What I have learned from a mentor.

Amy Smith. Assisting on a photo shoot with me many years ago. I'll save this one.

 It sounds a bit silly to have a mentor at 65 years of age but there it is. My mentor is not a photographer and has nothing to do with advertising, imaging or freelancing. He was a successful business person who made his fortune and retired. But he has also been a world class athlete since his years in college. 

Lately, when we've talked on the phone I've tried to push the conversation toward things like "legacy" and "happiness." These are buzzwords in our generation and they have different meanings for different people. For most photographers of a certain age legacy seems to mean getting your photo archive in shape to leave something behind. This gives many folks a reasonable sounding excuse to putter around their office, looking through sheets of slides, contact sheets and online galleries, spending time reminiscing and taking photos from one stack and putting them in another stack. There are all kinds of strategies that the usual "experts" on line will share as if these strategies are a bold and effective battle plan. 

We're told to rank images and put them into "keep", "maybe", "probably not" and "throw." The web-visor usually convinces us to put aside one "platinum" pile of images that will have resonance with your family and, perhaps, collectors. This stack is generally limited to one hundred images which have "stood the test of time." It's the artist equivalent of having a park bench named after you....

I asked my mentor about this at one of our casual meetings. He had recently completed a 10 mile open water swim race (at age 74) and he was very direct with me. This is a paraphrase of what he said (but it's pretty much accurate): 

"All that shit you are supposed to do when you "get older" is rank bullshit. When people get old they tend to get stuck in their own comfort zones. The idea of sorting stuff is just an excuse to sit comfortably in a favorite chair and aim your whole being toward your impending death." 

"You only have X number more years to live. If you are lucky! Do you want to spend them sitting on your ass waiting for the big decline or would you rather head out the front door every morning in search of a big adventure, a new adventure, a thrill, a challenge, a kick in the ass? Because I can guarantee you that aging isn't a process whose pace is carved in stone. You can speed up aging or you can slow it down but the secret is that if you aren't dedicated to enjoying RIGHT NOW to the hilt you are already deep in the sordid process of dying." 

"If you want my advice you should take everything that isn't absolutely precious to you and toss it now. Do it the day they come to pick up the garbage so you can't change your mind and go retrieve it. Throw away everything you don't use, don't want, haven't played with and haven't shown to people. That way you break the leash. You pop through the protective barrier and you startle the people around you who thought you should just slow down, and shut up, and age gracefully."

"Swim harder, train faster, and if you have to be a photographer then go out and be a photographer because, as I understand it, your best work is always, always just ahead of you. The stuff you already did is finished. It's a race already swum. It's already given you your time on the awards stand. Do you think if you play with those pictures over and over again they'll give you another ribbon or a trophy? Dude, the magic is in the race. It's in the experience and the practice. It's certainly not resident in the snapshots of you standing on the award blocks."

"Do you know what you should do every time you finish a great race? You should start training the very next day for the next race. And when you swim that one you should start training the very next day for another one." 

"There are two kinds of people in life. Those who do and those who sit on their ever growing butts and watch everyone else have the real fun. Which one would you rather be?"

And with that he stood up, thanked me for the coffee and (literally) ran off to get started on his next project. Starting a running program for kids at risk.

Later in the afternoon I looked at a pile of stuff on my desk that I'd been trying to sort. Mostly ancient headshots for big companies that made up my client list for most of my career. I carefully pushed all the old envelopes off the side of the desk and into a convenient trash can, put on some walking shoes, grabbed a camera, and headed out the door. There might be gold out there. Just maybe. But I know I've got better things than to find places for images I never want to see again. Or move statements around from desk to filing cabinet to trash.

This blog is just a thought as I get ready to go out today. And I had one last thought about my mentor, the swimmer. If people could transfer, just for one day, their consciousness into a 74 year old's body that was in infinitely better shape than their own, full of strength, energy and endurance, free of all pain, would the experience inspire them to change their lifestyles the minute their consciousness switched back into their own bodies? Would they start walking with the goal to start running? Would they take up Judo or long distance swimming? Would they live their lives at the peak of their potential? --- once they discovered that it felt great and WAS possible? 

I'd like to think they would. But I'm always haunted by the idea that most people are complacent enough to prefer just embracing the entropy and giving in. 

Everyone, it seems, gets a choice.


MER said...

Bravo. Thanks for sharing. Live for the day because that is all we have.

Roger Jones said...

We all live in our greatest moments, or greatest achievements. There are two types of people, the ones that live life to the max plus, every moment to the end, and never give up. The other type live their lives from the sidelines, on the bench never getting in the game of life, (unless there are physical or mental issues). They spend their lives reading, or watching what other people do never doing it themselves. Yes, some of your best work is in the rearview mirror the only way to go is forward, and do better work. Change is the only constant in the Universe. It will happen whether you like it or not, go with the flow it's easier and less stressful. It's time to get into the game of life or get back into the game of life, stop looking in the rearview mirror and remembering what was, it over. Stop sitting on the bench of life, get in the game. It will be over too soon.
As for the "Widow's Cart" less is always better and less confusing. Don't leave the burden to others, it isn't fair. Although I struggle with giving up what was. Every time I get ready to sell gear I see what's in the rearview mirror, the people the memories. Most of these people are gone now which makes it even harder, but we all agreed that you live life to the fullest, to the max, stay healthy and keep going, never stop never look back to what was keep going forward, and less is better. Use what you have and stop whining about what you don't have. Make it work, there are others who have it worse, just open your eyes and see what's going on. Get out and do it. As a photographer you do not need the latest and greatest to get the job done. How's the New Leica, Kirk?? :))) LOL

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I'm liking the SL2 a lot. I heard that if I buy them in lots of six I can get a case price. Seems like a "must do" bargain to me.

Anonymous said...

I like your attitude. I'm tired of reading about how we did it back in the old days. I'm tired of reading camera reviews from people who've never shot a photograph under deadline pressure. I'm tired of armchair quarterbacks. I'm tired of people who can recite how many elements there are in an old Leica lens but never go out and shoot with one. The fact that you go hands on with your gear every day puts you in a different class. I like reading your stuff. Thanks.

Don Karner said...

Don't ever lose this blog post. It should be etched in stone somewhere. I'll need to refer to it every now and then.

Jon Maxim said...

Thank you very much for this post Kirk. For me, this may just be the most meaningful one yet. I am retired and have started sifting through several hundred thousand images looking for the gold while putting off more shooting until it is sorted. I am finding it overwhelming. Your mentor's words are a real wake-up call. Incredibly refreshing.

I have always felt that I am one of those who do rather than sit. Your mentor has woken me to the fact that I am in danger of sitting on my butt.

Sincerely, thank you again.

crsantin said...

Great post. Unfortunately, most choose complacency. It's just easier to sit on the sofa with a beer and some buddies and just exist...and complain. The other choice is a difficult path and most people choose the path of least resistance. Complacency is dangerous because it can settle in on you without warning, without you even realizing it. Suddenly it's just there and that's your life and you are in too deep to get up and move yourself out of it, physically or emotionally.

The great Eddie Van Halen, who died in October after a long battle with cancer, left behind a home studio filled with tens of thousands of hours of recordings. He was a musical genius who played many instruments. To Van Halen fans, his vault of old recordings is legendary. He was always asked about going back into the vault to let fans hear what's in there and his response was always...why? He always felt the what he was presently working on was much more important and what he would work on in the future would be his best work. Right up until the end, until he physically couldn't pick up an instrument and play. John McEnroe continues to play competitive tennis at a very high level into his 60s. He still has the touch, and that famous temper. I watched him chew out a line judge at a charity tournament over a seemingly meaningless point. Not meaningless to him...so is he an asshole or still reaching for something? I'm going with the latter. Buzz Aldrin. I'm willing to bet he still looks up into the night sky and has that burning sensation to launch one more time. I'd bet my life on it. It goes on and on like this with people who reject complacency. I'm 53 soon and I feel like my best days are still ahead of me and I fight complacency all the time just like everyone else here. Always forward. Life is for the living.

The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Keith G. said...

Wow. This is one I should print out and tape to my bathroom mirror so that I see it every day.

It is far too easy to fall into a routine, rather than push myself into new experiences and efforts.

Anonymous said...

As others said, this post is one of the keepers. I just tried to glance at my back end - it seems stuck to the chair. Time to get up and do something. Thanks for the kick!

Rich said...

Kirk, as i read your tribute to this amazing guy, I thot, yes, go for the gusto, BUT;

Everything in balance. Moderation. The golden mean. etc...

Who was it that said, 'the uncontemplated life is not worth living'? [i probably bungled that quote!]

Life isn't just physical activity. If my knees were still intact, I would still be overdosing on exercise, as i did for the 1st 50 years.

My camera does more to get me out than anything. Most nights i try to capture the night lights here in Abu Dhabi. Yesterday I drove 5 hours to capture pix of a pro bike race up a desert mountain.

Sanjay said...

Do you and Mike Johnston coordinate blogs? Two powerful blogs on the same day.

DGM said...

The timing of this post is perfection. I have been wrestling with the same issues and my inner wisdom was nudging me daily in the direction your mentor drove home with a spiritual sledge hammer.

Thank you!

Mitch said...

"Break the leash".

That is ducking brilliant. And has provided tenfold the value of my yearly VSL subscription. No, a hundred fold.

I'd offer something salient but I'm off to contemplate my next move as I jump on the basement bike (still months from getting out on the road here.) Maybe I'll reach into that file drawer of slide pages and will just chuck a handful of them on my way past.

See you all out there in the world.

Greg Heins said...

I guess I'm different in that I don't see this as an either/or situation. I'm fortunate to have made it to 75 and still be in great health, but I'm doing some "Swedish death-cleaning" (you could read the book) right alongside making new work. I have seen first-hand the results of dying with boxes and boxes of unsorted photographs, no indication of which ones the photographer considered finished and which ones were work prints, no indication of which ones s/he wanted to survive, which ones could be tossed. To spend an hour now and then cleaning up, to create a database of the best work, to make sure that that work is stored in such a way that is archivally kosher - none of this rules out going out every day or so with a camera and seeing this new work all the way through printing. I would submit also that looking back can help looking forward. Good luck to us all.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Greg, I don't mean this post to be an either/or mandate. It's just that most people I know lean way further into the "comfortable chair+hot cup of tea+ pondering navel" part of the spectrum and far, far from the "let's get out and do it" part of the spectrum. There is a rich lobby of people looking in the rear view mirror and being paralyzed by the overwhelming self-attachment to their own past. This was meant to give a shout to the other side. To keep people from focusing completely on nursing their "legacy" at the expense of their present.

Of course we have to do both. But we need a balance that includes fun and new action, not just duty and the re-ordering of musty shelves.


karmagroovy said...

I have found over and over that by far the hardest part of any new endeaver, whether it be an exercise regimen or photography project, is STARTING! Once I've gotten started I'm always a little surprised at how much easier the project is than I anticipated and I berate myself for having procrastinated for so long. Once you get the routine started, I've found that the habit is easy to keep going because of the positive benefits. It becomes something you actually look forward to.

Unknown said...

Talk about collecting slides, negatives and prints. I'v been aiming my cameras at stuff since I bought my first "good" camera in 1966. Thousands of negatives, slides and while not so many prints they all take up space- physical and mental.
My kids will not place much value on 90% percent of it. I probably have not looked at 75% of it in years. To spend hours and hours looking at and sorting it all is not something I feel the need to do.
I'd rather be out "pointing my camera at stuff" that is new. The old is experience as water under the bridge. Life flows like the river, I don't feel the need to freeze it and look for relics of the past. (some yes most not)
Still- its awfully hard to toss out the stuff that used to mean much to me what will never mean much to anyone else.
Thank you for this post its message goes way beyond photography.

Eric Rose said...

I agree with almost everything your mentor said. One thing to consider is that he has neglected to consider whatever business he left behind whether he sold it or cashed out is his legacy. He doesn't have to think about it again. My thought when it comes to photographers and their legacies is that some of us create art and others are documentarians. Commercial work is just todays Big Mac. It's produced, consumed and then forgotten. I feel there is little to no reason to catalog, document and retain old head shots, corporate events, photos of food etc.

However especially in your case Kirk your none corporate portrait work is "art". It's something that should be kept. It makes no matter if the sitters are famous, beautiful or powerful. It's how you photograph them that matters. You have a unique way of capturing the essence of your subjects. The photos of Belinda are magical. But of course we know 90% of that is just Belinda.

Photographers are the last people that should evaluate their own work. Best to get a professional to curate it.

I chucked out all my commercial and stock work years ago. Such a load of baggage! I have very few images that I feel should be saved for posterity, but if there are any they should be passed on.

My will states that all my negatives and digital files excluding those deemed to be of value be destroyed upon my death. I have run into some rather vigorous objections to this plan but I don't want some slick lawyer finding my life's work some 60 years after my leaving this chunk of rock and then promote my work as some lost treasure.

Like you I really enjoy grabbing a camera as I head out. Playing with Instagram has helped give me some additional motivation to not take the same old photos each time I go out. Getting the creative juices flowing is an important aspect of a fully healthy lifestyle. It's not all about pushing yourself to the max physically in my not so humble opinion. Like everything in life, balance is the key.

Thanks for your post. It keeps us all thinking.


Steve Miller said...

Beautiful. At the risk of going against the advice in your post, this one's a keeper. One that I need to come back to often and remind myself how I feel right now after having read it. You're a lucky man to have such a good friend and mentor. Thanks for sharing.


Jerry said...

Three kinds of people:
1) those that make things happen.
2) those that watch things happen.
3) those that exclaim "what the fuck just happened?".
Guess which one is more fun?