Struggling with the identity of being "a photographer." Maybe it's just one of those awkward transitions.

 Since the later half of the 1980's, when I launched a full time career as a professional photographer, I've accepted and grown the identity of "photographer." In a way it's like joining a cult where the constant practice of making photographs takes precedent over so much else. Extra time goes into photo projects, vacations revolve around places that we'd like to spend time photographing in, extra money in the budget goes to paper and film and now different digital cameras and software. The language and the knowledge of so much arcane trivia made us a tribe. It all seems like so much fun until you come to grips with the idea that you placed yourself in a narrow little slice of a very big world. 

The problem with identifying too closely with the pursuit you undertake for your income; your living, is that every profession and every art form changes. And, sure, you can continue to try doing the same thing over and over again but you know at some point that you're just riding around in circles and watching your objective relevance fade into the sunset. In your twenties and thirties everything is new and exciting. In your forties (and hopefully even into your fifties) you've mastered the parts of photography that seemed daunting or complex in earlier years and maybe you are lucky enough to still be surrounded by a cadre of like minded image makers for whom the gut level thrill of making photographs (and being a photographer) never wore off. Go team Anachronism!

But it seems, at least to me, that by the time you hit your mid-sixties, it's hard to summon up the same levels of enthusiasm and immersion you once did. After you've lived through popular culture's fifth or sixth (painful) re-discovery and emulation of Robert Frank or Irving Penn, and once you've done all the top ten styles of the last 50 years for the umpteenth time for clueless clients you get....jaded and bored. 

I never wanted to admit that this would happen to me but there it is. I've started to lose interest in doing yet another assignment for anyone that consists of making work portraits of people against a gray seamless background. Or a blue one. Or a white one. Or a black one. I'm beyond exhausted by having to explain why light on a face in a portrait isn't supposed to be flat as a one toned color swatch but should have some direction to it in order to "model" the subject's features. Painfully over having to have the conversation about the physics of getting a really ultra-wide shot where the subject is "super in focus but the background is super out of focus" and despairing also of the idea that everything can happen, photographically, in the blink of an eye. Just lean in through the doorway and make us a masterpiece...

I got into the habit of always carrying a camera with me back in the days when one of my favorite everywhere cameras was an Olympus half frame with a 40mm f1.4 on it. Loaded up with Tri-X and always ready. Back in the "golden age" of art photographers and art school programs I was one of hundreds of people walking through Austin every hour of every day with cameras hanging from thin leather straps over proud shoulders. Now, in a sense, I walk pretty much alone through Austin, probably a humorous oddity for subsequent generations. Most of my personal photography now is just a reflexive response to boredom and habit more than any heartfelt desire to tackle some project. Even the thought of doing "a project" reeks to me of obsolete, art school hokum. 

All of this dissonance is, of course, tied up with my too close self-identity as an artist and a photographic technician. As though it's not enough just to be a fellow human scrounging his way through life. Having a ready label that, at one time in history, seemed like a bold and adventurous but was really was just a way of trying to differentiate oneself from the  sometimes abhorrent concept of "herd." Or even worse, "average." 

After what seems to have been a long enough career I'm a bit stunned and, to tell the truth, a bit saddened by the reality that after all this time I have only a handful of my own images that truly move me, that hold my attention. Photos I would risk rescuing from the proverbial burning house. Mostly from early trips abroad or of beautiful (to me) girlfriends and, by extension, close family. And I'm pretty sure that it's the same for everyone else who followed the same trajectory as me. We envy the Henri Cartier-Bressons and the equally driven Richard Avedons but when we weigh our output against that of those previous generations we know most of us have, in most "art" regards, fallen far short of what we were wishing for when we were young and bulletproof. Buoyed up today only by the vague and shallow assertion that, "at least we tried." 

I find myself in the process of moving on. Of jettisoning the identity and life of a commercial/professional/mercenary photographer. I have nothing left in the tank that I want to share with clients. I don't need the income and I don't need the frustrations that come with trying to match the changing tastes and expectations of a current advertising industry which has been raised almost exclusively either on cheap stock photography or the idea of collaging bits and pieces of images together to make something acceptable in post processing. I cringe every time I hear: "We can fix that in post." And I feel even worse when I hear myself say that. 

I no longer want to find myself at a beautiful location, with perfect light, at the perfect time, only to get a phone call from a harried marketeer trying to shepherd a wayward CEO to a fixed location and time calling to tell me they are running about an hour late. And I never want to be there again to suffer the frustration of knowing that if everyone had done their part correctly the light would have been perfect and the photograph marvelous but when they finally did show up the light had gone ugly and flat, the open shade was now gone and the temperature had risen 20 degrees. Now we have a sweating, corpulent man in a bad, bad suit, in a rush, sweating like he'd just run a marathon and hoping "we can get this done in a couple of minutes." 

Some have suggested I volunteer and work with good non-profits. Oh gosh! That never occurred to me...(sarcasm alert). But that's shoehorning a different package of compromises than the situation I'm already trying, it seems, to exit as gracefully as possible or as clumsily as necessary. 

I've turned over my position at the theater to a younger, trendier and much more enthusiastic photographer. Upon doing so it dawned on me that most of my buying and selling of gear in the last decade, at least, was very much predicated on how to do that specific kind of assignment as well as I could. Now I feel unencumbered by any expectation that I need to go long and low noise and fast. Half the gear I have I never needed and the other half was job specific. 

Here near the end of my desire to be commercially viable I look across the assemblage of stuff in the studio and wonder how it was I got so far afield from the slender selection of passionately acquired gear that worked so well for me in the beginning... and how to get back to the garden. I fear that my own missteps have closed the gate and that the desire for the coolest gear drove away the magic. 

So, yeah, I'm wrapping up a couple of jobs that I thought I wanted but I really didn't. I'm already telling people who call or text that I'm blocking out the month of October for "a project." But it's not true. I just don't want to do their work anymore. I'm going to spend the month searching to see if I can find a path back to my own work. My own photography. Unencumbered by client demands and taste and unencumbered as well by the legion of internet photographers who are quick to suggest what I could have done differently at every moment. 

I really am going on a road trip in October and B and I are really going further afield in November. And maybe I really will take just one old camera and one lens. And maybe I really will only photograph things that are interesting to me without any concern for outside verification, validation or acceptance. It's an interesting time. Thank goodness there is still swimming and walking. I at least still understand my attraction to those activities right now. I'm hopeful I'll find a good way to reconnect with the passion I've felt for photography right up until last year. It's at least a useful mission. But only to me. Only right now.


Richard said...

Re: Some have suggested … I can see why that can be annoying but maybe people give advice because they care … Oh no, now I’ve done it too ;( .

Omer said...

Kirk Tuck wrote, "I fear that my own missteps have closed the gate and that the desire for the coolest gear drove away the magic."

Nah. Rationalize the interruptions in positive ways. And truly, gear is just stuff, easy to leave behind or forget. It is courage and perseverance that matter. Making art is a hell of a lot of work, no matter who one is.

Marcio K said...

Good luck in your search, Kirk - even if in the end you discover that photography is not your main focus anymore, like was with Ming Thein. Bad for us, readers, but I just want you the best.

About the gear...sine you've already have the coolest and best ones, maybe try some "connecting" ones? The ones, not perfect, but that resonates with you and your photos? You frequently mention your old Canonet, your old Oly half-frame...maybe try them again, to rediscover what these cameras resonate with you, to find their modern counterparts (or even still use them now).

I've found that some of my best photos were taken with old m4/3 cameras - Panasonic GH2, Olympus E-P1. Both are here in the closet, did not sold them (by laziness) when then were valued, now they value nothing, will try them again, with old adapted lenses.

But I guess in your case, is more to find what TO photograph instead of photograph WITH. Take you time, try old and new things. Again, good luck.

JC said...

You're getting old. Notice I didn't say "older." Even teenagers get older, but I'm old (77) and you're getting there. Right around your age (or a bit older -- a lot of people go through it at 69-71) you start to think about "what the fuck have I done?" Well, actually, you've had a pretty good interesting life and that's about the best anyone can hope for, unless you're sincerely religious. After you've gone through the transition, you start to seriously consider, "What can I do to make the rest of my life interesting?" That's a really hard question. Given your healthy lifestyle and the current state of medicine, you've probably got 25 more years ahead of you. It might seem a little dimwitted to say this, but you could go to law school and have a twenty-year career. You could take some serious courses in finance -- you've got one of the great universities in the world right in your hometown -- and then take out a chunk of your savings and see what you could do with it in the markets. You could become a musician or an actor. There's all kinds of stuff out there. One of my basic feelings is that just finding a way to entertain yourself isn't enough. If you're like me, you need to work. So take some time, and find out what other kinds of work you'd like to do. Could be some splinter of photography. Or maybe not. But you reallyought to try to find it.

bishopsmead said...

A few years ago I was where you are now; I agree with everything you write. Enjoy a good road trip with B, then decide where you BOTH want to go next with your lives. We did several road trips through Europe over about 8 years eventually settling on our (almost) perfect place to end our days. We re-located 1500 miles from where we previously lived almost all of our lives, settled and became legally resident in a different country where we had only a rudimentary grasp of the language. We will only return to our previous home to connect with family, they will also travel to connect with us (pandemics aside). I smile every day and read your blog with my coffee (fresh ground and made with water from the local fuente). Whatever you decide to do please consider writing about your experiences here, it's always captivating, even when it's about swimming :-)

Bill Pierce said...

As somebody who, like you, spent a lot of years taking pictures for others, we are in agreement about the mysteries of taking pictures for yourself. (I was a news photographer who got messed up photographing the Mozambique civil war. You can’t be a dashing foreign correspondent when you have to see your doctor every week.) There’s a lot outside of the world around you - family, friends, where you live and where you visit. When Bresson was doing that, he pushed the button a lot and selected very few of those pushes for a print. But you already know that and have written about the number of button pushes behind your portraits and walks. If we learn anything from Bresson and many of the other folks we admire it’s push the button more and show less. It’s frustrating as hell and takes so much time that it’s probably only worthwhile if you are having fun. But I hope personal photography does remain fun and you impress the hell out of us.

crsantin said...

Good post Kirk.

No advice here but I can share with you my own experience and then perhaps it will stir something in you.

I've been teaching high school kids for a long time now. I work really hard at it and I'm very good at it (based upon the feedback I've been getting from my students for decades now). But I'm also tired. I'm set to retire from this career in about 4 years. I can see the finish line. I'm ready for it. I'll wrap up my classroom work with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart. I'll be saddened to leave the personal connections with students behind but immensely relieved to have that burden lifted from me. Summer breaks are no longer enough for me to recharge my batteries. I'm starting the school year tired, not refreshed. I'm looking forward to the rest of my life as a former teacher. I still feel my best days are ahead of me. Not physically, not on the tennis court certainly, but somehow I feel I still have a lot left to accomplish. Almost like I haven't even started yet. I've spent all these years preparing for something and I don't necessarily know what that something is. But it's out there. My spidey senses can feel it. It's been my experience that everything works out as it should, even in those moments where things are horrible and horrifying. It works out. It makes sense. Time has always worked for me. Stepping away. Allowing change to happen and staying inwardly calm as it happens is something I have learned to do. Observe, take notes, reflect. Scream and cuss if you need to, but not too much. That's not healthy.

At one point in my life, I wanted to be a writer. Not a reporter or journalist. A writer. Poetry mostly. I still write. I self-published a book of poetry. I gave that thought up when I realized I'll have bills to pay and a family to care for. Sometimes it still bothers me. But I still write even if no one reads it. I think my love of photography comes from the frustration of having no artistic ability whatsoever. I dearly wish I could sketch and paint. Sometimes I think I am exorcising those frustrations with my camera. I'll never be an important photographer. No boxes of undeveloped negatives that will one day be unearthed for the world to fuss over. But photography will always be important to me. And maybe one day it won't be. That's ok.

And this thought just occurred to me as I write. I was happy before I was a teacher. I'll be happy afterward. Happiness, or the pursuit of it, is such a fluid thing. Everything is. We're healthy until we're not. We're alive until we're not. Photography is everything and then suddenly it's not. I've always been able to find my way though it often feels like I am flailing.

Everything comes to an end and that's a good thing. Imagine if there was no end. What a horrible thought.

Wayne P said...

Go write another novel. Or, travel and write about that including the occasional photograph.
Just saying…

karmagroovy said...

Turn off your phone, and head down the highway towards Roswell (or wherever) with Janice Joplin cranked on the car stereo and some rolls of Tri-X in your bag. Looking forward to seeing your shot of the waitress at the roadside diner! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm…. For me it’s been: “Struggling with the identity of being "a traveler." Maybe it's just one of those awkward transitions.”

The world is changing. I got old(er) - around three score and ten - and even optimists do not expect the world - as a whole - to get back to what was normal 18+ months ago within the foreseeable future. And 2024, 2025 or more is a looong time away.

Whether I like it or not, I will have to adjust to the realities.

Now I’ve switched from dromomania to audio GAS. 32-bit float recorders, ambisonic recording, condenser microphones, different tripods and the software to fit my new interests. Big mixers are now “inside” my notebook/monitor - no room filled with sliders, knobs and switches in row after row after… anymore. Small mixer is now on my iPad, controlling my Zoom F6 via Bluetooth from afar, while the music plays on! Unobstructed by my newly acquired “musclings”.

Only real downside is the ‘body-building’ efforts required, when hauling along a select - ahem - few mikes, tripods, stereobars, goosenecks, booms, recorders, heeeavy cables, when combined running half way around the block, and whatnots. Basic gear demanding up to standard intercontinental airline checked luggage weight limits.

I was beginning to feel, that cameras - also micro43 - was getting a bit heavy. He. Boy was I fooled ;-)

One decently stable microphone tripod brings around double the weight on the floor, that my old carbon camera tripod, that I thought was to heavy. My latest large diaphragm microphone - the Røde NT1 - weighs in around the same weight as my GX80, and the required shock mount adds another 150% to the weight of that single microphone. I don’t want to scare anyone, but basic, seriously good audio gear makes a decent full frame camera with paraphernalia positively feel ‘lightweight’ in comparison. Aaaand a single microphone is far from enough. Just like with lenses, there are versions optimized for different scenarios. I’m still a beginner, so my 14 most usable…. I see, you get my drift ;-)

If Pro cinema gear like Arri didn’t cost like a decent car - cheap Ferrari and Lamborghini springs to mind - I would switch to that for the years still left, until the universal “communicators” aka smartphones take over that field too. Naw… audio probably still will have some extra years, before being taken over… I’ll end up getting a better “muscle tone” in my old age; who’d have “thunk” that, but I have fun again ;-)

The world is changing. Maybe it’s time for many more, to adjust. Who knows?

Regards, and have a little fun each day. Lot’s of people in this world do not even get the chance!

MartinP said...

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Steinbeck's 'A Russian Journal'. A travelogue-plus, as you might say. Making some journeys of your own could be interesting and self-financing (even if not really essential, that removes a point of resistance) . . . Italy? Botswana? Finland? Australia? Israel? China?

You can write, you can photograph, your partner can plan and is more than multi-talented I'm sure. You just need someone to keep the garden under control while you are away and you will be set.

Steve B said...

I'll just say that I wish you and your family the best and that you find what you are looking for.

Chris Kern said...

I think many professionals who no longer need the income from their work go through a period when they realize their previous job no longer inspires them, but that they don’t have a (non-economic) plan for retirement. I went through that phase and, a few years later, so did my wife.

But I took the plunge (and it really did feel like a plunge) and, while I was still trying to adjust to the idea of no longer working, we decided to build a new home for retirement. That kept me occupied for the next few years.

My wife finally retired and she, too, felt rather unmoored at first. But then she took a few courses at a local community college, and discovered she had a hitherto unexploited talent for sculpture.

After the new home was finished, I started spending more time on photography, an interest I’ve had since I was eight or nine. I’ve just purchased a restored 80-year-old rangefinder camera—the same model as my first hand-me-down “serious” camera, which my father gave me when I was a teenager—and I’m looking forward to shooting some 35mm black-and-white film after ... ahhh ... close to 50 years.

I think that when you’re ready to move on from the work that provided you with an income, and financially able to do so, just get on with it and let the retirement “plan” develop as it may.

The best part of not having to work for a living is that you can wake up each day and ask yourself “what do I feel like doing?” And the best part of asking that question is not knowing the answer in advance.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I imagined this post being something of an open dialog because I'm sure many of us will hit that junction of retirement and purpose and do some sort of face plant. I'm basically happy and optimistic I just think the market has so changed that it's no longer what I signed up for. I'm happy with all the different interests I have and am in no way giving up or abandoning a personal practice of over four decades. I love taking photographs but now I have to become more serious and intentional about what it is I want to photograph and less reactive and driven by commerce and clients.

I'l always looking for great advice about transitioning from career to passion or from scattered to more focused. If you've been through this I'm interested in your journey. We should all meet up around a campfire somewhere, roast marshmallows, drink shots of something and share the secrets that some of you learned along the way so we can leverage your genius.

Chris Kern said...

Not a bad idea. Except for the marshmallows.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

They're optional.

Augie said...

Sometimes our younger selves can educate our older selves. In that regard I offer you this suggestion:

When you go on one of your next long weekend jaunts don’t take a camera with you. (And keep your phone tucked away).
I used to do this quite often in my first decade or two of becoming an artist/photographer. I found it really helped me on many
levels if I just wandered around as a human sponge. No picture making. I remember returning from such trips rejuvenated
and more at peace. I haven’t done this in recent years I believe because I fear I might miss something, but I think it’s more
about feeling I need to always be utilizing all the expensive equipment I’ve come to own. But I know I need such a trip again,
I need to be the human sponge, just wandering and enjoying being in the moment, give my spirit room to rejoice.

Marcio K said...

I'm not a photographer (work on TI - and taking less photos each day: Covid in a country with a insane president that americans just saw in the UN assembly + working like a madman + a 3 year old daughter), getting into the 50s (in November), some more years to retirement but starting to see it on the horizon. Already somewhat burnt with my work, but with a big difference from you: still need the income, nowhere near the savings to retire peacefully.

Started to save very late, having a very big success investing this year (around 28% profit this years), but will have to save much more and keep the investments wise. But future stil uncertain.

Plans are moving to a sane country in the next 2-3 years, Portugal is the first option; (kind of) the same language, good opportunities in my work area, one of the cheapest countries in the EU (still, my savings will suffer a lot with the exchange rate). But wish to give my daughter the possibility to have a childhood / teen years without the constant risk of being robbed and killed (everyday we have dozen of people shot in robberies), or being beaten or raped. Want to give her a more peaceful future.

Will be hard, will have to work even harder in the next 10-15 years (I work since my 17s), with less and less energy each day. But will have to, just hope to accomplish that.

And to have time to take pictures (almost 2 months without taking one with my cameras).

Marcio K said...

But campfire meeting accepted - always wanted to know Austin.

Ron Nabity said...

Kirk, until we find a campfire, this will have to do.

I noticed a couple of years ago, I had less enthusiasm about taking on assignments. Even getting to the point of hoping the client would cancel, and sometimes they did, much to my own joy. I decided to interpret my behavior as a message that the time had come. I no longer pursue or accept paid work. If I can make photos for a non-profit or for fun, then I'll consider shooting for someone else. Otherwise, no.

I knew I was making progress when I would attend local events and people would comment that they didn't recognize me (without a camera.) That just solidified my resolve.

I still make lots of photographs and lately I've been printing them big and matting/framing them for little local exhibits or my front room. Printing is where my journey began anyway.

It is challenging to have so much open-ended time. But I'm sure it will fill up quickly. Grandkids, travel and other hobbies have a way of doing that. And I've discovered the joys of reading fiction.

Wishing you all the best, have great adventure with B and share your photos right here, we'll all be waiting.


Eric Rose said...

When I hit the wall I couldn't touch a pro camera (still the film days) for 3 years. Used a Nikon P&S to do family and vacation pics. I finally got back doing semi- serious photography that I enjoyed. But my only audience that mattered was and still is ME.

Have fun in October!


granitix / Longviewer said...

Having retired from a full-time job directly to full time caregiver, nearly every hobby and entertainment form has been set on countless back burners. My wife's health is improving slowly after 11 years of downtime, so losing some weight and checking in with old hobbies is high on my list. Telescopes, golf clubs, and bike or backpack await!

The camera hobby survived but in its ugly mutant gear-quest form; I may have just found my best answer, but if I haven't.. I've decided to lie about it, and move ahead.

Good luck wuth your quest, and please continue to carry a camera and keep us informed!

bishopsmead said...

If you can get to Portugal that's a great idea; once resident it will give you unfettered access to the rest of the EU. I moved to Spain and became resident a few years back, never regretted it. Additionally being in Europe will give your daughter tremendous advantages for her future.

TMJ said...

"But it seems, at least to me, that by the time you hit your mid-sixties, it's hard to summon up the same levels of enthusiasm and immersion you once did".

I retired from clinical practice at the end of August, did I still enjoy it? Yes. Was I still good at it? Critical peer review said yes. So why did I retire from that aspect of my life, having been a 'registered clinician' for 42 years?

Because I always have had a plan, although there have been many troughs and peaks along the way, including almost 'burnout' in 2017. But I still am working, a new permanent job at the medical school and I work with other universities. So, I regard it as a transition, where for the most part, I am not working six, sometimes seven days a week, any more.

I have a theory that the first half, call it twenty years, of a profession are the easier: more experience, more money, more energy, more enthusiasm. The second half is much more difficult, I believe.

But, I am also lucky that I will not be using the 'tools of my trade' any longer, unlike a professional photographer, who will carry on being a photographer. (OK, I will still be using various Swann-Mortons, but purely for hobby purposes).

My suggestion for you? Use this time for transition and transformation. H. C-B. gave up photographer and painted instead. You are a first class writer too. An experienced communicator, a visual artist. Give yourself a mental break, start again in January 2022. And remember; you are much better than Alec Sloth!

Edward Richards said...

Definitely understand. I spent 35 years doing highly technical health care law and policy as a law professor. About 2005, at 55, I realized that not much had changed in those 35 years- I was working on the same problems as in the 1970s. (And we face the same problems today- plus COVID.)) I had the luxury of being able to completely change what I was working on, as long as I taught my core classes. Hurricane Katrina came along and I went back to my college interests in ecology and wetlands. I started working on becoming an expert in climate change law and science. It was rejuvenating and I did not look back. (I did get dragged into using my public health and disease control expertise on some COVID issues. This just reinforced what a good idea it had been to start afresh.)

Marcio K said...

@bishopsmead that is the intention. My wife already have Portuguese citzenship through her grandma, hence our daughter inherited it, which is another reason towards the Portugal choice (best on probably is that we love the country).

In Spain, I only know Barcelona, was there twice, just past through Madrid in flight connections. It is probably my favorite city in the world.

Roger Jones said...

Welcome to the club Kirk. Your in excellent company. Others have been here, are here, and still wondering what’s next. Where to go, what to do next. I started on this journey about 5 years ago it was a cold slap in the face when my press passes were declined 3 different times by 3 different events. I talked to a friend about it, and his reply was, “They don’t need you any longer, your old news” he was right I found out. A friend and I always wondered when you’d arrive at this junction in your career, life, a tell tale sign is buying and selling gear then buying it back again. Another tell tale sign is looking in the rearview mirror at what was and wondering what will be.

I’m ready for the campfire, anytime anywhere. Sounds like fun

Be Safe look forward not in the rearview mirror if that is possible.

Bill Faulkner said...

You have done some good thinking here, and you have received some excellent responses. I am looking forward to seeing what you come up with.