The good stuff is in the wiring. The dirt just holds the wires in the ground.

I've been grappling with the mental mechanics of re-invention. What can I offer clients that they can't easily get somewhere else for less money? How can I re-configure what I do for a living that will match the income I used to make as a photographer before the barriers to entry in our field came crashing down and the destination for our photographs changed? How indeed.

I've come to the conclusion that all the good stuff is in the wiring. The wiring in my head. And the biggest threat to future performance and happiness is the tendency we all have to cling to what we used to do in the past. The paradigms of our industry that once worked. The idea of a professional camera and the idea of a professional career as a photographer. There's so much more. I'm no longer a "picture taker" I am now a creative content artist. The medium matters much less than the idea and the process of creation.

I wrote about considering a video-centric VG 900 camera as my new still camera instead of the obvious form factor choice of the Sony a99 as my next full frame camera. Part of my mind kept screaming, "This isn't a real still camera. The form factor is all wrong. It's set up to shoot only horizontal. It doesn't fit in my hands the same way." Very much a pattern of thinking tied to the way I've always done things without a real consideration that my market continues to change and that I have the inner flexibility to adapt to, and try out new ways of doing things.

In this tense inner monologue some calm voice answered:  "It's not a zero sum game. If I need a camera that I can more easily turn sideways (to shoot portraits) I still have traditional cameras. The last portrait shoot you did you shot in a horizontal orientation because you were hell bent on cropping all the portraits square. If the camera doesn't work out it's not the end of the world, it's not even the end of your business.  And what if the camera helps you do better and better motion work? What if you like shooting stills with it?  What if you find it's even more flexible and fun than your existing stuff? What if you are more creative because the potential to go in lots of directions is sitting in your own hands? What will  you lose if you don't try?"

And the last sentence, in a nutshell, sums up why I think experimentation and the joy of new discovery is so much fun.  What will you lose if you don't try? What is the cost of opportunities lost?

All the magic is in the wiring. How you wire your brain is mutable. You can embrace change or you can run screaming from the market. You can step into a new milieu or you can sandbag the doors and windows to the studio and hunker down until change goes away----which it never will.

My business changed when we went from shooting most jobs on 4x5 sheet film in the studio to a new phase where I shot mostly lit medium format on locations. Then it changed again when I started buying digital cameras. But the reality is that it wasn't a change of the business so much as it was a change of the gear with which to do the business.

The real changes felt different. When I offered my lighting services to the first film/TV commercial director I knew and I started down a path to learning how to better light and shoot motion film and video I felt like I'd left the Yellow Brick road and found a different and equally fun path.  When I started writing scripts for corporate productions I felt like I was branching out. When I directed my first two industrial videos back in the 1990's I felt like I crammed a year's worth of learning into a couple of weeks.

Around that time I bought a Canon XL-1 hi-8 camera and started doing video art with my friend, Renee. I learned more. And it didn't seem like a big deal to drop $3000 on a video camera back then. But working on new kinds of projects that required pre-conceived ideas and collaborations pushed me out of the comfort zone of what I thought I knew into what was fun to learn. And it re-wired the part of my brain that kept telling me I was just a photographer.

Every time I change a camera system I hope it's because I'm trying something new and different, not because I think the new system does the same old stuff just a little bit better. I think it's vital to keep adding new challenges and to look at things in new ways because otherwise you'll get stuck just glorifying the past. Dredging up the way we used to do this back in the golden years. And that sounds too much like the play,  Death of a Salesman, to me.

I didn't come pre-wired to embrace change. I came from a comfortable middle class background that preached getting a good job and doing it for the rest of your career. Get that degree in electrical engineering, show up at the office every day at eight a.m. and stay till 5 p.m. everyday. Get two weeks a year to do whatever you have on your personal agenda...

Re-wiring your brain is hard but I have a few tips for anyone who wants to try.

1.  When you get really good at something don't then just do it over and over again. Abandon it entirely and start over learning something new. (All the stuff you learned really well stays with you and becomes part of the foundation for the next step).

2.  Once you've mastered your new tools throw them away and master newer tools. The tools can constrain how you attack a problem or a project. The more tools you've used the more arrows you have in your quiver for creating new stuff.  By knowing a  wide range of resources you are then free to pick the best tool for the task. Or more importantly the most creative tool for the task.

3.  If you know the perfect way to do something that means you probably haven't paid attention to the hundreds of other perfect ways to do the same thing. To know something perfectly means you have settled into a rut and you've gotten comfortable there. Challenging art is not comfortable.

4. Start with small steps and make big jumps. Shoot a video project with your small, still camera and learn how. Then jump to bigger projects. Start narrow, grow wide.

5.  When everyone embraces the same camera, technology, subject matter, be sure you run in the other direction.  As long as that direction is one which your heart leads you.

6.  Take more naps. Lie on the floor and think. Walk around and look more. Walk around and talk less.

7.  Re-wire your creative house. Make sure your fuse box is upgraded to handle a bigger load. Turn on the lights in your brain. Just because you feel comfortable doing a creative process in a certain way doesn't mean you should.  Sometimes you absolutely need to streeeeeetch.

8. Hang out with people who are younger than you and don't try to teach them, instead watch them and let them teach you. It's a cliché but kids do seem to come pre-wired for highly creative thinking and doing. The wiring gets brittle over time. If you spend time watching them you'll understand that no toy satisfies for very long but kids can play for days with an idea, a fantasy or a story.  Learn to tell your stories instead of what you think will get you applause from your same old audience.

9.  Don't try to make art, try to make statements with your art about things that mystify you or capture your imagination. Don't try too hard. The tighter you try to grasp water the quicker it flows through your hands.  The knife that gets sharpened too often quickly gets dull.

10. Even if (especially if) you do creation for a living don't get caught up in things like workflow, efficiency, standard practice and time savings. These are all things which re-focus your mind away from the process of creation and into the process of making everything measurable, comparable and routine. Efficiency and best practices are the enemies of wonder and change.

Re-wiring your brain is a life long activity. When you cease to want to learn new pathways you start to die. Do something fun everyday. Go back and finger paint. Play with glitter. Watch clouds.  I can almost guarantee that all these things will filter back into the things you offer your clients and keep them happy to work with you and intrigued at what might come next.

The good stuff is in the wiring in your head. When you share it life blossoms. People seek out those whose perspective is finding out what it possible. People want to be with those who aren't just thinking outside the box but have gone beyond  even thinking about the box.  Why? Because it might be fun....


Frank Grygier said...

One of your best life lessons. If it has an image sensor you will work your magic. Where did I put that soldering iron?

Glenn Harris said...

This is a great read. I would also add to pursue personal projects and leverage what you learn from those. Now I'm off to try the first part of #6. Thanks Kirk.

James said...

Fantastic post Kirk. This one really hit home with me as a Graphic Designer.

David Liang said...

Wow this is interesting timing I started the book Failing Forward by John Maxwell yesterday, and was so intrigued by it that I finished it this morning.
What's interesting is a lot of what you just wrote mirrors a lot of what Maxwell writes about the difference between achievers and failures.
Clearly you both speak from years of personal experience from challenges.
Twice in my life I thought I'd "made" it and felt I'd established myself personally and professionally, that I could take a breath and finally enjoy the ride. Twice I'd have to walk away or have it walk away from me, devastating each time. 4 years ago was my fiance and last year was my career path.
The interesting thing is as saddened as I am those things happened, I adapted and am re-establishing a path on a road built on past skills and experiences. I couldn't be more excited and I'm looking back on the loses I've had, and feel as though I needed them to happen to put me here and now.
Love following your insightful posts Kirk.

sey said...


Anonymous said...

Too many people spend too much time living in the past. Their taste in music hasn't changed since their mid twenties and neither has their taste in art. Times change and you need to change as well. I went to high school in the 1950s, but you will find no Chuck Berry on my iPod, just the Raveonettes, Dum Dum girls and a lot of EDM 8-0

For the last fifty plus years I've done a pretty good job of learning something new every day. New knowledge never hurts, and sometimes can save the day, and it also stops you from going stale.


Steve J said...

The wonderful thing about kids is that their programming is still in progress. If you can make the curious about something and give them enough tools to understand it, they will do the rest themselves. Sadly, we don't generally teach that way and kids have too many distractions, but a good school or a good teacher makes all the difference.

However you can reprogram yourself. It's harder the older you get, but exercising the brain is no different from exercising the heart. It needs challenges and a bit of "good stress". I don't mean negative stress, just moving outside your comfort zone and doing something you probably feel unsure about at first. If it's unrelated to work, all the better. Sometimes our "linear thinking" is caused by ignoring external references. Could you imagine that studying impressionism could help you be a better scientist? Well, actually it can because it's a wonderful exercise in separating subjectivity and objectivity - the deliberate application of technique and the impact of the result.

My sister does at least one adult learning course a year. One year she became a certified trainer in MS Office, now she's learning to be a webmaster. Not bad for a 60 year old self-employed financial administrator.

Having spent most of my life in IT, I started studying art and taking a more serious attitude to photography to relieve the boredom. I am also planning to do a creative writing course and build my own blog site to keep the grey matter intact.

But like regular physical exercise, regular mental exercise helps too. I started doing cryptic crosswords about 20 years ago because I found them really really hard and it annoyed me that I couldn't do them. Now I can do an averagely tough one in around an hour. It did wonders for my ability to think laterally and my vocabulary. If you don't fancy that, there's always Wii brain training or Sudoku, even games like chess and bridge.

Wally said...

Unrelated subject. Any IPad users having trouble scrolling down to read the article. Mine seems to scroll the background , which is dark, rather than s roll the article I opened to read. I also just. Had to close my keyboard to get it to work while typing this note.

Thanks for writing about making good images.

Kirk Tuck said...

Wally, it really does work on the iPad. Go to the navigation bar at the top of the blog and look for pages. The first entry in pages is a user guide to the new interface. Please read the part for iPads. Mine is now 100% working and compliant. No additional software necessary. Not as elegant as it should be but very easy to read through articles. Honest.

Danhaines said...

THAT was great I might just print it out and stick it on my fridge, thanks for sharing.

jason gold said...

A great read! i do different things from when i started in life..
i am no longer in the race but shoot pix every single day, busy on a novel and do something, that if i had not tried, never have the happiness and joy, i now live!
Too many artists stay on the same path. One needs to change courses all the time.. Our bodies are continually changing cells. So every few years we are a new person! Do the same for a brain.
Do anything you ever wondered about..
Ya don't wanna be on the last breaths thinking/saying wishing i HAD done that!
Do what MR Kirk says..starting NOW!