The role of the muse in making art.

Like a catalyst in chemistry the perfect muse starts and sustains a reaction in the artist that makes the process of art both possible and, to the artist, desirable.  When I started out in photography I was "home schooling" myself.  And I made a lot of trials with a lot of errors but I had one short cut that many others, whose goal was to become "an artist" or "a photographer"  didn't have.  I had a burning desire not to "be" an artist but to make the art.  I kept stumbling into beauty at every turn and I wanted to record it, share it and say, "See what I see.  Isn't life amazing?!"  And since I came to the art looking for tools to share what I saw I  bypassed the whole quagmire symbolized by the question:  "What should I shoot?"

There are two ways (probably millions of ways) to come to photography.  One is to become enchanted by the tools and set off on a life long journey to master the tools and wield them like a wizard in an RPG.  The second is to find a subject and to search for the right media with which to have a conversation with everyone around you.  The wizard seeks power while the person struck senseless by beauty tries to lend power to his subjects.  To translate their beauty into a universal language.

I've often said that I can take or leave landscape photography.  Same goes for still lives or big Crewdsonian tableaux.  Ditto the Didactic demonstrations of Gursky.  But every once in a while I'll be walking down the street and I'll look into someone's face and become transfixed with the perfectly imperfect symmetry of a face and the transient nuance of a serene grace I see there.  Other times I'm equally riveted by a playful half smile or a majestically projected innocence.  And I want to make a photograph because it's all so fleeting, and the universe and time keep gobbling up our chaotic intersectional interfaces with an insatiable and unstoppable vigor.  True beauty, to me is the wonderful contenance of another person, projected without affectation.

So I slowly taught myself how to make portraits.  And for the last thirty years I've worked to make my own encyclopedia of beautiful faces.  And it's much harder than it might seem.  First you have to recognize them; the people who resonate with you.  Then you have to gain their collaboration.  Then you have to guide them through the process of being photographed.  You have to be wary of dabbling in new styles so as to not obviate your clear vision.  You have to be able to take the raw materials provided by your session and work it like clay or marble and pull from it the vision you saw with your heart.  That's the hard part.  And I fail far more often than I succeed.

But sometimes it works.

So many things can derail you.  The biggest obstacle is fear.  Fear that you'll not be able to find the "right" subject.  Fear about approaching a stranger.  Fear of failure.  All kinds of fear.  Almost impenetrable fear.  But, of course, as Steven Pressfield aptly conveyed through his characters in his magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, the opposite of fear is love.  And the capacity to fall in love is the secret tool that makes a portrait artist successful.

To fall in love with a face.  To fall in love with the way light caresses soft skin.  To fall in love with the creation of an idealistic symbol of a person's outward projection.  To fall in love with the wonderful energy of eyes, vital and alive.  The opposite of fear is love.  Love doing your work and you banish fear.

So the muse is there to make sure that, even if only for a minute or two, you experience the warm, rich embrace of love and translate it into your art.  I laugh and I kid but I really do understand that a portrait will rise above the level of documentation or decoration when I feel myself falling, however tentatively, in love with my subject.  And my one desire is to share with my audience how special my subjects are.  How unique and vibrant.

Poor Belinda.  I thought she was so radiant and wonderful when she was 20.  How silly of me not to understand at the time that every year she would become ever more so.  That's the nature of your muse.


Old Gray Roy said...


You are a romantic to the core! This is the 2nd time I have posted this comment in response to your written thoughts. Perhaps this is what so resonates with me as I read your blog and view your portraits. In the age of scrambling for a buck, or publishing a thinly veiled commercial for whatever latest and greatest camera, software or what have you, Kirk Tuck gives value. Thank you

Anonymous said...

A love story in less than a thousand words.

Wil said...

Well done.

I'm sure I'm guilty of approaching photography in the first way (gear) you mentioned; fortunately, early results switched me to the other set of rails...

"I see this, and would love to show it to others."

Clay said...

Fantastic. Thanks for the reminder: less gear & more love makes better pictures.

NickD said...

Kirk, thank you for this post, it certainly deserves comment and discussion. This is a great way to think about 'why' I photograph and what I want to do and show in the future. I think my main failure so far is to identify exactly what I love about a scene and to bring across why I wanted to shoot it, rather than just finding pretty pictures...

And of course I understand and appreciate falling in love with a portrait or captured glance, something I do often with other's work and would love to develop for myself. Must stop thinking about it and just start taking portraits I guess! Thanks for all the food for thought :)

Mrugesh Karnik said...

This is perfect! Just a couple of days ago, one of my friends whom I'd just finished shooting, suggested that I blog about my muse (or muses). Writing such a post now seems completely redundant. I couldn't have put it any better myself. This is absolutely perfect!

When I started wielding a camera, I thought I was interested in outdoor photography, abstract etc. Over these past few months I've come to realise that nothing pleases me more than to make a beautiful portrait. I find myself trying to portray a person that I know. I find myself wanting to know a person so that I could portray her. In a way, it all makes sense now. The urge to shoot a face next to me on the bus as her eyes shine a vivid green for an instant as a sliver of sunlight bathes her face.. it all makes perfect sense.

Thanks for the post.

Josef Tornick said...

Beautifully expressed.