Old School Portraits. Collaborating about art.

The Visual Science Lab is a great place for me to talk about photography as I'd like to practice it and then have my ideas subjected to good doses of feedback.  I'm embarking for the first time into the business of selling private portrait commissions. I haven't decided whether or not to keep the business name as Kirk Tuck Photography or to do some research and try to find something that resonates more with the market I'm going after.

I do know what I want to deliver.  Black and white, and color prints that are in my own style.

I'd like to offer one more generation of people who appreciate the tradition of photography to share the practice of creating art on real film and receiving a real, custom print.  If possible, a darkroom print on double weight paper.  I'm currently looking for someone who prints from negatives.

I'm shooting a series of test portraits the way restaurants have a series of "friends and family" days before they open to strangers.  I'm choosing people I've worked with before as well as new people I've met walking around Austin.  When I have a portfolio ready to go I'll take down my  website and re-launch with new work.

It's scary and exciting but as much as I preach spending time in the water I'm also becoming a big believer in the process of re-invention and new discovery.  What good is a lot of practice if what you're practicing is something people don't need?

Finally, I'm working daily with the Hasselblad film cameras, trying to get back into that groove.  I'm having my negatives processed at Holland Photo and contact printed there as well.  Funny how much more comfortable those cameras are to me than the digital cameras. Even after 12 years.

Re-inventing the portrait.  Sounds like a book.  What do VSL follower's think?


  1. It does sound like an interesting book and it's one I would like to read. Intellectually, the idea in your previous post that a portrait should tell a short story about the person makes incredible sense and feels revelatory to me.

    But I have no idea what that looks like or how to even start trying to do it.

    Every book or instruction that I have seen about portraits have focused on things like lighting and posing and things that are most flattering to a particular type of face. They're all techniques. They're all about how to do something. I haven't read anything about why.

    I think that would be a stellar book.

  2. I really do not understand the need to take down the website. Are you unhappy with it? Why not dual websites? You seem to be going through a rationalisation of who, what, why and maybe how. We all strive to move forward and good on you to question your raison detre but there seems to be so much change going on you may lose sight of why you are here.

    Only saying!


    1. John, I'm not talking about taking down this blog site!!!!!!! Just revamping my commercial photography site at www.kirktuck.com. Sorry if I was confusing in my rambling blog above. No. I like the VSL blog just the way it is. Really.

  3. I think it is a great idea. They say that you should do what you're best at and you certainly are good at portraits. I agree with JohnL though. Just start a new site dedicated to portraits. Prat of the magic of portraits is the flow of energy in the session. Have you considered doing a video. Shoot a whole session as if the video camera wasn't there, then make a video that uses selected clips of varying length interspersed with your commentary on what you were doing to draw out the subject and get it on film.

    1. Jim, That's a great idea. I'll talk to my creative friends and see what we can come up with.

  4. Go for it. I love my film cameras. Still some great films out there as well.

    1. Michael, I've been shooting Fuji Acros 100 and I'm really liking it. Nice stuff.

    2. I still miss Kodak's "amateur" Verichrome 120 film. Shot acres of it in the studio in my Hassys. Ahhh, the good old days...and they were !

    3. Me too. Super long shoulder made flesh tones unblowoutable.

    4. Acros is fantastic. Shot at ISO 80 and developed in Moersch Finol, I've never seen anything as fine-grained, and the tonality is just WOW!

  5. I look forward to seeing the portraits. I completely understand being comfortable with the Hasselblads over the DSLR. I recently visited my parents grave and photographed the head stone with DSLR. I had my Pentax K1000 they gave me in 1980 for by eighteenth birthday. It was more comfortable than the DSLR. Later that day I pulled out my ME-Super with its big, bright viewfinder. What a joy to actually see clearly what I was photographing. A friend recently gave me a Minolta X700 he was going throw away--that's right, throw away. It is in mint condition and had an even better viewfinder. The D76 and Dektol arrived Tuesday. I'm mixing them tomorrow. I truly look forward to seeing more your analog work.

  6. Since portraits are what really interest you, and you have great experience, I think you are in a prime position to sell good quality film portraits to people who want something different. Digital has been around long enough for people to miss film.

  7. You are right! Slow food tastes better than fast food! Go on!

    1. Thorsten, I love your perspective. Thanks.

  8. Well, I just ordered a bottle of Ilford DDX developer, along with stop bath and fixer so I could start doing my own b&w negative development again, after several decades away from the darkroom. My weapon of choice is Ilford Delta 100 & 400 35mm films, loaded in some nice old Minolta SLRs.

    In regards to your portrait commission business, I think it's a fantastic idea, and you should pursue it with gusto.

    I myself am not a portrait photographer, but I too see the potential for a business along those lines here in my neck of the woods, so have been seriously considering getting an old battered Mamiya, some lights, and try my own hand at portrait photography, to see what I can come up with. Even if I can just cover the cost of supplies and make a few bucks extra, the experience would be worth it. Though I'm pretty sure most of the potential clients around here would want color, so it would be Kodak Portra as the film of choice, as long as I can still get some!

  9. Kirk...Love the idea. You have a gift for portraits and telling stories with them. Many years ago I loved making portraits but left it behind. Following your blog has led me to dig up a MF film camera and start dabbling again. I'd value a book with your insights! I look forward to following this new leg in your journey.

  10. Kirk, I think it sounds like a smashing idea. I don't mean to blow smoke when I say that your portraits are simply stunning - plus you have the great fortune to have some of the most interesting and beautiful people I have ever seen pose for you.

    Meanwhile, I'm of a mind to load some Ilford into my old Minolta SRT-200 and try, in my own modest way, to see what happens.

  11. I'm just starting out as a professional photographer, and your portraiture, to be quite honest, is currently my biggest inspiration. So I'm pretty excited to see what develops.

  12. I'm just starting out as a professional photographer, and your portraiture, to be quite honest, is currently my biggest inspiration. So I'm pretty excited to see what develops.

  13. This idea of yours may be coming at a good time Kirk. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in film lately - kind of like those people, even young ones like my 25 year old son, who have rediscovered analog vinyl and have developed a disdain for digital music. Not only that but I have a feeling you will enjoy photographing the type of people (whatever that is) who are interested in film and printing on photographic paper. Additionally, educating and talking to people about the finer aspects of film will be become your marketing strategy and establish your niche, aside from the few photographers that never left film in the first place. I swore I would never completely abandon film. Hah! That lasted about 2 weeks.

  14. yes! the circle closes.

    it's not about Hasselblads and film.
    neither is it about digital or lighting.
    you've certainly been there and done all that!

    it's about your heart
    follow your dream, your passion, Kirk.

  15. Follow your heart Kirk & be brave! Nice to hear you are using the Blad's daily, I've found with my slow trek back to film I just had to leave digital gear back at home and concentrate solely on shooting film as much as possible.

    Across 100 is a nice film as you mentioned above, must admit as much as I love Tri-X I use far more Fuji film these days but feel quite embittered that I cannot get my beloved Neopan 400 for 120 anymore. Was looking forward to giving the 500 C/M I'm saving up my pennies for a regular diet of it but hey-ho, will have to give the Foma a try as the latitude on that stuff is superb.

  16. Well yes - film has its own special charm, and can have really pleasing skin tones when used correctly. Still trying out different ones to see if I really prefer it over digital or not. But I definitely love the "zen" way of using and working with it.

    Oh, and I'd love to use and have a MF camera, but first I have to find some stores where I just can walk in and buy some MF film. All mail order only drives me off that thought for the moment...

  17. The film=vinyl analogy may be apt. From what I'm seeing, the new appreciation for film is coming from young hipsters rather than grizzled old coots like us. I'm not sure if the youngsters can afford this kind of product, but hey, suburban Detroit ain't Austin. You just might be able to pull it off.
    There's no doubt that you connect with your subjects. As a viewer of your work, I can see into their souls.
    What I'm curious about is how long it takes to reach that connection? As a newspaper photog, I'm lucky if I have a half hour to work with a subject. Those portraits are competent, but superficial. Sometimes I can connect with a subject in a few minutes, but that's rare, and I think it reflects more on the subject's openness, rather than mine. I'd like to figure out how to cut to the chase, or at least shorten it, but it seems like the connection is part of a process that you cannot rush.

  18. Kirk, two things.
    First, shoot with whatever you like, because I have a strong feeling the tool will matter little on the end product, so just do it with what inpires you the most and you feel the most intimate/comfortable with (it will likely be film in the beginning, then you might start fiddling with the digital stuff again and find out it also works great, after all).
    Second, whatever you'll want to name this new project/area of work will be fine, but to me, really your NAME is already a trademark of portraiture excellence, so if I were you I'd strongly stick with that.
    And third (sorry, I said two to start with, but I'm a woman, we're known to change our minds on a whim and come up with the unexpected), I'm thrilled because checking out your blog, mainly hoping to see additional portraits, has become a daily treat, and I'm SO looking forward to enjoying more. I consider myself an ever beginner portrait lover/shooter, and that's all I care to look at.
    THANKS, keep them coming.

  19. Hm...I have a feeling I might be, or aspire to be, part of the target audience for something like this. When (if?) my ticket comes up and I can land one of those Liberal Arts professorships with a decent (though by no means astronomical) salary and the mobility of travelling to four or five national conferences a year, I can see spending premium money and making the effort to seek out that well-crafted portrait, especially if things like personal/professional web-profile use are included in the upfront fee and your licensing for things like author-portraits in non-commercial books (think academic editions of 500) is reasonable.

    I would heartily suggest going for a new name for this side-business - something that keeps a tie to your identity, which is a major asset you've worked hard to build up, but also manages to convey to people who've never heard of you "I'm someone who thinks deeply about art and history and business and the business of the history of art" just from the business card. Something along the lines of "Chiaroscuro Nuovo, Austin Texas" or "New Analogue Portraits by Kirk Tuck" maybe?

  20. Oh. Dammit. I have a feeling that I may be the only one spoiling the party here. :)

    First, yes - you are a great portrait photographer. Seriously, you definitely know how to connect with your subject and you know how to light people to make them look their best.

    What I really don't get is the urge to go back to film and the workflow that this brings to the table. Why? You have, beyond any doubt, proved that you can make stunning photos with whatever gear you use, be it medium format film, digital APS-C, digital 4/3 or whatever format you prefer at the moment.

    I understand that it may be a matter of the website not really showing the full print quality of your scans from medium format, but in general it does not look like you are missing anything with your digital captures, so why the hassle?

    Yes, I know that since I come from the age of film I should praise the quality and the benefits of film and bemoan the hardship of having to deal with the harsh reality of digital captures, but I really do not see the problem. I love my digital captures and I would never, ever go back to the hassle of working with film - and to be honest, I doubt anyone would really know how their image was made, once it was in place above the fireplace.

    So, do you really want to make portraits or do you really want to use medium format film? - because I really think that you are great at the first regardless of the equipment you use, but that there are very few real arguments that support the latter in a business environment.

    Sorry, but you asked. :)


    1. I love the feedback, Anders, and it keeps me from taking a position that may not reflect reality. I'll think about it and get back to the group.

  21. Perhaps the guy who restructured your iPad portfolio could make some valuable contribution to the question of branding. It's worth a cup of coffee and a pastry, no?

    Of the two model portraits just posted, the tighter composition would make a fine signature shot for a commissioned portraits website if it suits your taste. I hate to throw around cliches, but that photo is hauntingly beautiful.

    Would you consider a gallery approach that features one large image centered, with a row of thumbnails in a horizontal line beneath it -- the one seen above also slightly enlarged in the thumbnail row?

    That design makes looking at another shot or two, or twenty, irresistible.

    It also avoids the dreaded yearbook look associated with displaying a large number of portraits to click on for an enlarged view.

    Black and white poses a problem which may not be obvious. Contrast, on a cheesy monitor like mine, can run wild and distort the image you're presenting.

    Of the two portraits of Lou (?) the tighter shot shows up in perfect balance; the more contrasty vertical shot looks too hot on the bright side, too dark on the other.

    I know it's my problem, not yours. One could argue that anyone who can afford your commissioned portrait service is already looking at the samples on a decent display.
    But -- maybe not.

    Best of luck with this. Putting it on a standalone site makes sense. In order to buy that Bentley you'll need to connect with the upper tier of national market. And it could very well happen.

    1. You mean I'll have to sell the current Bentley??? :D

  22. I think a book of "re"inventing the portrait is long overdue. However, I think that most people still want technical feedback on 'stuff' -- so perhaps doing the book in that context? I'll look forward to adding it to my collection of your books...

  23. Kirk,

    Half the reason I look at this website is to see your portraits. It's clear that the black-and-white traditional portrait is your strength. If anyone can make a business out of it, you can.

    As for the book, it would be very difficult to write one that did not (perhaps inadvertently) teach only technique. Anyone can write that book. What is needed is a book explaining how to connect with the subject and tell their story, as you mentioned in a different post. That may well be impossible. Could Ray Bradbury explain how to write a short story? I doubt it.

    Personally I enjoy the portraits that you show along with the short anecdotes you've written describing how you met the subject and how you completed the portrait. That is worth considerably more than any discussion of beauty dishes or umbrellas.

  24. I think a book on portraiture could be your best yet - eagerly looking forward to it.

    "Kirk Tuck Fine Art Portraiture" sounds pretty good for a website to me - and I'd restrict it to Hasselblad BW film work only - put the colour work on your other normal website.

    Your black and white studio portraiture is art - market it as art, charge a big premium for it, and make it clear up front that subjects are going to have to commit to an hour or two for the sitting.

    Do what you love and are best at, and don't compromise...

  25. Kirk,

    Have you thought of using portrait work to tell a larger story than what the individual photograph can? Do a project or a body of work because you are interested in it, for art's sake.

    By all means launch your specialist portrait service (I am not suggesting that what you do will not be art). In addition, you could self fund a project where you explore portraiture in the context of a particular subject or theme or place, where you are the only client.

    Some people find this to be a way to feed creativity and inspiration. A side effect could be that such a body of work may open doors to people who would be interesting as subjects for your specialist portrait service and who would be interested in engaging you to do this.

    You have presented the work of some of your friends on this site who undertake such projects. I would suggest talking to them if you wanted to explore such an idea - they know you - I don't !

    All the best!


  26. There certainly *ought* to be a market for fine portraits (including fine prints). My grandmother stumbled on Lotte Meitner-Graf's studio in London back in the 1960s, and before she was through we had most of my father's generation plus his parents shot by her (and I have the prints now). Even as a ten-year-old I could see these photos and these prints were something special, nothing like what you'd see from the two studio portrait photographers in town.

    And those prints stand up just fine today; clearly there's no reason you can't produce work of that or better technical quality using a Hasselblad and film and darkroom printing (she used a Rollei TLR, if I remember what my father told me correctly).

    I feel pretty strongly that film is essentially a fad now. As a fad, I suspect it will swing in and out of fashion, and eventually leave the commercial scene. I suspect it would be a mistake to tie your new business too tightly to that fad. However, there's no reason NOT to provide film-based services if you want to, and if customers want them; it might help get started (since the fad is on), and there's no reason not to offer both. The only choice that would worry me is branding it explicitly enough as film-based that you'd have to re-launch if I turn out to be right and it is a fad and it runs down.

  27. You're a terrific portrait photographer. This is something you should do. In fact I kind of thought you were doing it already (all those wonderful portraits you post!), but then I remembered you always say this is work you're doing for yourself, because you love it.

    It's nice to shoot with your Hasselblad on BW film and print on double weight paper and all of that stuff, but I wouldn't get too hung up with which tools you're going to use and what the final output is going to be until you actually meet with your new clients. Are they choosing you because you shoot with an old school film camera? Or because of your ability to collaborate with those that sit for you, and how your vision of your subjects somehow speaks to them?

    In your June 8th post, Portraits are short stories about the person in front of your camera, you wrote " . . . I realize that what I've always wanted to do with my portraits is to tell the exciting opening chapter of the person in front of me. To give you that person's visual elevator speech."

    Isn't this really what you have to offer? I'll bet you could use a Brownie Box camera and you'd take stunning portraits. It's a given that you're a craftsman and own cool photographic tools. And maybe some clients will hire you just because of that. But I'll bet most aren't hiring that particular Kirk Tuck. They're hiring the Kirk Tuck that shows them — and the world — who they are in a unique, interesting, and beautiful way. That artist guy.

    Anyway, my 2¢.

    - John Griffin

  28. That young lady is beautiful in the portrayals. Ha! Look at that word Portrayal. Imagine that ;-)

    I am pulling out MF film gear as we speak. Have a cracked focusing screen on one, but it's still usable. Even found my old Gossen light meter and the thing still works.

  29. I find myself struggling with really showing the story about a person, as you discussed in a previous post. I would love to see a book that discusses the collaborative process in making a great portrait. Not a book about poses that sell, but something more substantial. Can I put in my pre-order?

  30. I know I'm late to the table--responding to a blog 3 days old. What could I be thinking?

    But I hope you do see this. Judging by what's published on this site, I'm sure you will do well with commissioned portraits. And of course the Hasselblad is a wonderful tool
    One thing though, I'd caution about using color film/print papers, taking archival durability into account.

    Generally, color print materials in particular haven't stood up very well. It's important since you will be selling your work on the basis of its future value, even for generations to come. The evidence suggests properly processed B & W photographic images are extremely resistant to aging factors (if properly stored).

    FWIW, pigment-based digital prints have done well in aging tests, so for color work that might be a solution. It's my secret thought that such digital prints are probably among the most permanent images artists can produce. Certainly, the likelihood of electronic media (optical, magnetic, etc.) remaining readable >50 years from now is suspect, but excellent quality digital prints, with proper care, will remain as good as new.



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