Getting back to basics.

Our fragmented culture has inculcated us with the fallacious idea that we should all be Renaissance Men and Renaissance Women.  We should be, all at once, a writer, engineer, artist, photographer, triathlete, movie critic, economist, political expert and social critic.  Burrowing down, the faux Renaissance culture makes photographers feel like they should be masters of taking any kind of photograph, experts in all facets and styles of postproduction and retouching, they should be masters of sales and they should cast their brand far and wide thru dominance in "social networks".

So now we have lots and lots and lots of people tossing around lots of half baked ideas and meaningless, endlessly repeated prattle while snapping mostly vacuous and banal photographs and posting a huge melange of crap in every conceivable media.  As long as it's free.

But far from being a distant and dispassionate observers I have to readily agree that I'm as culpable as the next guy.  I've gone from being a regional corporate photographer who was generally thought to be a good portrait photographer to being quoted as an expert about lenses on DPreview.  I've pontificated so often about lighting on Flickr that I'm considered by some to be an expert there.  But it's all a big joke.  And I'm bursting my own balloon before someone else does it for me.

Mea Culpa.  I got swept up the in the supposed paradigm shift.  But in the end the web and all this noise is just the "pet rock" on the TV of a new generation. Bell bottom trousers.  Social networking is a desperate attempt at personal marketing in a time when jobs are shifting from employee to contractor and people are scared to death they'll be left behind.

I started posting on Facebook because one of my clients acted shocked that I wasn't on Facebook.  What if I miss an invitation to an event?  Fat chance.  I'm sure the invitation will be in the massive amounts of e-mail we look thru every day.  And if I did miss an invitation would the world end?  I'm hosting a party for my swimmer buddies on December the 11th.  To date I've gotten 32 invitations to other events being held on the same evening.  The problem isn't missing an invitation but weighing which ones to accept.

I started this blog to help sell my four books (please buy all four for everyone on your list) but no one really likes talking about books so I started writing about other stuff.   And now I write about other stuff all the time.

I started posting to Twitter to bring more readers to my blog.  But Twitter is so weird and disjointed that in the months and months I've tried to decipher it I still can't see how anyone gets any value from it.

I know how to do two things well.  I can take portraits.  I can write words that flow (most times) and make sense.  That's it.  I don't know more than the rest of us about philosophy.  I don't know much more about lenses than anyone else and what little I know either comes from actually shooting them or from taking the time to read more anecdotal stuff on the web and re-interpret (regurgitate) it.  What I know about camera sensors is meaningless and irrelevant.  If I had more understanding about economics than the rest of you out there I sure wouldn't be trying to make a living as a writer and photographer.

I taught workshops last year.  But it's hard to take workshops seriously when I think that everyone should just take their money and go someplace exciting and shoot on their own.    If you've got a couple weeks and $6000 burning a hole in your pocket just get on a damn plane and go to Istanbul or St. Petersburg and shoot from sun up till your last daily minutes of consciousness.  Then you'll have something to show off.  Something you might actually want to print.  All you need to know about handling your camera is in the owner's manual.  The rest, to reiterated my own tired quote, is just "time in the water."

So, what do I do now with the realization that I'm not smarter than most other people.  Not a wildly stellar, superstar photographer, not a brilliant philosopher or  economist.  What do I do with the realization that blogs don't sell books.  That Twitter doesn't sell blogs.  That I don't want to spend precious hours every day doing "rah!-rah!"  for myself about myself?

How about I turn off Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and do what's always worked well for me?  That would be taking photographs of people in my own style.  Writing stuff I know about.  And swimming enough laps everyday so that I can eat pizza once a week and a glass of wine or two and not gain weight.  That sounds pretty good to me.  And marketing?  Two postcards and $500 in postage brought in more money for me in a handful of jobs this year than all the web marketing I've done in five years.

Will I keep blogging?  Yeah, but I'm only interested in talking about street photography and portraits.  I'll leave it to someone else to sell cameras and books and lights and stuff.  I just want to know how to use them to make art.  And then I'll be happy to talk about art.

Two things I do well:  Portraits.  Words.  One thing I'm okay at and enjoy: Swimming.

I'd love to be a real Renaissance Man but it makes me tired just thinking of all the stuff I would need to be able to do.  No one has that kind of time.  Might as well be doing what you really love.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






Anonymous said...

Good words! - Barry

John Krumm said...

After having read one of your books and now your blog for the last year, my English major (and teacher) assessment is that you have at least one more personal book in you somewhere that might make a good read, perhaps part memoir, part photo book, like Ted Orland's Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity.

Robert said...


Mel said...

Please continue talking about "why" you made a particular image. I get more out of those comments. For all the rest - enjoy the time with your camera and let your computer weep at your absence!

Michael Bulbenko said...

Kirk, you just validated exactly what I like about the blog in the first place: you don't pontificate. You're just an ordinary guy making a living in his niche. That's what 99% of everyone out there does, so you're the "everyman". The fact that you happen to be extremely happy behind a camera just means you're like me. I admire your no-frills approach. I tried Facebook once, and didn't see the point. Looked at Twitter, didn't see the point. Amen Brother!

MGO said...

Like this one. well written. A market without advertising where a picture or a book sells because its interresting and stands out on its own. The average Joe would have to evolve and become immune to advertising for that to happen. And as one of the Joes, i know im not there yet. There are bigger bubbels to burst, to get there. But i would be great not having to brand your self to sell Art.

Bold Photography said...

The Holy Grail ... doing what you really Love.

Pursue that with abandon...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the splash of realism. It's refreshing to hear a successful photographer such as yourself encourage a return to the simplicity of the core skillset.
Reading your blog is a delight, thanks for the frequent posts.

Caleb Courteau

Robert Wolterman said...

I kind of feel bad that I'm an Engineer by day and want to be a Fine Art Photographer on the side after reading this.

But I share your sentiments on all the other crap that is going on. I could care less about technical details of my cameras, I am so technically oriented at work that photography is a release from the day-to-day grind. I'm going the opposite way of all my friends, they want more megapixels and better high ISO and I want larger film. I am bringing my engineering knowledge into photography by designing a 4x5 monorail. I could buy one (and I probably should), but I want the satisfaction of making art with something I've made.

Do I read reviews? Yes. Do I get sucked into them that it changes my mindset? Yes. To top it all off, I don't like that at all. I hate going to dpreview and getting "brainwashed" into thinking the latest greatest camera is the best thing since air conditioning.

I still use flickr as a means to show my friends my work. I don't have time to get to marketing spending 50+ hours a week at my day job. I would like to market better and have thought about it a lot, but it hasn't happened yet.

Would I like to take workshops? Yes, but only relating to topics that seems foreign to most people: wet-plate and certain printing processes. The knowledge is out there on the internet for those things, but actually working with someone would help the learning process.

Sorry for ranting, but I do enjoy your blog.

One of the main points I've gotten from all of your posts is that you have to go out and try and do the work up front to master things. That's true for everything and has helped me in my professional life.

Vincent de Vries said...

Kirk, I think this is one of the most sensible blogs I have seen in a long time!! Thank you!! I try to get my head around all the web stuff, and frankly I could not be bothered cause I get confused. LOve to read that your 2 postcards and $500 postage did the heavy lifting this year! I only got one book of you, 'minimalist'. Love it

Keep up the good work

Regards Vincent

Geir said...

Yours is the one blog I would miss if it ever was to disappear from the photosphere. You DO write well, and your images engange.

Greg said...

Greetings from Moscow, Russia!

This is great! Back to basics. The hell with the Renaissance! Kirk, I'm with you 100%. Art, portraits, street photography is all I want to hear about. Not the camera talk or the lens talk or the business talk. After all, photography is Art and should be kept that way. Anyone can figure out on their own what camera, lights or lenses they need for expressing themselves photographically. Besides, there are bazillions sites out there dedicated to those issues.

Let's talk Art and Art alone! Let's inspire each other artistically other than infect each other with the GAS virus over and over again. We've got everything we need, more than we need. Let's use whatever we have to make real Art and do whatever it takes to make sure it's not polluted by anything external, unrelated, or seemingly important.

I look froward to reading some great essays here, like this one, like many others before it.


The Photophile - Lanthus Clark said...

Advice to self (and others):
Stop thinking so much, it will give you a head ache. Just do the stuff you enjoy and are mildly good at. Have fun, life is short!

Have a great day Kirk!

PS: send me a postcard.

Herrgard said...

Yea! Cut the crap and focus on your craft.

I think all information on the Internet makes us think we are interested in things we aren't. I try to stop for a moment when reading something, thinking, do i really care about this? Most time I don't.

Keep it simple :)


Anonymous said...



Ever thought about combining them into a novel product?

You already (no doubt) are skilled at (and enjoy) talking to people, getting to know them. This is of course why you are such a skilled portrait photographer.

Ever thought about putting some of those thoughts/feelings into words? Your customer would get a world class image (or images) and some text, crafted with the same care, consideration and insight, (one page?) that accompanies the photographic image(s).

Not something you could (or would want to) do in a 1-hr sitting. Maybe a day. A day in the life. How cool woudl it be if a customer could get something like a Life Magazine photo story (pictures + words) about them. Maybe only I think it would be cool because I miss the dying photo documentary.

John said...

I like your blog better than a lot of them out there for a couple reasons.

One, it's like meeting someone for lunch and just listening to what they're thinking about. No hard sell, no fake smiles, no used car dealer smell. Just someone who has some of the same passions that I do with a good ability to write down his opinions.

Two, you write a lot. There's always something here to keep me interested and it's something new almost every day. It's not just one thing. It's not just lights or gear. It's not some broad reaching warm fuzzy philosophy about how were all going to change the world one photo at a time. It's just good lunch conversation. It doesn't hurt that you've been around the business long enough to have a good idea of what you're talking about, and humble enough to know who you really are.

Facebook was good for finding some friends I lost track of over the years. Some of them I wish were still lost. Twitter was useless for me. I tried it. But really, who cares what anyone else is looking at in the mall. Get a life people and talk to someone right in front of you once in a while.

Workshops to me fall into two categories. Meet your hero of the moment workshops, and expensive social events. Oops, forgot the other category; meet attractive models you're too insecure to talk to on your own workshops. Workshop attendees fall into a couple categories too. The; I want to be an expert and have my photos look like x-photographer, in three days or less. The; I just want someone to do all the work for me and let me show my friends how good I am, attendee. And the; I want to visit exotic places with people I can talk too and feel comfortable around so as not to actually talk to the locals. Just to be fair lets not forget those who want to be able to take photos of what they can see in the strip club.

Now I'll admit that I've been to some workshops and fell into some of the categories above. Did I learn things? Sure! What I was going to get for my money, and what I wasn't. The pay-off usually wasn't that good. Not that the photographers giving the workshops weren't talented people or good teachers. I just came to realize that this stuff take TIME to figure out what you don't know. The stuff anyone does know is tiny compared to that. I can't pay someone to provide me with that day to day experience. What would be a good workshop in my opinion? Making the drive up 290 and have someone with an opinion look at real prints and hardcopy portfolios over lunch and tell me me what they think, and why they think that. Then drive a couple hours back home while I ponder those opinions. The opportunities I've had to do that kind of thing have been some of my best learning experiences that I've had from other people. "Go home and try this next time" gives you a of time to figure out everything they couldn't explain to you in words alone. Time to figure out how much you didn't know.

BTW, Thank you for the time you do spend to share your thoughts with all of us. You give us things to think about on our own. What could be better than that?

Marino Mannarini said...

Ditto, Kirk! i read you to the last comma...you salways seem to be there one step ahead of my mind, putting into words, and thus giving reality to thoughts what i have apparently been maturing in the few weeks before..


Dan Berry said...

I love your blog. You can put my thoughts and feelings into words better than I can.I enjoy your blogs about portraits because you explain not just what you did but why.and I don't just mean the tech. stuff but why did you use that tech.What were you trying to tell us about that person what did he have to say. Some of these internet famous photogs give me a backache. I havent been to a workshop since Ansel Adams died.

atmtx said...

Thank you Kirk, for your wonderful blog. I come here to get a grounding in reality. There is so much rushing around, it's easy to get caught up in the vortex of group think. I must admit I've been experimenting with some social media stuff, Flickr I enjoy and understand (I think), Facebook not so much, Twitter is very strange. Trying the blogging thing myself and though I don't think I'm a great writer, I believe I'm improving.

Now photography is what I really enjoy and take the opportunity to shoot as much as I can. I try to follow your suggestions as much as possible. I really appreciate the practical and reality based world you portray -- especially in the business of photography.

Thanks again,


Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk wrote: “. . .it's hard to take workshops seriously when I think that everyone should just take their money and go someplace exciting and shoot on their own.”

I haven’t taken many workshops. The only one that was of any value was the old “Nikon School,” back in the 70s. (Anyone remember that one? It was taught by a man with the improbable name of Joe DiMaggio.)

The best photography learning experience I can recommend is to start a photo book project and see it through. Even getting it printed is incredibly cheap these days, and you will have something that will give you pleasure for a lifetime.

Then start another one. And another. Or work on several at the same time, as I do.

Anonymous said...

You are a whole brain person if ever I knew one. More important, you are seriously productive, and what you produce is no fluff, but real stuff.

I commend you for the choices you make. Always an inspiration.

Also, I would like to point you to some of Paul Graham's writing (www.paulgraham.com/addiction.html for example).

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

Well said, Kirk.

There are so many distractions today and so many things to "keep up with" if you let them take you.

I struggle with the same stuff, and have come to decisions alike to yours: write about my direct experiences and thoughts as the mood takes me, concentrate on my work, strive for excellence in all that I do, help others when I can, and listen carefully.

I look forward to your ongoing thoughts. They are valuable.

Bold Photography said...

Just as valid today as when you wrote it - though I think now, the ROW (rest of world) is beginning to catch up... you can live on candy for only so long...