Looking Backward When It Would Be Smarter To Look At Now and Plan For The Future.

Two Friends at the Studio in Westlake Hills.

It seems that most artists with a growing body of work have a tendency to look backwards at what they've done instead of paying attention to the moment in which they exist now. If we've gotten praise and nice reviews for certain photographs we've done we tend to have a prejudice toward showing those to clients and friends and allowing the positive feedback to keep us closer to the worn path of making the same kind of work; hoping for the same sorts of accolades. But if we are to grow and continue to be relevant in our circles or marketplaces it's vital that we continue to move forward with our visual work.

I started out the month determined to mine through all the good work I have done in the past 30 years with the goal of making a printed portfolio that would showcase it well. My logic was that the pieces I was choosing were "proven" winners, and they would ensure successful portfolio shows. But, of course, I ran this idea past my in-house "focus group" and the "new hire" suggested that I made my choices not because they would necessarily appeal to a current audience but because I was predisposed to keep the photos in the portfolio because I had adopted an affection for the work and I was "rooting" for its continued popularity so strongly that I had lost my objectivity about the work's relevance to an ever changing audience. And audience that decidedly doesn't share my long history, my understanding of the arc of photography or even how difficult it was to do technical work at a high standard back in the shrouding mists of time.

My young mentor suggested that a portfolio that would be most effective today would reflect the age, tastes and milieu of the present, not represent milestones of one's personal career from the past. "That" he said with a certain degree of astringent kindness, "Is what museums are for...."

I realized that he was right. Right on the money. I look at the image above and I see it through goggles of sentiment. The woman on the right was my long time (brilliant and supremely capable) assistant and the woman on the left was one of our friends and favorite models. I am always predisposed to enjoy looking at their faces. The image was shot on black and white film and souped by me, by hand, in our darkroom; which I also remember too fondly. The final print represented lots and lots of time spent in that darkroom, bathed by the red glow of the safe light (actually the orange/yellow glow of the sodium vapor safe light....), listening to old Joni Mitchell C.D.s and breathing in the acidic bouquet of fresh stop bath (glacial acetic acid).  A lot of work went into the image but no one besides me sees or intuits the hours spent making the image come alive. 

I looked through the other prints I'd selected for the portfolios and had the bittersweet epiphany that my insightful guide in this process had clearly identified my overwhelming marketing problem: I was stuck in the past. My goal, as he explained it, should be to start working more, as I did when he was growing up in the house, and watching the parade of projects and people flow through the studio. By doing more work I would, he suggested, create a much needed and ever growing inventory of more modern images. Images that could be more technically polished by a blend of the thousands more hours of experience I'd accrued since doing the older work coupled with the ability to more completely polish each image via higher quality camera output and the ultimate flexibility and control of PhotoShop. 

But most importantly I would be creating images that will be accessible to the buyers and users of commercial photography, in the moment. 

It's good to have people who are willing to help you make honest and effective assessments. It sure can't hurt.


  1. BK is awesome. Listen to him.

  2. Presuming you meant "B.T." But yes, the kid is way smarter/wiser than me and I'd do well to pay attention. More often.

  3. I think that what you started doing isn't a bad thing to do ... for yourself.

    What is a bad thing is to get "stuck" in your successes. Like a pop star who has a mega-hit, and ever after tries to repeat that win.

    Buddhist thought speaks of the danger of "attachment." I saw a vivid example of its opposite just a few years ago, when the Dalai Lama spoke at the University of Maryland. He had been wearing a certain sun-visor for several years, and at this event, the university presented him with a new one that bore the UM logo. He removed his old one, said to it, "You've served me well, old friend," tossed it over his shoulder, and accepted and donned the new one. Now, there was an example of someone mindfully being free of attachment.

  4. Yeah. Dave. It does sting a bit...

  5. Mike, I sure must be a Buddhist when it comes to money since I seem to have no attachment to it at all.... (kidding, just kidding).

  6. Kirk, I like that. I'm gonna steal it.

  7. Kirk, OT but about Sons. Both my boys have done well and grown into successful young men. I spent my whole career in investment banking. I knew market and securities, I loved the game. But I have been retired now over 6/years and I find that I have lost a step or two with markets and investing. My young son is an engineer and has a passion for markets, cycles and individual stocks. I now find myself consulting him when I am at a loss on an investment decision. On the one hand the business has passed me by, on the other I guess did something right in raising them that I can ask them for advise. Apparently so did you. Pat yourself on the back, job well done. Eric

  8. Thanks Eric. I think my kid is really bright. He could use a class or two in investing beyond just buying funds.... I'd listen to him about finance if he already had a bunch of wins under his belt. But as far as the ad and PR businesses go he's got it.

  9. Well, there are two things here with two different purposes. What you were perhaps unconsciously intending to do, maybe mindful of your age and recent personal loses, was to make a portfolio of the work you're most proud of, with the most meaning to you, the work you would want to leave behind as a summary of your purposes and pleasures in photography beyond the financial.
    What your high-paid consultant is suggesting is what you *said* you wanted to do, do something that would get yourself more commercial work. Not the same at all.
    I would venture to suggest that both things are good ideas and that you somehow make time in your frantic schedule to attack them both. And many thanks for the thoughtful writing of late.

  10. My anonymous comment - begins "Well, there are two things here..." was not intended to be anonymous.

  11. You've gotta heckuva mentor there, Kirk.

    You've also said that you'd like to "retire". There are two types: towards something new, or away from something that's burnt you out. The former leads to a 3rd chapter of growth; the 2nd to a Social Security check and bingo in the Rec Center.

    If you're leaning towards the former, identifying the you in what you're doing and applying it to the new that your young mentor advises you to pursue (wow, wierd alliteration).

    Successful change integrates, not discards, your acquired wisdom and taste. The Buddha would say that's not clinging; it's actually quite enlightened. Pursue the middle way.

  12. Now that I'm retired I look bad all the time. I look at where I was, and where I ended at. There again I'm retired so most younger photographers will see it different. How did I arrive at this point? What do I need to do for the future? I don't need to do anything for the future, there is no future, I'm there, or it's not going to be the way it was. I've changed, photography has changed, for the better? I don't believe so. I was better when I started out on this venture, I tried harder, I had to know/study lighting, films, exposure, f stops and how they worked, shutter speeds. I studied the work of people that came before me. To learn how they did photography to see if I could do it better. I didn't have to know about cameras, PP, (darkroom and chemicals yes) I had more passion, feelings, emotions when I started out. I believed I could make a difference, at the end............. I was hearing comments like "Fake Photos, they're photo shopped, they're not real, you lie." My work was never changed except for some dodging for exposure. It was straight up, done in the camera.

    I look back to remind me it wasn't always this way. My peers and I were honest, we were doing a job the best we could, to tell/show the truth about an event/story.

    I look back all the time, and for good reason.


  13. I really like this image. Lately, I particularly enjoy pairs. Your subjects (weren't they assistants of yours?) give good face. From back in the film days? Is it a cropped 6x6? Lots of questions - good photos do that to me!

  14. Are you stuck in the past, or do you just understand what a classic is?

  15. Museums make sure that we do not trample beauty in our haste to acquire the next fresh thing.

    This particular image still grabs my attention, as do many of your other favorites.


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