Photography is an excuse to look at people in a way which might be uncomfortable without the construct of the camera in between.

I think we tend to make big presumptions about why photography is popular and enduring. As a culture we tend to collect objects and creating, printing and collecting images of our food, our fantastic experiences and our unique (ha!) possessions fulfills a bevy of urges constructed by our existence within a mercantile culture. We are also fond of using photographs as symbols of our relative wealth and overall social status. The image of a cruise ship is not about showing your friends or relatives the design and displacement of an ocean going craft it is about a photo becoming a souvenir which, when shared, says, "I had enough money to do this. My social status allowed me this freedom." The same could be said for our images of landscapes taken while on vacation or as the focus of our vacations. I believe that legions of older men feel the need to take their fine cameras somewhere remote from their daily lives in order to give weight and provenance to their artwork by embuing it with a cost of time and travel that is extraneous to the merit of the art itself. 

Our prodigious outpouring of images, spewed across the web, are really two dimensional advertisements for our achievements. We collectively create the understanding that, in order to create a landscape or urbanscape that is of a certain quality, we are  required to travel away from our daily lives in order to see nature/life/monuments in a new and fresh way. 

In effect, the majority of landscapes, cityscapes, and photographs of our stuff  are merely postcards that gather like progressive graffiti to shout, "Kilroy was here. Kilroy had his wallet out. Kilroy traded his time and some of his money in order to position himself to see in real life what you can only see via this small postcard shot I've shared with you"

We've also moved from the idea of sharing being a benevolent act of giving something of value and desire to our fellow travelers. Now sharing has come to mean, in many instances, "I will show you that I am more worldly, more tied in and more able than you are, have more and better friends than you,  and I will do so by making you look at something I have done which does not benefit you and is, almost certainly, of no interest to you. And you will look and act interested in order to preserve the parts of our relationship that you do value. Or you will suffer my need to strut through my catalog of experiences in order to maintain a social equilibrium. 

This is in no way a new thing. People have dreaded for decades the idea of sitting through some horrid evening consisting of uncle Bob's slide show of his trip to the edge of the Grand Canyon, complete with running monologue, "You can't really see it here very well but that spec on the other side of that cluster of trees on the other side of the canyon is actually a bear!!!!!" "You really had to be there to understand it....." And that, of course, is the real message. 

I love Rome and have visited and photographed there perhaps a dozen times. But I can't think of anything more boring that sitting through someone's travel video about the city.

The worst permutation of all this new sharing is the insensitivity of sharing anything visual on the  screen of a cellphone while standing around in bright ambient light. I've given up being nice. I just tell people, "I don't look a pictures on cellphones. It sucks too much."

No, if we are honest, with the exception of commercial work which clients need in order to push their businesses forward, no one really loves anyone else's work. Not wholeheartedly. We do this photography thing because we love our own work. Sure, there are ten or twelve or maybe twenty photographers whose work you admire and wish you could compete with but it's not Joe at the camera club and it's certainly not that guy who has photographed Mount Bonnell in every season and from every angle and with every camera. Robert Frank? Maybe. Richard Avedon? Sure. But that guy who keeps buying those monster zoom lenses and takes shots at the kid's football games? Not on your life. 

So, if I'm such a curmudgeon and so grumpy about photography why do I even bother to practice and share it? Well, my interest is in people and what I've found after working through a lot of life is that there are polite ways of looking at people and then there are interesting ways of looking at people. There's the quick glance and there's the long stare. 

The short answer is that the camera, and the practice of photographing people, gives me a certain permission to really look at and absorb the beauty or presence or energy of the person who stands or sits on the other side of the camera. I photograph (for myself) only the people I find beautiful, interesting, compelling, engaging or scary. Because in this way I can spend time circumventing the polite (and necessary) rules of our culture and stare a little longer, sit a little closer and engage people on a different level than that which is part of our social contract in everyday life. That's why portraits are so captivating. Not necessarily only mine but everyone's. You can stop and look. If you are of a certain generation you might be looking to see if the surface details disclose some evidence of the subject's soul. From another generation you might be admiring aesthetic balance and form. For others it's all about expression and connection. But the bottom line is that the attraction to images of people is our innate curiosity about what makes the person across from us both different and the same. 

My images give you permission to stare. And it's an invitation to see and understand what I find interesting. Fields of blowing cornstalks versus faces directly engaged. No contest. 


wolters said...

Kirk, sorry to say it but the text is completely inaccessible due to the combination of very long rules and lack of space between them.

David said...

"That's why portraits are so captivating. Not necessarily only mine but everyone's. You can stop and look." I had never thought about it that way; portraits do give us the freedom to stare at people. Taking your words that I quoted and mixing them up a bit it seems to me that a good photograph, portrait or otherwise, is one that makes you want to stop and look.

Kirk Tuck said...

Jusr re-read on my phone and it’s as perfectly formatted as I’ve ever done. re-load?

Jacques said...

Spot on...!!!

Kristian Wannebo said...


A very special set of exquisite portraits looking, if I may say so, into the soul of the subjects!

There is also the other side of looking when in a portrait session.
Many years ago I visited my mother's cousin-in-law in Budapest, a painter.
He asked if he could make a sketch for a portrait and I agreed. I didn't have to sit still and we kept talking.

When I was shown his charcoal drawing I was amazed, it clearly showed an aspect of my character I wasn't aware of.

I expect you have seen that reaction in some of your talents - making a portrait also can allow the subject to see him- or herself in a new way.

amolitor said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, Interesting thoughts on why we enjoy portraits. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but it does make sense.
Where I may disagree with you is with regard to why we share travel photos. I agree that many do flaunt their ability to travel and use photos as 'evidence' of having journeyed afar, but also know from first-hand experience the joy of revisiting somewhere via a photograph taken while 'on location'. I would also suggest many of us view our photos, and share with those who may not have the opportunity to travel, and subsequently ask to view our photos, finding the same opportunity and pleasure of viewing, at length, our adventures, in the same manner we may a portrait, allowing us to re-experience the adventure of travel.
~ Ron

Anonymous said...


Michael Matthews said...

Had you been hired to create the Mona Lisa portrait, rather than that hack Leonardo, she would have looked more like the seventeenth image following the text. The client would have been jubilant.

Gareth said...

Hi Kirk,

Some exquisite portraits here- I love, love, love the 4th one from the beginning of the peiece - the B&W woman with grain is just gorgeous. The fall-off from her face is exquisite. Would love to know the FL for that because you've succeeded in making her feel a long way from her background which I really like. That could be to do with lighting, or perhaps you've shot a slightly wider FL than the tranditional 85mm?.... or maybe she was justting sitting a long way from the background!