the next morning to start writing another story with new photos. :)

One of these days I'll put together a shoddy little album to share with them...

Dave Jenkins said...

Thanks for coming back. I identify with much of what you have written today, because I also am not a "natural" photographer (whatever that is!). But I like to tell stories about the faces of people and the interface between man and nature, so I keep at it.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Wonderful. A friend is someone who shares his or her thoughts. Thanks for doing so.

Andrew Cox said...

Good to see you back in harness, thinking out loud so the audience can follow, consider, and ponder with you. Thanks.

John Driggers said...

I'll have to give this topic some thought. I agree that you have distilled why YOU photograph. I wonder if it is a universal answer--or if we each have our own reasons, our own stories.

There was a Canadian movie, in French, on SBS here in Australia last night, "The Far Side of the Moon."

The main character is working on a doctoral thesis that space exploration is motivated by narcissism. As part proof, he comments about how we, as humans, are fascinated with how we look in the mirror. Another character says that's because we struggle to understand ourselves--it's not narcissism. That effort to understand ourselves pushes us to create and to test boundaries.

So perhaps the universal answer is that we photograph to understand ourselves and the story we seek to tell is our own.

Or perhaps not. But the issue bears spending some time pondering, so watch this space.

Oh yeah--Kirk, that may be the most engaging (and dare I say attractive) picture of Belinda I've seen you post. Could that be because she is reflecting your story? Just asking, y'know.

Damn, I'm glad you're back with us.

Broch said...

I"m VERY happy to see you back!

Jan Jurewicz said...

Back with a bang ! A very thought provoking post about the why that has been troubling me. I take pictures for many reasons, some purely technical, some nostalgic and others that I do not understand. Seems the best pictures come from the later area. If you keep writing like this I may figure it out one day lol.

Naomi said...

Welcome back!

ginsbu said...

A fine way to kick off your return!

Le Minh Nghia said...

Very well written to the points that I've been pondered these days. And the pic is compelling! Welcome back!

The Hiking Dad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Gray said...

Kirk, welcome back!

I found the excerpt from Susan Sontag's book most interesting.

Never thought of my personal photography as work. But I guess if I think about it, I am often getting up early to get the shot, or out in extreme conditions for extended periods of time, or working late into the night processing images, and that all does indeed sound like work, doesn't it?

Mike said...

Glad to see you've returned to the blogosphere, Kirk. Looking forward to your continued contributions!

. josé . said...

Beautiful photo, beautiful post.

Thank you for coming back.

James A Bishop said...

Looks like you came back with a bang. I'm glad to see you're back.

Nicholas Condon said...

I'm glad to see you back!

I think some of my photos, particularly those of my family, are just as you say: They are part of a story. I don't write long captions for my photos (I would love doing so, but I barely have enough time to shoot and process; I'm just now working on photos from August), but I do enjoy writing titles for them, and everyone seems very much to enjoy reading them. The whole "picture is worth a thousand words" cliche may be true, but a few words added to a picture can amplify it tremendously by giving it context.

Of course, other photos do just fine without a story. For example, I love Gianni Galassi's work, and while it might be interesting to know where he was when he took a given photo or how he set up the shot, his pictures are about color and shape rather than story. Perhaps it's mostly photos of people that are story-driven?

Clay said...

Welcome back. I'll be chewing on this one for a while.

Dog Photographer said...

Hi Kirk, Glad that you decided to return to the blogging. I kept clicking on the link to your blog and would sigh when the I Quit page came up. Great to have you back!
Ken James

Mel said...

George DeWolfe speaks of a photograph having "presence" when all the elements in the composition and the photographer's mind are in sync. I get what you're saying - those questions play out in my mind all the time.

DeWolfe also talks about authenticity and this is something unique to the individual. Not a talent or creative thing, more of making sure your images truly reflect what you saw/felt at that moment.

Love the technical posts, Kirk, but the thoughtful ones are what I remember.

Welcome back. Your audience awaits.

seany said...

Good to see you're back,I only found this site when Mike on "TOP" announced you were quitting,which I thought was a pity as it seemed like a very interesting site to follow.
So I look forward to many happy hours reading your stories and whatever else you chose to share.
Michael

James Weekes said...

Kirk,

Welcome back and glad to meet you. I first found your blog last week when Mike Johnston wrote about your decision to stop. I came here and was devastated that I hadn't found your blog sooner. I bookmarked it anyway so as to go back and read your older posts. Now I can do that and read your new ones.

And I'm going to hang a background cloth of some kind outside.

Also, a lovely first post and first picture back.

Best,
Jim Weekes

Frank Grygier said...

This is a very thought provoking post that touches at the heart of why I photograph and the challenges that it presents. I always had this notion that in order for my work to mean anything I would need to get paid for it. I have been searching for a way to justify all that I have put into this and this post opened my eyes to the answer.
It is messages like this that set you apart and I am very happy you are back.

I cannot thank you enough.

orcasmac said...

Glad to see you've decided to restart your blog. I just learned of your blog a week or so ago, when its "demise" was announced at Online Photographer. Glad I found it, but was disappointed the blog was being discontinued. Now I'm as happy as a clam! Will be a loyal follower...

John Taylor said...

Ha! thank you for reminding me of Sontag's book. In my callow youth (19) in my very short career as a college film student, many years ago, i had the temerity to shred her whole book in an oral presentation to my professor, a self describe acolyte of hers. My rebuttal was that my work (still b&w) was a sort of visual poetry, small stories, glimpses of the narrative that flows around me/us… i would have gotten a much better grade if i had written half as well as you do and actually handed in a paper. I am proud to say though that the view i tried to put across and that you just wrote about did shift his view.
Thanks for coming back and opening with such a bang.

Brad C said...

Glad you decided to come back - thanks for another thoughful and introspective post! When I think of why I photograph it almost all comes down to remebering and sharing life's events with family and friends. The thing I love about digital photography and blogging is that instead of just having a stack of 4x6's in an album, my kids' grandparents get the stories, too. They are just little snippets, but things that would be missed when you don't all live together in one city:

http://bradcalkins.blogspot.com/2011/09/wake-up-everyone.html

jh said...

cool

Markus Spring said...

Thanks!

Clint said...

There are people who wait years to get the kinds of insights you have.

And you got them both in a photo and in writing.

Very nice.

Christian said...

Thanks for coming back, Kirk! (Not that I am all that surprised. ;-)

I think that is a lovely photograph of Belinda. Looking at it, I see a facet of the connection between you and her. In fact, I see this in all your pictures of her that you have posted.

You say that you are not naturally talented as a photographer. It strikes me that you do seem to have a knack for capturing people in a certain way that shows a lot about them. And you seem to do it consistently. Maybe that is your gift?

Sean said...

Great to have you back Kirk!

An instructor recently said if you're trying to pick your best images try to right a caption for them. If you can't then it's probably not that good of an image. I thought that was pretty good, but it doesn't account for the images that you just like "for some reason". To me, figuring out why you like those images is learning about yourself. I think that's another reason to photograph things.

Bold Photography said...

Reading this is like sipping a fine merlot. Wonderful. Complex. Makes you think and reflect upon the opening image.

Then smile.

thiagobsn said...

Thanks for the comeback, Kirk. I'm from Brazil and I've been reading your blog for about two years. Your artistic insights are invaluable. I've been shooting film for artistic pleasure, even with some criticism from my peers, your recent work with the Hasselblad encouraged me. Keep posting :)

atmtx said...

That photograph of Belinda is one of my favorites. It has such a wonderful 3D feel and it is so very sharp!

Love to read your philosophy of photography. I must keep in mind the story behind the images that I take.

Jeff Weeks said...

It is so good to have you back in action. The part about how Brenda looked at you brought a tear to my eye. I believe it's true: they admire you for your strengths, but they love you for your weaknesses. The look that says I know you, weaknesses and all, and I love and support you is priceless.

Jeff Weeks
Colorado Springs, CO

Wataru Maruyama said...

Great to have you back and wonderful post and photo!

wakarimasen said...

This post explains my reason for subscribing. Glad you decided not to stop Kirk.

Καπάτος said...

I always enjoy your articles and your photos. You have the talent to make me feel like having a good friend. Nice I didn't lose you.

Ron Nabity said...

When I got into photography, I was listening to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel (still do).

One of their songs says it nicely for me:
"Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."

Every "click" is a memory preserved.

Ron

Tofuphotography said...

Welcome back Kirk. I really missed your insights and reflections.

Wally Brooks said...

Just remember to keep telling stories whether in print or visually and you work will continue to improve! If you are green you grown and if you are ripe you rot! Welcome back! Keep up writing about the art side of things.

Josh said...

I'm just glad, as usual, you changed your mind! Thanks!

ivars krafts said...

Welcome back to writing & posting. Thank you for sharing your innermost feelings about photography & life. They help clarify my own thoughts, desires, and demons.

algenonQ said...

That Susan Sontag quote made me ponder why so many software engineers take up photography. Perhaps it is like work to us. Both disciplines are driven by both creativity and seeking perfection. Food for thought...

Oh, and welcome back Kirk. Thank goodness you're fickle. I missed my regular fix of VSL.

'/1nc3nt said...

Welcome back Kirk.

I will put your site back in my bookmark!

;-)

Greg said...

Great news, Kirk! Great article, too. I like your ideas about storytelling.

Cheers,
Greg

Noons said...

Kirk, two words only:
Thank You!

Gino Eelen said...

The beauty of a photograph is that it is all the things you mention at the same time.

It is a specific record of a particular reality at a particular moment in time
It is part of the general story of that particular time and reality
It is part of the story of the subject
It is an expression of the photographer's being
It is part of the story of the photographer's life
It is a work of art that can be viewed by itself
It is part of the history of the art of photography
It is part of human history in general

A photograph forms the intersection of all of these stories, all of these interconnected realities, and as such it is a direct, tangible expression of how everything is intertwined.

On the one hand it is firmly anchored in reality because it relies on reality as its source, but on the other hand it also exhibits the multi-layeredness of meaning shared by all art forms. It is record, impression, and expression all at the same time. Which is why to me it is the most interesting of all the art forms.

Andreas said...

Kirk, I'm really glad you changed your mind. I only discovered your blog after I read Mike's article on TOP. "Too late", I thought, "what a pity!". Thanks for taking it up again.

Regarding stories, well, yes. Two days a go I took an image of an old house in a rural environment, and I took it because it somehow reminds me of the house where I grew up. That's what I'll be sharing on my blog today :)

JereK said...

Great to have you back. Literally made my day! I have been sick in bed for a couple of days and decided to come here to look at some of the older posts to get some inspiration and go shoot again(after this darn flu lets go that is) and almost fell from my chair when I saw the headline.

Very happy.

christian davis said...

Kirk - really glad you're back! Other have said it, but this is a really thought-provoking post. I really enjoyed it. You re-reading On Photography has inspired me, and I think I'll re-read it as well. I do specifically recall the passage you refer to about photography fitting into our obsession about working. I remember disagreeing when I read it - disagreeing about its applicability to me, at least - but she made many other insightful observations. And to be honest, I might not be the best to judge my own motivations in things. I think one's self is the best market for B.S. - we really want to believe in our own rationalizations, etc. So who knows, maybe I am victim of the need to turn pleasure into labor, too. I'm looking forward to re-visiting her ideas. Thanks!

Paul Pomeroy said...

Some day when you've got time to track down a copy, you might pick up Italo Calvino's book, Difficult Loves. In it you will find a chapter entitled The Adventure of a Photographer and in that you will find much to think about (served up with a side of much to enjoy).

Add me to the list of people who appreciate all you've shared here, Kirk. Glad to hear you're going to keep on keeping on.

Richard Alan Fox said...

Kirk
This is a brilliant post. Thank you.

Gordon said...

I wonder - have you ever met anyone who would self identify as talented or gifted at anything? Other people might attach that attribute, but the people I hear it given to, always seem to have a story of hard work, repetition and practice lurking in the background.

Is the idea of Talent just an outward manifestation of inner hard work - or do some people really have a gift that means they can be brilliant without any effort at all?

kirk tuck said...

Gordon, I've met many people who've picked up a camera or an instrument and quickly become very adept. I've watched kids struggle with math and kids master math effortlessly. While no one should walk around and pat themselves on the back and call themselves "gifted and talented" part of being an observant parent is watching your kid's friends grow up and gravitate to different strengths. Some without any effort at all.

Makes is seem harder for the rest of us... :-)

Mike Young said...

Thanks for coming back Kirk. And what a second start!

Looking forward to your continued insights and knowledge.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

Welcome back, Kirk! What a pleasure to read you again. And thanks to Mike Johnston (and I discovered TOP thanks to your blog, what about interconnections...) for pointing that you were back. A moving post, sincerity, trueness and insight at its best. Lets go photograph! Warm regards,

Mark said...

Glad you decided to continue. Your post is heartfelt. One of the things I enjoy about you is the fact that you do go back and forth about equipment and such. I have never believed that any company or anyone has all the right answers. I like to see the best everyone has to add to the mix. And, I believe you do, too. So, I don't say much, and I don't read anyone regularly. Your blog is one I keep coming back to read. And, whether I agree or not, I seem to find myself interested in what you say. Thank you.

Best,

Mark