2.15.2015

Making photographs is a full time job for me. Or at least it should be.

Ben, Pre-College. ©2015 Kirk Tuck.

I've long come to grips with the realization that I'll never be mistaken for a genius or an earth shattering, artistic, photographic savant. I've tried a number of different careers and over the arc of the last 37 years and I've come back again and again to the practice of photography. I wanted it to be a working career mostly because I was so intent on photographing that any other career would be a distraction or a detour from what I enjoyed doing most. Or at least I thought.  My secret has always been that I care less about composition and style and all the surface trappings of two dimensional art; the reality is that I come to photography all the time as an observer. A sociologist, a historian and a writer. I'm looking for a spark in a photograph that makes you stop and look at an image because you are curious about what is behind the photograph. I want you to wonder what the back story is. I want you to ponder what happened five minutes after the frame you see was captured. I want you to be curious about the person in the photograph in a way that is deeper than their costume of the interplay of tricky lighting on trendy make up.

In a portrait I rarely think about backlighting or what people should wear or how to make things sharper or more----something. I think about what I would like to know about the person and how I can capture an expression I saw when I talked to this person or observed them and decided that I wanted to ask this person to come to my little, white walled room and be photographed. In my personal work it's rare to find a big grin plastered across someone's face or a chesty blond girl in a halter top with her head slightly lowered in the submissive pose/attitude that every glamour photographer seems hard-wired to try and coax out of young women. I want to talk to people about subjects in which we have an intersecting interest. 

In the last year, since Ben went off to college, I've worked through a series of thought exercises to try and understand my long time discontentment with my personal photographic work. In some part the sheer effort and time of culturally shedding film was an impediment to savoring the actual process of taking portraits. Instead of trusting to the technology we had gotten down cold (film and film cameras)  I was (and still am) wary about how the digital images will translate on the screens and then on to prints. I've been side-tracked by the pursuit of finding the tools that mimicked what we could do with our film cameras. By that I mean one day in the past we could easily load a Leica R8 with fast, black and white film and, using a fast Leica lens, capture highly detailed slices of life that intermixed grain and wonderful tonal transitions into an amalgam that was the essence of a black and white sensibility; when printed onto paper. An hour later I could put a 100 macro lens on the front of the camera, load some Kodak Ektar 25 film into the same camera and have an image making machine with no grain and almost infinite detail.

All that was second nature in the days of film was re-thought for the digital age. Early on the cameras with acres of detail also had excruciating noise when used in a high ISO configuration. Cameras with clean high ISOs had smaller files. All of the cameras had piss poor handling and viewing and focusing. Few of them felt like tools---an artist could instantly feel the electronic disconnection with the eye and hand synchronicity. As an example, until recently, if you were a Nikon user and you wanted the best tool for high resolution you had to buy a D3X. If you wanted great high ISO performance you needed to buy a D3. The same relationship occurred in the Canon camp as well. The tools in the film age could have handled both jobs with a $400 35mm body and a change of films between projects. Four years ago the same binary approach would have set you back about $12,000 for two different and complementary digital bodies. This was a huge financial cost which we were paying in an age of declining fees and an economy in turmoil; sometimes in seeming freefall. 

I've been side tracked by the technical issues from just mellowing out and engaging people and making images. Then I got distracted by the process of writing and illustrating photo books. I've also written 2200+ blogs that were partly meant to create content to anchor marketing for my book projects.  I spent a lot of time (which I don't regret) getting up early in the morning to take Ben to school or cross country practice or science fairs or other extracurricular adventures. I tried never to miss a track meet or a school function. And I worked on so many commercial projects that were boring and mentally exhausting; draining, in order to pay the mortgage and put away money for all the things our culture tells us to put away money for: A rainy day. A rainy year. Retirement. The college fund. The family vacation. Club memberships and swim dues. And every single engagement that had nothing to do with making personal photographs ate at the joy of photography like the sea lapping against an ever eroding shoreline. 

It seems that our middle class mantra, our excuse as we go through life, is that all these things we put off and delay will become magically available to us when we retire. As though, magically, we will emerge the day after we finally say goodbye to our real jobs as full fledged artists will a full set of skills and visions and enthusiasm, ready to charge out and begin competently making the art we craved to make all along. 

But I don't think it works that way. I think art is a process that takes time, in the same way that becoming really good at surgery or musical performance takes time and practice. I think about art sometimes in the same way I think about swimming. If you swam at a high level; if you swam in high school and college and then, for the sake of work and family life and other obligations, you walked away from the pool from age 22 till age 65 you would not be able to jump in on the day after your retirement from responsibility and slam out five or six thousand yards at the level of effort you could bring to bear in your late teens and early 20's. You wouldn't be able to make up for lost time in the space of a few days, a few weeks or even a few years. You might first need to lose that 50 pounds you accidentally gained, over time. You'd need to rebuild muscle mass. You'd need to rebuild flexibility and you would need to clear out arteries and veins clogged by forty some years of being sedentary. 

At some point you'd realize that swimming fluidly is the result of thousands of days, back to back, of doing and honing the same strokes over and over again. A daily trial and error that informs your flow and your position and comfort in the water. And that doesn't begin to speak to the mental training required to be truly disciplined. 

If you don't get the athletic analogy then think of pianists. Even great concert performers who've been working musicians for decades and decades still need to get up every day and spend hours and hours practicing. Practicing the same music over and over again. And with every cycle of practice there's more fluidity and interpretation. It's a deeply embedded requirement of doing art at a sophisticated level. 

Artists should wake up every day and realize that today is your only chance to engage and practice your art and craft in the way you need to in order to really connect and do the work at the level that will make a difference in your life. If you lose today you still have tomorrow but you are one step closer to blackness and have one less day to practice the way you need to in order to really work on your vision at a high level. Every day lost is one more day of erosion and entropy. 

I know my readers pretty well and most will rationalize that what they do in photography is a hobby; a clever and enjoyable pastime. Something they do for their personal enjoyment. And that's valid but I know some of you are like me. You want to be immersed. You want to make work that's different and better. And you chaff under bounds that are self-imposed or culturally reinforced. That's the struggle I understand. The desire to sit in the studio having a wonderful conversation and making what is, to you, a beautiful portrait that reveals something real and wonderful about the person on the other side of the camera. Instead you find yourself in a meeting with the sales team or at a corporate dinner trying to stay awake or cloistered in a cubicle trying to make the balance sheet balance until well into the night and then you go home exhausted and the camera that came along for the ride never left the briefcase. You think you'll shoot on the weekend but the kid's soccer game is scheduled and then the piano recital and while we convince ourselves that taking the obligatory images from the sidelines or from the folding chair in the front row of the auditorium is somehow satisfying enough. 

It's enough to satisfy your parental pride and your need to capture family memories which you will indeed cherish in the years to come but no one is really fooled into the self delusion that this is the satisfying use of photography you once imagined. That you once saw yourself doing. 

All of you practical people will say that it should be enough. That we should be happy. At least we could justify buying that 400mm f2.8 for the soccer game, right? And you might think I am one of the lucky ones. That I get to practice my craft all day long on every day. But I can only wish it were so. 

95% of the work I do for clients is not work I would do for myself. It's just not. I might be able to sell the work I love but I'm pretty certain that I'd be making a fraction of the money I can make selling the clients what the clients love. I spend time in meetings, time in front of the computer screen, time retouching the faces of people who I never had time to really know or really talk to. I spend time sorting through images that have no meaning to me but which mean something (very briefly) to my clients. I spend time in airports waiting for the next plane that will take me not to an exotic and richly visual location, but which might take me to a waste water treatment plant in Biloxi or to shill for a camera company in an aging and crowded convention center in some city I was never really interested in. I am like you. I am bogged down in the obligations and the details of life. Trapped by innocuous continuity.

But we make these choices over time. We agree to obligations. We  think we understand the tradeoffs while we are making them but there is no way we can understand how much we will have given up until we wake up thirty years into the future. By then there is no going back. No retrieval of the lost days and the lost opportunities. Realizing that means grabbing opportunity by the balls right now and taking control. It means saying no and being selfish and working on your work instead of doing everything for everyone else. 

But everyone is so different. If you are reading this in a public library because you can't afford a computer at home your reality will be different from the two or three readers who have enormous net worth but still haven't engaged in their singular pursuit of their art. The common denominator is the need to disconnect from the distractions and focus on the work you want to get done. Even if no one else agrees or likes it. Even if it's not profitable or sellable. The artist does what he does in the purest sense because he has to do that thing. Some artists are lucky and the work they crave has immediate acceptance while others work on stuff that is unaccessible by the public at large and in the community of photographers. 

It's always good to remember that though there are millions and millions of hobbyists in the world and on the web, the vast majority are shooting the same stuff as everyone else and adhering to the same hoary rules that photographers have been given (and have repeated ad nauseum) for decades and decades. Rules mostly made up by industry writers trying to wrap sellable content around the boundaries of ads.  They are mostly wrong rules and mainstream rules and boring rules and in art the only real rule is that there are no rules. So fuck em if they can't take a joke and ignore them if they don't get your work. Just do what you have to do. 

In the end we all walk off the cliff and into darkness at some point in the future. It would be sad, at least to me, to go into the abyss knowing that there was much I didn't get done because I was too busy talking about it instead of actually doing it. Do you see where we're going from here? Do you have some guarantee that there will always be time?

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sadly right on target.

Jim said...

I fully understand where you are coming from. I recall a day at work, probably 25-30 years ago, when I was struggling with the demands you recite so well. I had been spending my lunch hours working on a piece I needed to finish for a show. Co-workers had seen what I was doing. One of them commented favorably on it and I replied to the effect that I wasn't entirely happy with it, that I felt that I could do better and vented some of my frustrations with the demands of job and family. At one point I said "All I ever really wanted to do was be an artist". They replied "But you are" either out of courtesy or ignorance of what I was really feeling.

What you say is entirely true but realistically almost all the greats of photography supported themselves with work other than their personal work. Even Edward Weston who probably came closer than most ran a portrait studio. Ansel Adams struggled to pay the bills with a whole range of commercial work. And as one who is now retired I can assure you that no longer having work obligations does not entirely free one either, thus the retiree's half joking line "I don't know how I found time to work".

Something one of my college art professors said to me took decades to sink in. I was struggling with 3 PT jobs, a family and full time attendance and it was affecting my artwork. When I explained to my professor what was bothering me he replied "Those aren't going to go away. You have to find a way to transcend those things". I wish I could tell you how to do that but I fear it is a solitary path and no two paths are alike. I hope you find it.

Carlo Santin said...

My father died on Jan 10 of this year after a year long battle with pancreatic cancer. Of all the indignities he suffered in that year, and there were many, his greatest was being robbed of the ability to work. He was 70, a plumber for 50 years, and he never did retire. He worked right up until one Friday in Feb of 2014, when he came home from work and collapsed, was rushed to hospital, and remained in a bed until his death. His greatest desire was to be able to get up from his bed and go back to work. He expressed regret at having worked so many weekends, always being at work, not taking time to travel and spend more time with his family, especially when we were young. But he wanted to work because he really enjoyed being a plumber. I had badgered him a number of times in recent years to retire and take it easy. His body was starting to break down after all those decades of physical work, his knees and back especially. But his answer was always the same: he liked his job and couldn't think of anything he would rather do. I'm certain he knew he was sick before that Friday when he went home and collapsed and for a time I was rather angry with him for not going to a doctor, angry that he had not been diagnosed early enough that he could have perhaps had treatment and lived longer. I'm also equally certain that he knew that he would have to give up work, be forced into retirement, to get the treatment and try and recover. He knew he wasn't going to work again even if he did beat the cancer. He made his choice. I understand that now and I'm not sure I would make a different one myself. So though my father died on January 10, he was dead the day he couldn't return to work.

I'm not sure what any of that has to do with your thoughts today, but that's what your writing made me think of. That and Jimi Hendrix...castles made of sand. I haven't been able to get that song out of my head since the funeral.

Mike said...

Spot on.

amolitor said...

Interestingly, for me talking about it is part of the process. I hope it turns out that way for you too because I like the way you talk.

I understand fully if not, tho. Do what satisfies you. Above all.

Joan G. said...

"Do you see where we're going from here?" Sounds to me like "no more blogging" - so I hope I DON'T see where we're going from here!

Patrick Dodds said...

A true and compelling read.

MO said...

Love this post and love the picture. You wonder what is on Bens mind looking at it and at the same time a family picture. Perfect conection to the text.

I am Trying to combine the love of the expression and the story off interesting pictures with interesting clients. At the same time im trying to apply marketing and adverticing that challenged me artisticly produceing it. But for that fact i proberbly never will make a full living from it! There is always a trade off.

There are many posts between post like this that realy catch me and they proberbly dont get the most wiews. But they reprecent the longings you describe in this post. At least for me.....


I wish i could Express my self better in english. But im a dane.

Stan Schaap said...

Hi Kirk, are you familiar with this book: Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? I'm reading it right now. It contains many inspirational thoughts from creative people in all kinds of professions that might help to reinvent yourself, as you seem to be doing now.
Just one quote: "To find the right words for a poem, the secret of a cell’s behavior, or a way to make better microchips for less money is an exhilarating experience in its own right, even if no one else knows about it, and no rewards follow." (p. 341)

Anonymous said...

Kirk,

It is SO true what you wrote today that I must pinch myself to realize that in most cases we create excuses which prevent us from pursuing our dreams to their fullest. I think strong motivation and willpower would help, approval of peers, among others.

This article should be read and acted upon by many.

Thingo said...

Mum used to often quote to us, her children, Rudyard Kipling's poem "If".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If%E2%80%94
It's good advice, battling the unforgiving minute. After all, time is the one thing we all have just once; & in exactly the same amount each day.

John Krumm said...

My grandfather was a house painter, not an artist, but he was great with a brush. Good enough, in fact, that he earned extra money on the weekends doing custom hand pinstriping on cars. His real love was fishing around the San Fransisco Bay area with his buddies. Sometimes the art comes in just knowing how to live a good life.

Kirk Tuck said...

Some good stories here. We need to tell them more often.

Michael Matthews said...

Well, I hope where we're going is not toward the end of the blog. But that's purely selfish on my part.

It's not to hard to understand the cumulative impact of the commercial work necessary to pay the bills. Like your hero, Henry White, the ten-thousandth grip and grin trade show photo could easily prompt one to want to take a long walk. Or blow up something.

Perhaps you spend an entire day meticulously lighting and photographing dozens of cowboy boots to perfection. After the full day's work is done, someone -- the client? -- says, "I don't know...they just don't have enough shine to them. They really ought to have some little reflections -- like mirrors." And here we go again.

The problem is getting past all that and taking satisfaction in craftsmanship. Art may be the higher calling, but craft is damned important. It can lead in some unexpected directions. If I may cadge this from Wikipedia...

"Michelangelo, who was not primarily a painter but a sculptor, was reluctant to take on the work. Also, he was occupied with a very large sculptural commission for the Pope's own tomb. The Pope was adamant, leaving Michelangelo no choice but to accept. But a war with the French broke out, diverting the attention of the Pope, and Michelangelo fled from Rome to continue sculpting. The tomb sculptures, however, were never to be finished because in 1508 the Pope returned to Rome victorious and summoned Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling. The contract was signed on 10 May 1508."

Four years of working with your neck bent like a pretzel, and with flecks of poisonous paint decorating your face, is not what one would aspire to in the name of art.

There's also the fact that paying the bills for 30 years and co-creating a fine young man like your son is an art form unto itself. One worthy of highest praise.

By all means, do what you're driven to do and savor each of the finite supply of moments available. Don't loose track of the fact that you're as much a writer as a photographer. If the blog is frittering away too much of the storehouse of writerly energy, reallocate.

If this effort, at some point, has to make way for something else, don't end it. Just put it on hiatus. Give your regular readers an opportunity to register for email notification of new books, the resumption of the blog, or any other development of note.

Nobody out here in cyberspace wants to be detached permanently and left to orbit all alone.

Mike Rosiak said...

Kirk,
I love/hate it when you wax philosophical. Love it, because I find in your ruminations ideas I don't often see elsewhere. Hate it, because often they're a dash of cold water in the face.

What you said, " I'm looking for a spark in a photograph that makes you stop and look at an image because you are curious about what is behind the photograph. I want you to wonder what the back story is. I want you to ponder what happened five minutes after the frame you see was captured. I want you to be curious about the person in the photograph" is what I've been trying to put into words for several months. One of these days, I'm going to have to compose the dreaded "artist's statement" and I may harken back to your ideas to kick-start my own writing.

As my accountant tells me, by the way, until I can show some relevant income and make money, it's a hobby.

Kirk Tuck said...

No plans to end the blog but plans to tell some types of clients "no." And to thin their herd just a bit...

But thanks for wanting me to keep writing. I can't really stop that. :-)

Dave said...

One of your best pieces to date Kirk.

Over time I've decided that the tension between all things we embed in our lives is actually life itself. Maybe that's an open ended riddle of middle age.

My father "retired" from the lumber mill and went straight back to 10-12 hour days on the farm. It made him tick, and happy, even while he was cursing animals, bad weather or general misfortunes. He did that for about 30 years of "retirement".

So I guess the answer is crystal clear! Go buy a farm!

neopavlik said...

I've been thinking about a 85mm 1.4G, colored gels, and a new lighting modifier.

I researched but that wasn't enough. I did bokeh tests on my 85mm 1.8G , 105 DC , and 105 Ai-S. I put gels through the window and on walls to see their color, even used my reflective measure on my meter. I also used a majority of the modifiers for quick self portraits to see what they do again.

I'm trying to keep my skills sharp for when the muse returns.

hbernstein said...

Agree, one of your best pieces, also one of your most personal, even if we aren't privy to everything in your head that went into writing it.

Don't give up connecting with us via this blog!

cfw said...

Your message seems like a very elegant way of saying that no one on their death bed ever complained about not having spent enough time at the office.

Phil Stiles said...

Great piece, so much deeper than gear-talk.
Do you know "the The War of Art," by Pressfield?

Kirk Tuck said...

1pm il, long time VSL readers will no doubt chuckle as I have been recommending Pressfield's book almost quarterly since 2010!

Bill Danby said...

Thank you for articulating how the various parts of our selves wrestle for all the moments of our lives.

We would all give anything for the welfare of our children and our families. We do and we have. But it doesn't stop us from wishing that there was just a little more time. Another hour. Another day, Another year.

I'm not a fan of sports metaphors (they often get us off to a false start), but I recall Jay Maisel being asked why he saw things that Scott Kelby, standing next to him, didn't. Similarly to your post, Maisel replied that it was because he (Maisel) exercised those visual muscles every day.

Thanks, and good luck to us all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk. First ever response. Long time reader.

With all due respect, I think your acting like a spoilt brat again! 95% of your time working and you don't like it! Just think yourself lucky to BE working and earning. Welcome to most peoples world, doing something the'ed rarther not for the odd moments of freedom to do what they will. You have a good roof over your family, your all well fed and are likley to be in the future. It's just meloncolny because the lad's flown the nest

Keep doing what your doing, your doing it well.
Thanks for sharing.
Stumpy

Christian Spyr said...

Kirk,
Your blog is on my 'must-read-regularly' list because I like both style and content of your writing. This piece however stands out in a unique way. Every blogger really worth reading seems to produce such a post twice or so per year. You've just published one of yours. I intended to just quickly stop by before starting my work but couldn't stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs. You've found words for a lot of thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately and the text squarely hit home. Thanks for the honesty and openness you put in your writing - it's the differentiator to the vast majority of meaningless noise out there. Made my day, and probably will so a few more times in the future.

Michael Reed said...

kirk

spending time/doing for our chidren is well worth it.

I did not want my life to mirror the song "Cat's In the Cradle"

Kirk Tuck said...

Stumpy, I can tell that you did not grow up in the U.S.A. We want it all !!!! :-)

Anonymous said...

"No plans to end the blog but plans to tell some types of clients "no." And to thin their herd just a bit..."

...and/by raising your prices.
The inevitable step on the path to growth. And not just business growth.
Good luck.