Where are we going with this photography thing?


Looking back over the last four years I seem to have made so many definitive pronouncements about the right way to do photography and the wrong way to do photography. As though there is one shining path that everyone must take to be a real photographer. But all the rules I've learned and all the stuff I wrote is based on a time when photography was a different undertaking. I came of age at a time when the craft was maturing. We were turning away from straight documentation (how photography renewed painting by making it obsolete...) and embracing an exploration of not just the world around us but our interpretation, our slant, on what the world looked like through our own individual lens. And our own local and regional biases.

And, until recently, it was a period in the parabola of the life of photography which required both learned and practiced skills (in everything from camera hold to chemical mixing) and financial sacrifice. The financial sacrifice was as daily as our shooting. This made us selective and it made the generation of images less quick and less available. The time lag between shooting and being able to share was also much, much longer---think days and weeks instead of minutes and seconds.

But images are now the endlessly reproducible, intrinsically value-less, MP3's of art. The cost of creation and replication is measured in fractions of pennies. The distribution is painless and immediate and the choice is endless. The old analogy was "trying to get a drink of water from fire hose." The new analogy is: "trying to fill a dixie cup from a tsunami." How we interact with images has changed completely but have we/I made the evolutionary transition? Can anyone whose experience was birthed in a previous age make the wholesale jump into a new age without the momentum of his old baggage pushing him off the path of unrelenting progress? And would we even recognize the markets if we saw them?

I had to photograph this upside down.

I visit Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape website frequently. On that site the feeling I get is of a group of well to do men of a certain age (over 40?, over 50?) who've decided to embrace the new tools but ignore the newer art. The site is a rich resource for learning best practices in landscape photography but the work they show is of a certain period. An aesthetic frozen in the amber of a different time. As is mine and as is the "works" and discussion on every other "respected" site on the web. We are the codification of how things have been done. From my railing about the stinky baby diaper hold to my reverence for the look for old, medium format, black and white images. Even to my selection of human subjects. My prejudices are so worn and predictable. I don't want to make portraits of fat people. I don't think everyone is beautiful on the outside and unfortunately that's all my camera can show. I'm like an engineer doing best practices for the manufacture of vacuum tubes in a microchip era.

As amateurs we make the mistake of looking to established professionals for inspiration, guidance and as sources to emulate but they are the ones who are marking the milestones of history past. To endlessly recycle a variation on an "Avedon" or to "cover" yet another Ansel Adams masterpiece with our own less invested version just adds to the giant, planet wide haystack, which makes finding the little needles of diamond and gold harder and harder.

I guess what I'm really thinking and trying to say is that there is no right  way. No one way. We all have choices. We can continue to go out and explore our own worlds with the idea that we are only creating for ourselves and, in that case, it matter not a bit if we are derivative, if the images are blurry, if we're copying Terry Richardson or Chase Jarvis.  It doesn't matter if we use a big Nikon or a little Olympus. It doesn't matter if we shoot raw or jpeg as long as we find our own joy in the process. Alternately, we can go through a painful transition that is comprised of abandoning the past and going on an endless quest to find what our most personal vision is. In some cases only to find that it's about comfort and routine and safety and that we were never cut out to walk the lonely paths of our most revered artists, like Josef Koudelka or Joel Peter Witkin. And in the end the failure of our mission to break from the nest and move away from the strong, magnetic pull of the assimilated/collective vision is too overwhelming and yields up no rewards and no real treasures.

I grew up in America at a time when everyone got a trophy and every middle class child of even moderate privilege was consistently told that everyone could grow up to be whatever they wanted, even president or olympian, if they put their minds to it. But the truth of the matter is that it's not true. The olympians are almost entirely physical and psychological outliers. Becoming president is in the hands of mischievous and malicious gods in cahoots with the tendrils of fate. And not everyone is an artist. No matter how hard I try I cannot will myself to be "more creative" more insightful and more talented. 

Each of us can take time to attain clarity about why we photograph. And maybe, when we do, it will clear the air for us and make us happier to do that which we can. With more sense of accomplishment.

Whatever art there is in our photographs it is far beyond equipment and opportunity. To do work that we can like, and that others can find something in, we need to add value to what we see. We do it through style and point of view. The secret is to show people a thing or a person or a subject in a way that's never really been seen before. But here's the sad truth: The world is shrinking by leaps and bounds and so many of us are using the same tools, hunting the same visual prey and consulting the same references that the images are becoming homogenous. Pasteurized like whole milk and robbed of their distinctive taste and pleasure.

We have become almost circular in our reference. And it's destroying the surprise and the wonder of the images that we share. That's another reason to abandon our "heros" and to remain insulated from the world of photography at large.

And that's why we end up talking about the gear. It's fun, it's objective, it's hierarchical and it's usually easily attainable. Everything that art is not. 

Just a thought, you're always asked if the cup is half empty or if it's half full. In reality, when you sip the last fragrant ounce of delicious coffee the cup is still full. It's full of air. Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and trace gases. And it is now full to the brim with.....potential.

I hate having to add this note of explanation below but......

This particular blog is not about depression, bitterness and anger. Just a series of questions that all aspiring artists should ask themselves from time to time.  Coupled with one big question: why do we do this?  Which leads to the biggest existential question: Why are we here? And while I'm here, which camera should I buy.....?

blog note: Hey! Reader. Consider leaving a comment. I like the feedback. Thanks, Kirk


Claire said...

AH ah, Kirk, you're being mischevious..
I can't speak for other people, but I "do this" because I've slowly learned to do it reasonably well, and it makes me feel good ! I love making proper looking images with even maybe a bit of aesthetics to them.
Very interesting comment about fat people and your reluctance to shoot the unbeautiful. I remember having issues with some of my best friends' son. He was a big, awkward, chubby, not very handsome 3 and some yr old, and I wanted to like him, I just had trouble doing so. I decided to put a lens between us and see how it shook. It changed me perception of the kid entirely, and that's how I started shooting children and making them my primary subject. Maybe you should do a project making portraits of people you don't find attractive at first sight... Would be very interesting to see if it could change your perception of them ? Remember Avedon, who shot the most beautiful people on the planet, along with cast outs and freaks.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, Great post!!! You are right in that art is hard, gear is easy. My own opinion is that while we have far more photographers than we ever did we don't have an equal increase in the number of artists who use cameras. Art takes personal vision and hard work, and a certain mastery of the craft, and I don't think most of today's photographers have that by any means (and in most cases that's fine - whatever floats their boat).

You are a master portraitist and as much as I look around at the work of others yours still stands above just about all of them. You know what you want, you've worked hard at it and you know your tools and how to use them to create your craft. There are a lot of photographers that I admire, but I know that each found their own way, either influenced by others or not. I'm trying to find my own way. As you say, we all have choices, and I wish that more people would make their own choices, and show me what *they* see, and not what someone else saw before them or what Instagram sees...

Joerg Colberg started asking in late 2012 where photography was going. He thinks we need to break free from the past and be more creative, not for its own sake, but simply to move it forward.

Me, I plan to take fewer pictures this year and try to make the ones I do take more meaningful and more personal. I've heard, too, that 2013 may be the year we start to disconnect and therefore that firehose may slow down. Quality, not quantity, as they say.

BTW, thought you might like this:

Robert Roaldi said...

New is hard. Really hard.

Anonymous said...

"Beauty fades, but dumb is forever" - Judge Judy.

(I don't know why, but somehow it seemed appropriate to the comment about photographing the fat and the attractively challenged).

carl frederick

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Claire, I'm not repelled by overweight people but I was being very forthright in the blog about what my own prejudices are. And I mentioned it because I think there's a cultural shift going on that is changing our communal perceptions of what's okay and what's not, aesthetically. The younger generation is used to more and more plus size people. While I see it as inevitable by not a net positive thing other are not so judgmental. I use this as an example at the schism between generations. Not as a value judgment in general. By the same token I'm less thrilled at photographing people with obvious tattoos. It clearly marks me as a member of a different photographic school of thought and, I think, is cogent to the overall thought expressed.

In the course of my work I routinely photograph executives who range from trim and athletic to thoroughly obese and I try to find the most advantageous rendering for everyone in front of my camera. It doesn't mean that I can absolutely shake a life long prejudice.

Michael Ferron said...

Totally agree with the "you can be anything" statement Kirk. It's only the genetically gifted, one out of a thousand musician, dancer, athlete, etc. who with practice and dedication has a chance in hell in obtaining greatness. The rest of us pick up cameras. :)Out of those who do just a handful have a chance in hell of making a living at it! ;>

Bob's blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You've hit a nerve. The exhaustion of new material is one reason that I have embraced street portraiture. If one is fortunate enough to get a portrait like one of Steve McCurry's, and "have the soul rise to the surface", there is indeed a new piece of art created. Haven't done it yet, but I will... :-).
Bob Dein

lsumners said...

Did you not know that all you have to do to succeed is to have a positive attitude?

Ian said...

You have written before along the lines of 'Wouldn't it be good to be able to forget all the visual references which inform our vision.' How we see can be how we expect to see.

Some people find a way of seeing through paying attention to their creative process. A mix of method, discipline and allowing connection to some sort of stream of creativity. The focus is on creating the work rather than the outcome. Do the work, let the outcome look after itself.

As you identify, the enormous change taking place in photography makes it difficult to predict what will become. Often the artist takes a technology created for one purpose, and then repurposes it to make their art. In photography we have a new technology which mimics an old technology, so how will the artist take this and use it? Maybe the art itself will be about volume and distribution?

Just keep chipping away at the block of granite until you find the art which you know is in it.

Ron Zack said...

Here in Chicago, we have a place called the Art Institute, which has on display, quite literally, the best human art from the past 5,000 years or so....going all the way back to ancient Egypt and the time of the Pharaohs. Within the space of a long day, you can walk in and out of all their galleries, starting with ancient Egypt, and going all the way up to Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, and see 5,000 years of human art in the space of about eight hours. My goodness, there's even a handful of photographs that have made their permanent collection. And while American and European art is the brunt of their collection, they have quite a bit from Asia, South America, and other far off places as well. That museum has some of the greatest icons in the art world as well, "American Gothic", "Nighthawks", and a huge collection of French Impressionists, especially Monet and Renoir.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the iconic "Nighthawks" painting by Edward Hopper, and a close second would be everything they have from John Singer Sargent. A lot of their American collection came as a donation from one of the Art Institue's former students: a gal named Georgia O'Keeffe, who was married to some photographer named Stieglitz and used to hang out with him and his photographer buddies. Most (if not all) of the paintings O'Keeffe gave to the Art Institute was actually purchased and collected by Stieglitz.

When you look at a collection as huge, vast, and historical as what the Art Institute has, it really doesn't matter if it's a photo, sculpture, piece of furniture, drawing, sketch, stained glass, etc., etc., all that you the observer cares about is that the artist somehow captured a bit of the beauty that existed in their subject, and extracted it, refined it, and presented it in such a way that you, the humble observer, could appreciate. Whether it was some unknown, unknowable stone cutter from the day of Pharaohs, or something from Andy Warhol's "Factory" hardly matters. The only thing that really does matter is whether or not you can see the beauty in what they captured. And that's really all there is to it. I particularly think that John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper were particularly talented at this, though they are by no means alone in this ability.

All photography is, is one's attempt to capture the beauty of a moment for other's to appreciate. As long as you try to do that, all is good.

sey said...

"And not everyone is an artist. No matter how hard I try I cannot will myself to be "more creative" more insightful and more talented."

I have always believed that everyone has a talent for something. The olympians are simply those who have been lucky enough to have had their specific talent discovered early enough and been allowed to nurture, develope and hone it to perfection, whether it be an art form, athletics, mathematics, rocket science, business, chess or tiddlywinks.

Unfortunately, many never discover their hidden, God given talent or due to parental, social and/or educational prejudices have had those talents suppressed. Many, may 'will themselves' and become skilled craftsmen at their chosen field, but never become olympians.

That's just nature's way of things. Few have it, most don't.

greg g said...

The rapid mass sharing of the tsunami of images is far more a social phenomenon than artistic. It hides as much as it reveals. Art is still made in the 10,000 hour pursuit of mastery one image (written, painted, sketched, carved, chiseled, etched, filmed, or iPhoned) at a time from the heart of the practicing artist. The problem with photography as an art form is that it has always been technically easy and objective while art is difficult and subjective. To achieve the latter by use of the former is an undertaking that has sparked debate since the dawn of photography, but it's never ever a mass event. Infinite monkeys with infinite word processing machines and infinite time would not produce the works of Shakespeare.

One of the things the tsunami hides is true intimacy. It gives the appearance of sharing real life, but it is a surface representation and mundane. It takes a true portrait artist to find a true inner intimacy with a subject, intuitively recognize it, and timely record it in an image. Given that humans are inwardly very complex and often quite guarded (even unconsciously guarded) and the camera's shutter defines such a fleeting and brief duration, the possibilities are endless and the prey (if that's a legitimate description of what's sought) is never identical from moment to moment, even if the variation is subtle.

I think that it would be difficult for a professional/commercial photographer to satisfy a deep craving to produce that kind of intimate art. He or she shoots to eat. The pursuit of that kind of portrait would surely lead to a myriad of failed images. The client (as opposed to subject) based professional can't afford that process and put food on the table. To do both would be difficult and sometimes frustrating, but well, I suppose, nobody said it would be anything else.

There is a school of Chinese landscape painting with ink on silk (or paper) whose materials and tools and techniques date back thousands of years. But each minimalist representation flows from the landscape to the brush and onto the silk through the heart of the artist. His concentration and focus is on the perfect transmission of one to the other. He'll never get there, but it's what he pursues. New stuff does not matter to him, only a new heart.

John Hall said...

Well said Kirk (as usual). Happy shooting, and Happy New Year!

John Flores said...

Great post, Kirk. I often wonder where the our photographic Picasso will come from, someone that changes the way that we all see and understand photography's relationship with our times. I suspect that she or he is already out there, toiling away and sharing with a small group of friends on Tumblr or Flickr or Vimeo or whatever.

And then in the next breath I wonder if that idea is old fashioned - that one luminous mind will lead the way. Maybe the next visual revolution will be crowdsourced. Maybe it's already here (i.e., Instagram) and we're still too close to see how it's reshaping our way of thinking.

In any case, thanks for the provocation. Happy new year.

Gregg Mack said...

Kirk, I have never viewed my own photography as art - although I have a few photos that I think have "some" artistic qualities. No, I view my photography more as an effort to document the things that I have seen and experienced, as well as the people that I have met during my lifetime. Why do I do that? I'm not sure if there is one single reason or answer. Maybe it is so that when I am old and near my death, I can play back all of my favorite images in one giant slideshow, much like what was shown in the 1973 movie Soylent Green....

Anton Wilhelm Stolzing said...

Kirk, I am a fan of yours. I understand your problem. Of course, it has become much easier nowadays to publish images, and the quality of cheap cameras of today surpasses the quality of Hasselblads “d’antan”.
And I admit: I am often stunned of the quality of photos one can see for free today on the web.
But I ask myself: is it really true that there are no realms left for the “professional”? From careful post-processing to careful professional lighting (you are one of the cracks in this field, aren’t you?) to sophisticated backgrounds and clever lens choice (STF, Tilt and Shift, Long fast teles etc.) and yes, why not the famous Hasselblad with a Zeiss 150 or 180). Can an amateur with a good digital camera really match?
Thomas Ruff or Bettina Rheims attain prices today that would not have been possible only ten years ago!

Anonymous said...


John Krumm said...

There is always room for good art and originality, but perhaps these days we have to be happy with less "broadcasting" and more "narrowcasting," to use a trendy concept. Problem is, art photographers have always had a narrow audience, so today it comes down to microcasting, nano-casting, and so on, as you see photographers like William Albert Allard write a decent blog and get one or two comments.

I went to a gallery opening yesterday where the photographs looked like they had all been shot using various Olympus art filters, and people seemed to like them. Easy to get depressed about that. Fortunately the internet has provided little pockets of intelligence and good will, and when I think about it even a photographer hanging garish, sloppy photoshop/paint versions of what are cliche'd originals is at least trying.

Kirk Tuck said...

And yet Thomas Ruff and Bettina Rheims are exemplars of the old school...

And just to be clear, it's not "my" problem. It's just a conundrum that everyone faces.

Bryan Bolea said...

I once heard that Falkner was asked by an interviewer, with a clear bias against formal writing programs, if such programs didn't put an end many wanna-be writers' pursuits. Falkner reportedly responded, "Not enough of them."

A.D. Wade said...

I am not one to follow and read blogs, but after tripping across this entry I may have found my New Year's Resolution. ha, ha

I recently purchased your book LED Lighting and ended up here. Very insightful and thoughtful entry, which I enjoyed reading. Now, off to contemplate about it more...

Kirk Tuck said...

I love the premise but disagree with the bones. I think there are lots of people who use photography not to discover photography but to show other people a reality they think of as truth---bad and good. Or they use photography as documentation. Even as simple as "Kilroy was here." In some sense it's also a statement that says, "I existed."

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks A.D.

Clay Olmstead said...

It needs to be more than "I existed." It needs to be, "I existed and responded." Articulating that response is reason enough to keep doing it, for the effect on you alone.

Sherry Snyder said...

Thank you for posting this. Meant a lot to me.

I am only an amateur and have only been doing this seriously for about 8 yr, but I am struggling with the desire to do something different. Haven't figured it out yet. Continually need to remind myself that this is supposed to be fun and I need to please myself!

Jeff said...

"Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram." sounds familiar. George Eastman's "You Take the Picture, We Do the Rest" has been ingrained for generations and continues.
One can choose scenes and effects with digital which required forethought, time, technical understanding, and money with film. Things most people didn't and still don't want to bother with. There will always be new gadgets to simplify, but a lot of times the sense of accomplishment is diminished.
Were my pictures looking the same after 18 years of using only a Canon F-1 and a few lenses? Yes. Did I need a 700si to make them different (and me feel engaged)? No. A flashmeter and manual flashes with power levels was. Does my A33 eclipse both of those? Sometimes. It definitely expedites learning. I still need the forethought before shutter release, something my F-1 had/has me doing. I'll continue to learn to see the light, choose decisive moment, and walk around looking through the viewfinder until "ah, better", even if feeble.

pepeye said...

This post was discussed (favorably) on the 1/29/13 episode of the On Taking Pictures podcast: