A day without coffee is sad. And unproductive.

My favorite model, Lou, was in the studio one day during a time when I was working on a video about coffee.  It was early times for photo/video adopters.  We were using a Canon L2 Hi-8 camera and a couple of Sony EC-M lavalier microphones.  Lou wasn't really interested in participating in the video project but we did have fun playing around with our coffee cup props.  I used a lower lighting angle on a big, Balcar Zebra Umbrella, with a diffusion cover to light her.

I asked Lou to show me the ennui that comes from "no more coffee."  And she gave me this very, very emotionally flat look. I thought it was fun so I snapped the shutter.  We were using a Hasselblad Camera and a long lens along with some black and white film.

I posted this to discuss how some artists work.  I think that the best work, for me, comes in the moments of play that fall in between the paid work.  When we work seriously, for money, we work within boundaries that are established both by the client and by our need to erect a safety net so that we cannot fail.  But girding against failure also pins our playful wings and moves us not to risk too much.

When we are carefree and submerged in the process of fun and imagination, and when there are no consequences to failure, we are free to push for what our hearts see.  Even if it seems silly and inconsequential at the time.

I've been thinking lately about the process of thinking and I've come to believe that when everything is processed through the thing we call "intellect" it short circuits the process of being in the moment and being unambiguously creative.  In the martial arts people practice their moves over and over again so that when they compete or fight their attacks and defenses happen in a space beyond thought.  They do it by instinct. The act of playing around with photographs in a carefree way helps to build that same sort of unconscious and unplanned creativity that lets us create work that moves us in a different way than the quantitative process of planning provides.

I know people who plan meticulously and execute their photography exactly according to plan.  My feeling is that the planning is valuable, but only if you are willing to throw it all away when instinct, and your heart, over-rule your brain and suggest a different approach, all at faster than the speed of thought.

When I photograph I am not looking for perfection.  I am looking for a way to channel a feeling about my subject. I am looking for ways to guide inspiration that comes from an immeasurable place into my camera. I become a conduit.

Sometimes coffee helps.

Making a fun portrait is like a dance where I lead sometimes and I am led at other times and neither of us really know what awaits at the next stanza.



  1. Everyone is so "quiet" this week. Go ahead and comment. I want to know if anyone is out there....

  2. I wonder if this applies to musicians too, and maybe that's why musical performances are in the evening when the "higher" brain functions are shutting down for the day and something else takes over. I don't know any musicians well enough to ask.

  3. I'm here. And this is some excellent writing about how to do creative work. Well said. I work outdoors most of the time. I plan my trips extensively. And then mother nature decides what I will actually be doing. If you fight mother nature, you lose. But if you can adjust to use what she offers you, art sometimes happens.

  4. Really great shot - reminds me, I am overdue for an injection of coffee ... So glad your blog is active again.

  5. Welcome back Kirk, like the coffee Cup....

  6. Therein lies the danger of taking a vacation ... ;-)
    Welcome back.

  7. This absolutely applies to musicians. Just as Kirk describes for martial artists, musicians have to practice scales and arpeggios over and over again so they'll pop out without thought when improvising.

    I think the martial arts analogy is also apt because the martial arts teach that if you don't fail on your first attempt, you probably weren't aiming high enough to begin with. Repeated failure isn't a bad thing, it's just a necessary part of the process leading to success. There's a great old kung fu movie called "36 Chambers of Shaolin" that illustrates this concept particularly well. I pull it out sometimes for inspiration when I feel like everything I produce is crap.

  8. That reminds me... cup of coffee anyone?

  9. Well good to see your back and ready for some fun, key phase here is fun. Reflection, wonderful isn't it. In the 25 years I was in business photography and fun went hand in hand, if I couldn't have fun on a shoot I wouldn't do the shoot. In my contracts there was a clause that stated this, "the shoots will be fun and even silly at times, but the job will get done and to your liking. If you don't like fun and silly I'm not the photographer for you, I'll gladly help you find the correct photographer for your needs." It is different now days not to many photographers know how to have fun and get the job done. I feel you get better results from fun and being silly. I know the results are better.

    Glad your back.

  10. Like martial arts and most of reality, the best opportunities are mostly a matter of luck.

    The only trick is to be completely prepared to take advantage of your luck. Practice, grasshopper... and READ THE FREAKING MANUALS!

  11. Keep posts (and photographs) like this one coming! Its great to have your posts popping up with such frequency in my Google Reader feed.

    On a somewhat related note, I just got my Rolleiflex back from the shop after being separated for nearly 2 months. Kirk Tuck's posts and my lovely Rollei back in the same week eases the pain of news that rocked my world last week.

  12. I am chewing here each of your words and find some internal "ding". Mmm... Two things. One, I am not a Pro, so "supposedly" I must be on the "free quarter". But no. I used to be pounded by Pro look alike-imaginary-rules.

    For instance, some month ago I decided to take photos for my daughter in her 9 years birth. Wow. I used to take pictures of her very often, but that thay odds happens. Do I have to use gobbos, flashes? 430 or 580? Mmm.. What about white balancing for tungsten and all that greenish hell inside one rent for party space? Do I have to grab a GretaMacbeth?

    No bosses here, but feels like plenty of them on that morning.

    And so on. In the end, my wife take a Canon 50D + 17-55 mm 2.8, no flash and... She did it quit fine. I was with a 70-200 looking for "candids", "nice snapshot" and that sort of things. I missed the whole party till I see the memory card fill of, well, bad ones.

    My wife get some impressive shots just not pretending to be a Pro. Dot. I react, change the mental flag, and start shooting just as the-father-of-the-girl (turn of flash, please) and I enjoyed it plus nice shots arise.

    Now I recall I haven´t take a coffe that morning for breakfast (yet another ding)

    "Be water my friend", as Bruce used to recommends. Bruce Lee, of course :)

    Turning back to bosses now. I admire your sincerely points about "likes" and "dislikes" at work. Sort of "Lou wasn't really interested in participating in the video project but we did have fun playing around with our coffee cup..."

    Not afraid of your clients raising eyebrows (former, potential or actual leads) reading this post?

    I am afraid my little daughter reads my rants and told me "I told you dad!, Don´t use THAT flash!" :)

  13. Nice post Kirk!

    I like your analogy of the safety net against failure. It's the tension between being a professional service business and being a professional artist all at the same time.

    It seems that creatives fall into two camps - those that only take a leap of faith when they pick their career, but who only face the client/buyer after the creation is complete. Yes, there is a risk in investing into the cost of producing a piece, but that's a private not a public investment. A painter only faces the buyer after the creative process is complete. The fashion designer only sees the success after the line has gone down the runway or is on the rack.

    The photographer, the architect, and some others face the buyer before the creative process. Essentially we're selling a promise that we can achieve a creative result within and beyond the clients expectations. Hence the need for a safety net. It's a yin/yang that requires careful balance. Too safe, and you're not standing out of the noise. Not predictable enough, and you're too much of a risk.

    Personally I find that I go in with a plan - have my ducks in a row, have a backup if the plan doesn't work. But I also leave some things up to the moment. And after I have the required shots in, I always look for what other way we can push the envelope.

    I just shot a designer lookbook. After we had the prerequisite front/back/detail of each look, we spent another hour and a half on location doing a whole series of other variations and poses. Often my strongest images come from that exercise, but I know that I already have the required stuff in the can, now it's about seeing what else I can do...

  14. What does the commercial photographer and Viagra have in common: They sell the promise of an exciting and creative performance.


  15. I agree Kirk. I sometimes see advice to newbies that says you need to stop before you press the shutter and ask yourself a bunch of questions ... "what emotion am I trying to convey" ... "what's the best way to ensure that the viewer shares my emotion" ... blah blah blah. If I have to do that, I'm not having fun (and since I'm not a pro, if I'm not having fun, there's no reason to do it !) Being instinctive about it all works fine for me. I can quickly spot "potential" and then hone in on it in a series of shots, balancing the composition in the viewfinder, looking around to see what would change in the shot if I move a few steps one way or another. It happens quickly. "What are you trying to *say* with this photograph ?" Usually, I'm trying to say "hey, look what I saw" :)

  16. The good stuff comes after someone says, "Why don't we try it this way?" Or, "What if we ... ?" Or, What would it look like if we ... ?"

  17. The nature of thought, life and everything:

    Kirk, I believe you have your finger on the pulse when you wrote:
    "I've been thinking lately about the process of thinking and I've come to believe that when everything is processed through the thing we call "intellect" it short circuits the process of being in the moment and being unambiguously creative."

    In fact, this is the core issue that all humans face on a daily basis. Joseph Campbell, in one of his last conversations with Bill Moyers, related some wisdom that has stuck with me for decades:

    "The very best things in life can not be understood.

    The second best things in life can be understood, but not talked about.

    The third best things in life can be talked about."

    Alfred Korzybski wrote, back in the 1950's, I think: "The map is not the territory." He was talking about the hierarchy of abstractions that humans have to deal with in the realm of consciousness, thought and language.

    When our primary focus is on the "thought-forms", the conceptual ideas of daily life, business and culture, we lose touch with "The very best things in life".

    If we can find a way to live primarily from that deep, quiet, vibrant space within ourselves, then thought becomes a tool in service to our inner space.

    This is what I love about your portrait work. You intuitively understand this, and it comes out in your work.

    I suggest that we can stay in touch with that in greater or lesser degrees in everything we do. Whether it is the martial artist calmly facing an opponent, or a business man listening intently to a client rather than thinking about what he is going to say next.

    That act of just listening is so important. While you are listening to the other person, also listen to yourself. Observe the feelings that arise. Be the witness for the thoughts that arise. Do not fight with them, just witness them.

    The most important piece of this is to not believe everything you think. Thoughts and words are never the "Truth". They never can be. It is just the natural limitation of the human form.

    The best we can do is to let that powerful, quiet, vibrant, inner self guide us in every action. Let our mind, our thoughts, be in service to our essential self.

    We are not what we think, we are that which allows thought to be. We are living beings who happen to have a brain that has thoughts.

    Descartes had it exactly backwards:
    It is not: "I think, therefore, I am."
    It is: "I am, therefore, I think."

    All of the animals in the world do very nicely without Starbucks or political parties. Those are thought-forms, made physical. Birds build nests, beavers build dams, humans build gizmos, gadgets and political parties. Do not be blinded by the thought-forms.


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