I'm currently watching with interest as the photography world undergoes profound changes. The idea which I started kicking around a few years ago, the one about all the mainstream cameras having achieved an acceptable level of competence, seems to be cascading through the mainstream now and causing, well, stress.
Camera makers' sales are down by something like 50%; bloggers and YouTubers seem to be falling like dominos and Instagram now looks pretty much like the Model Mayhem website, circa 2010... all half naked Russian and Ukrainian models with huge, Photoshopped eyes..
There is a stalwart group of "enthusiasts" who still talk about arcane things like: Prints. Film. Archival Storage, and the importance of doing things exactly as their heroes at Life Magazine, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated did back in the last century. It's the same cohort who believe that video capability is a waste of space and resources inside their nearly traditional cameras, and it's the same group that's waiting for the market to get back to normal. Also, Alec Soth has returned to harvest what he can from the remnants of the art photography market. I mark that down as a loss, having seen his work up close at the Humanities Research Center at UT.
Frankly, I'm bored. I'm bored reading about how to make a great archival print with XXXX inkjet printer. I'm sooooo bored reading about why we all need full frame cameras. I am bored watching morons rattle on and on about the camera of the week on YouTube. I'm bored with endless resolution and truncated vision.
What I am not bored about, not uninterested in, not running out of the room screaming from, is the act of photography. I don't really care which camera I take along with me and I don't really care that much about the lenses either; no, the real magic is now almost wholly encapsulated in the process. The naked process of being outside the office, house or studio and actively engaged in looking at things I find interesting and then photographing them.
I'm almost never looking forward to printing the images. I'm happy enough working with the images I like in Photoshop, or SnapSeed, or Preview, or any other piece of software to see just what I can wring out of the photographs for my own happy and selfish entertainment. If someone else likes the images then my ego gets a nice bump for a few minutes and then we all move on.
Photography has evolved for me from a measured activity with a bevy of end goals, such as making archival prints, mounting and framing said prints and then having a show to present them to a small subset of the public, into a sport or exercise. In my mind the taking of images now is more or less like reading novels or playing tennis. Except that there is a fun connection between seeing and then putting yourself in the right position to capture the image the way you thought you wanted to see it. There is also a self-competitive game/skill of trying to time things so that composition and gesture intersect with the moment. At least this is how I now see my involvement as a photographic hobbyist....
Of course, I routinely change hats and also do this for a living. I have done photography as an occupation (to the exclusion mostly of anything else) for nearly 32 years. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there are two skills that must be mastered to be consistently successful in this business over time. The first is a tolerance of absolute uncertainty and ever impending financial chaos. The second is an ability to consider routine assignments as continually interesting and artistically worthwhile.
The second point does not mean that each work assignment, each rushed headshot of a chubby office clerk, photographed in front of yet another few yards of gray seamless paper, is filled with artistic (but largely unrealized) potential that only I can unlock. No. It means that even as I go through the almost robotic steps of setting up the background light, or tweaking the front light, or turning a bored and restless subject into the right light, I'm playing a certain narrative in my mind. I'm working with the camera and assimilating ever more data points about human nature, the way light plays across a forgettable face, popular culture, and I'm gathering up new experiences and new knowledge that, in one way or another, will be folded into the almost subconscious process of taking photographs just for myself at another time. Perhaps that makes me a cynical critic of our milieu.
I'm going to admit something that will make some VSL readers gasp with a sense of procedural betrayal while others will consider this no big deal. Or perhaps, normal. Here it is: Many, many times I go out with a camera and photograph throughout an afternoon or a day. Hundreds and hundreds of frames. I try new stuff. I stick my camera into the crowd. I pick out interesting faces. I look for patterns that make my little synapses fire. Then I come home and look through the images on a computer screen. And then I throw them all away, reformat the card(s) and never look back.
It was the process of being out in the world that I wanted. And continue to want. If I need the busy work of processing ever more images I can always walk across my office and pull any one of a hundred thousand or so negatives from their sleeves and work on stuff I've already got. There is nothing happening now that has more or less significance, in a wide view, than anything I photographed ten, twenty or thirty years ago. It's just an endless re-run of variations on the human condition.
For me it all comes down to process. To the exercise. To examining the world through a temporal filter that allows me to shoot now and consider later. I look and absorb whatever lesson it was that I needed to know and then I move on.
So, why do I even bother continuing to make images? It's not for the money; I think we have enough of that to last. It's not the adulation of an audience, because, other than the folks here (and my clients) I really have never worked to build an audience. No, I go out and photograph for me because I am fascinated by the human story. I don't need to preserve it but I feel compelled to see it. The camera gives me permission to be different than people engaged in other pursuits. I get to spend my time (work and play) observing people from all walks of life and trying to see and understand what makes them different and the same. And how social evolution is progressing.... or devolving.
So, to reiterate, I take photographs. I look at them. I divine in them something that is either interesting to me or profoundly uninteresting and then, once digested, I toss the electrons back into the ether and prepare myself for the next outing, girded with a tiny bit more perspective and knowledge than I had just before. Weird, right? But why does anyone really have a hobby like this?
I spent the last two afternoons walking around downtown Austin to soak up the ever changing cultural animal we know as SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST (SXSW), one of the world's biggest, most popular, and well attended, two week long gaming, music and cinema gatherings. But I'm not really interested in live music, I'm happy enough catching up on movies via Netflix, and I have little to no interest in gaming. I want to see what all these people look like. How they gesture. How they walk, How they talk. How they show affection. How they express outrage or happiness. How they dress. And how they all mix together in the urban cauldron. That's the real story. My images of it will be no better or worse than those of any one of the hundreds of SXSW volunteers who trade their precious photographs for access to some of the venues. I come away with an ever changing understanding of people outside my age/wealth/professional demographic and it helps anchor me with a greater emotional understanding of how ..... everything.....works.
Since I've been gone for a number of weeks I've been working, and thinking about work, without tainting the appraisal with the desire to digest and reinterpret the information for unknown readers. But I wanted to share one insightful day in which I learned something very, very valuable about portraiture. Business portraiture.
I was asked by a small but extremely well funded start-up company to come in and make portraits of four of their partners. All very successful. The CEO is a about a decade older than me and the rest of the team is slightly older or younger than me. I was in my vacation mode so I bid the job as high as I wanted to. Money that looks good at my level being mostly inconsequential to them they booked me immediately.
When I initially talked to the marketing person about the job I was asked what my methodology was to get good rapport with my past subjects. I'm sure I was insouciant but I tossed out the idea that the best way to handle portraits of powerful people was never to let them walk into a session cold but to spend time with each person in a casual, one-on-one interview or conversation until such a time as we were comfortable with each other and felt safe and somehow connected.
The marketing person asked me what that might look like. I suggested that with someone like a seasoned CEO it might look like sitting down and having coffee together and spending twenty uninterrupted minutes in real conversation. I wouldn't know a deep amount about my subject but we'd have some basic intersections to break down some barriers. People are most comfortable with people they perceive to be like them. Socially or culturally.
On the shoot day I spent a few hours setting up lights in several potential shooting locations and, once I felt comfortable with my photographic provisioning, I let the marketing person know. She brought me to the CEO's office where he and I shook hands and then mutually pursued the familiar process of placing each other within a ....hierarchy. We both had graduated from UT Austin. We both have lived here for a long time. We both remember the "golden age" of Austin when traffic was largely non-existent and one could buy a decent house for much less than a million dollars. Our kids attended the same schools and we live in the same zip code.
By the end of the conversation we had identified a whole list of commonalities that gave us both more to talk about than just "where should I stand?" "What should I do with my hands?"
If you get a great portrait of the CEO it's all an easy ride from there. After a successful session I told him that I'd also like to have him reserve some time at the very end of my shooting day (after the next three people) so we could do one more session in a second location. He asked me why.
Here was my response: "Okay. So I found out when we were talking that you were trained as an engineer and in my experience, even though our first shoot was great, you're bound to go back to your office and ruminate over all the ways you could have done better. All the ways I may have done better. You'll analyze it. It's the way we do stuff. So, if I give you to the end of the day to crunch on whatever data you're taking away from this session I'm betting you'll have more fun in the second session. You'll be more relaxed and we'll both have a more highly refined agenda. It should pay off in some really good portraits. If not, well, we've already got really good stuff in the bank."
He thought it was a great idea. I proceeded to do my conversations and sessions with the other three subjects and finally re-visited the CEO.
All the shoots that day were so different from those I've done where people walk in cold and on a short, grabby schedule. They were more relaxed. They took direction better. They were more patient. It showed in all the images.
I'm going to do a workshop (kidding) and teach the new Kirk Tuck Method. I'll start by teaching everyone to have coffee with their clients and to get to know them. We'll role play and ask each other, "what do you think made your company successful?" As my favorite sales guy said when I told him about this experience: the more quality time you spend getting to know what your client really needs the more likely you are to close the sale."
By extension, the more time you take to get to know your portrait client the more effective your collaboration will be.
Random news to catch you up from three weeks ago:
Yes. I'm still swimming. Yes, I'm still drinking coffee. Yes, I'm still enjoying shooting for the theater. Yes, I still have the Panasonic cameras and the Olympus Lenses. Yes, I still have a bunch of Fuji cameras and lenses.
I'm still acting as guardian and financial genius (I wish) for my dad. I've gotten his tax information into the hands of his CPA. Belinda has our financial info over to our CPA. We won't get a refund. We've never gotten a refund. We don't believe in giving zero interest loans to the government (no matter who is in charge).
We still live in West Austin and still love our house. Studio Dog got a Spring time hair cut and looks adorable. She'd blush if she could....
Stay tuned as we zero in on a new "normal" writing schedule. I told you I wasn't closing the blog....
Bacon, Vodka and Snooker. What do these three things have in common?
Added after the fact: The re-launch coincided absolutely perfectly with the 25,000,000th page view. A happy coincidence?
Your wanderings remind me of a quote by Garry Winogrand: "I photograph to see what things look like photographed."
Excellent! So glad you're back.
The Best Point to this Post for me - "Then I come home and look through the images on a computer screen. And then I throw them all away, reformat the card(s) and never look back." This is the Secret to our image making clutter and time wasting. Less is definitely More. This is Real Freedom.
Mr. Tuck, it's a nice surprise to see that you're back writing! I hope you had an enjoyable and much-needed break. As for your question about bacon, vodka and snooker, Mike Johnston is a fan of them. He mentioned the first two in his TOP article on March 9 and he is "utterly besotted with the quirky put perfect English game of snooker" (his "Open Mike" article on March 8).
Welcome back. :-)
A photographer needs to exercise eye, fingers and most of all mind. Shooting is fun, the images don't have to be "keepers" or saleable, simply are. We see, we learn. Equipment matters little.. In the end it is us. Aficionados with those ultra expensive systems with red dots and the use of "RAW" to correct poor camera interpretation is almost laughable.
Emulating the technique and tools of the past is a good idea! Those photographs are simply better.I used 400ASA with TRi-X original that simply sang in the darkroom.. I no longer want to do that.. and my images show it. sigh.
The camera corporations are still ignoring the "Elephant in a small room" the phone camera with apps like appleseed have changed the dynamics..Huge lenses are a quick fix that will result in fast fading growth.
Good work Kirk!
At last. The drought is over. And there...with all the accumulated dust washed away...a gem.
As to the quiz: all three have been TOP of mind during 22 days of wandering lost in the desert.
Kirk, I am an on again/off again photo/camera hobbyist. You expressed my feelings exactly. Thanks, JohnB
Welcome back, and thanks for the great post. And by the way, the quote below is so relevant to any profession where one works for themselves. I sent it to my son who is beginning his career as a luthier. He was relieved to know that his situation is not unique.
"there are two skills that must be mastered to be consistently successful in this business over time. The first is a tolerance of absolute uncertainty and ever impending financial chaos. The second is an ability to consider routine assignments as continually interesting and artistically worthwhile."
A great post to come back! Thank you.
Thanks. I enjoyed my time off. I got a lot of thinking and mental processing done. I hope it makes the blog more interesting.
Given that Mike Johnston is a member in long standing of AA, any love of vodka should be put in the past tense. I doubt he eats bacon either. But when it comes to snooker, you've got him dead to rights.
that photo is just lovely!
And welcome back!
To your post I say: Hear, hear!
( My mind kept nodding as I read.)
- - -
To my (amateur's) mind you've described a great way of using the same craft professionally and for personal creative work - regardless of if you save or erase the results!
- - -
That job you did with "the new Kirk Tuck Method" - must have been a great experience for them!
( I can visualize a row of new clients wishing for a similar experience..)
Gordon is correct. MJ is not at all interested in Vodka or Bacon. I was riffing on his written appraisal of a writer, here: "...although, as a recovering alcoholic and a confessed WFPB fanatic, I can't see how someone who eats bacon and loves vodka could be your guide to anything, much less the murky waters. That's murky living if you ask me..." -Michael Johnston As well as his obsession with snooker... (and now, his dismal of excess ellipses.....). I think it's funny because I found Missy MWAC's article to be spot on and funny. I've always found her point of view refreshing and, for the business, insightful.
a line my comment above should have read: "(and now, his dismissal of excess ellipses.....)"
OMG (parenthetically speaking) I can('t) seem to write or talk without these things.
Hey wait just a minute... Dogs can't blush? And I could have sworn that mine did.... ;-)
Ahhh. Truth. What I come here for.
I love the idea of photography as an ephemeral process of viewing the world through a lens, first this way then that. Then letting it all go and doing it all again tomorrow. Buddhist impermanence and the present moment runs deep in your thinking, Kirk.
Thanks for the update.
Glad to see you back and refreshed!
So glad you're back. I missed your insights. Bob
Attaboy Kirk,so good to see you back and in such brilliant form,looking forward to some interesting articles and insights as you move on through your life's journey.
I havnt even read this post yet but just wanted to say welcome back u have been missed.I didnt realise how much daily ramblings had become a part of my everyday life.Funny old world but anyway glad u are back
I TOLD you I've learned a lot from you. Taking time to get to know the portrait subject is crucial. I knew this, but there's rarely time to sit down for coffee when you have more than a couple of people to photograph. Sometimes I'm reluctant to "impose" on the subject's time. But hey, they get what they pay for, in money and time. I'm planning to force the issue, next time. Thanks for the kick in the pants. Of course, next week I'm photographing 30 fire fighters and I've got about an hour and a half, when I should be spending 3 days at it. Sigh.
"Throw them all away" ... is this the same as seeing two Kodak 250 sheet B&W paper boxes of 8x10 contact sheets from the 70's last week and not taking the time to look through them?
Very interesting “thought/insight for the day” - without trying to be glib.
Would it be fair to say that this process is some that digital cameras enable? I’m guessing it might be possible with film, if one had th time and money, which makes me guess it would have been unfeasible for most.
Ross, I think that's fair to say.
No, I think it's a whole different animal. A closer analogy would be that it's like souping the negatives, looking through the negatives with a loupe and then tossing them out. Or, with slide film, doing the same thing. Having printed them, even as contact sheets, connotes that a process was followed which assigned a greater value to the images that were subsequently printed. Much as would be the case if, while tossing most of today's take (from a digital camera) I found three or four keepers and saved them in the normal, archival back up sequence with the intention of sharing them or distributing them beyond myself as the only audience. Sees pretty straight forward.
Great post. Thanks very much.
Bacon is a product of vicious, life-long atrocities against innocent, defenseless beings who are much smarter than our dogs, and around as social. And vodka and snooker aren't.
That must be it.
What a delight to check my favorite photography website this morning and find a new post, followed by the disappointment of having a day of work in front of me that left me with no choice but to click off and come back at the end of the day. As always, your observations on photography, family. and life in general are heartfelt and insightful. Please continue to share your thoughts on whatever schedule works for you. I am surely not the only follower who will patiently wait for your next post,
It's good to have you back.
Love your point of view about general photography:) I tell everyone I take my camera for a walk about the same way they would take their dog;)
Kirk, You always make me feel better! Thanks.
Well, maybe after a decade this digital thing is finally "here" and we can relax get back to being photographers. Not, as we were for the last decade or so, photographers grasping to learn all about how our way of working has been upended, and how we fit what we do into a new light gathering box.
As for the portrait shoot: I concur. And am happy to hear that others, too, are speaking of jobs once again where the subjects are engaged in -our- process and not just wanting to have you come in because, y'know, it will only take an hour because it's "digital" so lets get this over with.
WELCOME BACK MR.T!! Hope you had an excellent break and all's well with you. Been a wee quiet around here without you.
Indeed welcome back Kirk. I've tired of blogs over time and read basically just one. Yours. (And occasional glimpses into T-O-P). Relieved you've swung totally around to my photographic view and shoot Panasonic and Fuji cameras... :). No seriously, good to have your back online. And get into snooker. It's a fabulous game with quintessential British-ness but worldwide flare.
Max from Down Under
Glad to see you back, missed you. Hope all is well. It felt surprisingly good to settle in and read you again today.
Thank you Kirk, I missed you.
thanks for writing, enjoying reading your views and methods.
Thank you for posting again! You were sorely missed!! Thx, Al
Good to have you back! Looking forward to more musings and insights from you. Thank you! Al.
Welcome back from your holiday.
I think I am half on board with your idea. I love to photograph. I hate to edit and finally print. But I am a packrat of sorts. Keeping most images.
So I have thousands of un processed images on a hard drive. With the cost of space, its easy to keep for ever.
However, this year I still vow to sort through it all. Delete the real garbage and print some of my favorites.
I am partially surprised in the last 3 weeks you didn't switch fully to Fuji medium format. Than to Nikon Z. Oh well still time I guess.
Your new-ish attitude finds you in very refined company:
About 20 years ago, I saw a wonderful short film on a Japanese laser disc (those old 12" diameter laser discs). There was no dialog at all. There were two Japanese photographers that kept bumping into each other as they traveled around Japan photographing various exquisite scenes. One man had a Nikon with a 300mm lens, the other man had a little compact, fixed lens camera. Each scene would open with one of the men calmly composing a shot, the other man walking up beside him. They smile and bow to each other, then they both compose their pictures side by side. At one point the man with the compact camera offered his shoulder to the other to steady the 300mm lens. After the big Nikon snapped a shot, the man raised his compact camera and snapped one while the 300mm was still on his shoulder.
At the end of the day, they are sitting together on a park bench, they look at each other, the man with the compact camera opens up the film compartment and shows it to the other man. It is empty. The man with the Nikon smiles, opens up his camera and shakes out two acorns. Neither had any film in their cameras.
It was a wonderful, artistic piece that seems to capture much of what you are experiencing.
Thank you! KT
Not much of a break KT. Thought you might at least go to India for a month's silent meditation.
But recorded by the film.
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