11.02.2019

Re-discovering motivation. Or maybe discovering new angles of motivation.


visual problem solving as food for the brain. Images for the heart.  I wonder where radishes fit in?

I've been doing some back of the envelope calculations about why I photograph. The math never really seems to add up. I suppose that after doing so much photography for a living that there's a momentum that keeps me reflexively looking at the world through a camera; but I'm not sure it's a healthy fascination. 

I know that I started taking photographs because of the obvious and largely unconsidered desire to make visual images of the beautiful people I was surrounded by in my late teens and early twenties. So, in fact, my photography has always been driven, from the beginning, by the content and not by either the craft or the lofty ruminations of art philosophy. I bought my first "real" camera in order to take photographs of my girlfriend at the time. I thought she was amazing.  For one period of my life cameras lasted longer than some of my relationships. The girlfriend moved on but the camera stuck around to continue the process of documenting a series of subsequent relationships. Unthinkable in contemporary life where I've been with the same person for nearly 40 years but have changed cameras (as some wag recently wrote) almost as often as most people change their underwear.

I came of photographic age at a time when culture was changing and intimacy, nudity and even the way we defined and described human beauty came out of the shadows of puritanism and became progressively more mainstream --- at least in the university communities in which I lived at the time. Photographing the beautiful face of a person with whom you were also in love had many facets of reward. From having photographic subjects that were almost universally appealing, to having the photographic print with its ability to bring to mind immediately the shared experiences with a person who, in turn, was as interested in you as you were with them. It was a virtuous loop of positive affirmation and happiness, and the photographs were the ongoing souvenir of your object of satisfaction and joy. A reminder that you belonged somewhere. That you belonged with someone.

With this in mind (the experience of making desirable photographs of beautiful people) why would I ever consider landscape or travel photography? Where's the reward? What's the value? Nothing really has the photographic dopamine hit of being able to look at an image of your lover's face and re-appreciate the warm and happy feelings incorporated and expressed there...

As I hit the 30 year mark in commercial photography I've found it harder and harder to stay motivated to do my own work. Maybe the pressures of having to produce on command trims the edges off the endurance required to do work for someone else, in a specific fashion, and then turn around and produce work on cue for one's self. At the end of a long day dragging clients from cliché to acceptable it's a wonder most photographers aren't just sitting in their parked cars weeping and wondering why they chose such an awful way to eke out a living.

But something equally onerous seems to happen as we get older. We've seen so much stuff, at such a relentless pace, that sometimes it feels impossible to do any (personal) work that doesn't seem like a redundant copy, a bad derivation, or a worn out meme when we do pick up our cameras. Nearly every street scene, landscape and abstraction we come across seems to reinforce the feeling that we've been there; we've done that. It's a feeling that goes a long way toward dampening one's enthusiasm to march around with a camera and attempt to make "Art."

The final straw, also aging induced, is the paralysis of understanding that the majority of your life (statistically speaking) is now in the past and the time left is neither guaranteed nor able to be decelerated. If you now have the time and means to pursue the project of a lifetime then the question becomes "which project should it be?" How does one decide between all the competing possible photographic adventures when the catalog of possibilities is laid open in front of you?

Recently, with my attention turned away from the business, I slowed down my engagement with both the work-work and the "fun" work. It gave me the opportunity to be a bit more clear-eyed about my trajectory and my motivations. 

I've come to realize that, for me, the secret to staying motivated is to reach all the way back into the past and connect with what brought me to photography in the first place. That would be making portraits, for myself, of the beautiful people in my life. They are no longer all young, no longer filled with innocence and brimming with enthusiasm over something as ephemeral as potential, but most have become, in their own ways, even more beautiful and alluring, having been dusted with the patina of time and experience. I find that their eyes are now more expressive, the stories they tell more nuanced, and most have come to terms with their look and their physical presentation so that facades are easier to pierce and discard and now we can collaborate on illuminating a combination of experience and intrinsic beauty. 

I've started having prints made again. I'm putting images into small books and making prints for the wall behind my office desk. It's nice to see the physical manifestation of my work without the dependance on a computer or phone...

Another project is one that my wife and I are working on together and that's to make photographs for the house. Lately, we've been attracted to produce markets. Our current project is to make lots of food images from which to "curate" a small number that we'll turn into prints and put on our dining room walls. Something we talked about for years....

The art director + photographer .... it's like the barefoot children of the village cobbler. We've been so busy making content for clients that we almost forgot what it was like to do art for our own enjoyment.

So, the process of re-energizing motivation is as "simple" as getting in touch (and re-interpreting) your own photographic "origin" story and then filling in around the edges with different work you create just for yourselves. I guess that's why they call it "personal work."






14 comments:

Don Karner said...

I want to comment but the proper words simply fail me. In some ways I feel you are describing my life and motivations for making photographs.

This post begs to be read and re-read. And I have.

I will just have to say thank you for writing this, and leave well enough alone.....

Dave Jenkins said...

Great, Kirk. This is exactly what I was talking about in my recent email to you. The particulars are different, because we are different. But the principle is the same, and is applicable to every serious photographer.

Bill Pierce said...

From one even older old pro, HOORAY, THANK YOU.

Chris Kern said...

(Note: out-of-sequence quotations from your post.)

We've seen so much stuff, at such a relentless pace, that sometimes it feels impossible to do any (personal) work that doesn't seem like a redundant copy, a bad derivation, or a worn out meme when we do pick up our cameras.

my photography has always been driven, from the beginning, by the content and not by . . . the craft. . . .

For me, as I get older, the craft actually becomes more significant. I don’t ever expect to produce a museum-quality image, and much of what I shoot does indeed seem ‟like a redundant copy” of what I’ve done before—if I overthink it. But the effort to improve the quality of my craftsmanship is what motivates me. And the arrival of new digital tools provides continuing challenges in that regard.

The key to aging happily, it seems to me, is to keep looking forward, however you arrive at that: to concentrate on the future, not the past, and to have a goal (perhaps inchoate) that you may never achieve.

In other words, keep plugging away at whatever keeps you plugging away.

It‘s really not that complicated.

Ronman said...

Yeah, Kirk, the timing of this post coincides with what I've been pondering for some time. I'm within a year of retiring, and busy considering what I want to do with an additional 50 hours of time available to me each week. I'm more than excited to quit the work routine, and know I'll have no problem filling my days with activities, but find my motivation and excitement to be creative somewhat waning. The irony is not so long ago I couldn't wait to shut down the professional life and apply my energy towards writing, shooting video and stills, and basically becoming the story teller I always wanted to be if afforded enough time. And now here I am feeling as though the fascination with life has faded for the exact reasons you mention - been there done that. Yet it's not really that way. Whenever my wife and I travel, at home or overseas, within a few days I feel the energy and vigor return, the mind open up and my curiosity begin to renew.
What does it mean? I don't pretend to understand, but do think it has something to do with simply getting tired, and perhaps bored, with the routine of life when variety is set aside due to the necessities of simply living, or surviving. I think we're innately curious creatures, and when denied the opportunity to discover, whether it be by necessity or self-inflicted, we are shutting down an essential element of human nature, the essence of our purpose.

Gary said...

Bravo, Kirk. Clear the brush and seek the Urquell (not the beer). And Ronman, thank you for your comment. Being of a similar age I think about the same issues. Good and thoughtful writing on the subject helps clarify my own thoughts.

Rene said...

Hi Kirk,

Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. This resonates with me in so many ways. My original inspiration/motivation 50 years ago was the beauty of nature, but over the years I began to feel out of step with what contemporary nature photography has become and there were also too many "been there, done that" moments. For the last several years I found enjoyment and a sense of purpose in documenting political protest, particularly around climate change and environmental issues, but once again I've found the motivation lagging and the "work" (I occasionally act as a stringer for local newspapers who no longer have the photographic staff to cover these events) repetitive rather than creative. So recently I've just started to just walk around taking random pictures of what catches my eye. No new themes have emerged, but not feeling the pressure to "produce" has made me more excited to just go out and shoot.

Craig Yuill said...

Hanging prints of photos you took on the walls of your home is a great idea. I did something similar for my parents about 25 years ago. Cibachrome prints of photos taken on medium format transparency film Those photos are still up on the walls and look as good as the day they were put up. It adds a nice, expressive personal touch to the home. Do it.

Eric Rose said...

I've started trying to concentrate on one or two "projects". My last vacation drove it home to me that I have gotten into a photographic rut. I found photo after photo where I instinctually composed the photo so there was a perfect place to add text. Or some other equally boring trope that has become part of my photographic lexicon.

Once I realized what I was doing I tried to concentrate on developing a theme for a project. This is found much more exciting and in the end rewarding. I still have to distill this notion down into something that will produce 15 to 20 really first rate images that work well together.

The excitement has returned! No longer will I be photographing on autopilot. I figure I have 20 good years left, so hope I get this new way of doing things figured out by then.

Eric

Michael Matthews said...

There’s no way to rise to this level of eloquence in writing a comment, so I give up. Even the throwaway line about (commercial) photographers just sitting in their parked cars and weeping is beyond brilliant.

MO said...

Posts like this one is what i find the most interesting and catches my attention while reading. I can relate and at the same time the writing is giving me an insight into your world and thoughts. In a way that invites me, the reader inside in a pleasant and present way.

I think these kind of posts achieves what you aim to achieve with your photos, only done in writing.

I enjoy your your writing and for me these posts does your writing the most justice.

Thanks for blogging

John Krumm said...

It's likely universal to anyone remotely connected to art making of some sort. But with the added complexity of the professional output and business management side of things. I suppose in some ways a professional commercial photographer is like a session musician--flexible, can play the standards, reliable, able to do it perfectly again and again. If you are good and known, you don't lack work, but it is work. As the French supposedly say, you work to live, you don't live to work.

pixtorial said...

This is why we read your blog, Kirk. Your willingness to bring us along in your journey. You clearly know how to do it visually, and likewise you do as well with your eloquent words. I would love to see you pen a book that gathers these thoughts, and your journey, along with some selected images. Just as your blog is my favorite photography blog that is about so much more than photography, the book would also add up to more than just a book about creating images.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Darn, pixtorial, I thought people read it to enjoy my incredible sense of humor.... :-) KT