Being clear about what you like.

Taking even a short vacation seems to be good for coming to some understanding about what it is you really, really like to photograph. To be clear, even though I took the routine landscape shots and the colorful shots of food at farmer's markets, there was really nothing I was excited to photograph on my trip. I thought I might make a few thoughtful portraits but since portrait work is collaborative everyone has to be in the mood, or at least unhurried enough to consider sharing some time. 

Family vacations are like punishment for photographers. You reflexively bring your camera and a nice lens but the opportunities to use them for the kinds of work you might enjoy making are neutralized by the scheduling and proclivities of the group. 

Ben is a fine portrait subject when he is here in Austin, between semesters. He's been working with me on projects when he's not in school and he seems to really enjoy the unhurried pace of an unstructured hiatus between the dual grinds of school and assisting. When he is engaged in the middle of a semester he is all business. He's on a schedule, burning the candle at both ends and keeping his grades up. But it precludes the kind of padded time intervals that would make slowing down and sitting in just the right spot difficult. 

But there is another reason that vacations are not an optimum time for me to practice my own portrait work. I've come to depend on being able to shape light to match the moods and context that I want to portray in a finished image. I want control over how soft the roll off of light is into the shadows and I want to control the direction of the light in relation not only to the subject but also in relation to the background elements. 

When I roll out to locations locally with the priority of making portraits for me I generally travel heavy. I drag along the Elinchrom Ranger flash system, a big soft box or umbrella, a C-stand or two. Some sand bags and a few extra diffusers. These are a godsend and a logistical encumbrance. And there was not way I wanted to drag them along on a weekend end vacation and even less of a chance that the other members of the family would be comfortable going along with this rather extreme program of creating family snapshots. 

I know myself well enough to know that I needed to defer my usual bent of work in order to fulfill the goals of the trip at hand: to see the boy, to see his new living quarters, to sample his academic life, to meet; and have dinner with, the parents of one of his new roommates, to make sure Belinda enjoyed the weekend and to see the sights and sounds of my kid's chosen environment. 

This was obviously not the time to drop into the role of producer/director. And knowing that is good. Not trying to interweave two diverse and conflicting agendas serves to mitigate or eliminate the frustration that would flow from presuming that one is always on. 

My favorite work comes at events where I am supposed to be photographing. Where I have license and access to photograph. I love this image of a young girl who had just finished her event at a swim meet. I was at the swim meet as the volunteer team photographer and it was my job, obligation and delight to be charged with getting great images of the swimmers to share on the club's website and with the kids and parents. I largely ignored my family (except when it was Ben's turn to swim) and the run of the meet and concentrated on making impromptu portraits and group shots of the kids. I was able to bring a focus to doing so that made the work seem like play. 

At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun.

I enjoyed spending time away from Austin but I also enjoyed letting go of the photographer label for the duration and enjoying the time away as a civilian. In that capacity the images I took were ones that just presented themselves, didn't require art direction or posing, could be made without revving up a light and could be walked away from in order to conform to the vagaries of the schedule. 

I realized in the moment that I sometimes take my role as an image maker far too seriously. That the camera isn't the centerpiece of every social gathering. That fussing with dials and menus is not an appropriate task while sitting in the dining room of a nice restaurant having conversations with new (or old) friends. 

So, what do I like? I find myself re-enlisted in pursuit of a few things that have been leitmotifs throughout my life with cameras. I love the look of wide ranging tones of luxurious black and white photographs. We can argue all day long about whether or not it has to do with suppressing extraneous and confusing color cues or if it's really just about nostalgia but, to my mind, done right, black and white images focus my seeing of the final print more acutely. I'm less and less interested in landscapes and even street images than I have been in the past. I want to work with one person in my frame and I want to have the whole experience be confined to a two person collaboration with no outside intervention or suggestions. And, more and more, I want to control the lighting. 

I don't always have a specific lighting design in mind when I get ready to engage with subjects but I am always aware that there is a style and a consistency of qualities that I like more than others. I'm not a fan of light that's spectacular or trendy. I don't often light hard light (unless I intend to create the final image using the equivalent of diffusion or soft focus) or highly angular light. But I know as I work through a session, or even just an encounter, that I want more and more control over how the light works with the face in front of my medium-to-long telephoto lens.

In social situations this just isn't in the cards. Nor should it be. But it's a life long lesson to re-learn and re-learn. 

I am constantly reminded that I like scenes that are rich with texture and even decay or disorder.

I labor with the idea that the work I like and finish all the way out is destined to be matted and framed and shared with a small circle of people. At times all the lights, stands and cameras in the studio are put away and the matt cutter comes out to play. It's been years since I hung a show but my re-entry into my regular routine this time has convinced me that I'm overdue and need to start thinking in terms of a small show of black and white portraits. 

Finally, I spend time thinking about things outside photography that I like. Family goes without saying. And the same with my noble Studio Dog (currently just a bit conflicted; she is pissed that she had to spend three long nights alone but happy that we hired her absolute favorite dog sitter to come over four times a day while we were gone). But I also cherish my routines. I think we all do. My Sunday walk through downtown. Coffee with friends. The way an afternoon nap feels on my couch with the sun pouring through the French doors to the back garden. Early morning swim practice. Noon swim practice when I am either too lazy to get up in time for the early one, or motivated enough to do two in one day. I like the conceit of control that I've tried to construct in my Austin existence but lately have come to understand that comfort and control are also part of the nefarious impediments of resistance that keep me from focusing on doing my work. 

With that said I think I'll wrap this up and convince Studio Dog to head back into the studio for some pre-production on an approaching job. Being part terrier she revels in keeping me focused on the task at hand so I can spend more down time tossing the tennis ball decorated as a mouse....

No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun? 

 The camera is so much less important that what your real intentions for your photography might be. Being clear on the mission usually uncovers the reality that any camera will do, but not every approach will satisfy.


Anonymous said...


You tell the family they are going on a PAID vacation as Photo Assistants. Give each a dollar a day and meals... then hope you live through the revolt.

Kirk Tuck said...

Yeah. Doesn't really work that way. Belinda is also a senior art director and an extremely good client. She also footed the bill for the trip.... More like she told me that I'm the intern and getting free trip on the company check book. As to the boy, he's way, way too smart to work for a dollar a day...

Butch said...

"At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun."

Wonderful. Also this:

"No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun?"

As a very part time, very amateur photographer I still am tempted by the possibility of improving photo quality by spending - yikes! - that Sony A6300 with a decent zoom costs two thousand bucks?!

And then of necessity I turn my mind to the camera I have and realize how much satisfaction I get from using it to take a photo that has meaning beyond any amount of equipment. That said, I've missed reading your stuff while you were away - made me think of exploring the archives next time you're traveling.

David said...

I've been doing a little more separating of social activities and picture taking activities, too. A lot of times now, when I go out walking with my wife, I leave the camera at home. Of course, when I go out walking with the camera, I leave my wife at home. Works out well for me.

Anonymous said...

Really like the photos you've illustrated this piece with. Post processed just the right side of nice. Well balanced.

Eric Rose said...

I just love the photo of Studio Dog looking into the camera. That's one I would hang on my wall.

seany said...

My favourite is the milk pouring one, it's a perfect study of a very mundane task, would love to know the details, lens, exposure, camera etc.