2.23.2012

A few ways to increase your connection to your photography.


I wrote a piece yesterday about the ill effects of the web.  But what I was really writing about is the way that the faux feeling of being part of an on-line "community" gathered around photography is counterproductive to the practice of satisfying photography.  Watching and trying to emulate a few superstars who continually trot out their greatest hits; jobs done for huge clients with monster budgets, is probably the quickest way to impair your own sense of photographic self esteem.

The homogenizing influence of millions upon millions of hobbyists embracing the same "guidelines" and rules and styles means that so much creativity gets distilled out of the world of imaging.  And when the riptide of a style strikes it's hard to get away from the undertow and swim back to shore.  To do what you like in your work, separate from the buzz.

But I have a few suggestions beyond just the knee jerk reaction of telling you to turn off the web.  These are suggestions akin to telling squeamish meat eaters to butcher their own meat.  But they work.

First,  I would tell you to slow down.  You don't need to try every new style, new effect and new technique that comes sliding down the grease covered chute of popular photography.  It's always better to work diligently inside a style and subject matter that really resonates with you.  If you slow down and concentrate on the kinds of images that bring you real joy you'll find a tighter bond with your own work.

Stop looking at all the sharing sites.  Humans get all hive motivated at the drop of a hat.  When one style becomes popular the hive celebrates that style.  It's just like our fascination with celebrities.  After you've been exposed to a new fad a couple dozen times you start to believe that you NEED to do that style to stay relevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  And the styles shift all the time.  To keep up you'd need to constantly try new stuff.  It would be like changing clothes ten times a day.  You'll never get anything else done and you won't find YOUR style.  Most of the stuff on the sharing sites looks okay small.  But would you want 99% of it in your own home?  Big? On the walls?  When you turn off the outside influences and sit quietly with your own thoughts about art and photography you begin to understand the way you like to see and share art.  That's valuable.  Everything else is unconscious imitation.

Do a project.  Consistency of vision and subject are worthwhile goals for all artists.  Set yourself to the task of creating a body of consistent work.  Choose a subject that you love and explore it in depth.  Ignore everything else.  I spent a year once just doing black and white portraits with a square format camera.  I learned so much and by the end of the year I had created a portfolio I really liked.

When you choose to do a project have a a goal.  I find having a show of my work is both frightening and exhilarating.  My current goal is to do 20 really wonderful portraits of athletes who are between 50 and 70 years old.  Part of the goal is to do a show of the work.  I need to find a venue.  I'd like to do it at one of the local medical centers.  I'm working on a style that will unify the show.  I've given myself a year to select the people, make the portraits, do a small video interview to go with the show, make all the prints and frame and mat them.  Wouldn't it be great to have those on the wall of a center devoted to preventative medicine?  Wouldn't it be great if it changed some lives?  But no matter where it ends up I will have met interesting people who've taken charge of their own lives and excelled.  What fun role models.  And the art will be my souvenir of my time spent with them.  The prints will be part of the sharing.

I did a show a few years back about coffee.  I photographed people with their favorite coffee cups or pastries, or both.  The show hung in my favorite bakery for years.  Part of the show was recently in one of my favorite coffee houses.  It was a fun way to bring together some friends and celebrate my love of coffee and photography.

Start thinking beyond the screen.  A lot of the images I show on this blog are scans from prints I've done.  We get lazy when we aim small and aim for the screen.  The reduced size covers many compromises in technique and presentation.  When you slow down and do your art try to go through the whole process of bringing an image to life before you rush out the door to fill up more memory cards and hard drives.

Really explore the images in front of you.  Edit them down.  Make them perfect and then print them large.  Not necessarily 20 by 30 but at least on a sheet of 11x14 inch paper.  Print them till you love them.  And learn from the process of presentation.  Learn what you like to see, big.  The art becomes both portable and present when you pull it off the screen and onto paper.  Be sure to go through the whole process so you understand in your gut what you've really created.  It will slow you down and bring your attention away from the process of getting banal "Great Capture!!!!!" comments and focus it on doing work that makes you smile.  You are the first audience.  You are not doing stand up comedy here, the purpose of your work is not to entertain a rowdy crowd.  If I gauge my readers correctly your goals include creating something of value that will stand the test of time.

Finally, forget the online critiques.  Find people in your own town, city, region whose work you admire and approach them about forming a sharing circle.  Just like a writer's group.  Or group therapy.  You want to establish a tough group of like-minded artists who are there to help each other grow the work.  You should expect real critiques, not adulation.  And you should respect the group you create by only showing your best work and showing it well presented.

My over riding goal is to make great portraits.  Portraits I like first.  Then portraits my peers respect.  Then portraits my sitters like.  The micro-second, transient adoration of the web is far down on the feedback loop.  Anonymous people have no skin in the game and expect nothing.  They have no vested interest in pulling you up.  No matter what the web philosophizers say.

Having a project will move you to take chances.  If you shoot portraits you'll need to meet new people. Engage them and collaborate with them.  You'll need to up your printing techniques.  You'll need to discipline yourself to do the work instead of "researching" on the web.  And you'll need to learn how to finish.

Having a goal for your work gives it extra meaning.

Sharing the work with live people standing in front of you builds real confidence in the work.  Having real critiques is painful but helps engender real growth.  Helping real, human, non-virtual friends succeed with their own art is part of a rewarding virtuous circle.  Embrace it.

Dammit.  Another blog where I forgot to flog a product.  Next time...

22 comments:

RichardEby said...

This is the only blog where I learn something useful every day.

Spencer H said...

I could not agree more. I had a flickr for a while, a 500px for a while, a google + for five minutes, they all fail to create a true dialog about photography. They just present you with millions of images and make it so easy to NOT really talk about artwork, just to say oh thats nice, and move on.

This period of photography will be remembered for a lot of nice looking images, but hard to pinpoint any defining images, since there are so many out there now, yet so few worth remembering.

BTW, I like when you dont talk about gear Kirk. You remind me of a few different photo mentors i've had. Tough love. Thanks!

James Weekes said...

This post hit home with me. I have rarely, probably never, made a good picture when I'm trying to please an audience. I need to please me first and then see what works.

Now I need to go order more ink and larger paper. You are one expensive blog to read.

BruceK said...

I _love_ the portrait! Could you give a bit of background on the subject and the photo?

kirk tuck said...

I shot this actor for a play at Live Oak Theater. The play was set in a small town in Texas (sorry I don't remember the title of the play...). We were attempting to allude to that with the lighting style and poses. I used tungsten fresnel spot lights to light the actor and did some blur vignettes by hand in the printing process. The finals were hand tinted with Marshall's Oil Paints. This is an unpainted print that's been scanned for the blog.

The camera was a Hasselblad 500C/M and the lens was the 150 Sonnar. Shot on Tri-x.

There was a whole series of actor photos for this. We did 11x14's for the lobby for the run of the play. It took a week to print and hand tint all the images.

Before the web we had time to do concentrated work... there are always trade offs.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Wonderful photo, Kirk - and great advice for the rest of us, for free. If you continue like that, you will become one of *the* most important teachers/tutors in photography ever.

Ooops - forgot about the gear as well :-)

Frank Grygier said...

All I can say is that your blog is a priceless resource for any artist. I would pay good money for book of all your past chronicles of wisdom.

Greg said...

Thank you...

rm572 said...

Thanks Kirk - pretty much sums up what I probably need to do with my photography right now.

Banal comments on flickr and 'researching' on the internet were particularly resonant comments.

Now just need to put the effort in...

Unknown said...

By the time the latest fad has filtered it's way down to the masses, it is already on it's way to becoming a cliché.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk, seriously -- it's time to do a book of edited blog posts. Include you posts about the art and philosophy of photography, but don't leave out the equipment. Even your reviews of specific cameras and lenses have much material that would be of broader interest in building an overall philosophy of gear acquisition and use.

And find a different publisher. Amherst has too many size and content limitations to make them suitable for a book such as this would be.

What happened to your name and URL sign in?

Carlo Santin said...

I enjoyed your advice in this article much more than yesterday's Kirk. I have put into practice several of your suggestions without even realizing it, and I stopped paying attention to the photo forums and sites. For a while there I was posting on Flikr, desperate for people to like my work and comment on it, to the point that I would get upset when I posted an image I liked but received no praise for it. I like the idea of having a project to work on, and to stop looking at pictures on sites like Flikr. Recently I have spent much more time and effort trying to figure out what types of photographs I enjoy taking. I don't worry over gear nearly as much as I used to either.

ykarious said...

Another brilliant, and in my case timely, post. In part through your regular posts on setting appropriate priorities I'm re-evaluating my ever present gear lust and trying to establish useful limits in terms of gear. Thank you.

Robert McArthur said...

I look forward to your thoughts and posts. There are many people I follow but few I really read, and fewer still that I send to my re-read section (instapaper). Many of your posts get saved. Please keep sharing your experience and experiences.

stopkidding said...

Kirk,

This is quite simply the best advice I have read about how to get better and enjoy photography. Thank you.

Naveed

Ian said...

Kirk,

Just started a Graduate Certificate in Visual Arts (Photography). The program is studio practice, i.e. mainly about doing the art. So I have decided to spend the time doing (learning) portraits.

Anyway, thanks for your posts which encourage people to go beyond competent, or trendy photographs, to work that says something. Giving people tools, or a method, for self development can make the art of photography so much more enjoyable.

Ian

Andy MacBrien said...

Kirk,

Wow. Your posts of the last two weeks along this line have helped drag me out of a rut. I'd ask you to get out of my head, but you're making too much sense. Don't mind the other voices, they're (mostly) harmless.

Thanks!

Andy

Brad C said...

Thanks for the blog and reminder to slow down...

Neo Kekkonen said...

One more vote for a book about art and philosophy of photography. Every time I read your blog there seems to be some piece of advice that transcends fleeting trends and technologies, even if the post is a reaction to them… or maybe they're the necessary catalysts?

In any case, if the all the timeless, non-technological wisdom from posts like this was edited into careful collection, it would make a good photography textbook. Like a link between hands-on tech guides and high-flying academic theory books.

Kris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kris said...

Kirk, I love your articles. What you write here "setting a goal, doing a project, not chasing different (trendy) styles". It's excellent advice. I already had a bit of a feeling that this was something I needed to do. Now I'm sure. :)

Unknown said...

Ahh, I haven't been reading your blog in a while. Just got distracted by other things. I can't believe that I stopped coming here, you have some excellent advice.