3.19.2018

It's Monday Morning and Photography is Simmering Nicely. Here are a few thoughts about the biz/art.

Afradet.

I've been so side-tracked by non-photo stuff lately that when I finally had the opportunity to do some fun, personal  work I felt a bit paralyzed and this led me to meditate a bit about the nature of sustaining my motivation to do my own, personal work. Cash flow is obviously a powerful motivator for doing the commercial work but after 40 years or so of shooting personal work it's interesting to understand the ways to keep a current or pulse of inspiration going during times of sloth or times of stress, or just during normal life. Mostly it's about honoring the work you feel most compelled to do for yourself.

I've always had the good fortune to make my own schedule and to lard in plenty of free time in which to play with my photography. Lately though life changed a bit, tossed in a quite a few curve balls and caused me to need to pay rigorous attention to things outside my areas of expertise (if they exist). I've learned a bunch more about banking, investing, elder care issues, probate law, and finance in general. 
I've spent a lot of time arranging care and participating in care for family members. But when one part of life gets detailed and takes more time something has to give. For me, in the last three months it's been my own, selfish, personal photography work. Perhaps that explains my buying outburst of ancient Nikon products.... A projection of the desire to grab back my previous freeform engagement with the craft...

Now that I've engineered a quantum more free time I still feel hobbled because as the little gems of my free time get more precious the artificial and self-imposed demand to become more picky with the resources I have left sets up some sort of false paradigm that pushes me to take everything more seriously. Or too seriously. What is photography, as a passion, if it's not laced with fun? Schedule be damned!

After much thought it was clear that my interest in photography is almost solely related to making images of people. At one point, reviewing my older work, it seemed that I was really most interested in studio portrait; encounters in which I had the main share of control --- at least technically --- but on reflection it's always just been about having the intimate interchange with the person on the other side of the camera, however fleeting and coming away with prints and other constructions with which to share the emotion and theatre of the interchange with an audience.

Brooks Jensen at Lenswork Magazine conjectured in one of his essays that the work his magazine sees fit to publish comes from people who have a depth of work in the genre they have come to focus upon with a sense of purpose. In his research he finds that the most interesting work has either come from people who have put in the time to evolve and then perfect a vision, with years of work and development,  or from the people who dive deeply and with almost single-minded application to their work; especially if they are pursuing a contiguous project. The people who do not get published are the people who sample every kind of image making, making glancing approaches to different styles and subject matter but without the requisite endurance of a singular vision. Aimed at a single kind of subject.

Resistance to doing your important artistic work is strong, according to writer, Stephen Pressfield. When I am really stuck and have photographer's block then, ironically, I waste a bit of time (not really a waste) re-reading Pressfield's, The War of Art, and my renewed understanding of my own resistance to doing my work abates for a while and I actually get good things done. 

My work is really about making images of people I find interesting, captivating, beautiful, strange and wonderful. The reality of life is that these subjects aren't available on short notice, they aren't sitting in a small room somewhere just waiting for my phone call. Since my schedule is variable and, to a certain extent connected to the whims of my clients and other chance responsibilities, it's not always possible to have a delightful person in front of me when I have a fleeting amount of open time available. My dodge over the years has been to grab a camera and go walking. I'm always hoping, on some level, that I'll meet someone during the course of my walk who needs to be photographed by me and somehow understands the value of the chance meeting and who emphatically wants to pose for me if for no other reason than to have moments of spontaneous exercise of their own subtle performance art. It's a pipe dream that rarely has fulfillment. 

But I walk and I shoot for the sake of shooting and then return home like a net fisherman examining the contents of my erratically flung net to see if anything interesting wandered into the catch while my brain wasn't paying attention. And it's gone on this way for years. 

This morning, over pancakes and scrambled eggs and sausage and hot coffee I realized that the majority sum of my "street photography" was a ruse to assuage my own psychic complicity with resistance to getting more organized, identifying the people I want to photograph and to move those studio or environmental portrait encounters to fruition. In a sense, for me, I'm beginning to see modern, random street photography as a place holder or addictive substitute for the photography I consider "real." The photography I should be doing.

Street shooting days have become peppered with ennui. It's like watching a video of Kai reviewing a camera on YouTube and of him taking random shots in the streets of normal people in interesting cities in order to show off some feature or performance aspect of some camera; the work is numbingly the same but, surrounded by his spoken (and sometimes humorous) manifestos you can almost see something interesting in it. But in the end it's just entertainment for his audience and a placeholder of the real photography he would no doubt love to be doing instead. 

The more I dabble across genres the less I get done. 

Leaving the house without a plan and a project is like shooting off an unguided missile in an unknown direction. it will get messy. It probably won't be productive. 

One of the things I hate about thoughtful writers like Brooks Jensen is that if I read carefully I almost always see where it is that my resolve has fallen apart. His words sometimes lay bare the shortcomings of my discipline. I generally always resolve to do something but sadly it's not always the thing I wish I were doing or need to be doing. 

I guess that's the nature of this whole undertaking. 

Bottom line today? If you are moving between making images of cats, then flowers, then buildings, then street scenes and then baby pictures and then food and then back to cats you might not really be doing photography, you may just be systematically testing your camera and lenses along with the state of your skill set. You could do that until you die but you might be better off thinking about what it is you are really interested in and finding a way to pursue that. 

I've got some mental organizing to do. I'll get on it just as soon as I finish my paying job at the golf course this afternoon. I hope the wind dies down, I'd like to use a softbox for some of the outside portraits....

It's Monday. This is probably the extent of my "deep" thoughts for the week. 




15 comments:

Hugh said...

My sympathy on the elderly parent thing... I've been there, and it's one of the toughest things to do, but one of the most worthwhile.

I have similar time pressure problems, and the only answer is to find the things that matter to you artistically, and be ruthless about only shooting that subject matter when you get an hour or two free. I think you're heading in the right direction with the portraits.

Eric Rose said...

It's interesting that I generally don't like taking people pictures but many of my strongest images are of people. Most of these are spontaneous portraits done on the street or relaxed situations. I say "portraits" because these are conscious attempts with the subjects full cooperation not the street grab shot type.

Eric

John Merlin Williams said...

Kirk,

I really identify with the artistic challenge you express so well in your post today: to find a more intentional way of creating opportunities to develop your craft, around the subjects that most interest you, while doing it on your terms:
“My work is really about making images of people I find interesting, captivating, beautiful, strange and wonderful. The reality of life is that these subjects aren't available on short notice…”
I’ve had a similar experience - not at all interested in “Leaving the house without a plan and a project…”

I’ve read and deeply appreciated your posts for several years, and visit VSL pretty much daily. In my readings there is a noticeable step-up in your energy level when you write about certain topics: live theatre and actors, swimming, culinary arts and artists, festivals, street art and artists. If I may be so bold, I’ll toss out some idea starters that might fit with your interests and craftsmanship (description of my background and my path to an emerging solution at the end).

• Leverage a theatre contact (director?) to refer emerging talent to you who probably can’t afford a good portrait and/or in-character sitting. Keep the arrangement private with the referer to suggest only deserving prospects - you want something special, for someone special. I think talent would be motivated to accommodate your schedule and short notices.

• Portraits (studio or environmental) of the folks behind the scenes in the theaters where you work: stage hands, scenery designers and construction crew, lighting and sound technicians (like your video of Stephanie Busing), directors and playwrights, marketing and development staff. These people get little recognition; just having their photos taken by a pro can be a big boost to self-esteem. Have theater management tell staff you might just show-up, unannounced, to shoot any day.

• Ditto: emerging talents in the culinary scene, or folks behind the scenes.

• Document a demographic group in your swim-club. The “Masters” group, or the youngest swimmers, or “1,000-milers” club (I’m not a swimmer so short on ideas here but I bet you have a diverse and interesting membership).

• Portraits of some of those Austin graffiti artists

• Posed outdoor portraits at your favorite festivals of people/groups that interest (I see you often shoot candids around the edges).

Probably nothing really new to you here, but give yourself more permission to control the subjects and the benefits to them, so you control the assignment, the techniques you are honing and the FUN factor. With a slate of several projects to choose from, a better chance that one will fit into an ad-hoc schedule

My own experience: In the 1980s-90s I did a fair amount of commercial photography, mostly architecture and large construction projects, “people at work” images for software and medical R&D companies. I made a career change in 2000 that gave me more discretionary time which I used to take up an old passion: motorcycling and amateur motorcycle racing. Even as a racer, the most striking thing about that experience was the camaraderie and genuine community that developed off the track. Recently I took up photography again as a serious hobby, but like you, I have no real interest in just picking up a camera to “stay in practice.” I even eschew taking photos at family events (the kids do fine with their phones) or on vacations (how many pictures of Rocky Mountain aspens do I need!?) I decided to build on my interest in the “behind the scenes” to immerse myself in a self-designed project I call The MotoSpecta Project. This summer I am planning to change-up the technique from candids to posed portraits of racers and their friends with speedlights and backgrounds (it’s terrifying, which is good, right?)

My best wishes for your continued professional and family success, and many thanks for your insights into this craft and its human side.

John Merlin Williams
jmerlinw@mac.com

Anonymous said...

If that’s the only one for the week, it’s a most worthy one :-)
A couple of quotes: “The unexamined life is not worth living” - ostensibly by Socrates. And “If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim”, from Kipling’s If.
It’s good to reflect, but that’s only half the job.
Not THAT Ross Cameron

Craig said...

Kirk,

A great post, one I both appreciate hearing from an accomplished professional, and one I need to hear.

I've enjoyed the photos that accompany your walks, but unless you're off focusing specifically on people, I have wondered if you just like the colors or the geometry of the Austin skyline, while any of your posts related to your portrait work (with the samples that blow me away) are frequently the highlight of my week.

Thanks again for this post - I definitely need to focus on one or two areas that really speak to my passion and spend less time futzing around taking photos that don't.

Roy Sewall said...

Boy, this sure resonates with me. Well said!

Carlo Santin said...

One of your best posts in a long time. I'm glad you came to this understanding. I did as well with my own photography. Like you, I often went out for a walk with a camera to see what I could find. In all those years I never took a single interesting or worthy image. Some of them had nice colours, interesting light, maybe I caught an interesting moment here or there. Largely what I came back with was garbage. Boring and meaningless...but man was it sharp! I don't do that now, which means that I don't shoot as much as I want to because I am still struggling with figuring out what I want to do with a camera (other than family photos which I enjoy and feel is important for capturing and creating family history). The desire is still strong though and I'm not giving up.

George McKay said...

Like you, Kirk, I decided early-on that my interest in photography was, as you stated, "almost solely related making images of people." In my 20's, I was inspired by The Family of Man book and then the renowned street photographer Garry Winogrand. When I took my camera out on the streets of L.A. - I soon found out how difficult it is to capture a truly compelling Bressonian Decisive Moment. It takes more than merely taking the camera out for a stroll and randomly firing off the shutter in the direction of unsuspecting passersby. Luck and happenstance might result in a "keeper" - but experience has taught me much more is involved. As Henri Cartier-Bresson himself put it (among many other great quotes), "Your eye must see a composition that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera."

I still venture out in hopes of recognizing what life offers me and the right moment to click the camera. That, and approaching people, usually strangers, and asking to take their picture in whatever setting I find them. "Environmental Portraiture" for lack of a better term. Sounds like the direction you're leaning.

Peter said...

If anyone really wants to develop as an artist then they could do a lot worse than read Brooks Jensen and Lenswork. Everything you say here is certainly well known (but perhaps very hard to internalize) for subscribers. However, this ignores the point that many 'photographers' are not actually interested in creating art, but simply want to 'test' the camera and lenses they own, just like you point out. Probably about 95% of any camera club is so composed; and is there anything really wrong with that? If Art were what most of us were about, then we would find camera clubs having the same approximate number of members as water colour painting clubs, or poetry groups.

It is important to know our motives for what we do, then we might make some progress. Personally, I try to divide making art, and collecting/testing lenses etc., into separate hobbies and not let the two get confused. And I have to say, making art is MUCH harder than testing cameras, and therefore not something most people want to get involved in. No amount of learned techniques or study will change that.
Peter Wright.

John Krumm said...

Brooks is sort of the gentle photographer scold of our time. I usually agree with him too, even though sometimes I feel he needs to stretch a little editorially when it comes to featuring artists in Lenswork. I’d like more variety of style and subject. Invite some mess into that clean house, so to speak. But he’s someone, along with other authors and Michael Johnston, who has gotten me to think more deeply about what I do with a camera and the photographs I make.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is one of your most interesting posts in a while.
I also agree with Merlin's suggestions, above...

Mark

G Gudmundsson said...

Interesting ... thank you!

JG said...

Leaving the house without a plan and a project is like shooting off an unguided missile in an unknown direction. it will get messy. It probably won't be productive.

For me, leaving the house without a plan and a project is precisely the reason why I so enjoy doing "street photography" every now and then.

I'm not very good at it, but walking around with a camera in hand and photographing whatever random scenes catch my eye makes for a nice change of pace from the methodical, tripod-only, nighttime photography that I do most of the time.

In fact, I've come to believe that practicing these two, fundamentally very different types of photography actually serves to compliment each other, making my formal photos a bit less stuffy and my casual photos a bit more formal, to the benefit of both.

Of course, photography is purely a hobby for me, so my goal is, first and foremost, to maximize the amount of fun I have with it.

Whereas for you, photography is also your profession and just as a professional golfer (or tennis player or what-have-you) needs to practice regularly in order to stay on top of their game, I suspect your personal projects are as much (or even more?) about maintaining and/or improving your skills as they are a form of recreation.

If so, then it makes perfect sense that it might be better for you, the professional photographer, to do more of "that voodoo you do so well" than to branch out and practice other types of photography that have a much less direct connection to the photography that pays your bills.

Long ago, I learned the hard way that once my hobby became my profession, it was time for me to find another hobby.

Perhaps the same might also be true for you?

ajcarr said...

Kirk,

Go to a local library and immerse yourself in Bill Brandt's Shadow of Light. You won't see things quite the same afterwards.

Best regards,

Alun

tnargs said...

I certainly enjoyed reading this post. My view, however, is a bit different. The idea that specialisation begets discovery, and correspondingly that non-specialisation blocks discovery, is an idea that presents itself as insight but in fact is more a paradigm, a mental model of reality. Like many paradigms, it is built on life lessons and can be used to advantage -- but in the end it becomes a barrier itself.