11.04.2018

When you are photographing are you exercising your gear muscles or exploring your favorite subject?


I've been thinking a lot about photography for the past week. And I've been wondering what it is that makes photographs really, really good and really, really interesting. I think, because I've discovered more photographic stuff that I should be thrilled to have photographed but wasn't, that I've divined the difference between people who actually create art and those who are fixated with showing off their skills and the last iota of potential in their cameras and lenses. See: Most camera reviewers...

I've looked at a lot of landscape photography as I've dug into photography in general over the years and I'll have to say that there are some people (Ansel Adams comes to mind --- even if you don't like his style, or Elliott Porter...) who have done it incredibly well and there are multitudes of people who have no real point of view, no real appreciation for the land in front of their cameras, but who love go out and make sharp, saturated landscape photos. When the later group talk about their photographs they don't generally speak of their love or reverence for the land they snapped, instead they want to discuss which apochromatic lens they used, or which yak leather the craftsman who made their view camera used for the bellows, or lately, just how many pixels live on their best camera's sensor.

It's almost binary. You can tell the people who have a reverence and appreciation for the actual geographic areas in which they shoot. There is a deeper understanding and a more complex relationship between the space in front of the camera and the user behind it. When I see work from someone who is in love with, say, the west Texas Desert (James Evans) I am able to see and understand that he's dedicated his adult life to learning the code of his chosen (and cherished ) landscape and that his photography is powered by a lust to share his vision of an almost sacred place.

It's a feeling I see very rarely as I look through galleries from famous workshop photographers who market their "knowledge" on the web. This different set of photographers seems to chose random landscapes based on how well they will photograph and how adroitly the land can be exploited as an anonymous canvas for the photographer's technocratic image construction. Their goal is to maximize things. Even to the point of essentially destroying whatever magic crept into the image by mistake. They extend dynamic range until the images become comically flat and then attempt to salvage whatever is left with mid-range contrast boosts, intense saturation or arcane compositions. Their goal has little to do with sharing their vision ( vision = an interest, attraction, affinity, lust for the subject as opposed to the manipulation of the subject for audience approval ) and everything to do with showing off what they understand to be their skills.

It's the same thing with architecture buffs. Some see the beauty of a design by a fellow artist; one they appreciate and admire, and so they undertake to showcase and interpret the subject. But there's a second group who seem to have settled on architecture since it doesn't require the subject's willing collaboration,  or the time commitment of truly exploring a landscape, etc. They are experts in researching, selecting and showing off optical mastery through their collections of "state of the art" perspective control lenses, and high resolution cameras. They would have you believe that all the latest stuff is critical to their mission. It makes one wonder how they ever created the legacy images they put out in decades past. And all the while the real masters can use just about any camera because they're busy finding the perfect angle and returning again and again to find the perfect interplay of light and the design created by the architect (and his team).

So, what the hell does this have to do with a commercial photographer moored in Terminal 4 of the JFK airport?

Well, in the last few decades I've photographed landscapes with all sorts of cameras and for all sorts of clients. I mostly suck at it. I can get the general technical stuff right; you can learn that in a book or off the web without breaking a sweat. But I have no real appreciation for any one landscape (if you exclude the urbanscape of my home town.....) and what I generate is pleasurable eye candy the selection and execution of which is well within the skill set of just about any knowledgeable and attentive amateur. My Interest in the Subject is lacking and the result is obvious to any discerning viewer: A Kirk Tuck landscape is ...... no big deal. And certainly I've never been able to define a style that's my own. Why? It's not a subject I'm keenly and passionately interested in. I love to photograph the landscape of people.

As a thoroughly adequate professional photographer I was invited to accompany a group of photographers for nine days in Iceland, ending yesterday. I could give the participants advice about using optimum apertures, figuring out the correct exposures, how to investigate different angles, points of view and, via different focal lengths, how to play with perspective. Some of the advice was good and general; like using foreground and mid-ground objects juxtaposed against a more distant background in order to create depth in a shot. Probably the best skill I shared was how to cheat a landscape image in Lightroom in order to create more dramatic skies without actually having to composite a new sky into the scene..... (Hint: HSL).

But what I could not impart was the thing I don't possess: A true and abiding love of the subject. And it made me look to my own shortcomings since we were competently placed in front of many absolutely gorgeous natural wonders. Iceland was foreign yet familiar to me. As a non-landscape oriented generalist I have the subconscious belief that is probably shared by the techno-boys: that all mountains are pretty much the same and it's our job to tame them with brutal and efficient technique. All lava beaches are similar; if you've shot one you've shot them all. I generated a lot of landscape images but I've yet to see one in my voluminous take of images from last week that perks up my attention and makes me long to re-visit the scene. I am not compelled when looking at one of the images to fall in love with the subject. The actual reason to take the photograph = the exploration of a subject that we love. You don't create the appreciation for a subject with a formula of graduated neutral density filters, contrast taming layers and all the other dodges..

There were two people on the tour who were obviously in love with nature and the land. They dove into their imaging tasks with big smiles on their faces. When they shared their images at our dinners they spoke of the beauty of an ice formation, the particular majesty of a particular mountain peak or the way the soft light played across harsh cliffs being dusted with sleet, rain and snow. Their love for the subjects was palpable and the difference in quality between their work and mine was a stark contrast. Mine was....efficient. Formulaic. Predictable. And the ultimate put down: It was colorful. But from my companions there was a visual poetry that glorified not the camera and lens --- or even technique but a hunger to show us what they saw when they looked at something they loved. They were glorifying the subject, not the process.

This is the reason I'll never be a first rate landscape photographer. It's largely because I am not in love with the land or the experience of being out in nature in the same way the two from the workshop were. I might enjoy standing quietly with my camera hanging down by my side, just soaking up the entirety of a wonderful site. Smelling the salt spray of the sea while looking up at monolithic cliffs and feeling the cold wind try to wend its way through layers of warm clothing to touch my skin. But it never touched my soul the way other subjects do.

I put a photograph of my friend, Heidi, on the top of this blog. It's a symbol for what interests me in life; what drove me to be "a photographer." I love connecting with people and trying to interpret and share the beauty I see in their faces. I could work endlessly with the people I find fascinating and never tire of the exercise.  If I photograph a landscape or a cityscape or a coffee cup it's probably because there are no people near by who are ready and willing to be photographed in the moment but make no mistake, I feel the superficiality of my efforts every time I pick up my camera and aim it at anything that doesn't have eyes, and the ability to smile in some way (this includes dogs.....and a few very noble and evolved cats).

It's somewhat embarrassing to admit that I'm not a good photographer at all subjects. I only have a fighting chance of creating something I consider to be really good when I'm making a portrait or documenting something with people. I can photograph a technical product, get everything in focus and well lit but I never feel as though that kind of image I've made sings any sort of song to people. The images mostly just sit on the page. But in the theater, and with people in a dance of portraitist and subject, I feel as though, with diligence, patience and collaboration I can make something I can revisit again and again. Something I'm happy and proud to share.

Maybe, if you've hit the wall and you are bored or unsatisfied with the photographs you've been producing it would be a good exercise to sit quietly and consider what subject first drew you in to photography. Divine what is was that made you sit up, take notice and become enthralled. It could be that you've been mistaking mastering a skill set with the real magic of being a photographic artist and coming to grips with interpreting the subject you love. The only power I think photography really has is to share a vision of what you love with other people who will appreciate the same subject. Whether your camera is more or less sharp, or whether you can get more or fewer degrees of tonal differentiations is so very secondary to whether or not your audience can really FEEL that you connected with a certain subject and were enthralled to the point where you felt you had to share what you saw with other like minded people. Everything else is just like playing scales over and over again on a piano. Your fingers may fly over those keys but don't fool yourself into thinking you are making music....

I get that practice is good and nice gear is fun to have but I'd wager that Glenn Herbert Gould could have sat down at that old, untuned spinet piano in your living room (after you take the plastic off the couch so you can sit down and listen) and bring you to tears because it would be obvious that his subject was the music he played and not the instrument upon which he MADE music. Think about it before you load up and go out looking for random pictures in the near future. A little time spent divining what genuinely drives your Vision could free you to be a great photographer.  Much more so than deciding on which camera might best show off the skills that --- let's admit --- we all share. The appreciation of a subject and your way of visually honoring that subject ---- now that's the real skill. Passion drives art, not technical skill or even mastery. Jan Saudek > go look him up. You'll understand.

Impatient to get back to the Austin routine.

The family's social director is not pleased with my repeated and prolonged 
absences in October and early November. I promised to get home tonight and stay put 
until Thursday, but then I'm back on the road for a corporate shoot
in fabulous West Virginia Friday.

As the bloggers, reviewers and vloggers stay focused on trying to whip up hysteria and lust for full frame sensor cameras and drones I have a different focus which mostly centers on using various kinds of cameras for real, paying clients on actual jobs for corporations, associations and various companies all over the place. As a kind of general disclosure I make about $100 per month in associate commissions from Amazon.com as a result of people clicking on links in my posts, and the reason for the small amount of income from that source is probably self-evident to frequent visitors here. I may talk about cameras but I have no placed ads or permanent links to vendors and I only occasionally put a link in an article, and those are generally for equipment ( or books ) that are so exemplary that I feel compelled to introduce my readers to them. In the last month I might have included five or six casual links to gear that I found useful in my every work day. And please keep in mind that my "real" work is making photographs and videos for picky clients at advertising agencies, and in-house marketing professionals, not making jazzy photos for readers or potential click through audiences. 

I did not go to Iceland for 9 days in order to piece together material for a vlog or blog post, I went there because a tour company hired me to provide photographic consultation to a group of non-professional photographers. It was a paid gig not a content creation escapade. I write this because my last post (about the death of various types of cameras) generated unwanted comments from various Camerati. I thought it only fair to outline my situation in order to add some weight to my opinions (and they are almost always only opinions).

In the same vein, my trip to West Virginia this coming week will be centered around photographing environmental portraits of various key personnel for a national company that specializes in huge infrastructure projects. It's a simple equation: I travel to the location and make the photographs in a style we've collaboratively concocted. I try to read my client's mind and get results that please us both as much as it's possible, given the vagaries of the location and the on site "talent." My client is depending on me to produce usable work, at a minimum, and really good work if all goes according to plan. In exchange for being able to use the images (licensing) they will cover all of the travel expenses and write me a check for thousands of dollars (actually, they will probably send the money as an electronic fund transfer. That's more normal these days).

Later, when and if I write about how I did the shoot, you, the reader, can be certain that I wasn't just jacking around shooting snaps  of my coffee and croissants and writing pie-in-the-sky bullshit about some camera or lens; I'll actually be writing about something I own, bought with my company's cash, and used frequently, and I'll be talking about how the equipment performed for real clients rather than some imaginary client that fits the camera shopping public's (misconceptions) idea of what a client might want from a photography assignment. And before you think of what I write as just anecdotal stuff, please remember that I've been doing well over one hundred assignments per year for at least the last 30 years and have a spouse who works as an art director/production designer at an ad agency that handles the advertising for one of the world's top three computer makers.... Oh, and my son is working in high tech public relations. I think I have some useful understanding about how this business works from the inside out. And no, I don't own a selfie stick....or a drone.

That I put in 17 days of commercial photography in the last month and 14 days of that was traveling out of town on assignment for three major clients should have accrued me some decent credibility when it comes to understanding what gear works and what doesn't. And that's why I continue to slag the various big review sites; their writers have shallow or non-existent experience working directly for the very same clients who, the writers insist in articles, are demanding 100 megabyte raw files, nothing but full frame, and all the other bullshit the content producers crank out in the service of the American marketing arms of camera makers from around the world.

So, I just spent a total of 22 days of photography using nothing but Panasonic G9 cameras and in all respects they filled the bill for me, and more importantly, my clients. Just thought I'd mention this. It's the real, real world...

Now, I thought I'd add a very embarrassing story of a major failure I committed yesterday. No clients were hurt by my mistake but my own pride took a bit of a beating.....

I've been accompanying a tour group of photographers across Iceland and we've all been working in high winds, low temperatures and unpredictable rain storms. We brought Ziploc bags to prevent condensation when coming in from the cold, waterproof material to hold over the cameras in hand during an unpredictable downpour at times when we were out in the middle of nowhere with no convenient shelter, and most of us shot between 2,000 and 4,000 shots during the long week. No cameras were rendered unusable. No cameras or lenses were lost to weather. In fact, the one failure of the week was mine and took place ten minutes from my hotel. 

It happened like this: Yesterday was the windiest day of our adventure. In Reykjavik the winds whipped up in gusts up to 50 mph, the temperatures hovered near the freezing point and the wind chill was even worse. I looked out from the rooftop terrace of our hotel to see big whitecaps in the harbor and the wind driving sprays against the rocks and seawalls and then dozens of feet up in the air and over the sidewalks. It was like a Hollywood disaster movie. But in the distance was a beautiful sunset with rich warm colors against an azure blue, and the light kissing the tops of the mountains visible across the bay. 

I bundled up in my (perfect) $39 Costco jacket, my Sherpa hat and my warmest gloves, grabbed a G9 and paired it with the (weather sealed) Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens. I stepped out into the wind and the deep freeze and headed toward the harbor to capture the drama. I dodged intermittent sprays of salt water and realized that by the time the spray got to my location it was already transformed from seawater into bullets of frozen sleet.  I got to a vantage point close to the seawall here I could document the angry waves tossing fire hydrant style bursts of water up and over the walls toward the city. The waves were wild but the sunset was almost pastoral. A wonderful contrast. I lifted the camera to my eye and pushed the shutter button. Nothing. I turned the power on and off. Nothing. Had I bricked a new camera by exposing it to the invasive, intense spray? Damn. What a sorry way to end a great trip....

Then I put my back to the wind and started troubleshooting. My face could not be more red (because of the windburn) but I was embarrassed and ashamed. I'd taken the battery out to put it on the charger about a half hour before coming out and had forgotten to put it back in. To make matters worse, the back up battery I almost always had in my pants pocket was sitting back in the room in another charger. Here I was with a perfect scene (and a great set of equipment in my hands) and it was all lost because of the simplest of errors (and omissions ).  I trudged back through the high winds and got back to the hotel. I rode the elevator up and grabbed a couple fresh batteries but when I came back out of the hotel the sun was gone, the clouds had won and everything that I wanted to captured had changed. 

Here's my "professional" tip for the day: Remember to put a battery in your camera before venturing out.

I'm currently sitting in JFK airport killing time and waiting for my connecting flight back to Austin. It's going to be a long afternoon.........