What's missing from the current practice of photography.

History is a story with no ending.  You read it from the past to the present.  
Then you make history.

Funny thing happened on the way to educating our country.  We lost track of how important history is and we lost sight of what it really means to be educated. Somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that the only really important thing was to have a career and get a job and make money and be comfortable.  In order to do this most efficiently we took our universities, which previously had subscribed to a mandate that good education meant well rounded education, and turned them into big trade schools. Mostly for the benefit of big business.

Each "discipline" narrowed down its focus to transmit only the rawest and coarsest base competencies.  Engineering students learned their math and physical sciences but lost the institutional mandate that required what used to be considered basics.  Things like literature and a foreign language became roadkill for the sciences.  Business majors never see the inside of a philosophy or art history classroom on their rush to riches.  Our forefathers knew that it was in our society's best interest that people understand the value of good novels and poems, become civilized by appreciating important and time tested music and also to understand the arc of art history and art in general.

It has been said that "Art tells us what it is to be human."  And I would say that any society that doesn't value it's art will soon cease to be creative, cease to produce truly creative products and will live a meaner existence. To not know history is to be doomed to endlessly repeat it.

Many people flock to photography and practice it as a hobby or a business but so few of them know anything about the history of the art.  Or the history of its technology.  Without knowing the rich past of photography we have no base line to understand its arc and its depth.  And we're left with a generation of photographers who are re-interpreting the same wheel in the same (concurrent) time period, over and over and over again.

No wonder people are fascinated with Instagrams and Hipstergrams.  It's just a recycling of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations and Polaroid transfers.  Most of the current practitioners weren't old enough to have been around for the first iteration but its aesthetic has been kept alive by advertising references and rehashes for decades.  Would the new iterations be anywhere near as popular if the people doing it now knew that their parents and grandparents did the same thing, analog style, so many years ago?  Probably not.  They would shun it and perhaps go in a new direction.  They might seek new ways to speak with their cameras instead of copying stuff that their aunt did when she was their age.  ( And, by the way, Ben Lowy's work is interesting because of the content, and context, not the trendy presentation.....)

Would the photographers who think they are being cool by taking images with their tiny cellphone cameras be surprised to see a portfolio of Helmut Newton's fashion work done on a beach with a 110 (mini-film) interchangeable lens camera from Pentax back in the 1970's?  It was primitive and the film was primitive so it was all about the talent of the photographer.  Would people be as impressed by Chase Jarvis's oh so kinetic Ninja shoot if they had already seen the work of Phillipe Halsman's Jumpology from (gulp) the early 1960's?  Would they be amazed by the Photoshop work of hundreds of thousands of worker bees if they had spent time looking at paintings by Salvatore Dali or even Brueghel's Tower of Babel ?

And who doesn't understand that our modern ideals of beauty were invented and presented by painters Botticelli and Michaelangelo and especially Leonardo Da Vinci?  And that no one has created a more beautiful three dimensional work in all of human time than Bernini's Apollo and Daphne?

Our rush to decimate all of the non-essentials of learning in exchange for training will eventually destroy our entire culture because it takes away the reasons and rationales for all of the hard work we, as a culture engage in;  to be captivated, enchanted and mesmerized by art and music and poetry, romance and all the things we do because we love them, not because they bolster some bottom line.  How do you put a financial value on falling in love with the lines of a poem?

Photography is interesting today in that we are constantly obsessed by the availability and constitution of the tools. We spend all of our time on the equipment and none of it learning the stories and legends and motivations of the guiding lights and historical figures of our own art and craft. We know nothing of the great works and the struggles against all odds that produced them.  We say "good capture" to the weekend warrior who goes on a photo walk and takes a sharp picture of a cat but we've never learned of the struggles of the Civil War photographers (Matthew Brady: Sketchbooks of the Civil War)  who had to coat glass plates in the field for film and then make sharp images with long exposures on cameras that weighed over 50 pounds and had no functional controls.  People made exposures then by uncapping a lens, counting down and estimating exposure times and then recapping the lens.  The chemicals that made the final images were often times toxic and deadly and yet, the artists were still able to make images that would shame all but the greatest photographers of our current time; if we could distill our current masters from the vast fields of chaff....

Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our own craft?  We are so busy honoring our current "teachers"  that we can't even see around them to the incredible contributions that came before.

I wrote a book on lighting with small flashes.  It sold well.  People were ready to hear the message.  David Hobby preached the same message on his website.  And the vast majority of our customers and followers wrongly give us credit for "inventing" small flash photography or, in David's case, Strobism.  But the reality is that our work, for the most part is a shallow scoop into the work done by a person who was there before us named, Jon Falk.  He wrote a book back in the 1980's called Adventures in Location Lighting and he let us in on the secrets of using radio triggers, optical triggers, external battery packs, minimalist light stands, all kinds of flash modifications and much more.  He was an amazing source of information about all this stuff. (Thanks Jon!!!).

And I have no doubt that his knowledge was built on the information and inspiration that came from the generation just ahead of him.  And then all the way back to Dr. Harold Edgerton.

The primary difference is this:  His generation invented stuff to be able to say what it was they wanted to say. They had a mission.  It was to get a certain style of image.  Now the mission is to play with the gear. When is the last time someone told you about a subject they were intent on capturing in a new way?  And when did they tell you about their new lens/camera/flash?

Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created.  The same ones we build on today.  By knowing the past we can prevent spinning our wheels by reinventing them over and over again.  By studying the history of photography and the history of art we'll all benefit by being able to create new work that inspires a new generation.  Otherwise, to use a musical analogy, we'll just be stuck in the same elevator listening to the same Muzak version of Hey Jude  by the Beatles, over and over and over again until we die or photography becomes so stale and self referential that it dies.

So, you went to school and you got the job and you're financially successful.  Now plow some of that capital back into some important continuing education:  Dig deep into art and art history and you'll be rewarded beyond your dreams.  You'll actually learn how we fit into the rich and endless swirl of history instead of just watching "what's cool right now" being recycled on the web.

If you're going to tell me that you copy all of the current stuff in your own work as some sort of learning process I'll tell you that you're copying the wrong stuff.  Go for the classics.  That's where the magic is.  And the chicks will dig you more...

So many people work so hard only to come to the realization that they didn't make time during their working lives for the things that make us part of the human continuum.  The shared joy of our art and culture.  That's why so many older people take up painting, photography and expansive learning.  Easier to do it all along.  And, like compound interest, more valuable.

This is my 1,000th Published Post.  And it was finished at 9:30 pm on Weds., May 2nd 2012.

my favorite post: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-is-to-make-life.html

A similar post, suggested by a reader:


shambrick said...

Congratulations Kirk, That's a phenominal milestone.

A few points from a regular reader:
. I have a blog, but my blog activity is nowhere near yours in terms of frequency, length or consistency. I am always amazed at your output.
. I'v been reading your entries for a number of years. Over time, other blogs have come and gone from my Google reader account. Yours is one of just a handful that is always worth my time to read.

Well done and I look forward to congratulating you on 2000 entries. Shame you are not in Australia, I'd buy you a beer.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Shame I'm not in Australia because I'd sure like to drink one with you. Thanks.

Jim Hughes said...

Congratulations on 1000. Thanks for the blog!

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Congratulations Kirk, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us since so long. And yes, the history of arts is what we need to understand who we are. We need to see and to read lots more until we'll be able to feel, and to "dig" it. Why is it that I love your photo of Fadya that much? Have I seen something like that before, like the Mona Lisa like smile of our daughter in one of my own photos?

Should you happen to visit Germany one day, let me know - then I'll buy you a beer, and show you the local or even Mexican restaurants.

FoToEdge said...

1K ! It could be a new camera model designation. Some day all of us will be gone, our flashes and lenses will be in an old antique shop to be discovered by a young photographer, who is inspired! ~
"And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game".....Joni Mitchell
Kirk Tuck has worked hard in a career spanning over 2 centuries
and he did make photographers think and talk.
Thanks for 1000 chances.........to think a different way.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.." Also Joni MItchell.

NickD said...

Congratulations Kirk, on 1000 posts, and a worthwhile and very interesting 1000th at that!

As a Chemical Engineer by *training* I do try to cultivate an artistic side and avoid reading only about cameras and lenses. Travelling for work lately has given me opportunities to view world-class art musuems in NYC, DC, London, Belgium, and the Netherlands (I remember the Tower of Babel in particular!). Without this opportunity I may never have come to appreciate the masters as I do now, it is certainly lacking from our general education. They have inspired me a thousand-fold more than viewing the latest images on 500px/flickr etc.

I realise I am a dilettante, and want to work on this further, but this blog is a great resource for trying to think about things differently, and about my approach to photography! Thanks very much for the inspiration and discussion. And of course if you ever make it to New Zealand, the offer for a beer stands here also :)

Travis said...

Thanks for continuing to make me think. This is the only blog on which I read every post...

Anonymous said...

Like you, I have been appalled by the idea that you go to college in order to get a job and that the value of a college education should be measured with a return on investment, with so many stories recently that lambaste the students who had the audacity to take out a student loan to get a degree in the humanities. "What kind of job can you get with that? You'll never pay back your student loan. You're just a drag on society."

I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. I thought that I was supposed to go to college to learn and to learn about a lot of things while I was there. I figured I would just find a job later. It worked out that way for me. I graduated with a degree in English / Creative Writing in 1991 and have developed computer software ever since.

There is something we should recognize in the calls for ROI measurements--not that we should only pursue degrees that lead directly to high-paying jobs--but that a college education is way too expensive these days. That's where I wish we could spend our energy rather than narrowing the choices and spitting out cookie-cutter graduates.

Mike Sakasegawa said...

I don't know, I don't think it's quite as bleak as all that. The Internet certainly does have a large population of gearheads, but it's through the Internet that I started learning about the art world, both past and current. There's a whole crop of photography sites out there run and read by highly literate folks. Look at the kinds of conversations that guys like Colin Pantall, Blake Andrews, and Joerg Colberg are having at their sites. I think that there's a huge community of photographers and scholars on the Internet whose passion for the art of photography and whose breadth of knowledge is both impressive and inspiring. Certainly I would never have started learning about Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Eggleston, Mapplethorpe, Avedon or any number of other photographers if not for the conversations people are having about them on the Internet.

Maybe I'm just naive--and certainly as a guy with an engineering degree I don't have the depth of knowledge I wish I had regarding art and art history--but I feel like it's a great time for art and photography right now.

JFGilbert said...

Mille Mercis, Kirk.

DGM said...

Life begins at 1000!
That is how the old saying goes, isn't it?

Congratulations from the wilds of Massachusetts, where every parking lot has a paradise just beneath the surface.

Brad C said...

I think there are lots of problems with using the discourse on the web as a lens for the state of art. One is that every voice has an equal weight. Experts with knowledge and perspective are drowned out. Another is that search engines will tend to reinforce similarities between us rather than what makes us, and our ideas, unique. If someone has a unique idea, it almost can't be found unless you already know of them and follow their work.

What IS common among us is the gear we use. The web makes it easy for us to find common owners of equipment. I'm sure I found your blog looking for an EP1 review :) But without a common background in the arts, I think we don't have the language to find each other on those terms.

As an engineer I was one of the few that took a language in my final year of high school, plus world history and English Literature. I was shocked that I would only have one elective outside the faculty for FOUR years! Even more shocked at people in university who boasted about not reading a book in years. That is a part of our culture I'm not proud of. It is a great loss. Our shared culture is through the media, tv, movies, not art, literature, philosophy.

All the same, I think there is an art community out there, interested in doing new things that will surprise us. They just don't hang out in gear forums and haven't mastered SEO :)

Congrats on 1,000 ! Please keep writing and making us think...

X said...

The outstanding and eminent biochemist Greg Petsko has also written on this topic.

Unknown said...

Kirk, a beautiful post. Thank you.

Congratulations on 1000. Please keep 'em coming.

I studied Philosophy and English and find myself making art and photographs for a living. It's hard and doesn't gel with the majority view of work. I wouldn't change it for the world.


Wiliam Walker said...

Great article Kirk, is there anything you would recommend as "a good place to start" in terms of reading?

Of course, if you ever find yourself in South Africa...we too have beer!

Anonymous said...

I'm currently taking a terrific course on the history of photography taught by the fellow who created this website: http://www.luminous-lint.com/ The website is astonishing in its scope. If you want to delve into the history of photography, I can think of no better place to start.

Thanks, Kirk, for sharing so many great articles over the last few years. Your blog is one of my very few must-reads.

Mitch said...

As a photo editor for a small newspaper I used to freak out aspiring photographers by starting job interviews with this question: Tell me about the last book you read? But •I• wanted to know, who they were, what they were.

You can dazzle me with your pretty prints and today with your masterful data crunching. But ultimately, whether ye be painter or potter, you have to communicate with me, resonate with me.

Thanks for bringing up John Falk, a formative influence on my early career. I still have his spiral-bound bible Adventures in Location Lighting which opened doors to me communicating with my readers.Now if I could just get these damn strobist kids to get the hell offa my lawn...

I admit that I tired of your blog as we (yes, we) made the trudge through micro, evf and all that stuff. Seemed so much hammers and saws to me. And I read every one as they popped into my RSS and was thankful for your insight as you went to the digital woods and tried to live deliberately.

And I am thankful once again, today, that such a clear and insightful post from you has once again appeared as they always seem to do, provoking, solidifying, challenging. These posts feel like a race-day.

Congratulations on doing so many laps around the pool for all of our benefit. I look forward to the next race-day.

Keith said...

Congratulations on the 1,000 posts.... I have read every one of them (hopefully the stats show up as I read them through google reader not off the blogspot site)
thanks for the inspiration, looking forward to the next 5,000+

Sydney Australia

lsumners said...

Need to add this post to your book

David Akesson said...

Insightful? Yeeeeeesss. Extremely good. I do love the boldness and clarity of your posts. Like your books your argument is direct. (or maybe your books are as a result of your long thought out ability to cut to the chase and make it simple). Says is much better than I have. I sometimes think we have returned to the age of the instamatic 124 cameras when suddenly colour photos were available to the masses. The little blue flash cubes helped when it got dark. But the best photos were from mums taking day by day activity of the kids. At least they were honest in what they were trying to do!

But I find it harder to be as direct when people want to show me their result. Shame on me as I too often perpetuate bloody awful photography by trying to find some good point in a billion rapid fire pics that lack focus, contain massive blur from camera movement, and insufficient light from exposure ignorance.

Gotta love so much of what you have written in this. Like,... "Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our craft?" That one really brought a smile to my face. Expecially when I thought back to the first year or so with my old Yashica TL Electo X. Gee I was good. Then someone had the courage to effectively say what you have written and pointed me to some of the great wielders of film from the past.

thanks a million for the thousand (and the 5 books too)

David Akesson
Perth - the city of paradise in the land of milk and honey

dasar said...

I agree so much Kirk.
Congratulations for the first 1000 posts and, yes, this one could be the foreword of your next book on photography.
I appreciated in particular what you said about instagrams ... though I have to confess that I like even that form of photographic way of communicating.

You have been entitled to share a beer also in Italy.

Peter F. said...

Kirk, If I wanted to educate myself along the lines of your post/essay where would you start me? Seriously.

Peter F.

Richard said...

Congratulations, Kirk! A thousand blog posts is a remarkable achievement!

Good discussion today. The arts are so terribly important. The study of art, in all its myriad forms, ultimately, in my mind, teaches us about the human condition, the path of transformation, and that art is an ongoing exploration that creates new paradigms for us to live by.

Jim said...

One K numerically but one M in content. Well said. Especially the part about our education system. Today it's all about "job training". The concept of "education" has largely been lost. A couple of decades ago Dr. David Suzuki tried to warn us that we were headed in the wrong direction, that the purpose of "the economy" was to serve us but that we were being seduced instead into being servants of the economy, in a constantly accelerating cycle of producing and consuming without regard for anything except the bottom line. Until we reclaim our position as creators instead of producers the future is just dismal repetition.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

And I feel like the internet skims a tiny film off the surface and allows (enables?) people to think think they are learning when it's nothing more than a greatest hits compilation. The beauty of learning about stuff from university classes, books and art oriented travel is the depth of learning and the surprise of new discovery. So you pointed your browser to photographic sites that don't talk about gear but talk about photographers. That's a start. What about painters, sculpters, composers and writers? How about dance? Why not see where those photographers got their inspiration.

Question of the day: Who did Henri Cartier Bresson study art with before he became a photographer?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

The art community is being decimated by funding cuts, an almost universal belief by engineers, business people and technicians that art doesn't pull its own weight and many other momentum based issues. It's not about SEO. You forget that I taught in the UT art department and am on the advisory board of one of the biggest community colleges in the country. I see the demise in the real world, not the directed and intellectually circumscribed world of just the web.

No one should get out of a four year university program without two years of a language, two years of literature, art history, music history, philosophy and ethics. To do less is to be a trade school. A vocational education. Nothing wrong with that but we can and have done more. Much more. If we could do it in my time and my father's time there's not reason not to re-develop the national will and balls to do it again. It could be instrumental in saving our way of existence...or making it better.

And yes, I went to school in the Electrical Engineering school at UT. And the English department. And I finished up by getting a teaching job in the Fine Arts College. I don't have liberal art blinders on. I think everyone should be required to do math and sciences as well.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

You can imagine that I wouldn't take you seriously if you told me you learned all about engineering from some blogs and forum sites on the web, right?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

http://intertheory.org/bargain.htm It's a great read.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Janson's book about the history of art. Google.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Thank you all. It's good to hear from everyone. Now, let's study art.

Dogman said...

Well said. Actually, brilliantly said.

Frank Grygier said...

This is the 1000th time you made me think; made me laugh and showed me what it means to be an artist. Thank you a thousand times.

Unknown said...

Congratulations on not your quantity, but your quality over 1000 posts. Bravo!

I do have one quibble with above. Michelangelo's Pieta caused a tear to roll down my cheek. It is the best work of three dimensional art we have ever created, not Bernini's, IMHO. Best painting: Persephone by Thomas Hart Benton; same effect on me. I have never had a photograph effect me the same. Not sure what that says...

Anyway, congratulations again and a heartfelt "Thank you".


Dave Jenkins said...

Congratulations on your 1000th blog post, Kirk! I think I have read all of them, including most of the ones you (regrettably) removed.

May I very kindly say that it is the left, beginning with John Dewey more than a century ago, and not big business, that is responsible for the dumbing-down of education?

The purpose of this dumbing-down was to create a citizenry technically proficient, yet ignorant of its own history, so that it might be led by the nose through socialism into communism. (we're not speaking of Russian Communism here, but that small-c communism which Karl Marx envisioned as Utopia, the final state of humanity.)

The progress toward this goal has been steady, aided by "historians" such as Howard Zinn and many others in the various fields of study who indoctrinated generations to believe that the founders of our country were oppressors, not men who "dedicated their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" to win the freedom we now so casually discard in exchange for various forms of government largesse, and who created founding documents that achieved a balance between liberty and responsibility that made possible progress such as the world has never seen before or since.

The education establishment is now almost solidly leftist. (It might be instructive for you so find out how many conservatives are on the faculty of the University of Texas.) So much for exposure to a wide variety of viewpoints, which is essential to any true education.

This dumbing-down has been greatly abetted by "philosophers" who, failing to find truth in their blind search, have concluded that truth and meaning do not exist and have proceeded to "de-construct" every value so that we are left with nothing but ashes.

Yes, by all means study art. Read the great books, listen to great music, and read some accurate American history. You will probably need to find something written before 1930. In fact, if you can find such a text, compare it with a contemporary one. It will be an enlightening experience.

hbernstein said...

I used to be a landscape photographer who had the insane good fortune of my own gallery. Of course, that ended and digital arrived.

Your post has inspired me to climb out of the deep well of equipment and technical crap that I have fallen into for the past several years. Life is too short not to produce art.

One day I will be in Austin and buy you two beers!

Congratulations, Kirk.

Unknown said...

Congratulations! I cannot believe it's a Thousand!
As they say where i originally came from, "You been working hard, My China" China means special friend.
Never once bored! I only follow a few Blogs. One is once a week. Rodney Smith.
In terms of equipment no two photographers could be further apart.
In the quest for good photography, no two could be closer.
Keep it up! You are not preaching to the wind..
We learn by seeing, by hearing and doing. The latter based on poor experiences, when folks like me don't read the Book!
A beer! No way, a full dinner for you and family! Toronto is calling. Big-T.

TonysVision said...

Like Frank said. What a perfect comment to a great post.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I love the Pieta. It's magnificent and right now it cost less than a Nikon D800 body to go see it and thousands of other great works of art in Rome. Wow. But I'm still partial to Bernini. Love the Canova sculpture called, "The Kiss" at the Louvre as well. Who knew sculpture could be so cool?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I know Frank. He can be profound.

Unknown said...

My late dad loved to paint in oil and canvas in his leisure time, he collected art books for paintings and sculptures. Books that he loved to show it to me long before I have my first camera.

I did tell people to stare at famous paintings to improve their photography. You know what kind of response I got? Staring at me as if they look at some nuts and said "dude we are doing digital photography. Are you mad?" And this already happened more than once.

theaterculture said...

Oooh oooh - I know the answer (or at least an answer) to the question of the day! Before becoming famous as a photographer H.C.B. was an assistant to Jean Renoir, son of _that_ Renoir and in fact far greater as a film-maker than his father ever was as a painter. Truly one of the great Humanist artists of the 20th century, and the film clips of him discussing cinematic practice and storytelling with a young Jacques Rivette are truly worth watching both for his personality and his insights.

Congratulations on the milestone post, and thank you for speaking up for education in the arts far better than most of the arts educators I know and work with. Far too many of us are drinking the corporate kool-aid and embracing what Bill Readings, in his excellent book _The University in Ruins_, calls "the University of Excellence" - exactly the sort of market-driven instrumentalist education you describe.

Heres to the next thousand posts, may they combine fun and the thrills of images and asides into gear with deep thoughts and spicy opinions as fully as the first very grand grand!

Doug said...

Kirk: I had the good fortune to attend a fine liberal arts school in the 70's, Wake Forest University. This was before it decided it needed to become a world class university and lost its soul. We were required to take general courses in our first two years, including math, literature, philosophy, religion (horrors - taught by actual Christian believers), history, sociology, hard science and the humanities. Only then were we allowed to declare our major. Wake Forest's roots were Christian in the best sense. It's motto, pro bumanitate. And, its professors were a collegial mix of Christians, agnostics and even a couple of atheists. It was a wonderful four years. One of my life changing experiences was taking Renaissance Art from a magnificent professor named Sterling Boyd who awakened in my fiance, best friend and me a love for beauty that we still talk about today. And now, at 54, I have been blessed to stand in the Louvre and experience the joy, gaze upon a Rembrandt in Boston...Well, you get my drift. I think it was C.S. Lewis who warned that for every new book we read, we should read two old books. As I grow older, I realize that his assumption that people would actually read was shortsighted, sadly. So, thanks for your blog, for this post, and for the reminder that beauty, goodness and truth, not information and technology, are what make us alive. We were created for so much more...

Deano said...


Patrick Dodds said...

A further offer of beer, this time from London.

JJ Semple said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JJ Semple said...

Your post reminds me of Christoper Lasch's landmark book The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979. If memory serves me, in a chapter called, Schooling and the New Illiteracy, Lasch sifts through the forces that shaped, and still do shape, American education, namely the progressive ideas of John Dewey and the ideas of those who opposed him, those who believe that the role of education is to prepare the individual to serve the economy. The struggle between these forces has been going on for a long time; there is quite an elaborate history to it. Education in this country has been a whipping boy for all sorts of theorists.

A great book: grim, but prescient. As one reviewer put it, "Lasch explains cultural narcissism as a response to anxiety, and a social strategy for people who lack a secure sense of their selves. This analysis allows Lasch to identify several interconnected social systems that cause social anxiety, that fail to educate and support people in being aware of their identities as human beings with rights and responsibilities, and that promote extravagant and grandiose behavior."

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kirk, and I feel you. I work at a liberal arts college, and my window into the educational system is none the less bleak but a bit different. The liberal arts were supposed to encompass literature, philosophy, art, languages AND sciences. But things have gotten weird. Sure, the old canon was full of white men, and that had to open up, but the proverbial baby went out with the bathwater. Now nobody is reading the classics, there is no common curriculum or great books, everyone seems to be teaching quirky little books from the margins. Great stuff, truly, but nobody knows what center these marginal books are trying to march into. Conversation can't happen because everyone has read something different. So reference and context are impossible. The two most exciting educational experiences I had: a high school honors course (that I had to really fight to get into as I didn't pass the eugenics test at the gate) that was a combined history and english course, coordinated chronologically and glued together with art history. Amazing way to learn about (at least Western) civilization. The second was in college when I realized that the people I was reading in Political Theory were addressing earlier people I was reading in philosophy. Synergy and intertextuality are really exciting and yet coordinated curricula are really rare. So even the liberal arts, where the ideals you're talking about should be alive and well, really aren't, and moreover nobody can write or speak publically, so I'm often left wondering what the point of it all is. Actually, I know what the point of it is, and it has more to do with cigars and yacht clubs and pedigrees than it has to with EITHER an educated, meaningful existence or job training. I also feel like the vocational side of things is sadly missing, at least from where I sit. I read comments by a physics professor at a university who was complaining how hard it had become to help students to understand basic phsyics concepts because his students no longer had any idea how anything worked, from carburetors to dustpans. His students had never used a dustpan. And along with a throw-away society, so too have the craftsmen and technicians gone away too. Try to find a local camera repair tech, get your sewing machine fixed, or get your shoes resoled. So I would add to your initiative above that everyone should, in addition to rigorous training in literature, art, sciences, languages, and history, also have deep experience of some kind of trade. They should be able to build, fix, create, grow, something concrete and tangible. And, like the cigar rollers of old, have a vibrant conversation about ideas while doing it.

atmtx said...

Congratulations Kirk. I'm glad your 1000th was one about philosophy and education rather than about equipment.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks Andy!

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

The UT Plan Two program was excellent in it's cross curricular approach and has produced many fine minds. I am happy and amazed that my tenth grade son is reading Shakespeare plays, Orwell, Huxley, J. D. Salinger, Hemmingway, Williams Carlos Williams and so much more good lit in his AP English course. He is also a gifted mathematician. His favorite course seems to be world history and he is in his fourth year of Spanish.

I was always encouraged by my parents to study widely. I spent nearly seven years at UT covering everything from engineering to anthropology to Russian poetry. I have never been without productive and, at times, lucrative employment and love the process of starting and finishing new projects in fields I've never tried before. A wide knowledge means wider opportunities and potential. My generation was lucky, college was relatively cheap and there wasn't a stigma about being interested in the arts or the liberal arts. The vocational bent was introduced during successive conservative spasms in the U.S. where the only way you were supposed to enjoy yourself was by buying a bigger house or a cooler car...

Ian said...


Jane Jacobs wrote in 'Dark Age Ahead' with similar ideas to you about 'credentialism' in American education, as well as other trends with are contributing to decline.

Looking forward to more of your good work.


Greg said...

Kirk, congratulations on your 1,000th published post! That's quite a number. And thank you for yet another wonderful article. It resonates with my thoughts exactly. I've been doing a lot of study lately for the same reasons. We have a saying in Russia: "Those who don't know their past will have no future."

I'd gladly buy you a bear, too (or coffee if you prefer) but again, you are too far away. Maybe some day...

Greg Shanta

crsantin said...

Agree with pretty much everything you said here. One of the best travel experiences I've had was in London around 2006. They had a Dali display in a small gallery just a stone's throw from the London eye. I spent the rest of the day taking in his work, staring and thinking, soaking it in. I left many hours later literally dizzy from the wonderful art I had experienced.

It is unfortunate that the various disciplines have been segregated. I am a high school English teacher, and it is sad to see students identify themselves as science only students "I want a career in science so that is all I'm going to study" or English lit types who refuse to have anything to do with math...not their fault really, the system forces them into these choices by the time they are ready for post secondary education. So many parents too, well-intentioned ones, who push their children towards law, engineering, pharmacy, the medical field etc. Many parents are often horrified if their child expresses an interest in acting, dance, or writing. I've been in the education system here in Canada all my life, as a teacher for the past 13 years or so, and I can tell you, from top to bottom, the system is broken. There is good that happens, but it is in spite of the system, not because of it.

Good post Kirk, thanks.

Mike Sakasegawa said...

I think you misunderstood me. My point was neither to hold myself up as any sort of expert on the history of art in general or photography in specific, nor to assert that the Internet is a sufficient resource for mastery of a subject. But your thesis is that what's missing from photography is an understanding of art and art history, and my response was to point out that there are tons of photographers and critics who are far from ignorant on these topics. There are plenty of artists with portfolios on the web whose CVs list BAs and MFAs. And there are plenty of people talking about photography and art with the kinds of knowledge and credentials that you--and I, for that matter--value. I listed a few. I could go find more, if you like.

Since you did ask about me, though, not all of my learning about art, art history, and other humanities comes from blogs and forum sites. A third of my coursework in college was in humanities and social sciences, including courses on literature, history, philosophy, film, media studies, and theater. I also have several years of training and experience in musical performance (voice) and theater performance. I also read avidly--both fiction and non-fiction, high-brow and low--and take in as many museum exhibitions and dance, theater, and opera performances as my budget and family will allow. I can't answer your question about Cartier-Bresson, but I can speak fairly intelligently about Steinbeck or Borges or Shakespeare, or about the influence of John Ford on American cinema, or about how Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard each influenced the other. Again, though, I'm not asking you to take me seriously, and I wouldn't presume to call myself an expert on art or art history in general, nor the art or practice of photography in specific. I'm an amateur, though I try to be a well-rounded one. I didn't mention any of this in my previous comment because it didn't seem relevant to what I was trying to say, aside from which, I can't speak to whether or not my school experience or life learning is even remotely typical.

I do think it's interesting that you interpreted my comment as a defense of the Internet as a learning platform. I don't think it is, but I do think that it's a good starting place--which is why I said I had "started learning" about the iconic photographers I mentioned. The Internet hasn't given me a mastery over the art or history of photography, but what it has done is introduced me to the broader topics and inspired me to continue my learning in other venues--including libraries, museums, and university MFA programs--as well as to start my way toward changing careers from a technical one to a creative one.

As a final aside, though I agree that depth of knowledge is important, I would say that it's only important--or even possible--to have true depth in a small number of fields. One should certainly strive to obtain that depth in the field in which one works, but the goal of becoming a well-rounded human is necessarily one that requires breadth, and any time spent acquiring breadth necessarily takes time away from the time that could be spent acquiring depth. And there's nothing wrong with that.

PhotED said...

Cheers, Kirk, on the great milestone! And what a good topic, too.

It never ceases to amaze me how many current practitioners of photography are completely ignorant of its history (even history from 10-20 years ago). A very sad by-product, indeed, of what my sons call "the Interwebs". I guess the best we can do is work on our immediate sphere of influence. For my part, it means actively sharing photography books of Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt with my son and taking him to exhibits in nearby NYC or Philly whenever they feature the greats like Cartier-Bresson. And, it's ordering a changing bag, film developer, and developing tanks to teach him how to develop his own 35mm BW film at home--looking forward to starting that in the next few days. And, yes, he is going to a small liberal arts college in the fall so can still get a balanced education.

Happy 1,000th post!

Rick said...

Cheers Kurt, a thousand of anything is a goodly sum, a thousand blog posts of your caliber is something, indeed.

I don't know how to help form my kid's perception of and approach to education. Frankly, it's mostly "But you have to go, even if you say you don't like school" these days, but what else do you say to a 10YO?

Thank you for continuing to be a zany, informative posting machine. I enjoy each and every post, and someday will be a better photographer for it.

Mike Sakasegawa said...

I think you misunderstood me there, Kirk. My point was neither to hold myself up as some sort of expert on art history or photography, nor to assert that the Internet is a sufficient resource for obtaining mastery over a subject. But your thesis was that what's missing from photography is an understanding of the history of the medium and of art in general, and my response was to point out that the web is full of people talking about and making photographic art who do have that sort of knowledge. There are any number of critics and artists with blogs and portfolios online right now--many of whose sites are very popular--whose CVs list their BAs and MFAs and other formal training in art and art history. These may not be the same sites that get visited by the gearheads, but that doesn't mean that they aren't out there. I listed a few. I could go find more if you like.

I didn't ask you to take me seriously, and I don't think you should. As I said, I don't have the depth of knowledge that I'd like, not when it comes to art history. But it's a little presumptuous, on the other hand, for you to assume that just because I have an engineering degree that I also have never been exposed to real education in other fields. A third of my coursework in college was in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, theater, film, philosophy, media studies, and history. I also have several years of training and experience in musical performance (voice)--which I grant is not the same as a degree in music theory or music history, but it's also not nothing. I may not be able to answer your question about Cartier-Bresson, but I can speak at least somewhat educatedly about Steinbeck or Borges or Shakespeare, or about the influence John Ford had on American cinema, or about the mutual influence Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard had on each other. I'm also an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, high-brow and low. And I take in as many museum exhibitions and theater, dance, and opera performances as I can. I am not an expert in any of these fields; I am just an amateur, but I do what I can to be well-rounded. I didn't bring any of this up in my previous comment because it wasn't relevant to my point, aside from which, I can't speak to whether or not my schooling or life experience is anywhere near typical.

I don't believe that reading articles on the Internet is enough to give anyone mastery in a subject, and I didn't say anything to that effect. What I do think the Internet is good for is giving an introduction into a subject. As I said, I got a start in this part of my education via the Internet, and what information I've found has inspired me to continue that education through other means, including books and even university MFA programs. I'm even in the process of moving toward changing my career from a technical one to a creative one. I don't believe I deserve any particular acknowledgement for any of that motivation, especially since I haven't accomplished much of anything yet, but I don't think that the value of the Internet as a tool of education should be completely written off.

Finally, I agree with you that depth of knowledge is important, especially in the field in which one chooses to work and spend one's life. However, I also think that it's not possible to have true depth in more than a few fields, if that. Moreover, trying to work toward true depth is at least somewhat at odds with the goal of being well-rounded. Being well-rounded requires breadth, and time spent acquiring breadth necessarily takes away from time spent acquiring depth. I don't think there's anything wrong with people having a "greatest hits" knowledge of some fields, as long as they have depth somewhere.

stefano60 said...

i was going to write a long reply to this, because there is so much misinformation in these few lines that would really beg to be straightened out.

i decided not to, for 2 reasons:

1. this is a special day for Kirk, who deserves our respect for reaching one of many milestones - and who repeatedly stated (rightly so) that he would not entertain political discussions in his blog.

2. like i read years ago somewhere (i am pretty sure it was on a tee shirt!):

"if i had to explain, you wouldn't understand"

peace and love

Jan Klier said...

I had an interesting conversation with a local stylist over coffee yesterday. Part of the conversation was about that Seattle used to have strong fashion & art scene, but that it had fallen apart, even though some small pockets are re-emerging. We spent some time digging deeper to find out what happened and where it failed. To come to the conclusion that it failed when tech came to town in a big way. Suddenly lots of people who lacked style and arts background (sometimes exactly those that ran away from the creative field) were becoming the influencers. They had the money but they were uncomfortable with it, and didn't know how to match the style that fit their income levels. Lot's of specific stories I won't get into. But I wonder if what you're referring to in this story is a bit of the same - people driving the conversation in photography that are here because they can afford it, and because they need an escape from their bland day jobs, not because they actually care about it as a creative field or art form. Hence all the gear talk and so little of the stand-out work.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Jan, you got it. But also, what made those people who have the money but not the passion for the art the people who they are today? Did education fail them? Or were they just curiousity deprived.

Unknown said...

Agreed. Also gratifying to see that this one generated at least as many passionate comments as any of the gear posts.

Jason Hindle said...

There's not a great deal to disagree with in there. In the UK, it's actually worse since the race to specialisation starts at 16 when education goes from being quite broad to a narrow set of A levels and then a narrow degree. Part of the problem is that like most countries, we've prostituted ourselves to the great god of trade and in doing so, most of us have become little more than units of human capital.

Unit of Human Capital 134529B

Unknown said...

Thanks a thousand times for the inspiration to get off our duffs and get (re)started making pictures that mean something.

The good news is that getting an art education is still a possibility. Just about every city has a community college or a set of individual teachers who can get you on your way. In Austin I recommend Elizabeth Locke. It's not an exaggeration to say that the training I've gotten from her has changed my life.

The point is to find somebody who can help you move to the next level - and if you're lucky, the next and the next and the next.

Unknown said...

I loved this post and shared it with a couple of colleagues in the school system where I work. They loved it as well. I then shared the post with a student who will matriculate at the University of Texas at Austin in the Fall. He is going to study electrical engineering. He thinks you are right on the money. There is hope!!

I was very fortunate to be raised by a father from south Arkansas who listened to either jazz or classical while smoking his Lucky Stikes and sipping his Jack Daniel's while working on a friend's Ford after a day as a pipefitter in a chemical plant. The lucky part was the music. He insisted that I participate in the theatre in high school, refusing to allow me to play football since all it causes is early onset arthritis. Mom wanted to be a journalist but was a stay at home mother instead. She taught me to read whatever was in print.

Now I am a history teacher and part-time photographer. I have a well-rounded education from the University of Houston. I have had the wonderful opportunity to live in Germany and visit many of the great places of Europe and the United States. I also have the wonderful opportunity to read the ideas of men like you.

Thank you so much for the 1,000 posts. I have read many of them and look forward to the next 1,000. If you ever get to Galveston County, I'll buy you a cup of coffee. I had to give up beer years ago.

Mark the tog said...

Thanks for sharing your thought Kirk. As I am about your age and have a history of growing up in photography in the 70's I really feel a connection to what you write.

Congratulations on 1000 posts. I will be here for the next 10,000.

Jan Klier said...

Good question Kirk. Not really sure yet. I think there are two ingredients - early childhood exposure, and personal image trends. Maybe a bit like some people really like some food and not others, or some music and not others. Not sure that most people can give you a rational explanation.

Why do you like Jazz or Classic Music? Probably because you had some early childhood experiences that associated positive mood with those sounds, and then it reinforces itself over time. Same with food - you had exposure to some textures, acidity, etc. and moods that you associate.

Personally I had lots of exposure to art, culture, classic music, Jazz, and spicy food. All things I really enjoy. But in my teenage rebellion and finding myself, I ran away from the art in the opposite direction and worked in IT. But even there, I found artistic expression in how I built software architectures and how I wrote code. I've made a more natural loop back to the art. But it's all rooted in those childhood experiences, and the journey had to do with me finding myself and how I formed that.

So the question would be one for researchers that could build a more complete pareto chart on what personalities and what type of upbringings are drawn into the tech space. Of course it's a mix, but there may be an interesting pattern there that might explain a lot.

Gary said...

I grew up developing B&W film in my neighbors basement, and yes I'm guilty today of what you are writing about,we are rushed and take inferior shots. Subjects are impatient for portraits. The photo at the top of this post is how to do it. Not many casual photographers are going to take that kind of time. That is why we rely on you pro's. We have been given better tools today, but for old farts this is still very complicated. I appreciate this post because it will help to make me more aware of the situation I'm confronted with taking people photo's.
This is an interesting line "Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created." Great post.