Thinking about thought in a media rich environment.

Revolving doors on West Sixth street, Austin, Texas.  
Camera:  Olympus EP2

There are a lot of thoughts that I think I've generated in the vacuum of my own mind which I'm pretty sure are just the manifestation of years and years of immersion in a media rich culture.  I think my subconscious spends a lot of time stealing and borrowing fun snippets of concepts and visions that I catch and snatch across time and experience.  And that makes me sad because I wonder if our culture mediates against the chance of having an original thought.  Just as people say they were "standing on the shoulders of giants"  when they accomplish something profound; I wonder if we as a creative class are just the culmination and revolving door synthesis of all the "Leave it to Beaver" and "24" and "Gilligan's Island" shows we've watched, mixed with a dose of Dr. Suess, a little Susan Sontag and stirred around by some "Blade Runner" and "The Sound of Music".  I know the accompanying sound track is a raucous mix of Beethoven, The Beatles, Mozart, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell and disco.

With six billion people in the world are there still original thoughts?  Or are we destined to sample and mix?

I came up with an idea for a new book recently.  I thought it was pretty cool and pretty sexy.  When I pitched it to a publisher they said, in effect:  "You seem to be on to a very important trend.  But we've already signed a writer for that project."  When I go out to photograph I struggle with a saturated awareness of the history of photography and the work that's happening everywhere around me.  Am I referencing previous work by artists?  Am I using a "melody line" in reference or is it a visual cliche that we're all destined to rework until the next swirl hits?

Photographers tend to be of two minds.  In the first category are compulsive researchers like me who look and look and look.  And the research is promiscuous;  I can probably tell you what camera and lens were used as well as who took the picture and where it first appeared.   So I am paralyzed by over consuming information.  I curse the web for that.  But the other extreme is the photographers who curmudgeonly refuse to know what's going on in their field  and who resist the computer at all costs.  They consider their vision unsullied until someone points out to them that the opus they've struggled with for decades has already been done, many times, and usually much better. Because few are truly resistant to the persistence "the messages". Paralysis or re-invention of the wheel?  There has to be a better choice.

At this point I'm sure the cliche minded have already jumped to the story about the patent clerk who, well over a hundred years ago, suggested closing the patent office because he was certain that all the good and original ideas had already been considered.  But that's not quite where I'm headed here.

I think we make so much work to please our audiences.  We shoot what we shoot because we want to be perceived as creative and cool.  Our map for coolness is the compilation of greatest hits that serially litter our attention.  We reference and tweak and bend them like Stephen Fairey with his poster of Obama, which started life as someone else's photograph.  And the problem is that we sometimes, unintentionally, step over the line into pure plagiarism.

Most of us started careers as artists or commercial photographers because we had a sense of our own visual sensibility but over time we've subjugated that clear vision for one we think will serve us better among our peers and our clients.  Little by little, we've hidden away the things that makes the art uniquely our own and that renders it  as just a souvenir of our culture.

To understand what I really mean it's enlightening to study the best known work of the writer, Vladimir Nabokov;  the novel, Lolita.  There's very little in this book that is really prurient or shocking by most standards and yet, when the book was first published in 1955   it was banned in the United States for a time.  It was regarded as so unpublishable that Nabokov was only able to sell it to a European publisher with a shaky, porny reputation.  It may be the best novel of the 20th century.  And not because of the subject matter but because of the writing.  And the unique point of view.  And the wonderful storytelling.

Now the book is celebrated by scholars.  Kubrick did the movie and it is astoundingly good. (It should be, Nabokov wrote the screenplay).  The book gets better and better, and over 54 years later still has relevance and power.  It was a set of "giant shoulders" to stand on for the next generation of authors who could now write in a more revealing and intimate manner.  But the "take away" is that Nabokov had the courage to create art that was in sync with his own nature while being profoundly out of sync with the prevailing culture. 

Of the books written in 1955 the vast majority have been consigned to the dusty card catalog of history. Lolita grows in power and influence.  If we are to create work that is meaningful to ourselves (and we can have no idea of the work's intrinsic value to anyone else) then we have to be as fearless as Nabokov and shoot from the heart.  Show uncomfortable work that has real meaning to us, and use a visual language that isn't a mirrored reflection of our social construct's greatest hits.

A clear vision may be influenced by the immersive media culture that swirls around us but the courage to shoot differently is the power that could make work that matters.  Even if it only matters to an audience of one.  That's the true nature of art.

commercial message:  If you are in Austin, Texas on the 13th of February I will be teaching a unique portrait workshop at Zachary Scott Theater, sponsored by Precision Camera. We'll discuss lighting and aesthetics, have a guest appearance and demo by the amazing photographer,  Will Van Overbeek (see:  www.willvano.com), a make-up demo by famed MUA, Patricia de la Garza and hands on sessions in the afternoon.  Yes, there will be donuts...

Without a doubt, the perfect Valentine's Day present.

Thanks, Kirk


John Krumm said...

Nabakov was a great visualist too. When I read Lolita or his short stories I'm struck by his strong, effecient images. I was also struck with just how graphically sexual Lolita was on a recent re-read, much more so than I rememberd from my first read 25 years ago. I could find some good quotes if you'd like... : )

Photographers are blessed and cursed by technology that allows (and requires to some extent) us to be immersed in a sort of cultural churn, going round and round, often repeating the same things much more quickly than writers or painters do. Is there even rooom for a new Nabakov of photography at this point? Perhaps, but my guess is you'd have to be pretty darn determined, willing to offend, not take photos for comments on Flickr, and willing to create art over the long haul with little payback for many years, if ever.

kirk tuck said...


"you'd have to be pretty darn determined, willing to offend, not take photos for comments on Flickr, and willing to create art over the long haul with little payback"

Well put. And just about right.

Gordon said...

my own unoriginal idea about original ideas is that the big breakthroughs are almost always the synthesis of a few smaller ideas. You take a couple of known things, look at them askance and combine them and suddenly - big new idea. We do stand on the shoulders of giants, but up there we have something different from them - our new point of view. Our own personal view from their shoulders is different to everyone else. The ideas in my head are the sum of all the experiences I've had, over the years. A unique soup to fish in for new ways of seeing and doing, as long as you are willing to see what's within, rather than copy what's out there being popular. Finding that fearless path is tough, too.

kirk tuck said...

Incredibly well said, Gordon. That's the perfect counterpoint to my own tendency toward cynicism. I'm so glad you posted that. But we both agree, "Finding that fearless path is tough....:"

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Gordon for the sweet version. Two thumbs up for Tuck's stick in the eye of group think.

Bernie said...

Well this hits me right where I'm living right now. I think you are on to a trend again:-)

Do I want to create art? Do I want to create Art? Well regardless of whether anyone else agrees I must have a definition of "art". So what do I define as art?

I'm deliberately not answering those questions right now as I have decided they are secondary questions to the question of what must I do to make a good living. And then as I wrote that I thought to myself "How can the meaning of your life's work be a secondary consideration?"

Well I am not regarding my work from the viewpoint of my deathbed but rather from inside an empty kitchen cupboard or an empty petrol tank or a frequently empty bank account.

So art has to encompass the real world in which I actually live. But it also has to encompass some higher ideals. And that for me is the struggle.

And so here is one of my favourite quotes. From "Fiddler on the Roof".
"You might say that every one of us are fiddlers on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune while not breaking his neck".

It doesn't provide a solution but it is a good statement of the problem.

Gordon said...

This Twyla Tharp book ( http://bit.ly/9Aj8D9 ) on The Creative Habit has the best discussion I've read on where 'new' ideas spring from, how to work towards them, and all that fear stuff, too. Great book.

Michael Ferron said...

Here's my take. Einstein said and I will crudely paraphrase that he gives thanks everyday for all those both living and dead who came before him and whose labors created the civilized world that gave him the comforts and opportunity to let him exist as he did. Same with arts. No Buddy Holly no Beatles. No Blues no Led Zeppelin

Same with photography, sports, dance etc. Someone sets the stage, raises the bar and the next in tries to better the goal. I doubt anyone can come up with something new. Music's roots are inter tangled none of it's new. There isn't anything that hasn't been photographed. What hasn't been done is the very best photo of any particular subject hasn't been taken yet. Excellent maybe but until you out do what's been done it's just another record waiting to be broken.

kirk tuck said...

Michael, A very good counterpoint to my cynicism. And a very good way to look at it all. Thanks for a very valuable response.

Curt said...

I would agree with the concept that most large ideas are the accumulation and correspondence of many small ideas. Sound playback still uses a "stylus" (now a laser" to read a spinning disk in a hard drive (playing a MP3), just as this same stylus and spinning disk worked on CDs and records before it.
As for photographic creativity, one of the things I've come to appreciate about this artform is the cohesion of art and science is presents, not only in the equipment, but most especially at the moments prior to and up to the shutter being activated. I must use my logical mind to know and set various settings - aperture, shutter speed, et cetera. I must use my artistic mind to compose. Thus, when it all comes together, photography and I are in total embrace.

Dennis Elam said...

I attended the seminar with Kirk and Will, just great. I posted a longer comment for the google group in our class at SW School of Art and Craft but let me just post this comment from that article.

Kirk is. easy going and friendly Remember Wilson, Tim Taylor’s Good Neighbor, it’s like running into Wilson but not having to talk over the fence. Bottom line, his advice all day and at the end of the day. You can learn about equipment and where to put the lights by reading books. But the key to a successful portrait shoot, like any human endeavor, it getting to know the subject. Like the examples in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends, the key is to find out what interests your subject, then you will have all the tine in the world. Kirk told the anecdote of the PR guy limiting him to 15 minutes to shoot a CEO. He had learned that CEO was a Leica collector. And so he of course carried a Leica with him to the shoot. Once the CEO spotted the camera, the conversation was on, and of course he had all the time in the world for the shoot. Photography like anything else is a human endeavor.

Thanks for a truly enjoyable learning experience Kirk!