Portrait. Fade to black. Career, hard turn.

I had a little epiphany this week. I'm tired of accepting diffuse and unchallenging work. Especially as regards portraits. I'm pretty sure I can make a living, in the future, by doing portraits in the way I want to see them, not in some commodified style that just fills space and "describes" the person in the frame. I want people who view my portraits to feel as though they have come to understand something about the subject, even if it's only the nature of their patience. Even if it is a visual and emotional illusion.

Something happened to a lot of the artists I knew when the economy collapsed in 2008. They became fearful of their commercial futures and let that fear dictate the terms of their engagement with their art and craft. I don't expect the 90% of American people who never lost their jobs to understand the emotional impact on people who lived a more precarious existence as freelancers. It's as though we scrambled, en masse, to do the lesser biding of agencies, companies and commercial audiences to compete for the few remaining projects of the time. We became afraid to push back and lobby for the quality each piece deserved because our collective fear of jinxing a deal by pushing for parameters that would continue to move the aesthetic we had created forward. Clients cut budgets and they also, by extension, cut the potential for excellence.

I talk to so many people in related communication crafts and most frequently what I hear is that they are nervous about raising rates back up because they feel that clients have become used to holding the upper hand and dictating the construct of the engagements. But what I hear from the actual clients---a step beyond the ad agencies and intermediaries---is a dismay that all creative work has become boring and diminished, and that they resent their agents and proxies for disregarding the need for great work in order to pursue a budget number that they think their clients will----tolerate. 

"We never asked them to limit the budgets. We never demanded that things be done on the cheap. We want the best creative resources we can buy and we're willing to pay for them." That's what the good clients are saying. The cost cutting happened because the intermediaries felt the fear they were partially creating and embraced it in their own dealings.

Seems it's time for a cathartic throwing off of the budget harness. Time to step up and tell people that we are no longer interested in doing homogenous crap just to keep the doors open. It's time to pull out the stops and get back to the real work of our work----making people look at what we've done with a sense that they are seeing something new or expertly seen and translated. And making sure that what we have done is exciting enough to merit getting our client's marketing work a second look. Even while it means asking for more money and rejecting demands to commodify.

Use of stock photography is a form of creative cowardice. Presuming a client is part of the legion of cheap, petit bourgeois culture, hellbent on the bottom line (at any cost) is passé. The brave new world of commercial art is all about standing out, again. Leading the charge. Innovating and not being afraid to demand workable budgets for hardworking art. The clients feel it. The rest of us need to get on board. Or get off the train.


  1. Taking a hard line is tough, but more doable with portraits like this one in the portfolio. Very nice!

  2. Budgets HAVE been coming back up and work HAS begun appearing again. Lack of risk taking or minimal deviation from a predictable path by the client, however, is still alive and well.

  3. Daniel Milnor over at shifter.media offers what I find to be a radically parallax view of the industry and he seems to think this is happening. The serious guys with real ability are tending toward this attitude.

    Not everyone, I dare say. Still, my understanding is that you're not alone, Kirk.

  4. Tuck, that is one fucking awesome portrait.

  5. Great portrait, Kirk. But, I think you're unintentionally dissing those of us who make part of our incomes from shooting stock. I understand you probably mean commercial and not editorial stock. I'm mainly an editorial shooter, but every once in awhile an editorial shot gets used commercially, for which I'm very thankful.

  6. I'm not dissing people who shoot stock but I am being disrespectful to all the people who use it in ad campaigns as a cheap and mindless filler when clients generally deserve so much better. Not that there is "technically" anything wrong with the stock images but they are a generic solution used for cost savings when a custom approach would generally be better for most clients in the long run.

    I don't know anything about the difference between editorial stock and commercial stock but I don't like the idea of it. Using stock images is like clients having to share a common tooth brush...

  7. If what you're looking for is sameness, conformity, soothing familiarity, stock is your baby. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not the whole world. There's lots of contexts where you want that, and lots of contexts where you want the opposite.

    The trouble arises when you confuse the two.

    You probably want stock when you're doing a brochure about vaccination or birth control. You probably don't when you're developing your company's brand.

    That said, the stock companies do seem to be making a play to grab a slice of the creative market too. What iStockphoto et al really want is for you, the photographer, to go all out Kirk Tuck style putting out pictures they're going to sell 2 copies of for 60 cents each.

    So the play for the creative, really, has simply got to be bespoke work. Sure, iStockphoto has 10,000 superbly creative images that.. almost work. But they're not quite what the client wants, they're not quite client-specific enough.

  8. You are a talented portrait photographer Kirk. Use your talent as it should be.

    Marc J


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