Should a love of something else be the driving force in loving your practice of photography?

I was not an early fan of the personal practice of photography. While I grew up looking at the same news and lifestyle magazines that everyone else in my generation consumed I was always much more  interested in the written stories. More specifically, the stories about the people in the photographs. When I started college I was an electrical engineering student. I was always interested in things that were somehow connected to engineering and my biggest enthusiasm was for audio engineering. I dutifully built tube amplifiers from Dynakits, enjoyed putting together my first transistor amplifiers and, of course, making my own loudspeakers --- complete with custom-made crossover networks. One of my proudest possessions as I got more and more immersed in the tantalizing pleasures of audio was my Linn Sondek turntable and its companion Audio Research pre-amplifier.

At some point I realize that I would run out of money if I kept buying audio gear and hoarding it in my dorm room so I walked up the street to the Dobie Mall and applied for a part time job at a store called, Audio Concepts. It was one of two stores in Austin in the 1970's that catered to audiophiles. The other was High Fidelity Inc., the town's McIntosh dealer (No, silly, not the computer company!).

We classified McIntosh gear as the kind of stuff you sold to older doctors and lawyers who couldn't hear third order harmonics if you sat them between a set of Klipschorns. We were proud to peddle Luxman, Audio Research and a few "downmarket" brands like Crowne and Phase Linear as well as the small "apartment systems" from Yamaha and Onkyo.

Like most gear nerds of the time we had raging arguments about Dahlquist DQ 10s, Magnaplanars, and a raft of other loudspeakers. But at the very bottom the whole attraction to audio was not, for me, a love for music but a sense of marvel at how lifelike we could engineer something like natural sound. Now, I like music just fine but it's not a passion for me. I can tell the difference between Beethoven's 9th Symphony and  Orff's Carmina Burana, and I can enjoy everything from old recordings of Bob Will's to new stuff by Goriilaz, but I'm never in withdrawal from not having music or desperate to hear something....anything. I can go days or weeks without clicking on iTunes or streaming something from Amazon Prime.

In the end it was the lack of love for the subject matter that kept me out of the audio business in any form. Probably the reason why I've never bothered to buy a pricy audio system for our house. Just a little Tivoli radio, with a second speaker, hooked up to a re-purposed iPhone. Yes ---- audio Luddite.

But the picture is different if we talk about photography. I was dismissive about photography until my junior year at UT. Then I met a lovely girl who was a studio art major. Her name was Beth. She asked what kind of art I did personally and I was caught up short. Did I paint? Did I draw? Did I sculpt? Nope. She suggested that I try something (strong implication that a real, 3 dimensional human with pretensions of being "educated" had to have some conversation with art...) and, in a mildly condescending way suggested that photography might be an easy starter. I scoffed and said that I felt photography was just a mechanical process. A bringing together of a few logistical variables. Nothing of consequence. She challenged me to prove it.

I stared at her beautiful eyes and realized that it would be wonderful to have a photograph of those eyes. To have my visual interpretation of how those eyes made me feel when I looked into them. So I accepted the challenge, marshaled my meager "savings" and bought the camera that one of my friends (who was devoted to the acquisition of cool cameras) suggested: A Canonet QL 17. A rangefinder focusing compact with a fast, 40mm lens (f1.7) and a quick loading feature. I learned the basics of exposure and quickly got the hang of rangefinder focusing. For a long time I was happy with the camera because I was happy with what I was photographing. Let me repeat that: For a long time I was happy with the camera because I was happy with what I was photographing. 

It goes back to being interested in the stories about people. So much of most people's stories are written on their faces. There are short stories written by their postures or gestures. And there is an infinite variety in the ways people consciously or subconsciously project themselves. It's a never ending story with an ever changing cast of characters. My thrill in photographing, even to this day, is to try and figure out the dominate story line that each person I photograph carries with them and to make that story line into an almost abstract visual construct. I'm essentially telling their story as I see it in one snapshot.

Better photographic technique is always an attempt to clarify the story. Better lighting can (but not always) make the story clearer while a longer lens might eliminate the chatter a nervous background introduces. But always, it's the story that the person in front of me is telling with with their stance and their expression that drives my curiosity.

I have said many, many times that I am indifferent to landscape photography and to the documentation of architecture. I can't see the stories there like I can with people. I don't think about interpreting objects. But with people the amount of time I spend with them deepens the way I understand their stories and gives me a certain insight into which face or which gesture is genuinely part of their unique presentation and which ones are cobbled together, along with self-consciousness, for the camera.

In some ways it was folly for me to choose the life of a generalist, commercial photographer precisely because I've gotten drawn into photographing so many things in which I really have no interest. It shows in that work. And as a salve for the boredom of forcing myself to work on something outside my areas of interest I've made the general process of commercial photography more interesting by doing what I did back in my days of audio fascination. I let myself be seduced by the process. I started collecting the gear that matches the wide spectrum of subject matter that keeps arising. It's the same with lighting. Once you leave the locus of your passion for something to pursue an ancillary or adjunctive subject you move from passion for the subject to a passion for the process.

While I was seduced into photography by a pair of beautiful eyes I've staying in it for largely the same reason. The eyes tells such compelling stories. The faces are exciting introductory chapters to stories that beguile and amaze me, and in some cases frighten or disgust me. But they are all rich stories that visually speak to a collection of experiences outside me. I'm not using the portrait subjects as canvases for my canned technique I am using my status as a photographer for access --- a free ticket to turn the pages of someone else's life.

I recently photographed my friend, Michelle. I've photographed her many times over the years. It's my own kind of personal work. We spent a lot of time talking and we are not at all alike. We're on different journeys through life. But the exchange is insightful and, for me very interesting. I understand my compassion in a different way. In our pre-shoot and post-shoot conversations I am taught a different way to look at life. What an amazing gift to receive from so many people for such a long time.

My biggest secret to photography is the reality of my distillation. I am retelling stories. They may have been told better by the person I photographed but you weren't there to hear them. At my best I am functioning as a conduit between the sitter's experience and you, the audience for the final images.

Lots of photographers these days are talking about "story" but I think they mostly mean a literal story where one picture after another in a sequence tells a linear tale. My visual stories of my portrait subjects are usually one, concise image. The next time I photograph the same person the story has inevitably changed. At that point we are capturing a new story. We do it by building on what we've already seen.

When we talk of a love for photography I think we are essentially misguiding ourselves. We may enjoy the tinkering, the mastery and the possession of beautifully made machines that seem to use magic to do our process, and we may enjoy the experience of looking at images, but I conjecture that the images which resonate most for each of us are the ones for which we used photography to tell a story about something outside of photography that we loved uniquely.

I never got to take a portrait of Beth. I have no picture. No story beyond my memory.  We were both in relationships with other people. But she gave me a gift of curiosity and opened my eyes about the way to tells stories that I love about people whom I find to be very interesting. And, as I grow older I find just about everyone fascinating.

I am documenting the faces of the interesting people I meet. Behind the faces are timeless stories of human experience; joy, sorrow and mischief. The stories are projected or reflected.

We are drawn to photography by what we love outside of photography. We are sidetracked by the pressure to photograph more and different things. The greed for different gear is a symptom of those diversions. When we hew to our desired and true course our external needs relent.

One more point I have noticed. As I get older I am more and more content just to be in the conversations and to aurally hear the stories. I find myself becoming more "present" than ever before; with or without the camera in my hand. That's a nice thing. It makes me a calmer artist. I don't worry as much about the ones that might get away. If I saw the story written on a face then, camera or not, I got to see a small part of their story...

It becomes part of a rich and complicated matrix of memory. Even moments just observed become part of the process of inquiry in the next session.


gbunton said...

Well said Kirk,
It's interesting to me that your developemental path and mine are almost alike:) except for the fact that my early High Fidelity Audio store also had a camera department. I gave up commercial photography and a studio in dallas after 15 years because i just stopped liking the work coming in, actually not sure i ever liked it but my portraits well that's a different story. Yes i'm old school B&W 2-1/4 Rollei system old 150 sonnar you get it. Actually that's the thing i enjoy most about your blog is you actually do get it.

Keep up the fight...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kirk for sharing this insight into what drives your interest in photography. Your story of course challenges each of us to ask of ourselves to find our own drivers. And the answer for myself comes quickly (and it is not the gear and it is quite different to your own). This kind of article is so interesting, making us think more deeply about photography and how it relates to life (our own and beyond). David

Carlo Santin said...

For a long time I was happy with the camera because I was happy with what I was photographing.

I see this statement as the entire point of your blog, and the reason it is one of the few that I read every day. That's it really, in one simple sentence. Find what you love and let it kill you-usually attributed to Charles Bukowski but my research finds it comes from Kinky Friedman-anything else is a distraction.

Thomas Rink said...

There ARE stories in landscapes, too! Landscapes are human constructs - man shapes the land, and the land shapes man. A lot of our myths and legends are founded in landscapes. See e.g. "Landscape and Memory" by Simon Schama. "Wildwood" (a collection of essays by Roger Deakin) is also an example for landscape stories which I've finished recently. The landscape photography which I find interesting (and strive to do myself) tries to visualize these stories.

Best, Thomas

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

Beautifully written about what drew you into photography! We started about the same time, me in the late 60's but was fascinated by images I also saw in magazines of that time, and dreamed of somehow learning how they were able to create such images. Photography was much more difficult to learn at that time and went to school learn and perhaps become an "artist". Still working on that part. I eschewed portraiture back then thinking it was hack. But have learned through life that it is the most important part of photography in my humble opinion, and is actually a partnership and trust between subject and photographer. And those images I consider most precious are the ones I had some degree of success in recording. As I've stated before if I could go back in time, I would want to do portraits of all the loved and interesting people in my life that ever crossed my path. Funny how opinions change over time
Thanks for another incredible article, I appreciate it very much.

Boris Hornbein said...

Geez Kurt, better stop making sense, or they'll bump you off the Internet.

rlh1138 said...

Just a great column!!

John Krumm said...

Excellent post, a Kirk classic.

MartinP said...

One might almost suppose that your possible November photography-focus month might be spent largely on the rationale behind portraits over time - and your throught-process during the selection of prints for a retrospective exhibition.

Of course, having a retrospective often means the artist has stopped working and, frequently, almost stopped living. Luckily this part is not obligatory.

MO said...

Nice and Honest. Just great!

Chris Arts said...

That was an excellent and wonderfully thoughtful post, Kirk! I can relate to and have been through so much of what you describe here. I even bought my Nakamichi tape deck at Audio Concepts in Austin:-)

Roy Feldman said...

Your last two posts exhibit beautiful thoughts and writing. Since they do not mention equipment they probably won't turn up the analytic meter for your site but they are the perfect combination of thoughtfulness without arrogance I am looking for.Since your return from your 'blog vacation' you are a noticeably more thoughtful and insightful writer of consequence. Thank you.

Peter said...

I think it's true that the most notable photographers are not interested in cameras and the other paraphernalia of photography. Just one (extreme) example of many that come to mind is Jane Brown (she's not well known in NA, but is probably the best known portrait/people photographer in the UK, over about 50 years – everyone in the western world has seen portraits by her, even if they don't know it!) She only used an Olympus OM1 from the time it was introduced until she died in 2014. No flash, no lights, no post processing, but wonderful pictures. That was what she used to photograph the Queen when both of them were 85. I would have loved to have sat in on that session!

It is our passion about something that makes us take a good picture. And it can be an interesting journey working out what that is.

Patrick Dodds said...

An eloquent post Kirk; thank you.

Eric Rose said...

I honestly don't know how you can bang out such great content at the pace you do. You are amazing!

Colin B said...

"We are drawn to photography by what we love outside of photography." I don't know if this has been said in this way before but if not, it should have been! Yours is a rare voice of sanity in a world of ridiculous gear obsessed blogs. Keep it up, please!

James Pilcher said...

Hi Kirk,

I read, and the re-read your article. It brings tears to my eyes. Thank you.

I have a love for being in the moment, knowing it is unique and will never come again. I can literally feel its presence and passing in the same instant. I use my camera to capture some of those moments, but it's not the camera or the image that is the rush.

Wonderful article.