10.05.2012

Staying focused on the work.


I think one of the interesting aspects of modern life is the push to turn everything we do into experiential entertainment and "group participation" exercises. You see it everywhere. In the 1970's we ran for exercise, now we run to participate in 5k's, 10k's, mini-triathalons and charity events of all stripe. It's not enough to own a cool car anymore, now you have to belong to a car club and write about your car on a forum.  As a working photographer it's the path of least resistance to do a workshop, a photo walk, a forum chat or work on your brand (whatever that means...). All of those things are generally focused on becoming more popular or more integrated with other photographers than they are focused on getting more work or doing more art.

The real work of all photographers is to do their work but being surrounded by other photographers slows down the process and dilutes most photographers' focus on their own individual point of view. Coffee and conversations about cool gear seem more fun than trudging around alone, looking for your kind of subjects or building a collection of images. Teaching workshops is a two fold reward equation. As a photographer you are getting paid for your efforts which is more and more necessary for people who are unable to move their shooting careers forward with real clients. But there is also the emotional reward of feeling wanted or needed by eager students. It can seem like a validation of your worth as a photographer.  

Likewise, frequent photo gatherings, be they workshops, coffees, photo walks, lectures and gallery visits also help people feel connected and as though they are learning more about their art, and moving their game forward.  In a sense the fully engaged workshopographer and his student counterpart have made a separate social activity of the idea of photography.  And it's a universe in which everyone seems to win and everyone gets a trophy for playing.

But it has little to do with the actual process of creating great photography or getting paid for it. 

Good photography comes from pursuing good pictures, not pursuing good reviews from non-professionals. But it's so easy to get sidetracked by the comfort and inclusion of the social process. Of the entertainment side of photography. And it's newest entertainment outlet, the stage show.

I feel it every time I'm asked to give a talk about some aspect of photography. Speaking about LED lights is not something that moves my creative vision for photography forward. Nor is talking about small flashes or electronic viewfinders. I'm repeating what I already know over and over again and many times to the same audiences. While fewer people would know who I am it would be more productive for my art to spend that time working on the work.

As a working professional and aspiring artist there are two groups of people I do need to surround myself with in order to be successful and neither group includes other photographers. One group is clients. Not workshop clients (unless I plan on changing careers, like so many of my peers, and start "teaching" full time. Oh crap, let's be honest. Entertaining full time ) A working photographer needs real clients. These are the owners of businesses, the marketing directors of corporations, the creative departments of advertising and public relations agencies and other people who need, as part of their jobs or the promotions of their businesses, to contract for the creation of images.  These are the people who license our work for money.

The last four years has been hard sledding for many commercial and editorial photographers but there is work out there. Magazines still publish. Products still launch. Press releases still go out and websites still get built-----a lot. But it's been harder than before to compete. The low hanging fruit got picked a while ago.  To many teaching a workshop or giving a speech or guiding a tour of wannabe wild life photographers seemed like a bright spot for previously working photographers in the midst of a cloudy business forecast. But, if you want to do advertising photography you have to find clients who will pay your invoices.  And if you want to lecture about current practices in commercial photography you pretty much have to be doing it contemporaneously.

Your business of licensing images depends on non-photographers being a large part of your universe. And it's their language you need to master. Not the language of the teacher.

Likewise, writing books for other photographers might be a great full time job for a writer who is keenly interested in photography but I think it's a sidetrack for someone whose life is about making great images. While sharing your knowledge, in books, about lighting, composition and even inspiration can return income it's nowhere near the income stream that one derives from successfully participating in advertising and commercial photography if you are able to compete. My books don't speak to my core audience (see: ad agencies and business, above) they speak to other working photographers and people with a keen interest in photography.  As such they do nothing to leverage my interface with my primary audience but they do create momentum that pushes me to do social marketing and blogging to effectively transform them into a profit stream which validates the time I spent on the books. It just doesn't move forward the actual work at the core of my vocation and avocation. 

I don't regret the writing because on several levels it sustained my interests and aided me financially during an altogether bleak period for the commercial arts. But I am ever cognizant that the book publishing process retarded my personal momentum in photographing for myself and it took time away that would have been well spent pursuing the kind of clients who represent my core business.

The other other group I need to access in order to continue to have real success as a photographer are gallery owners and curators. If you make the presumption (and who doesn't?) that your personal work has value you need a conduit to buyers who would want to acquire prints for collections and the decoration of their homes and offices. The gatekeepers to the real money in this field are the gallery owners and curators. Every jovial afternoon spent with the local camera club traipsing around "mentoring" amateurs and feeling wanted and needed by receptive and welcoming photographers is one less slot of time to spend researching and meeting with people who can move your career forward in a different way.

When you become ancient and you are wearing your trousers up under your armpits and combing what little is left of your hair over the bald spot on your shiny head you will still be able to work your camera and pursue your vision. But you will no longer be on the highly transitory "A" list for the next generation of camera buffs looking for a charismatic teacher who will lead them out of darkness and into strobism, one light-ism, zone-ism, and all the other offshoots of  the photo entertainment industry.

Better to make art and make the connections to sell art, and the connections to sell to commercial clients, right now so that you can afford to enjoy your photography on your own terms as you head to your dotage.

Staying focused on the core requirements of your commercial work means identifying the best markets for your work and connecting with as many members of those markets as you possibly can. Money is the reward for properly connecting with this market, not the adoration of your peer group.

Staying focused as an artist is harder. It's harder because it's not collaborative. It's not about consensus and it's not done in a group, jockeying to get a shot of the same subject from a slightly different angle. It means spending time alone coming to grips with what visual nutrition sustains you. It means spending time honing your craft. It means time spent actually doing the work. If you are a portrait artist it means time spent finding just the right subjects and convincing them to willingly bend to your ideas of what a portrait means. If you are a landscape photographer it means getting up early to get where you need to be when the light is right, and being willing to return to a spot again and again until the light is right.

If you work in the street it means working up the courage to engage people and jump on chance. Which means you have to be open and ready for chances, not engaged in a heartfelt discussion of the edge sharpness of the latest boutique optique.

But if you really want to do the art or anything it means you have to be committed to spend the time to work all the way through the process. If a print is your final  espressive product then you work from idea all the way through to the print and beyond. And at each step you have the choice of doing it your own way or getting all collaborative and share-y.  No great art is ever done by committee. No great art is a result of sharing with your team. And no great art can be learned, wholesale, from your mentor of the week or that class on creative imaging you take on the cruise ship.

The inspiration comes from many avenues but the realization comes solely from the artist. Staying focused makes the art focused. Too much discussion with peers and playmates during the gestation process just dilutes the original inspiration and makes it more group accessible. It's the latest creative battle: How to make art that you love while resisting the lure of being about art for entertainment's sake.

I'm not saying the equation needs to be all or nothing but I think we've become like aspiring film makers who've been to way too many movies. Spent too long on the learning curve.  We've seen every great film ever made and make time to watch movies almost continuously and, as a result, we never have time to make our movies....

That's okay if you are a movie critic but it's tough sledding if you really want to produce your own film.

I guess the real key is moderation.  Moderation in everything except the creation of your art....


24 comments:

Clay Olmstead said...

Well said. Thanks for the reminder.

Dave Jenkins said...

As someone who is already in his dotage (75 and still working), I wish I had read the kind of stuff you write many years ago. Really, Kirk, I understand that doing books is not the best use of your time, but you have already written these posts and I don't think it would be any great stretch to edit and arrange them into a book. I'll buy the first copy.

Dave Jenkins said...

I should add that your equipment reviews have been enjoyable and helpful, but unfortunately, not timeless. Posts such as the ones yesterday and today, however, are timeless and will be helpful to photographers as long as commercial photography exists as a career. You have many, many such posts -- more than enough to make an excellent book.

sey said...

It always amazes me how you cut through
all the b*llsh*t, see the true picture
and verbalise it so clearly.
Thank you, Kirk.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sey said...

oh and yes, I am a 'KirkTuckgroupie'.

Kirk Tuck said...

But aren't you glad I don't fly around and try to teach you how to use your flash in a day long extravaganza of meaningless crap and bad snacks?

Kirk Tuck said...

dammit. now I'm curious to know what Stephen was going to say...

Carlo Santin said...

I think it's easy to fall into the habit of attending workshops, or photowalks, joining a photo club, participating in online forums, and fool yourself into believing that you are improving your photography, that your ability as an artist is being enhanced. I know I've done it. Sure there is a benefit to studying the work of others, talking to others about technique or lighting, whatever the case may be. The struggle of the artist is always a singular one though. You have to do it alone. It has to be you and the camera, you and the brush, you and your instrument. Art is not a team sport. The members of a philharmonic or a theatre grouop are a team of sorts, but those individuals also had to spend a significant amount of time alone struggling with their art to get good at it. The marketing of it probably is, if you wish to profit from it, but the act of creation always happens alone. I think too for a good amount of time you have to suck at it. You have to be willing to be terrible before you can hope to be any good. I think I'm somewhere between sucking and being just mediocre myself, but at least I've progressed from simply sucking.

Anonymous said...

So Kirk,
I guess we won't be seeing you at the photo festival in Smithville this year?

David said...

Sounds like the investment conference you shoot really sunk in. Now thinking about how to best invest in your work and future.
I really enjoy reading this article and the last one. Really makes you think. I don't think these would sell as books. Maybe E-books offered as downloads from your website. But the market would be hard. Interestingly your words work for everyone in every field. Just change the main ones.
We really need to look our our selves, our passion, and determine what we need to surround ourselves with to make the passion a reality. Without this forward thinking to plan out the needs, the future will not fall into place.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Kirk Tuck said...

Was I there last year?

Kirk Tuck said...

David, While I won't go into details the conference was more about policy and governance than investing. The reference to non-agency RMBI's came from the keynote speaker, who does run a well known hedge fund. But yes, the advice applies to just about anything and the above post is just another way of saying what I think I've been saying on and off the last three years. It's good to have some entertainment but it's better to get focused and produce.

Roland said...

+1 i'll buy the second copy :-)

Frank Grygier said...

I will buy and recommend.

atmtx said...

These kind of posts are Kirk at his best.

ChazL said...

What a well-considered, thoughtful, articulate kick-in-the-ass. One that I'm sure I can benefit from if I take your message to heart. Thanks, Kirk.

sey said...

it would be pointless. I don't use the flash I have......I'm one of those who shoot 99% of my work using God's gift to mankind and all the other living things....NATURAL/AVAILABLE LIGHT. If the light happens to be a 60W incandescent light bulb or the blazing contrast of the Middle-Eastern sun in a cloudless sky, so be it, I try to deal with it my way and that's what there is.
Nothing personal, or rather it is very personal, the freedom of choice pertaining to the how/why/where one chooses to practice his passion.
As far as equipment goes, you and I are poles apart, the two opposite extremes. Until I bought my Nikon P7000 a couple of years ago, it was always only one body (one of the Nikons I've collected over the years), a prime lens from the House of Nikkor and a pocket full of FP4 & HP5 (not a Kodak fan), usually a 135mm or occasionally the 50mm f1.4 for it's low light abilities.
Granted, my kit wasn't/isn't needed to put food on the table, but I've always managed to avoid the herd instincts and do my thing my way, just as you do. When I photograph, it's about the recording of my view of the world and that can't be done in groups, photowalks, flocks, gaggles, packs or herds.
So to sum it up, even if you did fly all the way over here, the only thing you and I would do is talk about PHOTOGRAPHY and not kit, over many cups of latte or turkish coffee. :-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Sey, are you located in Turkey?

sey said...

Israel, but I love Turkish coffee :-)

Mark Horner said...

First time visitor/reader here. Very much enjoyed this post...and suspect I'll be re-reading it. Went down like good medicine. Seems the over-arching themes of time management & prioritizing would be of interest to anyone seeking to hone his/her chosen profession.

Craig Yuill said...

I agree with you that photo walks, workshops, etc. are not a great way to advance one's photography, although have gotten a few tips from the 3 or 4 workshops I attended that I did put to good use over the years. I believe, however, that for many people the purpose of these things is really to socialize, to meet and be around others. The photography is secondary. I believe that going out and "getting your hands dirty" by taking photos is the best way to improve one's skill. But if people want to get together and do a photo walk and be social, then so be it.

John said...

Very nice, Kirk. My favorite type of post. The poet Rumi writes,

"What is your life, anyway?
Nothing but a running from your own silence."

Indeed, art is a lonely pursuit. It's far more comfortable to fill the inner void with all the externals you cite. But the real work is done alone and from within. Appreciate the reminder. - John

RussK said...

Very good and very helpful for my own pursuits; thank you.