9.01.2016

Welcome back to the blog! It's time to get back to work. And play.

R. Zellweger by Kirk Tuck. The pursuit of your passion defines your destiny.

Hey! We're all back, let's dive right in. I've spent August trying to figure out why some people have long and happy careers as photographers (both amateurs and professionals) while others have trouble getting off the ground or burn out and walk away from what should be an almost infinite source of fun and self-expression. There's been a lot of news and gnashing of teeth over the last month about the closing of Brooks Institute and other "for profit" photography schools and it begs a metaphorical question: How long can we keep listening to Beatles tunes in elevators as background music? Everything changes. Everything moves on. 

Looking at Brooks, historically, shows me that what Brooks did  really well was to unlock the secrets of lighting and exposure, and show students how to focus this knowledge, along with the cumbersome photographic tools of the day, to make good quality photographs. During most of the school's long tenure these were necessary secrets to unravel and acquire. There was much more than nuts and bolts configurations in their teaching; more than just concepts of lighting, exposure and how to pose a model. My friends who attended Brooks in the 1970s really do understand (with great competence) the details of view camera movements and how these movements impact final images. The students absorbed helpful technical knowledge that was oh so relevant in the heady days of film photography--- stuff like reciprocity failure and exposure corrections required for close up work and macro imaging. They could calculate "bellows factors." They learned how to develop (in actual chemicals) films in all sizes, from 35mm to 8x10 inch sheets. They even learned the finer points of selenium toning double weight, fiber papers.

And guess what? We taught the same basic curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin, in the college of Fine Arts. These technical classes were described in the (printed) course catalog as "Commercial Photographic Illustration."  Very few of the now arcane film techniques have relevance for photographers working today.

Digital imaging has mostly obviated the need to learn anything but
the lighting, and even there instant review systems in cameras shorten the technical learning curve from years to months. I should say that digital imaging has obviated the need to learn intricate technical details, but there are a lot of other things that may be more important...

I would argue that none of that technical knowledge was anything more than a very basic minimum standard or threshold to cross into the field of money making photography. No, what Brooks and UT and many other exemplary college programs demanded, and what ultimately leveraged the technical skills into financial success, was the requirement, across schools, that in order to achieve a degree students had to take art history courses, writing courses, business courses and basic marketing courses. A four year university degree also required several years of world language study, basic science and social science courses and some grounding in general, civilizing thought. These were  and should be the real "meat" of a photographic education. The photographer armed with only rote vocational skills is largely useless in most of the highly paid areas of imaging and communications. There are profitable areas that require collaborative thought and wider interpretations that spring from shared, learned ideas.

Robotically aiming techniques at a project without a cultivated taste, point of view, historical perspective and the shared knowledge of general academia is what limits the unleashing of whatever talent those students really possess. Knowing about, and having experienced the work of artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Fragonard, Matisse and Klimt was/is at least as important in the making of great images as understanding the inverse square law and the fact that we are discussing digital imaging doesn't change the mix even fractionally.

With the somewhat unsavory embrace of photography by technocrats we seem to have lost a very basic understanding of what is integral in the creation of worthwhile art. This art, hobby, profession that we passionately pursue has almost nothing to do, in its essence, with quantification, precision technical understanding, or the minor differences between the tools (cameras, lights, etc.) with which we create the photographs. At least this is true when talking about the kinds of photographs that move us to have a reaction. Photographs that go beyond documentation and transmit ideas of beauty or interpreted human relevance and experience.

It's the combination of human "feature sets" that ultimate make photographs fun, exciting and meaningful.  At the beginning of one's career with a camera there is a promiscuity in the making of images that comes from an abundance of (youthful) energy and the power of the novelty, and seemingly unlimited potential that lies ahead for the new practitioner. While the work might be technically uneven it's usually imbued with strong emotion and exuberance. A delight at discovering a new way of seeing and "talking" about the world of our senses.

After the flowers of youth fade and the petals fall off we tend to get bogged down in the middle years of our photographic adventures. After working for ten or twenty years we've seen so many examples of good and bad work and have internalized so many disparate styles and approaches. We tend to lose our own curatorial compass.  We come to balance our available time between so many obligations and awkward choices. At some point we substitute the short term thrill of generic mastery for the more classic and sustaining "inspiration." We go for the "greatest hits" and abandon our own very differentiated understanding of, and our driving passion for, the subjects that seduced us into photography in our youth.

To my mind these are the fallow years.

And what is the underlying cause of this malaise, this surrender from passion to craft? I conjecture that it is the rude restraints and constrictions we allow a country or culture, which pays only passing lip service to the ideas of art and philosophy, to shackle us with. Mercantile cultures that endlessly and brutally propagandize the need to conform, and to the idea that all training and education should not be aimed at making life more meaningful and beautiful but only used in the pursuit of money and the securing of relentless and mostly menial work that only financially sustains one while at the same time draining all vestiges of spirit, enthusiasm and passion.  The very things that move civilization forward.

The result is an "educated" population that doesn't read literature, won't watch movies that aren't richly larded with nonsensical violence, and which would rather drink or medicate themselves into oblivion than to take even a small risk toward true self-expression. Sadly, I meet people with what passes for a college degree now who can neither name ten great artists or ten great writers, nor calculate the surface area of a circle, or do the basic math required to understand compound interest.

They've lost the essence of what it is to be truly engaged with life. With society. Even with the higher aspirations of their "tribes." In short, they are trained to work in the service of corporations and associations.

The group for which I have the most sympathy is the weathered and seasoned hobbyists and professional photographers who have left the workforce, raised their kids and now have the time to knuckle down and make their own art only to find that the process of just making a living has almost fatally diluted their connection to the very subjects that first fueled their passion for photography.

This is the group that, rather than joining cameras clubs and replicating the same work they see from everyone else, should be in full scale rebellious, energized revolt.

A revolt against the idea that making photographs is a gentle time filler now, aimed at no target in particular. A thing done for mild pleasure rather than as a visual exploration of the individualized realization of beauty and/or meaning.

The life long delay of artistic gratification is a tough process to reverse, and yet, from nearly every photographer I know who is over 50 years of age the one question (plea?) I hear over and over and over again is: How do I get my mojo back?"

And: How do I get inspired again? Or,

How can I take these cameras back up and enjoy this process like we did in our youth?

The thing that makes me melancholy when I listen to this group (and feel myself sliding into the pool of ennui with them) is my realization that the muse or passion which once drove us to do crazy and wonderful and beautifully individual imaging is not some external cog that has gone missing but a space in our souls that we allowed the process of life to empty out. Emptied out by the countless choices we made every day of our working lives. Choices that involved the promise of security over risk and comfort over flashes of wonderment and joy.

They happened when we made the choice to buy a bigger house in a better neighborhood instead of buying ourselves more time. Buying a more expensive and prestigious car instead of buying more days to pursue our heart's work. The almost unconscious satisfying of the avaricious desires of a status-focused spouse instead of mapping the course we knew we secretly wanted to take.

The vain attempts to "give" our kids every advantage while we tried to live vicariously through them in their pursuits of soccer, little league, robot camp and programming camp. And all the desire-for-the-future plans we make for them instead of having made the "selfish" choices that people like Henri Cartier Bresson, any Weston, or Elliott Erwitt made to move their photographic games forward on their own terms. With less regard for the domestic consequences...

You can't get the years back that you spent hunched at your desk, poring over soul numbing spreadsheets and sitting through soporific meetings till your lower back gives out. Living through the excess coffee jitters that ravage your peace of mind. But you can engineer a second chance.

You can take back the rest of your life as an artist.

The method is to find the one thing external to photography that you absolutely love. Become an expert in that one thing. Become an expert in its history and variations. And then make your own art about that thing which generates this passion for you. If you aren't working for a client then your work should be all about making the subject or the object of your passion your passion.

It's the only chance we have to make images that are really fulfilling to us alone. Images we'd be happy to spend time with alone in a room. Just looking and enjoying. Seeing through the paper or the screen to the thing portrayed.

So, what does any of this have to do with the closing of Brooks Institute and the Hallmark Institute of Photography?  It's all about focus. Whether you believe it or not we are, as a culture, leaving the industrial age and the information age and entering a new age (unsurely and unevenly) that is a new world where design, story and content; oh yes, and art, will be ascendent because all technology will become mostly ubiquitous, and largely invisible commodities. We need to shift our understanding of innate value away from the objects (last century) and toward content. Glorious, passionate content. The story. The picture.  Not the camera or the computer. Not the process but the result.

In order to do this we may need to retrain ourselves. That's a good thing.

If you trained and worked as an engineer, business person, lawyer, technician or computer scientist you trained to be logical and to work sequentially, serially, and linearly. All good things for getting work done. But more or less antithetical to the less structured thinking that helps people make the kinds of mental and emotional connections that result in individuated art.

If you didn't do it the first time around it's time to dip into the 401K or the SEPP and learn just for your own sake, and the sake of your desire to make a passionate and personal statement. To leave a visual mark.  Head back to school and load up on Art History, Fiction Writing (let's exercise the whole brain), Dance, Theater, Studio Arts, Literature and philosophy.

An education just for you and not for your employer's sake. A door into your own happiness and a way to bring the magic back to your own practice of photography.

So, ultimately, using Brooks as an example, where did the educators go wrong? I submit that they were all too focused on the "how" of photography and not on the "why" of photography. But the "why" can be so simple. It's all about starting a conversation. In part, a visual conversation. It's about saying, "look at this!" "Have you ever looked at a thing/person/idea in this way before?"

The schools fail when they stop teaching the "why" and focus solely on the "how" of a subject. A dangerous thing when the need for "how" has shrunken and the understanding of "why" has slipped from the grasp of so many...

The camera isn't a powerful interpreter it is just a window. It lets ideas out. When we just ape what everyone else does the window is closed. It makes for a stuffy, little room. The promise of education is to move society and civilization forward; ever closer to beauty and understanding. If we don't have a common goal for our destination then what we have is just more of the same.

I guess this first post back is something of a manifesto directed to all of my age peers who have done their busy work of bringing home the bacon and are now searching for the elusive meaning in life that everyone seems to be writing self-help books about. It's a big subject. I'm only talking about my own little corner; making my photography relevant to me. Re-capturing the sense of passion I felt when I was young and spent my time making portraits of Renee and Belinda and Sarah and so many other manifestations of beauty.

The cameras are fun fantasy. The passion is the real thing.

An interesting point of view from Charles Bukowski who wrote (among other things) the poem, "Love is a Dog from Hell." Here are his thoughts about employment: http://www.theplaidzebra.com/bukowski-wrote-this-letter-about-ditching-the-9-5-thirty-years-later-its-more-relevant-than-ever/

22 comments:

ChazL said...

Wow! You may have taken a few weeks off from posting, Kirk, but its clear that you haven't stopped thinking about your craft for a moment. And now we get to enjoy the fruits of your ruminations.

Welcome back to the blog indeed!

Graham Harris said...

Oh well said! I am so glad you took that break..... after a lifetime in science and technology I can say exactly the same thing. We do indeed live in interesting times..... which is why, in my dotage, I have developed a passion for photography and philosophy (which asks all the questions that others don't, and I never had the time whilst on the hamster wheel).

best wishes from "down under"

jlemile salvignol said...

At work, Kirk! We rely so much on your wisdom. And we give you too little: asymmetrical exchange.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back from your vacation Kirk and hasn't that break fired up your blog.

A brilliant well thought out and argued essay and oh so relevant to all of us whether older photographers or for that matter any creative or non creative profession.

Well done, it is so relevant to so many of us who have had to cope with disruptive technological change and perceived devaluation of both skill and financial worth.

Thank you for your inspiration and energy.

Terry
Melbourne Australia

JustinPhotoArtist said...

Wow, your thought provoking posts are back with a vengaence. Well worth the wait. Thanks for your insights.

Dave Jenkins said...

Congratulations, Kirk! I didn't think you could keep your fingers off the keyboard that long! Excellent, thought-provoking post, as usual.

Don Parsons said...

Let me be among the first to say "Welcome Back! I missed you!"

Great post Kirk. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

More later when I have the time to absorb the post.

Don

Dave Jenkins said...

" the "selfish" choices that people like Henri Cartier Bresson, any Weston, or Elliott Erwitt made to move their photographic games forward on their own terms. With less regards for the domestic consequences..."

I will take issue with you on this point, Kirk. I believe that a good and lasting marriage is life's greatest adventure and the highest of all arts. I am cognizant of the examples you mention, but would add that good and lasting marriages did not diminish the art of such as Andre Kertesz, certainly one of the greatest photograpers of all time, Harry Callahan, Ansel Adams, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, and many, many others.

Gato said...

Welcome back. Excellent post.

Very timely for this old guy who is looking for his next act.

benatmer said...

Yes, thank god for those thoughts- it's art we want, not mere repetition of the generic shots everyone else has made- however perfect the Yosemite sunset, unless it's a picture made with a personal vision and philosophy, it's nothing but decoration. I agree totally that it's painting and literature and philosophy and experience which create vision, not photography courses or new cameras- it has to come from a worldview...

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, I couldn't agree with you more about the joy and benefits of a great marriage. I've clocked 32 years and it seems like we only met yesterday. But....I meet a lot of people stuck in relationships with selfish partners who..... make an artists life well nigh impossible.

Graeme Harris said...

Hi Kirk,
I have been happily following your blogs for years now, this is my first comment.
Your latest blog hit a nerve. I was in the exact place you describe, feeling jaded and not knowing what to do next.
I have been a pro all my working life and an amateur as well. I retired last year when I turned 70 and needed something new to
rekindle the passion I have always had for photography. Via some French friends, I got hooked on the idea of a photograph a day blog. I started last November so am coming up to a year. It has been the most inspiring thing I could have done, I walk the streets and find pics and add a funny or quirky caption. They are not always taken on the day but usually within the week, I haven't used any images before Nov 2015 when I started. I recommend this to get the passion back, I can't wait to put each day's image on line.
If anyone is interested my blog is : graemeharris.blogspot.com you won't regret it.

Craig Yuill said...

When you said you would be back, like clockwork, on September 1 you weren't kidding. Welcome back! I have missed reading your posts.

Also, thank you for once again stating that it is important to do something and think about something other than continuously chasing a buck. It's too bad that many of the most-influential people out there, especially business "leaders" and politicians, don't understand that point.

Michael Matthews said...

Ah, the drought is over.

Norm Snyder said...

Thank you for that essay. Having come off 4+ weeks off [knee replacement], during which I missed reading your posts, I've had a good deal of time to think about the ways I can enrich time time available. I also ran across a quotation, that seems to sum up the alternative, if we choose to not provide ourselves that enrichment/exploration, this from many years ago:

“There will be in the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it.” - Aldous Huxley

Glad your back.

Alex said...

In my mother tongue we have that word "Allgemeinbildung", which might be translated as "general education". But its much more, its a broadening of the mind and the intellect to acquire a deeper understanding of the world. More a collection of all the skills and the knowledge no longer deemed necessary for todays rat race towards wealth and fame.

James Weekes said...

I have had little trouble in that direction. I had three small studios in Vermont. weddings, product work, portraits...nowhere near on your level either in volume or intensity, but I do recognize all of the problems/solutions that entail this work. Your big rule, and one I learned the hard way....have backup for everything.

Since retiring I love photography even more. Cannot describe exactly what I'd call my photography other than playing in the best sense. I go from tripod to Holga lens and love it all. My many years (all of my professional years) were in film and those lessons have carried over to digital.

Your joy in photography is also contagious, so keep blogging, and thank you.

Anonymous said...

One of the most thoughtful and provocative posts ever, on any site. A few years ago, I experienced a life changing "Artist's Way" workshop conducted by one of my acting teachers. Your post is equally powerful. You said so much with "it lets ideas out." Thanks for your amazing insight.

Eggboy said...

What a wonderful, and subversive, post! In times past, I would idly think/fantasize about the equipment I would like to have....truly, in the last few years, I really fantasize (mostly ;-) about TIME...really, the most important thing.
-Eugene

amolitor said...

Awesome. Completely.

Could not have said it better myself. I know this for a fact because (as you know) I try, and try, and try. I've written, I dunno, tens of thousands of words, and never come close.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Again. Just Fuckin Brilliant. Again.

Sander Kikkert said...

I guess aside from food wisdom also tastes best when shared and boy did you just treat us all to a fantastic dinner ! Keep it up Kirk.

Cheers, Sander