Posting a Portrait of Michelle. Thinking about how important the light is...


©Kirk Tuck. 

I think in the middle years of my career as a photographer what I really spent most of my work time doing was designing and contructing light. And mixing it with dark. 

Sure, the rapport with a friend who dropped by for a portrait was important but the lighting was equally a priority for me then. 

For this portrait of Michelle I came into the studio hours and hours before she arrived. I started by setting  up my favorite canvas background far behind her. It was an era when space was cheap in Austin and I had about 60 feet from my camera position to the back wall to play with. I love the look of a background so far away that there was no way to keep it in focus. Then I'd bring in other drapes in between to play with cascading feelings of depth. I always used flag to tone down light anywhere on my subject but the face. 

My goal in those days was always to light a person so my light could come into the frame from the left (from camera position) and produce a triangle of light just under the eye on the (model's) left. I don't know why I always preferred to bring my main light in from the top left of the frame but it just felt so much more comfortable to me. 

My favorite expressions were the quiet ones. The contemplative moments. 

We had lots of cameras back then as well. It never seemed to matter which one I used as long as it was bigger than the 35mm frame and we had the right film in stock.

But however we shot one thing was constant --- I always printed my own final prints. There was just too much creative potential in a negative not to try and coax it out onto nice paper. 

I'm not sure it's a style I'm still completely comfortable with now but it's a nice starting point. 

My only tip: Long, long lenses and lots of distance. It's a look I don't see often these days and it's so visually interesting...

Regressing to happiness.


There was a period in my adult life when I was working as a creative director at an advertising agency. We all worked long hours, celebrated every success, emulated Mad Men before it was a TV show and basically were totally immersed in the creativity of advertising for nearly six years. But during that time my relief valve from the pressures of a "real job" was my hobby of photography. 

It's funny, in a way, to have a hobby that parallels what you do for work. I might spend a Friday supervising a still life photo shoot for our shopping mall client, working with an established photographer to make fanciful images of products for a co-op ad, and when I finished up at his or her studio I knew it would be Monday afternoon before we'd see any images. That meant I could put the work project out of my mind over the weekend and instead pursue something fun just for myself.

I'd put some gasoline in my ancient Volkswagen "Bug", grab one of my two cameras and head down IH-35 to San Antonio. I'd park a couple blocks from the Alamo, make sure my Olympus half frame camera was loaded with slide film, and then I'd head out to make images in the vital part of downtown that included long stretches of Commerce St. and then Houston St. I had one lens for that little system that was a favorite (and still is). It was the 40mm f1.4. It was bright, easy to focus and, at f2.8 it was sharp.

The meter in my Pen-f was never very accurate. I defaulted to using the pictograms that came printed on the inside of the Kodak film boxes to set my exposures. After a while, I splurged and bought a Gossen Luna Pro light meter. I quickly figured out that as long as the light wasn't changing you could make one reading and not change exposures until the light dropped, or radically changed. 

I was a bit fearless in those days because so much of  the nasty parts of human history hadn't happened yet. At least not here. Not to me. There weren't drive by shootings that I was at all aware of. People weren't in such a hurry. Nearly everyone on the streets had a camera with them because it was that era and we were all milling around in the ground zero of tourism, in one of America's most touristic cities. And, as I've come to understand, the walking and the absorbing of all the visual stimuli and the montage of cultures, was as important to me as the photography itself.

When you are young, single, professionally employed and mostly satisfied with the trajectory of life in the moment there seems to be a force field around you that keeps out stress and anxiety. When you have little or no real responsibility there's not a heck of a lot to worry about. Which makes me wonder why we shoulder so much as we get older...

Since I didn't have clients waiting to judge the photographs I was making for myself I didn't artificially curate my images for anyone else. There was no internet on which to fish for approval. No social media on which to share pictures made and slanted for other peoples' approvals. I just made images because I liked what I was seeing and I liked the process of translating real life into slides and prints. 

In the ensuing years I worked for a few decades with packed schedules, started a family, welcomed a child and bought a succession of houses. Each step called for new expenditures. In the business it was mostly expenditures of time and energy. In nurturing a family there were expenditures for mortgages, private schools, college funds, groceries, utilities, car payments, health insurance, life insurance and, of course, taxes. 

You think it will all abate once you've launched that kiddo off to college. Or better yet, when he nails down his first professional job but then you discover that you've become the parent to your parents. 

But that's over all too soon. And one day you wake up and you wonder "what's next?"

I've lived with a camera over one shoulder (or both shoulders) for the better part of 35 years. It's a habit. But these days I don't see the camera as a tool for profit or personal advancement in the way I have viewed  cameras for all the work years. Now I'm coming to see the cameras as quiet companions. Welcome adjuncts to being outside and immersed in current culture. Almost like friends. 

The last two years, with Covid and the general tenor of the world, have made me realize that I don't really need to schedule so many paying jobs if I don't want to. I've stopped worrying about money and I'm trying to stop worrying whether I am relevant in the same way to the industries I labored in for so long. I'm picking and choosing and my choices are based more of whether a job will be fun or not. Whether the people I'll work with are happy and a joy to be around. Whether the work projects will introduce me to new people who are interesting in and of themselves and, a bonus, new people to photograph just for me. 

Everyone loves to give advice. I "should volunteer." I "should travel relentlessly." I "should mentor someone." I "should devise a massive personal project." I "should become a philanthropist." I "should ditch all those nasty and over-priced Leicas." "Life is short; you should buy a Porsche." "You should write more about gear on the blog." "You should write less about gear on the blog." And finally, "You should work relentlessly for charities." 

The problem is that I'm more or less immune to advice unless I seek it out and pay for it. I pay my attorney because she keeps me from making expensive mistakes. I pay my CPA because his advice keeps me solvent. I pay my doctor because he's good at catching medical stuff early --- before it becomes a big deal. Those three, and my spouse, seem to be the only people whose advice has a track record. A history of success. And it's funny to me that with the exception of B. they are the only ones I actually pay for advice. 

I think you have to find your own way to happiness in life. And it changes as you age through. Right now I'm actually enjoying stepping away from a relentless schedule in commercial photography. Right now I'm enjoying swimming more than at any time since high school (when we were all immortal, beautiful and thrilled with life). Right now I'm enjoying going back in time to those early days in advertising when my idea of a wonderful day was to walk around a city, smell it, taste it, feel it and capture some of that feeling in color slides. Or black and white prints. I'm finding that this is a constant with me. It's been restrained for long periods when all those other priorities seemed more vital. But it is kind of thrilling to realize that I can go out now, at will, and practice what I like to do to my heart's content. 

Perhaps it's comfortable to feel, for the first time in decades, that I don't need to make photography an all encompassing thing in my life. Just a very fun part of a larger existence.