Roar with intensity. Be clear about your path.

I've done so many things over the years.  And shot so many different kinds of photographs.  I still like the challenge of bringing tiny microprocessor dies to life and making big, industrial machines look sexy and potent.  On a good day I can even find pleasure in photographing products on white backgrounds.  There's a meditative charm to doing good clipping paths, after the fact.  I love to shoot events.  The constant flux and mixed vibrance of people hellbent on sharing ideas is alluring.  And the exchange of knowledge can be intoxicating when something totally new is broached.

But those things are not really why I got into photography, either as a hobby or as a profession.  To be absolutely truthful there are only two types of photography I wake up thinking about.  One is shooting on the streets and the other is classical portraiture.

The shot above was done on film with a Contax G2 and a 28mm Biogon.  Ben was running towards me with a joyous bluster and his mom trailed behind him.  It was a Spring day and we were at Emma Long Park, which borders Lake Austin.  The park was nearly empty because we were there on a week day in the early afternoon.  There's nothing planned about the shot.  I just pulled the camera up to my eye, focused and shot.  But  I like so much about the shot.  I love Ben's little shadow.  I love his stride.  I love the diagonal pattern of the boards in the dock.

I never leave the house without a camera.  There's just no way of knowing what you might miss.  I see street photography and this sort of ongoing reportage as a way of writing a visual book.  It's all part of a larger narrative that I just haven't been able to tag with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But it's writing a visual novel all the same.  That's why I love this kind of imagery.  It unfolds chapter by chapter and you work in collaboration with chance, fate and destiny to distill the images from the swirl of life around you....

And then there's classical portraiture.  The image above, of my friend and former assistant, Anne is my favorite portrait ever.  I know I'm supposed to like portraits of my kid and my wife better but this is the portrait I'd be happy to have define my work for my entire career.  And in a way this image sums up everything that I think is wonderful about portraiture in the studio.

Every square inch is exactly as I wanted it.  The lighting is exactly what I previsualized and created.  Anne's expression is exactly what I wanted her to convey.  It's a wonderful record of a beautiful and deeply thoughtful person.

If I could customize my career I would spend the next twenty years doing portraits just like this.  All that's needed are a few lights, a few backgrounds and one camera and one lens.  That, and the time to sit quietly with each subject and get to know them as individuals.  As fellow human beings.   I would shoot sessions every day and spend the rest of the time massaging the tones and textures into prints.  Not screen fodder, but actual prints that people could hold in their hands and cherish.

In many ways these kinds of images are almost unattainable now.  People want to move too fast.  Get stuff done and get on to the next thing.  Do you remember the last time you had an hour long conversation with someone?  Did they glance at their phone every so often, reminding you of the split nature of their attention?  Were they booked so tightly that, from the minute they arrived  they were anticipating when they would have to go.  Between planning to arrive and planning to depart did they give a thought to how they would be "in the moment?".

As artists we have control.  We can set the parameters for a session.  We can ask that phones be extinguished and we can create a space and a mood that invites sitters to linger.  In exchange, we can try each time we shoot to give our sitters a very, very special image.  A portrait that defines this moment in time.  This moment in their lives.

How did this portrait come about?  I'd been experimenting with backgrounds.  I loved the look of folded drape going off into an increasingly blurry distance.  The drape on the left side of the prints is perhaps 12 feet back from Anne.  The drape on the right perhaps 20 feet back from Anne.  Each set of drapes was lit by it's own light in a small softbox.  In this way the amount of light on each drape, and even where it fell, could be individually controlled.

I put Anne in a favorite old, rickety chair and had her lean her arms against the back.  She's quiet by nature and doesn't fidget around much so she makes a wonderful model for a longer session.  I wanted a big, soft but directional light source for my main light.  Like the soft light from a cloudy day billowing through a window.  This was provided by a 50 by 72 inch softbox covered with layers and layers of white diffusion cloth, clothespinned to the front panel.

A white wall over to the shadow side of Anne's face created too much fill so I put a big, black card in between Anne and the wall.  The camera was a Hasselblad with a medium telephoto lens, used at f5.6 (almost wide open for medium format....).

We talked for a while before I started shooting film.  I wanted her to settle comfortably into the space.  When both of us stopped being diligent and trying too hard I started to shoot.  I shot three or four rolls of film and there were many frames I liked.  But as with most portraiture there is one frame that clearly stands above the rest.  In our minds, this one was that frame.

What a wonderful career it could be if I can make more and more of these.......

Edit:  I forgot to mention that sometime last week we hit a milestone of sorts:  500,000 page views. Probably more people have read or viewed my work in the last 16 months than.........  KT


Sometimes I post something because it reminds me of something else.

This photo reminds me of shooting images for plastic surgeons.  They always want "perfect skin" and big eyes and perfect lips.   You can do lots of things with PhotoShop.  But should you?

I like to  look at images that haven't been retouched. I think the reality is much more alluring than the fictive.

Reposting an older blog about: Anti-Workshop sentiment rising. A reminder to un-participate. ( a reprint of my first "Anti" workshop because I am planning another one. Also, thought there was some good stuff in here.)

Here's a novel idea:  Let's all leave our cellphones in our cars and pretend that being out shooting photographs in San Antonio is a lot more fun than checking all the text crap every few minutes.  We could spend a day off the grid!

So much for wishful thinking.  Well, we're counting down the days until we intersect in San Antonio for what I hope will be a day of wandering around shooting stuff that really resonates with me.  If you are coming I hope you'll find stuff that resonates with you.  And it doesn't have to be the same stuff.  We'll meet at the Alamo at 8:30 am.  I'll have some (printed) maps with some of my favorite routes on them.  If I get ambitious I'll even include visual landmarks.  We'll yakk for a few minutes and then everyone can start drifting through downtown, aiming, generally toward the Mercado.  There's a huge restaurant there called, Mi Tierra.  I'm aiming to have brunch there at 10:30 am.  I may call ahead and let them know that we might have a big table of people but I have no idea how many people are actually planning to attend. The food is classic Tex-Mex.  If you are an ardent Vegan you might want to bring something to gnaw on.  The coffee is totally vegan!!!  

Someone asked about lunch.  Get serious.  If we have a big Tex Mex El Brunch at 10:30 am you'd have to have the metabolism of a caffeinated hummingbird to be hungry a few hours later.  Coffee breaks? Yes.  Snacks? Sure.  Full out lunch?  If you feel you need one there's a ton of places to choose from and I'm sure you'll be able to find a fellow photographer to go with.  I'll be walking around shooting stuff.

At 3:30pm, or there abouts, I'll be hanging up the street photography thing and driving over to the McNay Museum. http://www.mcnayart.org/index.php  Please take a few minutes to go to their webpage (if you plan to attend) and look at the stuff they say about photography on their property.  You are basically agreeing to use images only for personal use.  That pretty much means you can't sell them as stock to anyone.  They are happy to have you take photos on their grounds and in the rooms but no flash and no tripods.  Read the stuff and you'll be happier.  The entry fee is $8 for adults.  If you wanna get your money's worth, go earlier and plan to spend a couple hours there.  There's a lot to see.

The museum closes at 5pm and it's just down the street from one of my other favorite restaurants, La Fonda.  It's on N. New Braunfels in the Sunset Ridge Shopping Center.  I'm heading there after they push me out of the door at the McNay.  I'll be talking photography and savoring the ambience until everyone gets bored and leaves.  Then it's back home to Austin.

Some thoughts about shooting:  The fewer cameras and lenses you take the more comfortable you'll be shooting all day long.  The fewer pieces of lighting gear you bring the less you'll have to carry around.
For example, right now I'm anticipating taking one DSLR camera, one normal lens, and two 8 gigabyte cards.  I'll be shooting raw.  And if I need more than 600 images I think I'll have shot too much, too quick.
I'm not bringing a camera bag or a flash or a tripod.  I'm not bringing a water bottle because I know how to get water when I need it.  I am bringing shirts that breathe,  comfortable shorts and good walking shoes.  I expect to cover four or five miles over the course of the day.....

I'll definitely bring a hat.  Love my hats.  Can't decide between a boring khaki baseball cap (made out of very light weight technical fabric, not as one northerner conjectured, wool) and my straw cowboy hat.  The cowboy hat does a good job covering my ears and the back on my neck but falls down on that whole "anonymous appearance" thing.  I'll be leaving my crappy little Nokia phone in the car.  I'll have a driver's license, a credit card and some cash in one pocket and my car keys and memory cards in another.  That's it.  No vest.  No wild strap construction.  No bags.  No walking stick.  No PDA.

Good Rules for street shooters:  Just like dating, "No" means no.  In this context it really means, "no, I don't want my picture taken and you're just being a pain in the ass if you keep begging me..."  We're not acting as photojournalists so we don't really have an ethical right to make someone miserable in order to get an image.  If you can't get complicity thur sweetness and charm-----let it go.

If you see a great photo in a restaurant or museum, by all means, "go for it."  But let's try to be discreet and not involve innocent bystanders in the whole thing.  You should have a shot mentally roughed in (composed) and you should have an idea of the exposure settings before the camera even comes to your eye.  A quick tweak and a quick press on the shutter and you're done.  If you circle someone for five minutes while taking variation after variation you will have stepped over the line....

If it's hot, take time to step into Churches (San Fernando Cathedral is one of the oldest and most charming in the country) Hotels (check out the lobbies at the Gunther and the big hotels on the Riverwalk) and shops in order to soak up a bit of air conditioning.  Sit for a few minutes.  Drink some water.....

If you see something be sure to shoot it now it probably won't be there (or won't be there the same) when you come back.

Getting the most out of Kirk......I'm hoping you know how to use your gear and that you've already bought and brought what you enjoy using.  I want to help you feel comfortable walking along the streets and taking photographs.  I've done this for decades and would love to share what's worked for me.  Whenever we meet up (Alamo, restaurants, rest breaks, etc.) feel free to come on over and ask me anything relevant to street photography.  I'll do my best to answer.  Be aware that there are no private Kirk sessions so don't save your questions and then think you'll have me to yourself for an hour or so.  Ask em proud!  Let everyone in earshot have a chance to debate it and share it.

The whole point of the Anti Workshop is that you guys are all pretty smart, creative and individualistic.  You don't need a lot of handholding.  Most of us just need an excuse to get out and shoot.  That's what this is all about.  The framework of the experience is to have something to blame when you need to tell your boss or spouse that you won't be able to handle the saturday shift or scoop poop in the backyard.  Come down to SA loose and ready to just soak up the ambiance of being in a place and letting the images come to you.

We're not providing models or food or drinks or tee shirts or pens with my business name on them.  We're just providing an excuse to stretch those art muscles so you don't cramp up over the course of the year.

I'd love to have a "top shot" post on the blog afterwards.  It would be great if everyone sent me their one favorite shot of their day with an watermark on the bottom and let me share it here on the blog.

That's all I know.  Thanks.  See you there.  Kirk


Street Shooting. Part One. Why the hell would you want to do that?

    Just hanging out at the Vatican soaking up the ambiance.

For a  generation of old codgers, raised on the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and that new upstart, Josef Koudelka, street photography is photography.  Those artists fostered two or three generations of Leica M toting,  Nikon F toting, Tri-X shooting fanatics.  What were these guys thinking?  I guess they were thinking that the world around them was going through tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the conflict of generations, the smell of the new,  the evolution of fashion and so much more.  And all of it was playing out right there on the streets.

Well, guess what?  The world, right now, is going thru tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the collapse of the world economy and the move from post industrial service economies to a future we're not sure about yet.  Gee.  It all sounds very familiar.  Except now it's playing out for the most part in front of big screen televisions in the service of endless video games, shopping and social excursions to ubiquitous and homogenous malls and in the sealed, air conditioned cars streaking back and forth from home to mall to quasi-fast food restaurants and back again.  Makes it a lot harder to be a visual "cultural anthropologist" on the street and yet photographers are reconnecting with the old tradition of trying to get a handle on what is "now" by documenting the evidence of their eyes.  Or maybe the thrill of street shooting never left us.........it was just napping through the Flickr age of endless cat whiskers, chunky girls lit by off camera flashes at dusk, and ninja's with smoke machines.

    People at the Termini train station in Rome.

I've absorbed books like, "Why People Photograph" by Robert Adams and I have a huge collection of photo books by Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyons and many, many more.  All of them shot in the streets.  Many of their images are stunning and provocative.  I appreciate them on two levels.  The first is as a time machine to the immediate past.  The descriptive content of these fractions of seconds shows me a time that seems so foreign now and yet it was occuring during my early childhood.  But I appreciate more the well seen graphic images of humanity as a visceral force of emotion and motion.  Flux and decay.

Street photographs are so different than set up photographs.  For some reason I get the impression that millions of "enthusiasts" who, in our father's day, would have been roaming the street and putting in time hoping to become informed observers of the human interplay have abdicated the exterior life in preference for trying to "create" art in their basements and living rooms.  Everything has become so self-referential as though we, as a culture, have lost our ability to attach to things outside our selves or to people outside our isolated, one degree of separation spheres.  We seem to have lost the feeling that we are all part of an interconnected bio system that's interwoven and interdependent, not just physically but also spiritually.  We've become a generation afraid to travel.  Even if it's just travel across town.  Or even fifty feet from our cars.

And so, in some ways, we, the new generation of street photographers, are like explorers out to show the mall and house trapped people what the world outside looks like.  We're trying to show how people exist without cars or credit cards or iPhones or Blackberries or large bank accounts in order, I think, to find the common intersections that will allow us to have renewed faith in the intentions of all the people who seem less like us.  Shooting in the streets gives us access to characters we wouldn't meet in the halls of our normal jobs in white collar America.  It shows an existence without the intangible safety nets of privilege that most of us have hovering below us.  But these images can show the same desire for fun, joy, love, affection and potential that drive us as well.  And by finding the common touchstones of being human we can understand more about ourselves.  

That's the big, philosophical point of view but it's not exactly why I photograph in the street.  I do it because there is some energy there that I'm trying to capture, like a lightning bug in a jar, to take back to an audience I'll never know and show them things in the way in which only I can see things.  I want them to acknowledge that I've looked at things from my very unique perspective and, by showing them, I can help people better understand me.  What my mind must be like. What I think has aesthetic value.  I'm sharing my perspective.  I'm sharing what interest me now.

I don't always photograph people.  Sometimes a Mexican fiesta banner of deep magenta flapping wildly in front of a talkative blue sky is enough to say, "look at what I see."  An altar to Hispanic pop singer, Selena, surrounded by saint candles and flowers allows me to visually shout,  "Do you think this is as weirdly different from my daily life in Austin as I think it is??????"  But the very bottom line,  figured out after years and years of intensive, daily pyscho therapy I've never had is this:  Shooting on the streets gives me a chance, an excuse to walk around and just stare at interesting stuff without having to have a real reason.  And it gives me something to share.

I think the best fiction writers and the best street photographers are the same.  We love to tell stories.  But we don't need to tell the whole story right away.  Sometimes it's better to just tease our audience (and I include myself in my audience) with a snippet that tells a little part of a story but tells it in a way that's so poignant that it's worth savoring in it's unanchored and compartmentalized whole.

Can I tell you a story about "the one that got away" and how it has haunted me ever since?  I was in Russia for a few cold weeks in February of 1995.  The country was in tremendous distress at the time and no one was sure where the next food or money would come from.  Times were very desperate.  But just typing these words makes the scene so banal.  What does desperate really mean?  Everyone's mind and their own history create a subjective mental story when we use words to describe despair.....So let me tell you what I saw.

I left my hotel on Nevsky Prospekt one afternoon with the intention to walk the streets of St. Petersburg and take photographs.  It was so cold you could see the breathe you exhaled ten minutes ago as it formed into snow and gently settled toward the earth.  I was out of place in my western, technical, cold weather gear.  My Contax camera dangling from its neckstrap.  And as I walked down the street the light was fading and becoming a dark and dusky rose color.  Street lights were flickering on and the cars crunched by on hard snow with their little headlights flickering.  

And then I came upon him.  Huddled against the stone wall of one of the ancient gray buildings was an old man.  He was wearing bits and pieces of an old uniform.  I could see a bit of newspaper tucked in around the tops of his worn shoes, put there as extra insulation from the biting cold.  He was worn just like a photos of every sun damaged homeless person living on the streets past a certain age.  His face had deep clefts and his eyes were worn, sad and vague.  Battered by the chill wind of hopelessness. 

He'd lost one arm.  His coat sleeve was pinned up to his shoulder.   This wasn't some faux display to evoke sympathy from tourists because I'll tell you that in the dead of winter in 1995 there weren't any.  At least none that would leave their hotels without chauffeurs, body guards and cars.....And he stood there in the freezing cold.

In front of the man was a very small and delicate wooden table, painted a fading french blue, faded away by time.  On the table was a glass case.  The glass itself was old and filled with romantic imperfections and bubbles.  The seams of the glass case were soldered bronze.  All crude handwork.  The glass case was the size of fairly typical home aquarium.  Inside the case were three littles vases of flowers.  Just two or three stems in two of the vases.  The third held a small bouquet of flowers and the smallest sprig of baby's breath.  In each corner of the case were small, white candles which gave off a peculiar, warm glow.  

I say it was peculiar because the slight warmth of the inside of the case caused just enough condensation to diffuse the candle light as it would be diffused through the living room's winter window of my house back home. The job of the candles was to keep the flowers, and the water they sat in, from freezing.  And as I stood there, riveted by this site the ambient light continued to drop until the streetlights, the daylight and the candles seemed to provide even amounts of illumination and the points of candle flame seemed so much warmer in the purple blanket that was slowly falling through the sky to cover the quiet city.

It was hauntingly beautiful and sad all at once. Deeply sad.  And I couldn't figure out how to include all the pieces of the scene in a frame of film without impinging on the dignity of the old man.  This was his life.  He knew it was his life.  It was all he had.  To photograph it seemed wrong.  It seemed exploitive.  It seemed like trophy hunting.  I left my camera dangling around my neck and I walked over and, in broken Russian, bad French and pantomimed English I bought the small bouquet of flowers.  I paid the man much more than he asked.  He gave me a memory that would haunt me for the rest of my life.  What was that really worth?  What can we ask from others except to make us kinder, more empathetic and more grateful?

What happened to the flowers?  I was out shooting.  I didn't want to carry around flowers.  I walked several more blocks and then turned a corner and gave the flowers to the first young couple I saw.  It was a beautiful day of street shooting and I returned to the hotel without having fired a frame.......

    Detail of the entry lobby at the Alexander Palace in 
    Pushkin, Russia.  1995.


New Website goes up today. Still messing around with some duplicate images.

    Self adornment is all the rage at kid's swim meets.  This one is sweeter than the more common, "Eat my bubbles....."

Relaunching a website is always a work in progress.  Or it should be.  I don't think I've ever seen one go up perfect.  That might just be the fluid nature of the web.  That being said, I want to announce that I've redone my little website and changed a few things.

It's located right here:  http://www.kirktuck.com

As with most things I life I like to keep things simple.  I have many, many photographer friends who are doing LiveBooks sites and other templated sites and I guess that's good.  Everyone I talked to (except Don) kept telling me to use just a handful of images.  Like ten.  Other people told me to use ten but use them really, really big.  Others like the new "magazine" format.  I figure if everyone is running in one direction with their sites then it just follows protocol that I'll want to go in the opposite direction.

It's an html (mostly) site with very few bells and whistles.  I put images that I like on the site and I put in a lot.  I figure people can always stop looking if they want to.  I understand my markets pretty well so there's a lot of straightforward nuts and bolts in there.  Very few (none) big national advertising/branding pieces....(it's just not my market).

People tell me never to include family so I made sure that Ben and Belinda were included.  The dog is very unhappy because she is not represented.  Can't have everything, and besides, I didn't want to alienate the cat people.  No nudes because I didn't want to rile up the un-nude.

I've checked the site in all the major browsers and it looks pretty good.  That's Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome.  (If you are still using Explorer you've got bigger problems then how my site looks....).

I made the images pretty big because those damn people with iPads keep doing that annoying "finger and thumb" thing and looking at everything super big.  I wanted the stuff to hold up almost to full screen.... But I'm sure I've done something that will enrage people who only look at sites on iPhones.  I just don't know what it is yet.

But all this brings up the question:  Are websites even relevant anymore?  They are no longer entertainment.  I see them just as an online portfolio.  Am I wrong?  As a photographer am I missing something?

I'm sure you guys will let me know what you think.  Here's the beautiful thing about having dedicated readers of a photography blog:  All of you will let me know about every single glitch and I'll have it fixed up and ready to go before one of my clients even fires up a laptop and gives it a cursory look.  Pays to have friends.

Reminder:  Sept 4, 2010.  All day long.

We're doing the anti-workshop in San Antonio on Saturday the 4th.  We're starting in front of the Alamo at 8:30 am, wandering around downtown in the general direction of the Mercado.  We'll coalesce at Mi Tierra Restaurant to get revitalized with breakfast and then continue an unplanned and luck intensive search for interesting and inspiring stuff.  I'll have suggestions and,  if I get motivated, maps.  Understand that this is not an invitation to stay by my side for a day.  I have a camera for that.  This is an opportunity to cruise by, ask a few questions and head off again.  Meeting up by circumstance and destiny, from time to time.

I find the city of San Antonio (downtown) endlessly captivating and inspiring.  It has a street life and enough cool artifacts to keep one visually interested.

In the late afternoon I'm heading over to one of the best private museums in Texas,  The McNay, to look at a bunch of art and recalibrate my brain.  I hope everyone else will want to come along too.  If you get captivated by something else you can always meet back up with us at La Fonda Restaurant ( the one on Sunset Ridge: 6402 North New Braunfels Road.  In '09)  We'll get there pretty early, before 6 pm for sure.  Good Tex Mex and good drinks.

Bring your own money.  I'm not sharing my Special #1 with anybody.....

In all probability it's going to be stinking hot that day.  Dress smart.  Shorts,  shirts with good vents, bring a hat.  Suck down a lot of water.  Find shade as you walk through the city.  If you can handle it emotionally this might be a good day to practice radical formalism and bring only one camera, one lenses and as many memory cards and extra batteries as you can cram into a pocket.  Wouldn't it be emancipating to leave the camera bag, tripod and 28-600mm zoom lens at home?  Flash?  As Hank Bresson once said,  "It's like bringing a handgun to the opera."  Of course he probably never went to an opera in Texas.

For all  y'all in far away places you'll probably have just as nice a day as the rest of us.  And maybe cooler.  Hope we have lots of cool photos to show you.  Maybe we'll be silly and put up a temporary Flickr gallery.......

I'm doing an actual workshop in October.  Lighting.  (Who would have guessed....)  Stay tuned for details.

Now, back to the first part of the post.....Who wants to be the first to critique the new site?

Big smile.  Kirk


Art teaches us what it is to be human......

Snapshot taken in the museum with Olympus EP2 and 20mm Panasonic lens.

This is a plaster cast from the Battle Collection at the Blanton Musuem.  It used to live at the Humanities Research Center but it moved.  I didn't get the change of address form but I found the collection on sunday afternoon.  It had moved to nicer quarters.  Corner office.  I know they are plaster casts but they are amazing stand ins for their real counterparts.

I thought of some e-mails I'd received recently from photographers who wanted to know how to get much better much quicker so they could make "big" money.  I laughed because I was thinking about a quote from Oscar Wilde, "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught."

Then I thought of the long paid apprenticeship (paid by the family of the apprentice to the artist!!!!!)  and years and years of practice, and the years of learning about life and art that culminated in this work, and I just shook my head.  Learning by precious osmosis.  And repetition. The thrill of mastery.  The wonder of discovery.

It's not the destination that makes the man (or the artist).  It is the journey.  

Two great books about art that everyone should read.  One tells you how to keep at it.  The other one explains what it's all about.

Is life good? What's your perspective?

view of the Blanton Museum ceiling from opposite angles.

I think, very clearly, that your point of view depends on your angle of view.  I am just human and as petty and selfish and self-indulgent as the next person.  When I left the Blanton Museum on Sunday, with my beautiful wife, I caught myself thinking, "How do I get famous?  Why do I struggle?  "Why are we born just to suffer and die?" "Where's my Porsche?"  Usually the universe takes its time to punish me for stupid and selfish thoughts but on this particular day the universe decided to instruct rather than to overtly punish.  (If you are religious, it was God;  if not, it was random occurrence misinterpreted by me).

As we walked back toward my shiny car, in the 104 degree heat, we came across a young, African American man in tattered clothes, carrying a mangled cane (the kind that blind people use to navigate), sweating profusely and obviously under emotional distress. As we can closer to the intersection he sensed our presence and called out, "Can someone please help me cross this street?"

Of course, we walked right over and introduced ourselves and offered our help.  According to him he'd been tossed out of his housing because his social security check didn't arrive on time.  Didn't matter to me what the story was.  He was obviously in physical and mental distress.  What he needed was enough money to cover his rent until his check came (a day or two) and perhaps some money for food.  We led him to our car and got directions from him.  He called his landlord and told him he had the money he needed to be allowed back into his room till his check arrived.  We gave him a bottle of water and some packages of cookies we had in the car.  We gave him the money he needed and a bit more to buy some food.  A total of $30.  He seemed genuinely appreciative.

For $18 we gained some insight into art at the Matisse show at the Blanton Museum.  For a few dollars more I was able to confront my own selfishness, my lack of appreciation for the enormous luxury of my own life,  my pettiness and, even my cynicism.  It was an enormously small price to pay to be reminded how wonderful and comfortable my life is and how lucky I have been.

The cynic asked, "Was I scammed out of $30?"  God no.  I was given a chance to see reality thru a different prism.  I was given a gift.  I'm glad the universe decided on instruction yesterday instead of punishment.  I hope I can hold on to the lesson.

The two images above show me two points of view.  How radically different the same ceiling looks from two different sides.  Shot minutes apart.  I am so happy I can see.


A trip to the Blanton Museum to see "Matisse as Printmaker".

Once again, this photograph has very little to do with the post itself.  It's here because I like to look at it.  Michelle in the studio.  film.  paper.  scanned.

Belinda and I dropped the boy at the swim club and headed over to see the Matisse exhibit at the Blanton Museum today.  I am famous for putting things off to the last and, as you might guess, the show closes tomorrow.  I unabashedly love the Blanton.  Their eclectic collections are usually just provocative and quixotic enough to intrigue and entertain.

Let's start at the top.  This was a well curated collection of Matisse's lithographs, woodcuts, sketches, linoleum engravings and other kinds of prints.  While the show displayed only a few hundred pieces it's interesting to know that Matisse had completed well over ten thousand pieces by the time of his death.  And judging by the show and the information in the catalog the overwhelming majority of his works incorporated nude or nearly nude women.  So,  practice makes fluid and beauty is addictive.

Let's talk about the quantity first.  It takes practice to get to the point where an artist can create a fluid line that, in one brief flicker, that belongs, without question, to that artist.  Matisse used iteration after iteration to distill his vision.  To hone his craft until he was able to create a fully realized work with a radical economy of line.  Like the hauntingly simple melody from the first line of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".  Hear it once and you're not likely to forget it.  See the sure course of a Matisse pencil line and you're not likely to forget that either.

While he was alive Matisse was constantly experimenting with his vision and his style, not just in painting but also in sculpture and prints of all kinds.  But his subject matter stayed focused on the female form,  it's design, it's display and, very much, the sense of gesture.  I believe that it was the constancy of his practice that pushed his art to prominence.

And he chose a subject matter that's been a major driving force of art since the dawn of man.  Female beauty.  While I looked carefully at the show I was reminded of a philosophy professor who once told me that all men are motivated by two things,  The sensual and mysterious allure of women and the power of money.  He further explained that men were drawn to the power of money in order to better attract sensual and alluring women.  I told him that it was really only one thing then.  He smiled a small smile and said, "Exactly."

To bring this all back around to photography I have several observations to make.  I am certain that some of them won't be very popular but I guess we're not holding a contest.

My first observation is that truly influential artists do their work to the exclusion of everything else.  While a few famous poets could work as doctors or publishing and insurance executives (William Carlos Williams, T.S. Elliot,  Wallace Stevens......) and still be successful, people in the plastic arts need to be absolutely immersed and engaged to rise to the highest levels.  Picasso is another artist who, like Matisse, was amazingly prolific.  People who do photography as a hobby, with full time employment in other fields, do not want to hear this.  But they've made a trade for other intangibles and it's not my intention to judge their circumstances or their choices.  Wanna be a world famous photographer?  Quit your day job.

My second observation is my own law called the "parabola of achievement and success".   It goes something like this:  If you fire a gun up into the air the bullet will follow a parabola or a curve.  The angle at which you fire the gun determines how far the bullet travels, linearly, away from you.  (Not its total distance travelled).  If you aim a gun nearly straight up the bullet will speed up and then come down and it may only land a few inches in front of you (depending on the trajectory, which is mostly influenced by the angle of the gun when fired.)  If you chart the success of most companies, fads, trends, styles and artists on a piece of paper you'll find that some catch on quickly and rocket to success.  On a graph they are a curve that heads north very quickly.  Some build slowly and organically.  Think of a company like IBM that took decades and decades to become the biggest IT company in the world.

Here's my law:  The faster the rise (the steeper the trajectory) the equally quickly they will decay and fall. The slower the rise the slower the fall.  Die at the peak and all bets are off.

The photographers that tend to become hot "over night" tend to fall into two categories.  The first category are the artists who've worked in relative obscurity before being systematically discovered by the cognoscenti of the art/photo world.  They paid their dues and worked the long curve.  The other over night successes are people who were launched into the market at a much steeper incline. Their launch corresponded with a hot style in which they worked on the sharp edge.   The law, "the parabola of achievement and success" predicts that their fame will be short lived and their notoriety extinguished like the appeal of white tasseled loafers.  Some of the overnight successes will build on their instant success to establish a new trajectory. But for most, the laws remain.  But in the end all artists grow old and die.  And when they are dead the only people who really care about the integrity of their trajectory are the ones who inherit their estates or have collected their work.

If it's all for naught then why even bother?  I have no idea.  Really, these kinds of questions are all tied up in the trauma and triumph of early childhood and how you respond to Rorschach tests and other bits and pieces best dealt with by mental health researchers.  But I do know that if I gave my life in service to art I would follow the examples of Matisse, Rodin and Jeff Dumas and try to photograph, sketch or paint as many beautiful nudes as possible.  You can have the landscapes............


Continuing look at an Annual Report. The wide shot.

The wide shot.  These rebar constructions will eventually be placed upright, within a form and will serve as the reinforcement for concrete columns.  They are destined to become the support for elevated highway structures.  The subject is an engineer with the firm that creates them.  Canon 7d,  15-85 @ 15mm.  One Canon 580 EX2 from the left side of the frame.

Another blog about the start of the assignment is here.

Just another "hotter than hell" day in central Texas.  Someone will ask why we didn't do this shot some time other than the middle of the day and my response would have to be the question, "When were we supposed to do the shots we did earlier and later?  On an annual report project you have a list of images that you need to produce and usually it's on a pretty tight time frame.  A lot depends on when the people or projects you need to document can actually be scheduled.  Usually a writer is writing or has written a small essay about the person you'll be scheduled to shoot.  If you can't oblige their schedules you'll soon have some gaps in the project and that may eventually lead to gaps in your client list.

This engineer was ready to go at 1 pm so I was too.  We just finished a shot on the other side of the highway from this location and it was on dry asphalt.  For that shot we used the big lights.  But as we started across this field several thoughts occurred to me:  1.  Oh my God!  This entire hundred yard trek is through the thickest, grimiest mud I've ever encountered.  In some places our feet would sink in up to our ankles.....  2.  There's no dry ground for the electronic flash generator, the stands or the sandbags.  Yuck.  And my final thought:  We're starting run behind schedule.....

So this is one of the few series of shots that's not diffused by a four by four foot diffuser or lit with a 1200 watt second powered flash in a softbox.  I brought the most intrepid person from the crew along with me through the sea of mud, oblivious to the insult her brand new track shoes were receiving and we brought along the bare minimum of gear. She held the flash and modifiers and aimed them at the subject, modifying her position as necessary.  The Canon 7D with the 15-85mm lens,  the Canon 580 Ex2,  an eight foot ttl extension cord and a Speedlight Prokit mini softbox with 1/4 CTO filter plastered on the front diffuser.  We used the high speed FP setting for most of the shots and I did some color shifting in the post processing to enrich the blue of the sky.

The image above is pretty much fun.  The 15mm setting on the lens does fun perspective stuff with the rebar structures.  I like the image below best because I like to see faces closer up.
And the tight shot.  All the same specs but with the 15-85 zoomed in.  You should see the full size file.  Nice detail.  Very nice.

You can see how versatile the lens is in these two variations and, to my eye, how sharp and well behaved it is as well.

When we get our shot list neither the client nor I are exactly sure what we'll find when we venture out onto the locations.  We both saw and really liked the giant rebar constructions when we stumbled across  them.  Neither of us anticipated the treacherous mud we'd have to wade through to set up the shots.  We also learned that the extra layer of a safety vest makes uncomfortable look comfortable.....

I was pleased by how well the small flash worked to fill in the subject's face and less pleased by how well hidden and by how obtuse the menu item is for setting FP flash on the Canon cameras.  It would be nice if they just asked their friends at Nikon to show them the right way to integrate a flash feature set....

We stayed through ten or so variations of pose and composition, probably 100 raw frames in all before beating a hasty retreat to the nirvana of air conditioning.  Here's another little tidbit:  You leave the house in the morning with your work clothes and boots on and then, in the middle of the day, the boots get totally trashed with thick sticky mud.  You'll be leaving this location to go to an engineering office in a class A office tower with plush carpeting and crisp, upholstered furniture.  What's a pro to do?

Well, of course you have you emergency change of clothes in the back of the car.  Right?  Right.  A clean pair of black sneakers (from Target) a second pair of pants and a dry shirt that doesn't make you look like a safari adventurer temporarily lost in the concrete jungles of downtown Austin.  Nothing like changing in the bathroom of the closest McDonalds.  But,  you see,  we were on a schedule....

Stay tuned for another installment from the AR project.

Happy, hot Saturday.  Kirk


The anatomy of an annual report shoot.

I shot this job last month and I wanted to post a few pictures and talk about it but there's this thing called "an embargo".  It basically means that you can't (ethically) use the images you shot until your client uses them first or gives you their express permission to use them.  It's part of the professional ethics that you need to practice to make sure you'll have clients in the future.  I had lunch today with the client and she gave me her permission to show photos and to blog about the job.  I knew she would because she understands the power and benefits of long term collaborations.

The client is a quasi governmental agency that plans and builds roadways and toll roads in and around central Texas.  Their core mission is to provide sensible solutions to our traffic problems and to make sure there will be the right kinds of roads in the right places to support the city's growth.  Every year we do an annual report that showcases what they've done and what they plan to do.  In the recent past we've won significant awards for Annual Reports from various professional organizations and we've gotten good at reading each other and playing to our strengths.

If you are new to professional photography this is the kind of client I think you would want.  My direct contact has the responsibility for designing and producing the printed document and repurposing our work on their website.  Before we started the project we had a planning breakfast together in which we went over the goals of the project, the time line, the look and the styles that she wanted to include.  If every client did this kind of pre-planning there would be fewer spinning wheels and a lot more efficiency....

We wanted to showcase the people who do the actual work on projects.  We also wanted to convey that the agency had created several "shovel ready" projects in central Texas that would benefit local companies.  The companies who do the real work.

Our challenges were limited to the weather conditions in Austin.  We completed the job in six long days, mostly during the end of July, and our biggest problem was the heat index.  Nearly all of the shots were exteriors and the temperatures ranged in the low 100's (farenheit).  This meant that we would need to work quickly and efficiently.  We were working on active construction sites so hard hats and reflective safety vests were a must.

The shot above is our very first shot of the project.  This is one of the supervisors for a company that digs foundations for, and then builds forms and pours the concrete pillars that support overpasses and flyovers.  We arrived mid-afternoon when the mercury hit 102 and the humidity was nearly 100%.  We could see those tall, threatening thunderheads moving in from the northwest.  I set up quickly and did about 60 variations in the space of eight to ten minutes, sweat dripping down my hands.  The rain did hit and we started to wrap up and put stuff away.  The Elinchrom Ranger I was using got splattered but never paused and never went down.

So,  how did I set this up?  I used a Canon 7D with a 15-85mm IS lens.  I put it on a tripod so I could step away from the camera, invite the art director to inspect the image on the screen and then step back in without worrying about the framing being disturbed.  I floated a sixty inch umbrella with a black cover over the top of the subject's head to cut any direct sun (which kept coming in and out.....).  It's on a heavy duty Lowell stand that's straddling a trench.  I used an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack on half power thru a head that was covered with a quarter CTO filter and shoved into a small (16x20) softbox.  My method was to meter for the glowering sky and then set the light from the flash about 2/3rds of a stop higher.

By filtering the flash with a quarter CTO (an orange filter) I was able, in the raw conversion, to bring his face back to neutral which drove the sky into a deeper blue.  That gave me the color contrast I was craving and would try to use for the rest of the project.  (Reference the white on the logo on the helmut before telling me that his face still looks warm.  This is Texas and a lot of us who work outside have excited more melanin than most pasty northerners will in a lifetime.....).  The challenge is to find a balance between the background and foreground that is believable.

This is the look we were hoping to get.  I will tell you that when you work in temperature extremes there is a great temptation to "call it" too early.  By that I mean that you get so uncomfortable that you start to think,  "this is close enough.  I'll fix it in post".  This is a mistake.  You should never walk away from a set up until you are sure you've got exactly what you want.  My goal is to make a shot that I could convert to Jpeg and give to the client on the spot and still be proud.  We shot this in raw and did a little PP but not much.  We stayed until I had it.

To her everlasting credit the client hung right in there and never, for a moment, suggested that we should move on.  Figures.  She runs distance races and practices around our hike and bike trail regardless of the elements.  We finished this shot and then moved on to the next location.  And the next location.  All at 102 degrees or better.

In a week no one remembered the misery of the location.  We were all thrilled with the sixty or seventy different variations we'd done of the twelve or so set ups.  The sweaty shirts got washed.  The mud covered shoes were cleaned off.  We stood under the garden hose to cool off.  The project is in production.  I'm happy I can share it now.

A few shooting notes from central Texas:  We used the Canon 7D because we knew it was about to rain most of the week and that camera is both a good performer and weather sealed.  I made good use of the 15-85 because it allowed me to do a lot of different looks without having to change lenses amidst the dust storms that roadway construction sites can become.

I use the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS because it is designed for use in  rough conditions and always has enough power to overcome direct sun.  At first we recharged every day but as I became more and more trusting of the Elincrhom gear I started charging up every two or three days.  The batteries in these things are amazing.

The trusty Honda Element took anything that a pick up truck could handle without a complaint.  Certainly this is one of the ultimate photographer's vehicles.  If I could custom design one it would have some racks for light stands and maybe a built in water cooler....

I'll post some more shots from the project over the next few days.  In the meantime I want you to know about the anti-workshop in San Antonio on the fourth of Sept.  Read about it here:  http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/08/free-low-key-event-for-anyone-who-wants.html

I want to tell you that these long sleeve shirts are amazingly protective......

And I want to thank my client for their support and creative spirit.  We're on to another project now but this will go down as the best project I've worked on this season.

All the best,  Kirk

If you work in the sun, get good shirts.  Here and here.

If you like the blog you might want to try one of our books.  I think you'll like em:


A free, low key event for anyone who wants to come...Sept. 4th. (already in the past but posted for fun and to see if there is any interest in doing one again in Nov. or Dec.).

Belinda.  Many years ago.  Does film look different?

I'll start with the hard facts and work my way down from there.  Freeform, free kinda workshop-ey thing in San Antonio for anyone who wants to come.  Sept. 4th.  The longer version:  It's been a tough three years for everyone and The Market for everything still mostly sucks.  I get between five and ten poorly targeted e-mail blasts a day from photographers touting workshops.  "Learn the secrets of HOT Photoshop (Kelby)"  "Light like a champ" (five hundred semi-employed former professionals)  "Shoot hot models!!!!!!! (future semi-employed professional photographers)  "Learn to make millions shooting video with your Canon!!!!"  (all the guys who couldn't make it as semi-employed professional  photographers who are trying something different) and,  the truly famous, first tier photographers who are doing workshops with fixtures in the photo entertainment industry like the Maine Photographic Workshops and the Sante Fe Workshops (the real deals?).  But the bottom line is "come listen to me and pay for the experience".

Don't get me wrong,  I think a weekend workshop with someone whose art and style you admire, who is not trying to make everyone shoot just like him, someone who's really good at teaching,  like Don Giannatti over at Lighting Essentials, can be a transformative investment.  It's a way of kick starting the basics and showing you the stuff that maybe you can't get your head around in a good book.  I've given some workshops over the past three years and, judging from the feedback,  people felt as though they were taking away some good material.

But if you're like me you're overloaded with all the come ons for all the workshops.  We seem to have hit some sort of tipping point where the market goes from just oversupplied to ridiculously overwhelmed.  When you were in biology class did your teacher ever do the experiment concerning bacteria or algae growth in a petri dish?  You put in a food source (agar) and then you drop in one small colony of pathogen or bacteria or whatever and you chart the growth by counting new colonies.  The growth starts slowly.  Then it accelerates.  Then it becomes geometric.  As all the colonies double and double and double they soon fill the entire petri dish.  They consume the entire food supply and then...........they all die off.

I think we're just about there (hyperbole alert!!!!!).   So I'm suggesting that we take a break from the relentless profit motive and just enjoy a day of photography together.  I'll be in San Antonio on Sept. 4th to walk around pretty aimlessly and shoot in the streets.  I'm starting at the Alamo at 8:30 am.  I'll be the guy with the camera (one camera).  I'm starting off the  morning walking around downtown but always heading west toward the Mercado (marketplace).  I'm heading toward Mi Tierra Restaurant for a big plate of Heuvos Rancheros and a cup of coffee.  Maybe a few flour tortillas.  While in restful repose we can chat for as long as we want about shooting photographs.  Not about gear, just about shooting photographs.  Why and How.  Not "which lens should I buy and how do I set my flash triggers????"   Just, how do you get people to pose?  What do you think about when you're out searching for images?  How do you know what will work and what won't?

So after the long breakfast I'll hand  out a rough map with my favorite routes and things to see in the downtown area and then we can all wander off in random directions.  I'm not interested in being surrounded by groups of people.  If you feel lonely you can group up with other people who might attend.  At 4 pm I'm heading over to the McNay museum to see what REAL art looks like  (always great to have some grounding.....) and then, when they close the doors,  I'll head just up New Braunfels St. to La Fonda and have a nice, icy beer, some of their great hot sauce and chips and maybe a Tex Mex plate. I'll also be happy to chat about the How and Why of photography at length.  But,  I'll also be ready to listen to anyone who has something interesting to teach me about photography.  Even if it's highly tangential.   I won't tell you how to use flash triggers or which flash to buy.

Then,  when the conversation dies out or the restaurant starts looking aggressively at the table I'll head back to Austin.  Hope to be home before 10pm but you never know.

The cost?  There is no cost.  Just come down and play.  Use your camera.  Walk the streets.  Feel the rhythm.  Feel the heat.  Snap some pix.  Test out that technique.  Have a plan.  Do a project.  Find a favorite mid-day retreat with cold air conditioning and hot art.  Look at the famous, modern library architecture.  Explore the tourist traps.  Take pictures of each other wearing sombreros.  Bring a hot chick or a hot guy and shoot them someplace new.  You have to buy your own breakfast, lunch and dinner but you'd have to do that wherever you are.

What to bring?  I'm a minimalist.  I'm bringing a camera and one small zoom lens.  Haven't decided whether it will be the 18-55 IS or the 15-85 IS on the Canon 7D or just a 50mm 1.8 and the 5dmk2.  I do know that it will be one or the other buy not both.  I'll bring a hat to keep my head from getting fried.  A shirt with a collar and no stains in case I decide I want to have lunch somewhere nice.  An extra battery and an extra memory card in one pocket......and definitely NOT a camera bag.  No tripod.  No monopod.  If my street shooting technique won't work without a tripod I'll move on to the next shot.  No problem.  Flashes and flash triggers?  Not for me.  Twenty or thirty bucks for random stuff,   a driver's license and credit card shoved in one pocket.  That's it for me.  Anything else just slows me down, makes me look conspicuous and gives me too many choices.  Choices that slow me down and get in the way.

I'll wear a long sleeve shirt in case I need to be in the sun for a while.  But it will be a shirt made of the technical fabric I talked about two weeks or so ago.  With nice vents.  Maybe and ex officio or Sportif.  Comfortable shoes that don't look brand new or too dorky always helps.  I like to bring my sunglasses.

Street shooting etiquette:  This could fill a book.  (Maybe a book on street shooting is overdue!!!! Hello?).  Basics:  1.  If you point a camera at someone and they ask you not to photograph them, don't.  You may have every legal right in the world but you probably don't have an ethical right.  I don't think we'll be doing "hard news".   2.  Figure out the shot before you even put the camera up to your eye.  The less you fidget and fuss with your camera the nicer the images generally turn out.  3.  Not everything is worth a picture.  Some stuff is better savored directly.   4.  Yes.  Pretty girls are pretty.  Take a shot if you want but let's not keep after it until everyone in the area is uncomfortable and the cops,  or worse, her big brothers are on the way.  5.  Respect the environment.  I hope I don't have to tell you that church interiors and the insides of restaurants are best lit with nothing but the light that's there.  As Henri Cartier Bresson once said,  "Using flash is like bringing a handgun to the opera".   At the time it was a poignant statement.  Now, in the USA, you can pretty much count on someone thinking it's just great to bring their handgun to the opera.  But it's still not okay to use your flash at the opera........

6.  Respect private property rights.  Anything is fair game if you are shooting from public property but when you step onto private property all the rules change.  You really do need permission to shoot if you are physically on private property....

7.  It's annoying to see a great shot and then turn around and see a line of photographers waiting behind you to copy it.  I'm just saying.....  Ditto with carefully cultivated models...

8.  Try to be an example for all the other photographers that will come after you.  Be nice and people will generally be nice to you.  This is Texas, afterall.

The schedule waits for no one.  There's no private consultations.  Everyone joins in.

That's about it.  I'll spend the day shooting the way I usually do.  I'd love to have people around to have breakfast and dinner with.  Lunch?  I'll just grab a snack.  Why do this?  Just for fun.

Don't need to tell me if you are coming but you are welcome to use the comments to see who's in and who's not.  How many do I expect will be there?  At least one (that would be me) anyone else is a bonus....

Street shooting and eating our way thru San Antonio.  Most fun.


Are you showing off your skill or are you joining the conversation about art?

   This is a desperately bad photograph.  It's blurry.  It's not sharp.  The shadows are blocked up. The white on the headlight/handlebars is burning out to white.  It's too tightly cropped.  It's one of my favorites.....  Rome.  1994.

There's always some way to technically improve a photograph.  I was jarred into thinking about the difference between the joyful discovery of beauty and/or truth via a camera, and the hard work of compulsively honing both equipment and technique in the pursuit of perfecting the recording process of capturing a photograph.

I say "jarred" because I seem to have forgotten, almost entirely, the time I spent in the retail audio business back in the 1970's.  For me it was a way of making some extra cash to spend on dates while pursuing a degree of some kind from the University of Texas at Austin.  For everyone else around me;  customers and fellow employees, audio was a passion.  And, if you read carefully you'll see that I wrote "audio"----not "music".

You see,  the pursuit of perfct audio has nothing at all to do with music other than the fact that recorded music is used to show off the clarity, richness and noise free fidelity of the sound created by the machines.  Sound familiar?

So, this morning I had coffee with an "audiophile" and he was telling me about a new turntable and tone arm.  He sold off a world renowned "reference" turntable in the every escalating compuslion to squeeze even more "transparency" and accuracy from his collection of long playing records (LP's).  Vinyl, of course.

We spoke for a good while about audio and I still don't know what genres of music he enjoys or who his favorite artists are.  We never got around to talking about music.  He did mention that the current "state of the art" home audio system currently costs around half a million dollars.  We also reminisced about a zany friend of mine, also an audiophile, who was so obsessed that dreaded "low frequency, vibration induced rumble" might be affecting the ultimate sonic performance of his turntable (this was in the late 1970's) that he cut thru the floor of his "pier and beam" house,  poured a reinforced concrete pillar that reached down to bedrock, and mounted his machine on that.  Then he surrounded the whole assembly in an insulated closet. His next task was to tackle the obvious problem of convection currents......

Surely the emotional need for the illusion of perfection has its roots in the human need to quantify and qualify the parameters of an experience while ignoring the experience itself.  After the series of reviews I recently wrote on the Leica M9, the 35mm Summilux, and the Canon 7D,  I got the usual e-mails (never comments) that pointed out ways that I could improve my technique, adding various suggestions for cameras and lenses of even greater performance and generally took me to task for not providing charts and graphs....as though the experience of handling the camera has become meaningless.  As though the image itself, and the clear path to its acquisition, was secondary to squeezing the ultimate technical juice from whatever image I might be able to capture.  All assumed that I was avidly looking for specification driven and measurable perfection.  I generally am not.  I'm pleased if anything at all comes out......  Usually it's my human approach and my timing that are the limiting factors, never really the equipment.

In music a good musician might appreciate a great piano or violin but the interpretation of the music is all that ultimately matters.  (My tattered LP's of Pablo Casals, Bach Suites for Solo Cello readily attest to my belief that the artistic rendition beats quality of recording every day of the week).

I'm beginning to understand that the pursuit of an idea vs the pursuit of technical prowess is the dividing line between artists and the great unwashed.  Not between pro and non-pro.  There are a ton of pro's who are fixated by the process and don't have much to say.  There are many non-pro artists making good and valid art with any old camera they can get their hands on.  The quality of the equipment is wildly secondary to the well thought idea behind an image.

I guess the universe was trying to punish me for even suggesting that various cameras might make you a better photographer.  I've tried to write about the holistic experience of using various lenses and cameras but someone did point out to me lately that "all the lenses I review are 'devastatingly, breathtakingly, rivetingly' sharp and wonderful.  But if you read between the lines maybe what I've been saying all along is that all this equipment is pretty damn good if you use it in the service of your vision.....

The universe can be cruel.  Perhaps it is just random and chaotic....

At any rate I had coffee in the afternoon with an friend and his acquaintance.  The acquaintance asked me about getting a photographic education at one of the three main local schools of higher education here in Austin.  I described all three programs to him.  (I feel competent to do so since I've been on the advisory board of one program for four years,  I taught in another program and am a frequent guest lecturer still, and the third program is headed by a friend....)

First up is Austin Community College and I described the 2 year associate's program as a "blue collar" curriculum.  Which to me means,  "Teach me how to make money with photography by showing me how everything works.  And the steps required to do business."  (My use of "blue collar" is not intended to be at all perjorative!!!!  It's a really good program).  They'll teach you how to set your camera, how to use lights, how to compose and shoot, as well as all the steps you'll need to know in order to have an efficient and knowledgeable PhotoShop workflow.  But they won't teach you how to do art.  They won't teach you "Why" to shoot.

They assume you had a reason, an angle or a vision that you likely wanted to pursue in the first place. Or that you (misguidedly) thought commercial photography might be a high profit business opportunity.

The second program, the school in the middle, for all intents and purposes, is a private four year college named, St. Edwards University.  It's four year curriculum teaches the basic nuts and bolts.  Enough to provide you the tools to move forward in the service of your artistic vision.  Bu they also teach art history, and critical theory behind photography, bolstered by a traditional and vital liberal arts education. They help you hone a philosophical point of view as it relates to creating photographic art.

They assume that you were motivated to be a photographer in order to communicate an aesthetic, an idea or a way of seeing that deeply resonates within your psyche.  They give you the tools to dig out the vision intact.  They deliver the rudimentary practical tools you'll need in order to get your points and styles across.  But they assume you DO have a point.  Or at least a point of view.

The third school is a major university, my alma mater and home of my first teaching job,  The University of Texas at Austin.  Their four year, fine arts curriculum is nearly devoid of technical hand holding and almost totally consumed by aesthetics, art theory, artistic voice and expression.  They assume that you are able to read your camera's owner's manual and that you get the rudiments of a subject (photographic technique) that you've chosen as your university major at least competently  mastered.  They teach the "why" and assume the "how" is a given.....or something you should pursue on  your own.  And let's face it,  photography in the age of digital is hardly complicated.  There are only four or five camera parameters that are essential for image creation...... and now we all have litte TV sets on the backs of the cameras that iteratively feedback information to us on our progress.  You can experiment day and night pretty much for free.  How complex could it be?

All three programs assume you are coming into the mix because you have something you feel compelled to offer to the "discussion".  (And by discussion I mean in the context of the world of art.  Or commerce).  None assume that technical mastery of your camera is an end goal.

But as I spoke to the acquaintance of the friend  it became clear to me that he considered the valuable part of education to be the technical mastery.  He  deflected the higher values of the pursuit.  He consistently devalued the creative impulse as it related to direct transmission of ideas and gave value to the output of the machines and their ultimate transparency as a product of ever more technically advanced tools.

The desire to gain proficiency in something that can be quantified "sharper than",  "highest acutance",  "more accurate" color,  x degrees faster, etc.  He saw art as something to conquer, a medium solely in which to actively display his proficiency.

And it became so clear to me over the course of the conversation that  obsessing over process, workflow and technical proficiency were the surest signs that people with these priorities would not make art.  Were not capable of making art.  Copying its trappings, yes.  But a clear physical creation of their own visual voice?  No.

Well...........sorry.  There's no guarantee anyone will be able to make meaningful art.  Art which tells us what it is like to be human.  And there's no fast track to becoming good at the intangible parts of the photographic process.

But in the end the only things that really do matter are the absolutely intangible properties.  In a photo:  The story.  The narrative.  The rapport.  The message.  The feel.  The vibe.  And the point of view.

And all of the technical candy won't do squat to fix a poorly imagined or poorly seen photograph.

My bottom line message for anyone looking to spend some money and time on a photographic education?  If you don't have a passion, a message, a voice.....a visual thing you want badly to show to other people because you think it's important or beautiful or disturbing......You'll be wasting your time.  As an artist.

I'm going to be pre-emptive here and state that none of this means you shouldn't buy a camera and have a great time using it and making photographs that you enjoy, regardless of how far you want to push your vision.  Cameras and the taking of photos have no greater or lesser value than doing puzzles, collecting stuff, skateboarding or any one of a thousand popular pastimes.  I take family photos and they are not intended to be art (though I'd love it if they were) and I shoot lots and lots of commercial images that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, art.  But I do it because it supports my intention to do art in my personal work.  Seeing, exploring and, most important for me,  sitting in front of people, sharing a moment and capturing an expression that can be translated as the shared transmission of a human experience is the essence of photography for me.  The more I know about you the more I come to know about me.

What started all this rant?  The revelation that some people don't truly understand the passion to do art and instead use the medium as a way of showing off their chops.... I might have over reacted but maybe not...