4.14.2011

Scatterama. How many directions can you go until you get pulled apart?

There are two mythologies floating around the sphere that are diametrically opposed.  In one corner we have the idea that the successful photographer is the one who sits, monk-like, in his studio carefully honing the one style and one technique that will differentiate him and help him rise, meteorically, into the rarified strata of image makers:  Those who make real money.  Those who have big assignments.  Those who are dearly loved by the masses.  These monks work with a laser vision and decline any work or assignments that don't fall into the mold they've constructed for themselves.

The other mythology surrounds the feedback we get from all those incredibly smart vocational advisors we hear from on the web.  In this scenario you must, even for a grudging modicum of success, embrace a new way of working which requires you to become everything to everybody.  Everybody suddenly is made to feel that they must master not only all the various subroutines of photography (past and present) but also conquer html5 (and 6 and 7), create websites from scratch (and why the websites have to look like the front page of an old Enquirer from the supermarket newsstands I have no idea....) master all blog and social media formats, have programming for iPhones, create videos for the web and whatever other use there is for video and, while doing all of this, re-invent themselves as masters of content for the iPad and all the nasty, snaggle-toothed cousins that Apple's competitors are working over time to spawn.  And did I mention the requirement that you must lead weekly, or at least monthy, workshops to teach dentists and programmers all the things you've learned over the course of your careers?....

Well.  I've tried it both ways and neither of them work.  As I looked around the smoking and wrecked battlefield of photo commerce as it exists in 2011 I can see a lot of guys who refused to go beyond the style they've done for the last 30 years and they are just dead.  We'll be burning the bodies soon.  They didn't shift and overlay their clear and unique voices onto new platforms and styles.  They didn't even try to keep up with change.  I tried to poo-poo the gyrating and trendy status quo by not embracing new visual cues.  I had the hubris to think that, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in music,  my generation invented, distilled, made the best images in the best way and every thing that came after is crap.  And I got my lack of lunch handed to me on an empty plate.  Good for retrospectives.  Not so good for continuing commerce.

Now if a client "needs" some additional saturation, some grain and destruction, some charming faux HDR or glancing (irrational) accent lights, we'll serve it up hot.  Because, regardless of how much we want to further the idea that everything we touch is art at the end of the day what we do for a living is to swim in a fast flowing river.  If we try to stay firmly rooted in one spot the river flows on without us.  And if we don't keep up with the party barge how will we get invited on board for drinks?  It's possible to keep a voice and change a style.   I like to think that what my work is all about is my interaction with my subjects.  I'm pretty sure that as long as the connection remains intact I can wrap the core in any style I like and still be successful.

In my little world, in the best case aspirational mode, I'd spend all day long photographing intriguing people against a lovely gray background with a medium format camera loaded with tasty Tri-X and endowed with a virile and vital 180mm lens.  But nobody seems to be breaking down my door demanding that these days.  I do get lots and lots of requests to go on to locations to make heroic skies and dramatic portraits of people engaged in real, physical work.  I do those jobs and get paid.  And then we don't have to raid the college fund just to buy cheap Riesling.  But hell, after the last few years I'll pretty much bend my personal aesthetic standards with great flexibility.

To wit, this last seven days has been an Oster blender of a week.  I'm working on: two artsy video projects (sorry Michael O'Brien, I'm delayed but working diligently...),  I've interviewed doctors,  I shot a new Thunderbolt product for a start up company, I shot cool portraits of six executives for an intriguing company called SocialWare (and I got to do them in a style I invented and love),  I shot a day long event for the Formula One people who are bringing exotic European car racing to Austin, and I met with people who want me to do a workshop in May.  Oh......I also wrote some blogs and am writing book #6.  And I'm so busy trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing right now that it's driving me nuts.  If I have to add SQL and another layer of social marketing to all this then I'm going to quit and get some sort of job as a janitor or bank regulator.  Something easy and stress free.

So, what's my point?  Well, as the brilliant designer, Belinda Yarritu, would say: "Moderation in all things."  I guess I need to find the things I like to do best and prioritize them.  And I'd guess that's something every photographer working today needs to do.

But you know what?  As much fun as it is to shoot black and white in the studio there is a certain satisfaction in making it all work on a location.....


Warning.  I've edited this over the course of the day.  Andy thought it sounded a bit negative and angry when we talked about it at lunch.  Will thought I sounded defeated.  I've made a few changes because I want to honestly reflect that I'm having a great time but that everything changes and no one has a map.  It's all back to trial and error.  But if we're having fun and making money it's okay.  I'm just thinking out loud about the process of re-invention.  I want to make sure I don't throw the good stuff out with the bad or spend too much time doing trendy stuff that doesn't stick........

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Timely post, since I've dreamt last night that I was giving up all that photography, design and web madness (and too much of each) for a job as an auto mechanic. And I sucked at it.

Bill Pearce said...

As my friend the late Ross Tompkins always said, "Moderation in all things, including moderation!"

Wess Gray said...

Kirk,
Are you nuts or just plan crazy?
Every agrees with me that the 150 lens is a lot better than the 180.
Oh wait, you're photographing for F1?
You're a genius and absolutely correct!
Can you score me some comp tickets for the first race?
Wess

Frank Grygier said...

You make me feel like I am standing still. If you keep this up you will explode. By the way you are behind on Tweets and will you please stop what you are doing and review the camera....

Hugh Alison said...

Your taste in portraits is very much like mine - simple black and white, single diffuse light source, medium format Tri-X.

I'm curious - are both you and the model sitting on stools for these? and is the camera on a tripod?

They give the feeling that you're half way through a conversation.

JohnL said...

Excuse me - wizened 60 year old hacks! what! create websites, hah! and what is all that electronic techie gobble-de-gook and what's wrong with the old Enquirer - Oh, and what's an Apple?

Stick to your strengths but always keep an eye on what is going on around you.

Alan Fairley said...

Well Kirk, my feeling is that most anyone with a decent sense of lighting and a decent model and a 6x6 with Tri-X can make nice looking pix in the studio, but outdoor your location shots are really something else! Don't stop diversifying

Neal Thorley said...

Wow, it's posts like this that make me real glad that Photography is my passion, not my job.

Bill said...

"Build it and they will come."

As I've gotten older I've also become more determined to live my life the way I want. Do the style of photography you love most and do best, educate the public on why they can't live without it, thus creating a demand for your service, make them drool over the very idea of owning one of your portraits, and let the others fight over the latest and greatest techniques/equipment/etc.

Peter Frailey said...

Kirk, When do you find time to sleep. Seriously, with all that you do, are you one of those lucky ones who can get by on 5 hours of sleep?

Merle said...

From my collection of snippets of past things I've read:

"...it seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep. ...

Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you. It wakes you up much in the same way that illness does. ...

In fact, perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different. ...

The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly." -- Rachel Naomi Remen (My Grandfather's Blessings, The Path, pg 289.)

May you never stop seeing nor fall asleep in your work. Your portraits are simply beautiful and your writing is always thoughtful and well worth reading.

Thanks!

audio2u said...

"...all the nasty, snaggle-toothed cousins that Apple's competitors are working over time to spawn."

Bwahahaha. Classic.
Don't neccesarily agree with your judgement on the aesthetic value of non-apple products, but hey, it gave me a laugh, none the less!

Dave Elfering Photography said...

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost

Anonymous said...

This blog has the same old pictures again and again.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks for the tip, Anonymous. I'll rush right out and change the photos for you. Sorry. Oh, by the way, I didn't get a check from you this week. You know, for the custom content. Oh.....? You don't pay to read this blog? Well then. You get whatever pictures I want to post when I want to post them.

Need to see new stuff all the time? Go to Flickr.

Anonymous said...

Photography as a living is tough, but as your mention, moving with changing times is important to stay afloat. Despite the self-prostitution in any job (reasonable to a degree, unreasonable after a certain point), we all need to earn a living. Failure to earn that living has a far more negative impact than anyone who has not experienced it.

So, yes, your post sounded rather negative. No one is happy having to make certain realizations about reality. At the same time, your post is realistic because it discusses the need to adapt to change, rather than remaining stuck. As we get older, we get more stuck simply because it is comfortable and we have less energy.

The artist in the photographer still needs to be fed, but so does the family and bank that owns the house.

Kurt W. said...

Kirk:

I don't really find this post negative at all, just a view into the challenges of serving clients and the choices we all have to make with regard to professional success and satisfaction; A good Captain is not made on a calm sea.

It's the amateur vs the pro dilemma. The pro has a schedule. The pro uses what works. The pro knows that unquestionably there will be crappy jobs, crappy clients, and horrible conditions at times. Most of all, the pro gets up and does it everyday and plies the craft because that's what they do (and it pays the bills).

The hobbyist can fiddle endlessly and retreat whenever. It all changes when you have to ask "who's paying?".

Keep slugging away, nothing good is easy. Finding professional nirvanna is mostly impossible. If it we're up to me I'd make $500k/year and only work on Tuesdays. I'll continue to work in my trade everyday, because I'm a pro and that's what I do.

Thanks for the insights, I enjoy the blog.