2.12.2016

Changing gears is sometimes about hitting a wall and realizing you missed the door.


I have a persona on the web. To some I am a techie guy who has a typical liberal arts education, has had some modest successes over the years as a commercial photographer and who has parleyed the fear and boredom of the years from 2007 to 2012 into a modestly successful bout of book writing and, by extension, blog writing. Most of my readers know that I swim, that I have one child, a dog and a wife of some 35 years. I've tried to keep my political viewpoints out of my public writing and I've worked to keep my views about religion personal. So, in fact, most people know very little about who I really am or what motivates me to do what I do beyond the usual, human responses to fear and greed.

While walking with my wife and my dog through our quiet neighborhood this morning I found myself taking stock of how my life has changed over the last twenty years. A change that I should have resisted more. Controlled more. In 1995 I felt as though I had a modicum of control over what I did both for a living and as an art. My audiences were the ones I actively attracted by actually meeting them. In person. Face to face. My portraits were made with tools that I loved for a number of reasons. My approach to making the portraits was nearly always predicated on a very personal view of what portraiture should be, not what popular, and every changing markets might dictate.

I had yet to write my first book or type my first blog. My days consisted of making beautiful work (at least I thought it was so), having face to face meetings with clients and friends and colleagues, and then spending many quiet evenings reading everything I enjoyed; from novels to poetry to economics. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times because it seemed important to be both informed and to have a foot in both political camps for balance.

When photography changed, along with everything else that was touched by the encroachment of the digital hegemony, in the early part of this century, it was like an anchor was cut loose for our art and even the previously codified flow of our everyday lives. The relentless drumbeat from media everywhere was about the unalloyed advantages of "being digital", of being one's own publisher and of being "on" for every cycle. A relentless march to the future that rewarded the media much more than the message, the number of followers more than what was being said or shown. Followers equalled eyeballs, which were connected to mostly functional brains, which were connected to credit cards, the exercise of which could conceivably create new income streams for "artists."

The problem was that the race for eyeballs and money led to unexpected consequences and behaviors. Instead of continuing to do the work I loved the lure of creating media and content that would sell to a mass market was alluring, intoxicating and seemed so much smarter than working in a small and contained market. The trade off, which exists for almost anyone who wants to grow an anonymous market, is that at some point you have to give your audience what they want. Not what you genuinely have to say but what they genuinely want to read. It's an enormous trade off and one that sociopaths have very little problem with. Just separate what you like from what you do for money and off you go. But the issue is a bit more complicated for people who aren't sociopathic and have a warm affinity and attachment for the things that they love to do well. Which for me is meeting people and making portraits.

I was playing around with small flashes and cheap, optical slaves in 2006, about the time that I was active on David Hobby's Strobist site. I did an image of then Dell CEO, Kevin Rollins with the small lights and wrote about it for a magazine. I also posted an article about the nuts and the bolts of the shoot on Strobist. Which led to an offer to write my first book with Amherst Media. I was living the new, social media marketing dream.

But. But. But. The process of writing a book took me away from the ongoing craft of working on portraits. Of shooting and doing what I really loved. The first book took six months to write and illustrate and when I finished with it I told myself I'd never do it again. It took so long. The effort was so concentrated and, worst part, I wasn't moving my art, craft or brain forward, I was crafting an educational resource based on stuff I already knew by heart. But then the book hit and sold very well and it became a focus point for me. People called me to do workshops. They called to interview me. They did all the things an artist with an ego thrives on. They played to my desire to be someone in my field. An expert. Someone who has "made it." And that's the most dangerous and destructive part of moving away from the things you love to embrace a different persona that's inauthentic and not genuine. And most of the attention given to me by web sources was in service of me creating "free" content for them; one way or the other. The interview or the copied blog post.

The ego accepts every offer. And the ego goads the brain to move in the direction that yields the most self-esteem building gratification. More books equal more eyeballs. More validation of your position as a successful and business savvy photographer. But the books required care and feeding. Any publisher will tell you that the writers who are successful are the ones who jump in and help with the marketing of their properties in any way that they can. I proceeded to do my part by writing this blog and flogging the books when I felt like the balance was right.

And all the time the web and technology and the media is ever changing and morphing and the targets are constantly moving. I started trying out new stuff all the time. Moving ever further from my own, innate and satisfying targets from decades before. Digital had killed my tools (or so I thought) and relegated me to a desperate and ongoing search to replace them with (woefully inadequate and homogenous) digital replacements. And all the while my artistic vision was fading. Ever more diluted by my bifurcated searches for general relevance, applause, and a desire to seem relevant within the context of a new generation of imagers. I was trying to constantly keep up with the younger Joneses even though none of them possessed a map to the future either.

I bought my first EP2 on a whim but stayed engaged in the Olympus system partially because of a huge surge of readers who seemed to hang on every word I wrote about the system, regardless of whether it worked for my real, personal vision or not. I never lied or accepted graft but somehow my sense of not only being part of a new community, but also a taste maker within it, kept me buying and writing about cameras that were ancillary to my core aesthetic. My way of seeing images and translating them.

By the fifth book I had come to realize that my "artist self" had been totally sublimated, suffocated and left in cold storage by the combination of income, ego stroking and delusions of using the eyeball base as a market to sell books to. To extend my reach as a "web personality" which might deliver me opportunities.

But the things that keep coming my way are truncated and compromised, to a certain extent. Witness my brief and rocky relationship with Samsung. Was a one week trip to Berlin, in the clutches of Samsung handlers, really valuable enough to make up for using a flawed camera? I could have easily dipped into the business checking account and sent myself to Berlin for a peaceful week of shooting, unencumbered by one dimensional marketing serfs. Some of the cameras were interesting but would I have ever even tried to shoot with a camera that has no EVF or OVF if it had not been offered as part of being in the program? Of course not.

I must seem naive now to so many people who know that there is no "free ride" and that all the web stuff is really just extended B.S., is a massive shift of value from the owner of art to the endless distributors of art waiting for ephemeral payment while the old hands at the aggregators and the many thieves on the internet actually get the payments. In a sense my years of blogging were/are my own form of resistance to just getting my own work done. Shooting those singular portraits I want to shoot for an audience that never, ever came from the web. And still doesn't.

It's interesting to have had all this play out in a public forum. It's like broadcasting potty training. Highly embarrassing at times and in the end it's all more or less poop.

Where does it all end? Well of course, in the grave. But at what point does it dawn on an artist that you've ceased to do your authentic art and you have moved into the more or less "blue collar" job of maintaining a web presence with the hope for tips and affiliate income, and that by doing so you've relegated yourself to modifying what you talk about into stuff you think will have wide interest, including techniques you know by heart and gear that's nothing more than transient entertainment?

Well, at least this confessional outflow is more interesting to me than whether or not the new Pentax camera will have HDR bracketing. Of course, my fear in publishing this particular piece is the very real possibility that I will be writing for myself, alone in the near future.

Ah well. What value is a blog if we can't interject a bit of honesty from time to time?





One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.



39 comments:

Chappy Achen said...

This is what I like about your blog, HONESTY. I appreciate your thoughts and advice about how you work and how it might work for me, a retired pilot who has dabbled in photography for 45 years and loves portraiture. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much sums up our journey from the start of the "digital" age to now. Less and less fun but more and more pretending to be having fun.

Tom Northenscold said...

There's this great quote in a movie on Bill Cunningham, the NY Times photographer. I'll have to paraphrase it. He basically said that you shouldn't shoot for money because if you do, they own you. I've never been a commercial photographer. I can only imagine the internal tug of war that comes with that profession. I have the luxury of shooting for myself. I do a lot of shooting gratis for my church. Even then I'm doing it for myself as a gift to the congregation. I suppose the tough part in the commercial world is to carve out space for the artist within.

Marriott said...

Mr. Tuck. I've been reading you for some years now and I've come here every day since. Not that that pays you anything! But please know that your words are greatly appreciated by this hobby photographer.
I live in the former Soviet Union (Latvia), and even though I'm an still American citizen, I've been here for almost 15 years. This has given me a little bit of perspective on how perception of "the States" is viewed from a distance and a bit of time. Your summations of the practice of photography in your market are valuable and honest. If someday you decide to give up this blog, you will be missed, but I would understand completely why you had done so. Still, I hope you continue for some time as your legacy will be remembered richly.

Peter Ziegler said...

And yet, during this same period, you wrote and published a novel that appears, at least to me, to have been written for 'purer' motives than simply the approval of others. So there's that.

Rene said...

Kirk,

THIS is what keeps me coming back, day after day. Yeah, I like your reviews and I've learned a lot from you and enjoy your stories about working, but it is the honest, soul baring pieces about life and how you live it that I enjoy the most. I always find something to reflect on in my own life.

George Beinhorn said...

Hey, Kirk. I just had to laugh as I read this and, toward the end, envisioned Michelangelo kvetching with the Pope! But, really, this is wonderful at least in the way it prompted a lot of warm reflection. And I've definitely got an abundance of living to reflect on; now age 74, I've been blogging for 15 years, writing for 42 years, taking pictures for 50 years. Maybe it's because I'm past a certain age, but I never fell for the dot-com or blogging-SEO-easy-bucks crap. Now that my time is short, I find that FOCUS is the key to artistic and spiritual satisfaction. Not necessarily doing only the work that I think I'll love, but the work that genuinely yields love. That is, expansive work that extends my borders to include a wider reality. Not necessarily reaching out for something big and complex, but extracting the wider dimensions from what's before me, whether it's a portrait, series of workshop photos, or an article. In any work, there's always a certain amount of tedious drudgery. And sometimes it's not even the art that's the most beautiful part of the work, but the sense of serving a higher purpose, of helping something worthwhile to happen. I see it in the earlier portraits you've posted recently (haven't seen much of your current work, I'm guessing because of client confidentiality. But I'm guessing that, being who you are, you probably can't help but try to present people in their own best light. And that's a very worthwhile service. We are what we aspire to. Anyway, just a few thoughts that bubble up. I LOVED this column.

Eric Rose said...

Thanks for being so honest while bearing your soul. I enjoy your writing for it's no BS quality and intelligence. Your portraits are stunning. As a former commercial photographer (still get dragged out once in awhile) your blogs almost (almost) make me wish I had a studio once again. However I know things have changed a LOT since the 80's. Like many we all hit a wall of some sort and have to take that long and lonely walk in the wilderness to figure out who we are now, who we want to be and how to make it happen. I've taken that walk several times. I'm happy where I am right now but have the scares from the journey. Maintaining a blog is a lot of work, especially one of such high quality. It seems like the blog might be sucking you dry. The ROI just isn't there anymore. If you decide to pack it in I will be very sad but will understand totally. Studio dog and your lovely wife will most likely benefit from the extra time they will get from you. They deserve that time much more than I do.

Another user said...

I confess I read every words you wrote about cameras :-). But I like and respect what you're saying in this post.

Mitch said...

The marketing guru's now all say that people don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

And as the intersection of art and commerce was realigned at the inception of digital, it all became about the "what". Many lost their stock agents and gained emails from what I like to describe as Image Distribution Platforms. Funny, all the money and satisfaction seemed to be in their mercenary hands and there was no longer interest in vision or quality or unique-ness. And there was no longer room for the "why" ... the Art ...

But the "Why", the "Art" is the reason clients came to us in the first place.

An interesting graphic described the maturing marketplace for the creator of a product as a pyramid. Let's call our unique, heartfelt and visionary photography The Product.

At the top was the original/innovator who owned the whole, small, marketplace. (Remember the creative quake Aaron Jones created before he launched the Hosemaster and made his light painting available to the masses?)

As the market widened, the next wider level of the pyramid was occupied with the original and a sliver by imitators.

As the market widened further, the original occupied a smaller sliver of the market with the imitator being squeezed by the new entrant; the price competitor.

Skipping to the bottom of the pyramid, it was mostly occupied by price competitors with the imitators maybe hanging on and the original inventor, quite possibly squeezed out of the market altogether.

With digital and the ubiquity of communications today it is imperative that we concentrate on our art, creating something unique and constantly reinventing that unique thing. Otherwise the flattening effects of today's technology will have us pushed out of the marketplace in no time by those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Educating people how to do what we do is now of limited value as the knowledge can be disseminated quickly through so many channels. And not many of them send revenue back to the educator.

The art is what it is all about. Build it and they will come?

roscoepoet said...

Halfway through this my heart started pounding as I expected you were going to declare that you were going to stop writing. In conversations with friends who follow your writing, I've described my relationship with the VSL as going to photographer church. Reading your clear, honest descriptions of how you create art and make a living with various tools has inspired, informed and given me a more realistic relationship with my own gear. Your journey is real and beautiful. I'm grateful for your passion and courage to just let it flow--Love & Thanks!

Anonymous said...

seems like the way most wage earning folks go in the trajectory of their working lives. We do live in a capitalistic society after all and for the vast majority, making a living is itself a satisfying reward as opposed to living off the government/efforts of others. No reason to sweat it and it's refreshing to re-examine and change course every once in a while.

Bassman said...

Kirk:

Please continue to write what you want, when you want. That's what keeps me coming

Anonymous said...

"my fear in publishing this particular piece is the very real possibility that I will be writing for myself"

Exactly, except for the fear part. Isn't that (writing/creating for yourself) the ultimate goal as an artist/creator, as you so aptly described in this blog post? You write for yourself - to make yourself happy. And if others come along for the ride, so much the better. And if they don't, so be it - you're still creating what you want, what makes you happy. And honestly, do you really want the audience who is not interested in what you create for yourself but only in what you create for them, for free? Somehow, I don't think so.

Then again, I am one of many who come here to read what I want (in my case, this kind of stuff - and not gear talk, even if gear talk was what you wanted to write more of) so I guess you have to take what I say with a large grain of salt! (I've purchased a couple of your books, and used your amazon links for a couple of small purchases, in order to avoid being a total free loader. Yup, I liked the books - but, still, I guess I am here to read stuff that you write to the extent I enjoy it.) Does any of that make sense? I dunno.

Cheers,

Ken

Anonymous said...

Heheh, you are sounding like lots of the voices around here with the winter blues from the poor Welsh weather.

And sure, the personal portrait sessions are still the blog posts which utterly ring with enthusiasm. If you feel the call then it'd be wonderful if you focused on that more than gear.

It'd be lovely if you then reported back and shared the results. I've always wondered where you could take your portraiture by experimenting with the new tools you have.

But don't feel obligated. You owe us nowt, and I'm just grateful for the time and writing you've already shared.

So, yes, go! Have fun! Make art! Enjoy yourself. You've earned it.

Mark

Don Karner said...

This post is exactly the reason that I follow your blog Kirk. Really thoughtful, introspective writing that encourages me to be a little more introspective myself. Thank you.

Dan Higgins said...

I feel you manifest part your artist soul through writing. Nice post!

Patrick Dodds said...

No time for more than to say bravo and thank you.

Jim Tardio said...

Stay thirsty, my friend.

Phil Stiles said...

Kirk, a marvelous post. I love your blog for its grounded quality. You do real work for real people, and sometimes you talk about the work, and sometimes you talk about the tools. "my own form of resistance to just getting my own work done." From The War of Art? I think you raise the blog form to an art form.

David said...

Lately I find the idea that we can be in control of our lives hilarious. Okay, making decisions and living with the consequences is important, but finding ways to renew our selves and our work is just as interesting. Before leaving an earthquake damaged city for a fresh start a year or so ago, the question I asked each morning as a music teacher and photographer was how to to do the task differently, to do it simpler and with more clarity. Still do.
I always appreciate your reports from the trenches.

Michael Matthews said...

Consider writing the blog as another form of exercise. It helps keep the writing chops in shape.

Really, you don't need to swim as often and as intensely as you do (unless you're preparing to outrun an apocalyptic flood). But it keeps you physically and mentally fit. Nobody needs to undertake the push-up assignment you've set as your goal, but, as long as it doesn't bring on a stroke, it contributes to the same overall well-being.

Same goes for writing. Cameras, lighting gear, techniques -- they're all interesting to your readers. They all cause you to flex the creative muscle, sometimes producing incisive comment like the recent comparison of using high-end cameras to using napalm to mow the lawn.

We may not pay for the work, other than buying an occasional book or linking to an affiliate retailer. But we do enjoy and appreciate it. Ignore the applause if it seems only to inflate the ego. Ignore the Google analytics. Just keep on writing; we'll keep on reading and be the better for it. As will you.

Mike said...

Thanks, Kirk, for keeping this blog alive. I've enjoyed your musings and insights. It even helped convince me to leave my staff position and start my own photography business, which I've immensely enjoyed. Your influence - whether you feel your vision is being advanced or stagnating - has and is being felt through the industry. Keep it up.

Gilly said...

People change, cameras change and life goes on. I always enjoy reading about the twists and turns as your photography evolves, Thanks for sharing the journey Kirk, I enjoy reading your blog every day.

Mike Rosiak said...

What they all said.

Kirk, you keep writing, I'll keep reading.

Ron Nabity said...

Hey Kirk, while you may not share your political and religious views widely, I feel your writing style and content give us, your readers, a very intimate connection with you.

This "connection" is the very thing that so many social media gurus try to package and sell as a method, yet it can only happen organically, as you have done it.

So, write what you connect with, and we will join you.

Oldrail said...

Kirk,
You must be the most honest writer on the web. You should understand we come for the quality of the writing above all else. Keep it coming-you are unique. I come here daily for the fresh air!

Marcus

CadenceMichael said...

For what it's worth, I am much more interested in the art, craft, and experience blogs than the gear blogs. I always read the former and often skip the later. I'm happy with the gear that I have and don't need to hear about the latest and greatest. But I'm all ears if you want to help me get better using it. I'm also waiting to the sequel to The Lisbon Portfolio.

Paul said...

Kirk,
You may not mention politics or religion in your posts, but unlike people who just blog about equipment and technique you are baring at least part of you soul on VSL and that takes a big dose of bravery.
Questioning why we do it and is it worth it, is healthy and needs to be done by everyone in the context of the rest of their life. If you choose to stop altogether or just write equipment reviews, that is entirely your decision. It will leave a hole in my weekly reading but I will respect your choice.

Jim Hughes said...

The reason i read your blog, but not all of those other photography blogs.

Tim said...

First-world angst? Worth reading, none the less.

Joe Gilbert said...

Introspection is cathartic; leads to a re-birth (re-boot) if you will. You’ve circled this way before, and I think the journey is better for it.

Your most poignant comment on politics: “ Half of the people agree with me, the other half are wrong”.

Joe

john gee said...

good people come in different shapes & sizes.............I am confident you fit nicely

Anonymous said...

Au contraire, we know all about your political and religious positions based on your location and what you talk about. As a Texan, you're politically somewhere to the right of Genghis Kahn, except that you live in Austin so you think Hillary Clinton is too conservative. OTOH you're a small businessman so that moves you back to the right again, but you have the soul of an artist so you're definitely a Communist except that artists nowadays only make art so they can become as rich as the people who buy their art, so we're at Rockefeller Republican.
Hmmm...This isn't going as well as I thought it would.

OK, religion, that's easy. Texas=Evangelical. Except you are shooting for a Catholic school so you're a lapsed altar boy who feels guilty for having missed Mass the last 3,000 Sundays, but then there's that Austin thing again so you're some flavor of Buddhist-lite or possibly a Unitarian. But "liberal arts grad is just a polite way of saying atheist. But you have a lot of soul in your work, so there's something going on there...

I'm not getting very far here either. OK, you win this round. But we'll keep watching for clues.

Jim S. said...

Kirk:

It's pieces like this that keep me coming back to the VSL. Sure, I like the hardware discussions. Namely because you are a reasonable and practical person who writes in a way that is effortless to read. But I really like these discussions you have like this. I think it shows the value of photography in seeing life. Knowing what's important. Learning from both good and bad. I'd miss your perspectives should you decide not to do this further. I'd miss your sense of humor which I find hilarious! But you'd have my complete support (whatever that's worth!) as you are a good guy and deserve whatever you need to make you happy. You give photography a good name. Not many can have that said about them.

All the best.

Frank Field said...

Kirk -- I much appreciate your candor and willingness to share how the great Wall Street debacle of 2008 altered your course -- and not all to your liking. Frankly, that collapse affected and continues to affect so many in this country and around the world. It is important for each of us to recognize just how much those events have blown us off our intended courses and come to grips with just how much we want to let it affect what we do going forward. Sounds as though you have had a very healthy recognition of just how you want to move forward. Frank

Jiri Rehorek said...

Dear Kirk,
many of the comments above probably say it better then me. Anyway, what keeps me coming back to your blog is exactly the sense of reading honest thoughts from somebody who has been working as photographer for many years. Your blog talks about a person who keeps trying to do his best, sometimes struggling, but always with coherence and dignity. And for that I thank you very much.
Best Regards
Jiri

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the world that 99% of us inhabit.
We get paid for doing things that we wouldn't choose to do in our spare time.
And it sometimes involves doing things that we don't feel that comfortable doing for various moral or ethical reasons.
We all have bills to pay and most of us don't have the luxury of choosing what we want to do.
You haven't sold out on your 'artistic vision' you've purely taken the decisions that most of us have to take (and have taken throughout history), that in order to make a decent living you have to put money before art.
From what I've read of your blogs you've always been honest with your readers so there is nothing to be ashamed about.
And there's nothing to stop you pursuing personal projects in your spare time.
At least we have that option.
If you'd been born in any earlier time period your chance of being able to afford the time or resources required to pursue personal projects would have been significantly reduced.

Kirk in PDX said...

Hi Kirk,
Reading this blog post made me think of another blog and quote I read recently, this time from a photographer who is relatively new to me.

" “An artist is someone who creates something that is meaningful to himself/herself and to others.” Maria Popova"

"That definition completely encapsulates what I have searched for and experienced in my own life. The crucial part is that if you only create meaningful things for yourself, then the opportunity to make a difference is lost. The gift of generosity is forsaken. And if you only create meaningful things for others, your inner creative fire is compromised and eventually dies out..." - Robert Rodriguez Jr.

http://robertrodriguezjr.com/2016/02/10/seeing-more-than-just-the-landscape/

And, I think George Beihorn's comment is spot on, "...being who you are, you probably can't help but try to present people in their own best light. And that's a very worthwhile service. We are what we aspire to." Well said.