Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table.

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome."

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."


That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way.

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience.

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:


The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.

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:






Mel said...

"Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk. And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art."

Nailed it - thus be the answer to perpetual gearheads. Now I'm off to master what I have by taking more risks with it.


Anonymous said...

Talking about gear is so much easier than talking about art.

It is a thousand times easier to talk about chromatic aberration or image stabilization than it is to talk about why one picture really gets to you.

I also think the fact that we are each so different makes it even harder to talk about art.


Anonymous said...

Do you have a book, or are you writing a book that talks about all these emotional things in detail? I ask because I want THAT book. I want it NOW. I can't believe the things I read. Amazing.

Bill F said...

Good stuff, Kirk, I enjoy your blog.


Dave Jenkins said...

In the vein of this column, Kirk, are you familiar with the work of Dave Beckerman?

There's a lot to see on his blog, so look around. Some of it you won't care for, and some I think you will like a lot. One of my very favorites is "Bike Messenger, Resting." Go here
http://www.beckermanphoto.com/blog/page/8/ and scroll down.

Anonymous said...

You are a chicken. I would have walked right up to them and shot until I got what I wanted. With a motor drive. Why do you bother to write this?

Dave Jenkins said...

Anonymous said...

You are a chicken. I would have walked right up to them and shot until I got what I wanted. With a motor drive.

Surely you jest, Anonymous.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

Hi, Kirk, though I always follow your blog, it's been a longtime without commenting. But this post has moved and inspired me beyond words. Thanks for all your generous sincerity and openess in sharing your emotions and feelings. BTW I love the photo, is a whole story! I'm glad you enjoyed a happy thanksgiving with parents, wife and son. Best wishes!

John Krumm said...

Are you saying I shouldn't be so happy with my new E5? You want to see my really clear cat photos? :)

Enjoyed the rambling post, Kirk. I wish I could show you a photo of four older men sitting on a bench, taken in this town and displayed in a cafe here, Tlingit men (Alaska native) from the 40's or 50's, clearly friends, one laughing, one in a business suit looking more serious right at the camera, the others in jeans. Wider and closer just like you said, and so good I can picture it very well right now.

Anonymous said...

It's a damn good shot. Any closer and you wouldn't have the inclusion of the background activity that gives this "island of inactive old guys" all its character.
The thing that really sets you apart is your portrait work shot on film. I know the turn-over time of most commercial work requires digital, but film is your wheelhouse.

Kurt Shoens said...

I've thought a lot about the photo you wanted to take of the baggage handlers since you posted this article. I've concluded that the intended picture was basically impossible to get because the presence of the camera changes the scene. What you saw when you were there was possible because you were a part of the crowd. The camera becomes something to react to, either by wagging a finger "No" or posing with smiles or whatever. A stealthy long-range shot with a tele doesn't have the right perspective. Plus it just feels sneaky.

And yes, I've seen the disengaged street photo over and over. And I've seen the cityscape photos devoid of human context.

It's a vicarious thrill to watch your explorations of new equipment. The craft that pays my bills resembles photography in that the tools evolve and improve very slowly. That background has made me skeptical of the claims of "new and improved" so I (mostly) limit my acquisitions to things that I think will bring me a new dimension beyond an incremental improvement.

I understand the desire to keep things fresh and avoid doing the same old thing every time. It's wonderful that the changes in tools give you fresh perspective. I think I would need new subject matter or a new look. Something more different in the photographs rather than in the process.

I do get a kick out of the MacGyver situations where one wants a particular photo and has to live within constraints of time, circumstances, or equipment. I imagine that the stresses of delivering an excellent product as a professional take some of the fun out of that.

Anyway, best wishes this holiday weekend and I do look forward as always to your insights and adventures.

Nicholas Condon said...

This is an interesting perspective, and food for thought. I love the picture of the baggage handlers and what it took to get it, and I understand (I think) what you mean about passion when I look at it.

I don't think blunt passion, though, is the be-all and end-all of art. A few months ago, you published a number of photos that you took on your solo drive through the Southwest. For these photos (which had bright colors and direct lines so compelling that it took me a couple of weeks to purge their influence from my own work), risk was not their primary virtue. They were contemplative, not driving, and that's what made them sing. Their passion wasn't the immediate, risky, Dionysian passion of the photo of the porters, but the more Apollonian passion of a focused and prepared mind left to observe carefully. In some ways, they were dispassionate, and the stronger for it.

As much as I can love and appreciate the risky shot, with its tinge of adrenaline and immediacy, it is always the quieter, more cerebral photograph that appeals most to me, both as a photographer and a viewer.

I think there's room in art for more than passion and risk, for Bach and Adams as well as Tchaikovsky.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Nicholas, thank you for a well thought reply. Can I say though, the the trip through the southwest, during a fallow economic period, just after turning down a large book contract, and spending time away from family, friends and one life was, in itself, an act of passion that made the images possible and accessible to me.

It took a leap of faith to surrender $8000 dollars because a publisher refused to do things the right way and to still follow thru, without expectation of financial reward, on an idea. At least to me.

I see what you say. Passion lies buried in unusual places. And in layer after layer....

Marino Mannarini said...


sometimes after reading your posts i feel as if I had been through an analysis' session...apparently innocent private talk, but then you wake up the morning after still grinding on the concepts...and everything looks different. Again, thanks for sharing.

Nicholas: passion can wear a very varied range of clothing...it can be Rachmaninov and it can be Bach, as well as Sieff or Newton..What i mean, passion not necessarily identifies with the hot fire burning, a deep blue northern sky can also bear seep and intense emotions with it. Photography is like music: either it is great, independently on the genre, or it is nothing.

Unknown said...

"the passion is in the risk" you wax poetic about that quote, but you've provide me with several doozies:

"The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience. When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others."

"Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk. And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art."

My hubby and I took a risk this Thanksgiving and decided not to spend it with family....the horror!!! We spent it alone, with our dogs at a resort in Tucson. We had a blast. I had the lap pool to myself..and did my own fun workouts, my husband went hiking. Took my camera but didn't use it. I spent my time redesigning my website, reading photo books and magazines and a trip to Contemporary Photography Museum at the U. Reread your book, Minimalist Lighting...a great read...came back re-energized about photography!! Already have ideas about some shoots using T-shirts..LOL...but it was great to just think about the how and why of image-making...good to read this entry when I came home, made for ending to a Holiday week!!!

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I feel an e-book coming on.....

Unknown said...

Kirk: After reading your Minimalist book, I thought it would be great if you published a book full of "minimalist" ideas from other photographers...how they've taken your ideas and theirs and designed low-cost, efficient methods or environments in which to produce their art. I would love to contribute and buy the book in a NY second.

Unknown said...

Found another quote to add to this post:

"I may not be smart enough to do everything but I am dumb enough to try anything."

Beast boy from the cartoon, Teen Titans

dried_squid said...

The passion is in the risk.
Can't win if you don't play.
The only people who never make mistakes don't do anything.

I'm not even a weekend photographer. Don't practice much. But how I do enjoy finding a shot, and trying to make it happen.

I shoot the same old equipment, for over twenty years, manual exposure and focus, but I have returned to an incident light meter, a modern L-358. Saw your video.

Happy Holidays. I enjoy your writing, and recommend your blog because "I like the way he writes about photography".

Thanksgiving morning went out at 7:00 am with Kodachrome and TMax, two bodies, three lenses, filters, and eye-level tripod. Packed everything myself and walked. Walked along the beach with the sun over my right shoulder. Then walked back. Shot two rolls, and I hope for two particular images. Not passion. More like fishing. Had Thanksgiving lunch at home.

Take care.

PS. With respect to your 35mm entry - my favorite kit is two bodies, 35mm f/2 and 85mm f/2. I think the 35mm at 62 degrees and 85mm at 26 degrees helped me to "see". The 24mm at 84mm is a different story.

Nicholas Condon said...

I've been thinking about this all day, and I'm not sure I've come to any firm conclusion on the matter. Risk is clearly necessary to get anything done, especially as an artist. Even the simple act of showing your work to an audience is a great risk, and I've known a few talented people whose reluctance to take it has left them with their light under a metaphorical bushel. To follow a risky course requires that your desire for success must overwhelm your fear of failure, as well as your contentment with the status quo. So, I accept and understand that passion and risk are both necessary to art. I am not entirely sure, though, that they are so strongly linked as has been implied here.

Consider Bach, who I mentioned before. While he certainly must have taken risks to create and publicize his art, I'm not sure that they are always evident in the final product. His passion is evident in the extraordinary complexity of the work (which could only be the product of a fully committed mind), even though the music itself is so cerebral. His best fugues, though, seem like the work of a master entirely confident in his skills, not a rogue moving riskily outside his comfort zone. So, perhaps passion and mastery can produce great art without great risk.

And I still don't buy that great art can't be produced by someone with a day job, but that's an argument for another day...

Nicholas Condon said...

And then my brain, just to be contrary, coughs up my oft-repeated argument that most musicians and writers (those that don't constantly innovate) have sell-by dates, and that after they've been doing the same thing too long, their work loses the vitality that originally made it great.

Maybe y'all are right, and that risk and passion are both necessary. My brain hurts, and I wish it was light so I could go for a walk with my camera to clear it.

Bold Photography said...

Wow. Stunning commentary.

Markus B. said...

Great essay, Kirk. You're building some great content here. Most read for every passionate photographer. Keep up the good work. Just ordered your book on Amazon, to show my support.

Unknown said...

Very well put, as usual. You have such a facility with words. No matter the viewpoint being expressed (and I do appreciate that it varies from day to day, shows that you are human) it's a pleasure to read you.

And I bought one of your books; it was very useful.

Racecar said...

I am not a "street photographer" but I know what I like: close-up moderately wide-angle shots of interesting faces or scenes full of people. I think many of us are fascinated by what others are up to. Faces tell the story of our lives, and the eyes are a peek inside ourselves. This is why I could not make a decent street photographer, I don't like to get into someone's space (face). This is what you are referring to as the "risk" factor, and that's what makes a great image. If you feel the adrenaline at the moment the shutter is released, your subsequent image will be that much more exciting to the viewer.

Anonymous said...

Dang. Not only can that boy write he thinks pretty well too.