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?