Technique in search of a subject.

Do you know what you want to photograph today? I do. I want to photograph a beautiful, interesting person and I want to do it with a big, soft light source in a quiet studio. It's the same thing I want to photograph every day. My search for subjects isn't a general search as in: "Do I want to photograph a landscape? A street shot? Richly colored glass bottles transluminated with sparkly light? My lunch? My dog? My navel? My car? A back lit athlete?  My search is much narrower. It's all about finding someone interesting to photograph.

It's hard to find people who have time when you have time and have the same degree of motivation to be photographed as you do to photograph them. The most interesting people tend to be the most busy. They are deeply involved in whatever thing it is that makes them so interesting and, if they had lots of time to spend doing other things they might not seem so interesting in the first place.

As I get older and read too much I find that we can break down most photographers into two camps. The ones who master their craft in order to photograph the subject of their passion and the ones who get really good at their craft in order to be really good at their craft. To the first group the mastery of technique is a means to an end. The mastery gives them the potential to make images of their chosen subject in a style and a way that is unique to them. These are the people whose work comes to mind in a heart beat. Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon as people photographers. Patrick Demarchalier and Peter Lindbergh as fashion photographers, and Ansel Adams and Mark Klett as Landscape photographers. They pursue their passion. They've found their passion. And they explore(d) it relentlessly.

The second group are the universal shooters. They can shoot food, shoot a car, shoot a model, shoot a sunset or a sunrise, shoot a factory or a building or someone hanging off an enormously tall tower, or fighter jets or a child lit by a sparkler on a Summer evening. And in every situation they bring a technical expertise to the image that is arguably correct but, because it is largely a generic solution based on satisfying or solving the technical issues of the image it is homogenous and boring. Forgettable.

The images that effect culture and our understanding of photographic art come, almost exclusively, from people who have passion for one subject and a relentless desire to pursue that subject to the exclusion of all others. They may change gear like the rest of us but they stick to the subject at hand.

This makes them incredibly boring to follow. The do the same thing over and over again, always attempting to find just a nuance of new but mostly to unlock the interesting thing that they already sense in their subject. They don't make big changes. They won't be blogging about the latest light or the hottest lens.

The little circuit breaker in the brain that separates the first group from the second, as far as I can see, is fear. In a professional capacity it's the fear that they won't be asked to cover a wide range of assignments, that people won't like the one subject they choose and will seek other photographers instead. The fear for amateurs is different. And I don't really know what it is. It could be that the fear of committing to one subject is that they'll miss out on another subject. I watched the swell of image makers who had previously done street or candid portrait photos rush to embrace HDR and all of a sudden everyone was whipping out wet streets at twilight and glowering landscapes, rank with color. They'd switched subjects in order to satisfy their desire to master the technique du jour. Ditto when photographer, Joel Grimes rolled out his gritty lighting and post processing and applied it to sports photography. The same people who rushed to follow Trey Ratliff on the Technicolor V train did a 180 and began to make tons and tons of grit-o-graphs. There was a palpable feeling of the fear of being left behind. Of not mastering the mainstream. Of being passé. Attaining new visual tools was the process.

I would dearly love to say that I am of the first group but I know it's not true. While I love process of the portrait, and I can think of nothing I'd rather shoot and look at, I fear the idea that my favorite art directors will pass me over for lucrative assignments in food photography (which is enjoyable but not a real passion) or product photography for the high tech industry (which is not really enjoyable but very rewarding financially). And then there are all the times when I'm too tired or unfocused to research who I want to shoot and how to set up the sessions, and then I just capitulate and walk around shooting in the streets because I feel like I should be doing something photographic with all this gear I own. Maybe I have the hope that I'll discover my next portrait subject while I'm out walking around. Maybe I'm just convinced that I need to try out a new camera and see if it changes the way I approach things.

One of my fears is a construct of the last five or six years. I have this blog. People seem to like it. Tens of thousands of people come here almost every day to read the stuff that I write. And I don't want to disappoint them or bore them. On one hand my early rationale for the blog was to drive sales of my books, and then workshops and then affiliate links. But the books are in the long tail phase of their lives, the novel never seems to be ready to launch and, I suspect, the workshops will take care of themselves. The real reason now is that I have an audience and it feels good to be part of the community. I feel like I'm adding to a discussion that transcends national borders and has to do with the art I like.

But the disconnection is that if I wrote only about portrait photography I would have run out of anything to say in early 2009. Maybe earlier. It's a cruel two edged sword. I long to spend the time just making portraits but I have an equal need to connect and stay relevant. And I know the blog brings other industry opportunities to me. I desire them even though I know they are a distraction.

I often wonder what would have happened to my career if I stayed on one path and didn't vary. Shoot my one passionate subject with one camera and one set of lights and keep incrementally trying to improve the rapport, the pose, the collaboration and the feel of the light. I think of all the money I would have saved that's gone into gear. But I also think of the tangential lost opportunities that the solitary course would have meant.

Not shooting corporate events would have meant not being paid to see Paris, Madrid, London, Lisbon, Italy, Russia and more. Not shooting products might have meant a diminished earning power just when I needed to stretch and buy a house and studio. Not exploring new cameras and new techniques would have meant that few people outside my little, local circle would have ever heard of me. It would have meant no books. No blog. No trip to Berlin. No online class in Denver.

Fear of being left behind or professionally marginalized means I made myself into the thing that is least satisfying for me. I've become a generalist. And now I'm adding video to the long list of tricks in my bag  not because I love story telling but because I'm afraid that might be the direction in which all of our business is heading and I don't want to be left behind. Not yet.

I guess the biggest fear that mitigates against doing what you really love is the fear that you might discover that you are not as good at it as you thought you might be. And no matter how disciplined and self-confident you might profess to be there's a little (or huge) part in all of us that tries to prevent us from failing. From falling on our faces. From over reaching. That's the thing that the first group has either conquered or come to grips with. That's the thing that keeps the rest of us practicing technique in the search of a subject instead of doing the art we wish we could.

Too heavy a blog for a Tuesday morning. Sorry about that. I seem to be turning into a Russian writer...

Studio Portrait Lighting


  1. Much of it comes down to the market yoy live in. It would be difficult to make a decent living specialising in portraits if you have developed your career in a smaller market. Smaller markets require a level of diversity to match the level of jobs available.

    1. Austin is the 13th largest city in the country. It's changed a lot in the last few years. It may support a different way of doing business now.

  2. Or you could have been Richard Avedon.

  3. You want to shoot "beautiful, interesting" people. And we certainly enjoy looking at those pictures. But the premier portrait photographers - Karsh, Avedon, Penn, Leibowitz - emphasize the "interesting" much more than the "beautiful". We enjoy looking at those pictures too, they will remain interesting and important for generations, and the photographers seem to have made a good living at it. Perhaps that's a way to reconcile your aesthetic desires and your skill at portraiture with your need to earn a living.

    1. Victor, you interpret me too literally if you think that by "beautiful" people I mean only "externally" beautiful. I'm just as interested in people who are beautiful inside as well.

    2. I believe you, but look at the portraits you've posted over the past couple of months. Leaving you and your family aside, almost all are of beautiful, lively young women. (Lane and Amy, and your theater PR pictures, are about the only exceptions.) Austin has many distinguished people in academia, government, music, literature, the arts, etc. They would certainly qualify as interesting, and perhaps internally beautiful. Where are their portraits? You've certainly got the chops to make striking ones.

  4. As HCB used to say "Ask the amateurs. They have all the answers."

  5. I would consider myself to be an advanced amateur photographer and I'm quite famous... within my own family and group of friends. There are maybe 100 people in the world who think of me when they think at all about photography. I'll get an occasional call from within that group to make a portrait or to preserve the memories of a special event or birthday or anniversary.

    When that happens I'm thrilled and knock myself out to live up to the expectations of those "clients" who trust me. I'm sure all serious photographers (which I define as anyone who is passionate about their craft, either amateur or professional) have similar experiences. So, even at my level, I have to be a generalist. I love to take personal pictures of flowers and birds and sunsets, but the real photographic satisfaction comes when a member of my tiny client base thinks enough of my skill to pick up the phone and asks me to do a project that is important to them.

  6. Thanks Kirk: one of the best posts of yours that I have read.

  7. Photography is not that much different from life in general. We tend to admire and remember people who dedicated themselves to a single-minded pursuit. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Keith Richards, Jack Nicklaus...the list goes on of people who were passionate about one thing and excelled at it almost to the exclusion of all else.

    No one admires Steve Jobs for his job as a father or husband. No one will remember Jack Nicklaus for anything beyond his golf achievements.

    I don't think it such a bad thing to aspire to be good at many things without being the best at one thing. For me, the ideal life is a balanced one, where you work hard at your job, you enjoy your hobbies and you nurture your family. It may not bring fame or great wealth or a lasting legacy of art, but it brings great joy.

    Kirk, sometimes it is a good thing to go out into your backyard at night and view the stars and realize:

    There are more stars in our galaxy than there are grains of sand on earth. There are 500 billion galaxies in the universe. See http://www.universetoday.com/102630/how-many-stars-are-there-in-the-universe/

    Each star probably averages a few planets, so think of all the M class planets there are out there. We are not all that special. Our time on earth is also just a wink in space compared to the age of the universe.

    We are inconsequential. Even the superstars among us. Relax, have fun, enjoy your brief time on earth. Bring joy to those around you. When you finally die and get to the pearly gates and ask where heaven is, the reply should be: "you just left it".

  8. Great post!
    I can relate to your thoughts here. I am probably in the second group. I like shooting most things and get great satisfaction from mastering stuff. Problem is after I master something it gets boring pretty quickly and I start looking for new gear just because I think I can make my images better with it. I battle with myself everyday because I know the gear won't do me a thing except give me a lighter wallet.

    I envy those who can use the same gear for 20 years and just shoot the same thing over and over to perfect it...

  9. Great post Kirk, one of your best. You eloquently put into words many of the thoughts that bounce around the inside of all our heads. You're a brave man to reveal so much about yourself and I guess that's why your writing is becoming more profound. You really are becoming a philosopher of photography ... I mean that quite seriously.

  10. I find the russian writer interesting. Even though i read your morning posts in the evening, here in Denmark, i think they would do
    work as a supplement to my morning coffee as well. We all prostitute our selves sometimes. The trick is to enjoy that to and don't go where you feel raped:)

  11. Wonderful. This post fits right into my wheelhouse. As a rank amateur, I spent 5+ years shooting almost anything, and felt compelled to follow the sexy, most recent trends. I came down on the N side of the Nikon/Canon wars and fretted that I didn't have all the latest glass.

    After an epiphany, I have found my calling in meeting, and photographing, strangers on the street. I feel no need to follow trends and the Nikon has been replaced by an OLY OM-D. No one else in the camera club has one. Good! I am still a rank amateur but at least I know what I want to do, and I don't have to please anyone else (although I still would like to :-). . And getting off the gear treadmill feels like a High-Colonic (I guess). Next in my sights is the Adobe hegemony...

    Thanks so much for this post. I feel renewed.

  12. What an excellent, open, and honest post, Kirk. As I read it, I couldn't help but see the parallels to what I have experienced and observed in my 30 year long career in engineering. There are the specialists, and then there are the generalists.

    BTW, I'm definitely in the 2nd group - the universal shooters.

  13. I love shooting landscapes and flowers. Other stuff, not so much but... Sometimes when I'm feeling uninspired a change of subject matter helps break me out of it. If I'm open to what's available I can really get into it, for a while at least. I always go back to my first love but to paraphrase an old saw 'when you're not near the subject matter you love, love the subject matter you're near'.

  14. I'd fly in for you, but the airfare is prohibitive :(

    1. Claire, If you are referring to the ad in the blog it's for my online class at Craftsy.com. I recorded it over three days in Denver in July. They spent a month editing it down to two and a half hours. Now people can watch it on their computers. Or not.

    2. No, I was referring to you looking for "beautiful and interesting" people to shoot, lol.

    3. Claire, I'll head over there. The food's better! Thanks.

  15. Kirk:
    I think you're missing something here. You mention all the things you might have missed if you had focused purely on the art you love, yet we need to realize that focussing solely on any one thing, no matter how intricate, eventually becomes boring and nothing more than a technical process. Much like completing a process in an ISO certified factory., etc.. The cliche of finding something you love and never feeling like you're working is probably more realistic for those suited to doing as told, fine with monotony, and not the type to be self employed. I think all driven people have, or need, an activity that is cathartic; hence, we expand our thought processes, enjoy the rush of endorphins, and continue to discover new ways to apply our passions in pursuit of being the best provider of our chosen service.

    Charles Eams was once described as selling his ignorance. Learning was his product. I think this is true for many of us, and also believe that having a lone passion allows us the space we need to breathe and maintain the desire that drives us toward the ever illusive "perfect" moment.

    I also believe, that the famous "sole event" artists suffer many more demons.



    1. This.

      I think it was Kirk Tuck who once talked about the benefits of learning something outside your narrow expertise.

  16. Not only is this a great article but some excellent comments, to boot.

  17. Kirk I think I knew you in second grade and you always got me into trouble.

    Perhaps you are a generalist, however, I would say that this is different than blindly following trends. That difference being that you are mindful and reflect on the art. Trend followers might but not to any great extent. Extrinsic driven art has at best a passing semblance of deeper, inner value. I should know I've done that a lot (shooting superficially).

    But you do have to earn a living and I think the process of change invigorates your thought processes. Some day perhaps you'll sit down and retire and truly fulfill some inner vision. Maybe you'll discover instead that you were already on the journey of a thousand miles.

    As a wannabe photographer I've decided to quit. To quit shooting the expectations of customers I decided I don't really want and to do what ever the hell I want. To have fun. To buy gear because I want it and not because it got a gold rating on some review site.

    If you ever quit having or giving others existential crises then the value of the blog will go down. Thanks Kirk!


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