1.10.2019

The unsettling realization that your images were better when you just started out. Is it just because your social circle was younger and beautiful?



I remember taking this photograph as though it was yesterday. I was playing around with graduate school, working in a high-fi store near the UT campus, and doing photography as a hobby. A few months before I shot this I'd stretched and bought my first studio electronic flash. It was a Novatron. It came as a metal box (horrible build quality) with two plugs on top and put out a total of 120 watt seconds per pop. Of course the system also had a (plastic) flash head at the end of a ten foot cord which plugged into the box. I stretched my budget a bit more and bought a 42" shoot thru umbrella and the least expensive light stand I could find. I experimented with it for a while and added a background stand set and a roll of dove gray seamless backdrop paper. I remember that one roll of seamless lasting me over a year...

My camera of choice back then (I had two) was a used Yashica Mat 124G. The "G" stood for gold because the camera had some gold contacts somewhere in the mix, I guess. The other camera, the one I wore on my shoulder during almost every waking hour, was the Canon Canonet QL17 iii. I liked to play with different film types back then and at the time the image above was taken I think I was in the middle of a deep dive into Kodak's Panatomic X; a 32 ISO, black and white film. That is not a typo, the film was rated at 32 ASA/ISO. 

I generally left the gray seamless background paper and the flash gear set up in one corner of my living room. It was a time in Austin when one could rent the top half of a sprawling and beautiful house on Longview, just a few blocks west of the UT campus for under $100 a month. And that included utilities. As my then girlfriend, now spouse  would remind me, I left the background and lights up because I never got around to straightening up anything back then. Even laundry was an iffy thing, left in situ until it became an emergency situation. Then the scramble for quarters for the laundromat would commence....

I figured out the exposure of the flash and umbrella by trial and error; which, in those days meant shooting a test roll of film at various apertures and then heading into the darkroom to mix chemicals, roll the film onto reels, and then processing it by inverting the developing tank at set intervals for a set amount of time and then stopping the process by pouring out the developer and pouring in an acid bath, followed by a sloshing in liquid fixer. Oh, and one could not forget the archival wash and the application of Photo Flo. A couple hours later, or maybe the next morning the film would be dry and ready for me to make contact sheets and then suss out which frame might be the correct one. 

I might then pull out the trays, mix chemicals to develop paper, and make a few prints, just to test my findings more rigorously. At that point I might have found that having the umbrella and light six feet from my subject would give me an exposure of f5.6. I would grab a short piece of rope or ribbon and cut a piece to exactly six feet and tie it to the light stand. All future shots (until something got moved or I used a different film with a different film speed) would start with me positioning the subject and then moving the tip of the ribbon or rope to the subject's nose in order to ensure that the light was at the same distance it was when tested. As you can imagine, the subsequent shots were the nadir of consistency... You might ask why I didn't use a flash meter back then but in the mid to late 1970's the price of good meters was huge and my budget was small. I did long for the day when I would be able to afford a camera with a Polaroid back and the additional budget to get some Polaroid test materials...

At any rate I would pull everyone who came by my house into the living room "studio" and make their portrait with this very barebones set up. In the 1970's very, very few of my friends and acquaintances were overweight or would qualify as "couch potatoes." Most were former or current athletes and the lack of fat padding their faces seemed to let the camera see a more natural facial shape, complete with cheekbones and a neck below; things nearly hidden in the majority of people I photograph today. 

Of course, it didn't hurt that we were all in our early 20's and it was really an age of great innocence and openness. People were willing to be photographed without having to negotiate the process or be overly self-conscious. 

I was always falling in love back then and one of the manifestations of that was my desire to capture the beauty I found in the people to whom I was attracted. After a photo session I couldn't wait to be in the darkroom to develop the film and get started making prints. My favorite paper was double weight Ilfobrom #3. It was a superb paper and, when I started out, was very inexpensive. Now, when I pull them out of archival boxes I realize that we were working at a specific time in photo history when printing papers were like visual gold and the purchase price of a box was peanuts.

So there was the magic set of bullets. Beautiful, fit people. Young and fresh. Innocent and, for the most part, joyously happy. Films that still rival the best image quality we can get from digital but with ancillary, subjective benefits. Papers that were like magic and were, by their very nature, imbued with artifactual gravitas. And time. We had so much time. Time to linger over a session. Time to linger in the darkroom, sometimes going through an entire 50 sheet box of paper to get EXACTLY the look we wanted. Time to wait for processes. Time to share prints face to face, heart to heart. 

So now, decades later, I sit in an office surrounded with layers of the best gear money can buy, sitting in front of computers laden with thousands of dollars of processing software, a dozen feet away from a drawer filled with your choice of flash meters, and nothing I shoot these days comes close to delivering what I shot then. Perhaps the constant compromises of doing photography as a business have all but extinguished the thrill. Perhaps it's just the relentlessness of it all...

Sobering. 


If you have a happy, optimistic counterpoint I'd love to read it...




28 comments:

  1. The birth, the death, and the resurrection. Your early days are the excitement of something new, unexplored and the gains are so easy. Like the early stages of love.

    Following that is the journey to becoming a better photographer, the gains are now difficult, the hurdles more an obstacle. This is the death and where so many give up.

    What follows is a resurrection, of you can hang on. And you have. There are fewer challenges of knowledge, the craft is easier and you should be able to do your best work. This is the resurrection.

    So a real question for you, are you truely using your talent, your knowledge, to produce your best work, or is nostalgia and the ease of the love affair calling you with its seductive song.

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    1. I will just add, buying new gear is a new way of starting that same journey again, a brief birth of excitement, quick gains, but the journey is always short and we end at the same place... Capable of doing our greatest work, if we could only rise to the challenge.

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  2. I took a picture of my wife over 50years ago. She and your wife could maybe pass as twins or at least sisters. That was the best picture I have taken over time of my life partner. I alway thought it was the subject.

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  3. It is telling that you wrote “I was always falling in love back then...”. Many of us have those old prints we made decades ago, and it is not simply the richness of the images that catches our eye, but the remembrances of things past. Probably impossible to dissociate the image from the memory, or be impartial, so if those prints were not done by you, but by an absolute stranger, of unknown folks, you might not feel the same. From the heady days, suffused and colored by love, to the digital work that’s like eating cardboard, one has to acknowledge the emotion engraved in the images we saw then and remember now. Chances are our images now are as good as they ever were, or better, but. There’s also the sense, to me, as one gets older, that the subjects of our attention whom we might still take a fancy to, but not fall in love with any more, see right past us, and we realize we have become invisible, insensible. While in those older photos, we see not only those we cared for, but those who were also strongly connected emotionally to us at the time. Perhaps my shots now have but one side to them, as if I had become a spectator bird.

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  4. Providing photographs and video to clients on a daily basis can take the thrill out of making photos. It's a struggle to find the time to photograph just for myself. Modern life is so much more complicated now, and everyone is busy all the time. Carving out the time is itself exhausting. Nonetheless it is vitally important that we do so. If not we run the risk of becoming just another uninspired hack who only picks up the camera when someone dangles cash dollars in front of our faces.

    It is tragic to become a hack. Photography is a great gift through which we find out about ourselves, and the world, by what we point the camera at. It's a gift to ourselves and to those who take the time to look at what we do. Not everyone gets it or cares, but those few who do matter.

    I do my personal work to stay connected to myself and the passion that brought me to making images in the first place. Commercial work cannot do that, it's compromised by being useful to someone else, and by being pleasing to that person. Not that commercial work cannot be inspired or even exalted, but by it's nature or unless you are incredibly headstrong, it is a dilution of your intentions.

    Engage in work that you find meaningful. Continue to make the beautiful portraits that you do of the people you are most drawn to. Stay connected to yourself, your craft and to the commitment to showing through your work how you feel about what you see. Fight the urge to be sobered.

    Now, I must confess, I tell you this because I also need to tell myself the same thing. It's a struggle, but every so often out of the struggle comes a meaningful image. It's worth fighting for.

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  5. It seems that life was always better when we were young, healthy, optimistic, broke and single. Maybe the ones among us who never grew up have are on to something.

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  6. C'mon, Kirk! You sound like you're trying to make yourself feel depressed.

    I smile whenever you post a picture of Belinda. The love you have for her is apparent. And, it's another kind of love that shows in all of your portraits, including the most recent ones, but love nonetheless. It has persisted through all these years.

    Color yourself lucky.

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  7. Seems like yesterday, or maybe last week.
    I remember doing the same thing, more or less. In any case, the feeling was the same!
    Beautiful pictures of your wife, by the way. I remember seeing one on your blog, more recent, where her hair is almost completely gray, but just as beautiful.
    Thank you for writing so well.

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  8. My thoughts run along the same vein as those above but with one extra thought. I have retired from doing commercial photography and anything I do for myself I do with film now. There is still something about using film and going into the darkroom that is magical. At least for me. It has reinvigorated me and brought back my love for image creation using a camera. For my non-profit work I use digital because I have to, not because I want to.

    Some of the images I make I know will take to much work in the darkroom to get what I want so I scan the neg and use PS and print out on inkjet or send the file off to a colour printer. I could also make digital negatives and contact print onto ALT process materials as well or traditional silver based papers.

    It's brought back the magic and wonder again. I'm enjoying my 4x5, Blad and 35mm cameras all over again.

    Eric

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  9. Kirk: The next to last photo of Belinda is simply fantastic. Just great. It makes me want to get to know her (and you)!

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  10. bookmarked!!, I love your blog!

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  11. C'├ętait mieux avant ....
    used to say my ten years old grand'son.
    UG

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  12. A friend and I have been talking about this subject for years now. We wondered what happened, we got older, and successful. We have enough to purchase what we want, but it doesn't change a thing, we're not as good as we were because we don't have to be.

    To reply to some of your statements

    "So there was the magic set of bullets. Beautiful, fit people. Young and fresh. Innocent and, for the most part, joyously happy."
    Very true. People who hadn't become hardened from life, young and hopeful. It was easy, very easy to photography people like this, young and full of life. They were infectious with life. They made you feel good, like you were doing something wonderful. When I photographed these people I couldn't wait to process my film and make prints to see what the magic of the darkroom had to offer, and what these wonderful people had to say, to show me.

    "Films that still rival the best image quality we can get from digital but with ancillary, subjective benefits."
    Film still out preforms digital, although you have to know how to shoot it, and that's the catch, it isn't easy, it isn't digital.

    "Papers that were like magic and were, by their very nature, imbued with artifactual gravitas. And time. We had so much time. Time to linger over a session. Time to linger in the darkroom, sometimes going through an entire 50 sheet box of paper to get EXACTLY the look we wanted. Time to wait for processes. Time to share prints face to face, heart to heart."

    Paper is still magic. Wait till you retire, then you'll have the time to work in the darkroom for hours, but will you? you can only share prints if you get involved and share.

    "So now, decades later, I sit in an office surrounded with layers of the best gear money can buy, sitting in front of computers laden with thousands of dollars of processing software, a dozen feet away from a drawer filled with your choice of flash meters, and nothing I shoot these days comes close to delivering what I shot then."
    I understand, I get it, 40 years later and tons of gear later, enlargers, computer, software, printers and more, some given to me from the camera companies, and some I purchased. It's all here ready to go, but there's no where to go. The sad part is I can't sell any of it. They're my friends from days long gone. Yes, my work was better in the beginning because I cared more, photography was my life, my passion, my everything.

    "Perhaps the constant compromises of doing photography as a business have all but extinguished the thrill."
    It does. You get comfortable and need or want the money. It's easy to do the same thing over and over. To have people know your name and who you are and what you do. You can buy and sell all the gear you want and it won't change a thing. At first the new toy is the best of the best,... for a few moments.... then you start to wonder why? What does it do that your film camera can't...... Video, ok.

    "Perhaps it's just the relentlessness of it all..."
    It is. You have to step outside your comfort zone. Go back to the time and projects that made you what you are, what you've become before it's to late. Easier said than done, believe me. I was just asked to shoot one image a day for a year and I was send 12 rolls of 36 exposure B&W film, to see if my work was as good now as it was 4 decade ago. We'll see. I have a gallery showing coming up and the images will be shot with film. One camera one lens one type of film.

    Good Luck
    Happy New Year
    Roger

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  13. Beautiful photos Kirk, and your more recent ones are indeed different. Not better or worse, just different. I could fall in love with one of these early photos of Belinda like with a newer one of Fadja all the same. But if you're really nostalgic, maybe grab a Mamiya RB 67 and a roll of black & white? Who could stop you except yourself?

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  14. To answer the question posed in the Beatles lyric, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” — in your case, I’d say the odds are favoring a resounding “Yes.”.

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  15. I don't think it has anything to do with "beautiful" or "thin, athletic" people at all. It would be sad to think that only beautiful, thin and young people make for good photos. Quite simply you were photographing for yourself. Exploring and growing, following your heart with your camera. Now you aren't. You are doing it for others, and for money. Two very different realities. If you can afford to, maybe work a bit less and pursue your personal projects a bit more. Work on a photo book or a photo essay. Travel a bit more for pleasure. Spend more time with your wife while you're at it. Easier said than done, I know. More work is never the answer though.

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  16. From F. Scott Fitzgerald's essay, "Echoes of the Jazz Age: "–and it all seems so rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more."

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  17. Or another Beatles lyric:
    "You and I have memories
    Longer than the road that stretches out ahead"
    This written, amazingly, when Lennon and McCartney were in their early 20s.
    Larry Niven in his Known Space series wrote of what life would be like with Boosterspice, a concoction that extended life greatly: a universe populated with 200-somethings full of unimaginable experience and skill, physically youthful, but, inevitably, jaded and bored. Star Trek's Q Continuum suffered the same malaise. And throughout history the curse of experience, competence, and wisdom has been the subject of countless novels.
    The muse grows, the muse prospers, the muse sometimes dies. It never stays the same. But it lives on new challenge and the sense that what it drives you to create can live beyond you and the now; a mark of the world changed, perhaps.

    You've had a rough year, Kirk. A part of your life and being gone, another soon to go, another younger you on his own. Your work and adrenaline have helped sustain you, but can't stop the questioning and reflection. Perhaps it's time to feed the muse with a new challenge, like the novel you wrote. It won't be the same as decades ago, but that too is a precious gift. Write the 3rd chapter. The one with the plot twist.

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  18. Even nostalgia, as we both know so well, isn't what it used to be. Nonetheless, I do think that digital has taken quite of the bit of the fun out of photography. In particular, it has taken away much of the *anticipation*-- the enjoyment of looking at a new roll of developed negatives or opening a new box of slides.

    Twenty-five years ago, I was very fortunate to have an art photographer encourage me to write an artist's statement for myself -- a statement that describes who I am and what I do as a photographer. This is what I came up with:

    "My domain is the old, the odd, and the ordinary; the beautiful, the abandoned, and the about to vanish away. I am a visual historian of an earlier America and a recorder of the interface between man and nature; a keeper of vanishing ways of life."

    I would encourage you to create such a statement for yourself, then pursue it as much and as often as you can.

    Your photowalks are good, but they are so often devoid (or nearly so) of people. Take a trip; go somewhere there are lots of people on the street and do what you do best.

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  19. Since she is just as pretty as ever, the inescapable conclusion is: it's you.

    I'm sorry.

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  20. Man, I wish I had your problems...
    Uh, wait, maybe I do?
    It is the downside of getting old.

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  21. You are becoming the Proust of photo writing. Very thoughtful and melancholy.

    I started shooting as a teenager in the 1960s. Despite multiple cross country moves, I kept all the old negatives and slides. I eventually got everything scanned. It was about 15k images of personal stuff, since my commercial life was limited to a few weddings and one HABS job. Getting everything loaded and then taking a trip back in time gave me exactly the feelings you describe. All that lost youth and innocent beautiful images. (Including some Panatomic X developed in Rodinal and some fine grain witch's brew.)

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  22. Looking back on our teens and twenties, yes it was more exciting. Because we were mad. Certifiable. Barking.
    Now my body hurts regularly, but my spirit and emotions don't. This is better.
    I haven't the energy to do creative stuff so much as in the past. But also my eye is better trained and I have a better idea of what will bear fruit. So when I go for it the results have more depth. The process is also a much more terrifying, Why is that?
    You've been feeling a little flat since the boy got a job. Cheer up.
    Your eye has become more penetrating and so have your images. It's a great blessing to be doing what we came here for.

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  23. I retired early, about ten years ago. Part of my retirement plan was to look up old colleagues whom I had lost touch with and reconnect. What I found in many cases were people who just wanted to talk about how much fun we had in the good ol' days, early in our collective careers. And they were fun. And we learned a lot, often because we were too naive to know what we couldn't accomplish, but then accomplished it anyway.

    But I came away from all of these lunches, dinners and drinks feeling sorry for my old friends, who all felt that the best of life was over and they had nothing to look forward to.

    I don't feel that way at all. I finally took jazz lessons after a lifetime of playing guitar as a hacker. I finally got serious about photography after a lifetime of randomly producing a few good images and never understanding why. I finally decided that I actually could write songs and record them using my own singing abilities (I'm no Robert Plant, but people don't cover their ears when they hear me). I took some photography workshops and classes and learned what it was all about. I joined a bar band and played Friday nights for a couple of years.

    I went out shooting today while the grandchildren we're babysitting for were all in school, froze my but off and had a great time. I got two decent images.

    While I fondly remember the past, I don't want it back. I'm not sorry it's gone. I never want to be 20 30 40 50 60 again. And forget about 15. I can't wait to see what new things I learn next week and next year.

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  24. I'm only a lousy amateur photographer, mainly landscape and nature. My photography has improved technically and artistically a lot with the help of digital imaging. I still love the grain of Tri-X developed in Rodinal. It makes visible of what tmakes the image. Digital is cleaner, more synthetic.
    Maybe I should add some grain in post. Please excuse my english.
    Henk

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  25. Yes, people (Americans and Brits) were far more attractive in the ‘70s. You only need to look at documentary footage of Woodstock or the Osle of Wifht Rock Festivals to see the difference. About 20 to 50 lbs better looking!

    Why don’t you buy another TLR and a brick of BW film? You can photograph the negatives with a DSLR for a hybrid workflow. Take the TLR on your Photo Walks. Differentiate between work and play....


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  26. "Isle of Wight"Festival.... I hate phone keyboards! My eyes were better in the 1970s as well..

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