Walking through Verona.

I recently went to a gallery show of photographs. All the images were square. The gallery goers were amazed and delighted. Makes me want to shoot square all the time now...

Andy Warhol. Photographer. Artist. Pop Culture Icon. At the Blanton.

I thought I knew about Andy Warhol. Painted Campbell's soup cans. Did big lithographs of Marilyn Monroe, with bright colors. Got stabbed like 32 times. Founded Interview Magazine. But I have always liked his work and wondered what the Blanton Museum could add to my small Farley File of information about the artist who helped define Pop Art. The answer was: "A lot." 

With over two hundred and thirty paintings, lithos, silk screens postcards and books in the show it's an amazing insight into just how prolific Warhol was. In addition to all the two dimensional visual art he produced he also wrote and made movies. In my mind he was the precursor to a generation of mixed media artists. 

As usual the Blanton has done a great job of curating and sequencing the show. It's one thing to see Warhol's work writ tiny on the web and in magazines but it's another thing entirely to see it hung well and lit to provide maximum impact. And the size of the work is positively addicting after years of seeing art on dismal, little screens. 

I highly recommend the show. It shares the first floor with the Xu Bing show I commented about earlier in the year. While the second floor galleries are currently closed for renovation I think you'll find the two shows on the first floor to be well worth the trip to the museum. The Warhol show was just like candy --- but without the sugar crash. 

So you are on location, shooting a corporate event...What do you think about as the day progresses?

Going into corporate event jobs as a photographer you know that you're really not going to be riveted by the actual content of a show. After all, most higher end conferences are aimed at specialists in sectors of commerce which you have avoided diving deeply into specifically because you chose to be a photographer. I think it would be hard for you to summon up a lot of enthusiasm for an actuarial conference unless, well, you are also an actuary. As photographers we are there to provide services to the client. We make photographs of the speakers speaking, we make photographs of panelists discussing the vital (to them) issues of the day and we make images of the audiences looking deeply interested in the discussions. During the refreshment breaks, lunches and happy hours we make images of people sharing information, networking or celebrating. But really, we are there to make photographs, not to be entertained or even educated.

Candied Apples. Whimsical catering on Halloween. 

But until Panasonic or Samsung come out with programmable photographic robots that use artificial intelligence for framing and smile detection for shutter actuation it's impossible for human photographers to turn off their cognifiying (buzzword of this week's conference) brains as they sit in the dark and stare through their viewfinders at the people on the stage and at the giant screens, complete with charts, graphs and infographics, on either side of the stage. So what is life like for the hapless photographer as he or she sits through hours and hours of high level information about the inner workings of a giant and mature industry that is based on numbers, trends, forecasts and raw data? Here's what goes on in my brain....

Belinda and I had dinner around 8:30pm on Sunday and now I have to actually think about the conference I'll be attending in the morning, and for the next three days. I walk back to the bedroom and into the closet. What to wear? What to wear? I want to blend in but I also want to be comfortable for the 12 hour day ahead of me. I go with gray dress pants, a dark blue shirt with demure white strips and a black sport coat. No tie for this one. A pair of comfortable Cole Hahn loafers I can kick off under the round table I'll be inhabiting, off and on, for the next three days. I hang all the stuff on the closet door so I can grab it and dress in the dark the next day. Now we're on to the habitually hard part, what to pack.

I walk into the studio which is about twelve feet from the front door of my house and stop. I've been shooting weird varieties of jobs for the previous week and I've been resistant to actually clean up and get everything back into their assigned places. When the choice between swimming and cleaning comes up the outcome is usually no contest. The one thing I have been dutiful about is battery charging. Every camera I now own uses the same type of battery. When I get back from a shoot I put the batteries on chargers and then put the charged ones into a tiny Pelican case. I have 15 batteries for six cameras. I always have enough charged to head out the door and shoot for days at a time...

I look around the studio at the various piles of gear. Here is the pile from Friday. We were shooting promotional images of actor, Jaston Williams, with four LED lights, on location. There they sit, in the middle of the room, surrounded by stand bags, background stands, a bag with a white, muslin background stuff inside and a little cluster of "A" clamps around the edge.  Toward the back of the studio are the mono-lights I used a few days earlier (in the studio) but I just didn't have the energy or inclination to break down the soft boxes yet again. I knew I'd probably just be setting up the same lighting configuration for something else this weekend.

Next to my desk is a little Tenba case filled with microphones and interface units. Last Saturday I was making a video about Wyatt McSpadden's photo show and I went through and actually listened to my assortment of shotgun microphones before I selected the one that sounded best to me. That microphone, the attendant cables and the mixer are sitting next to the pile of unchosen microphones and accessories, waiting to have theirs batteries removed, put back in the right order next to a nest of 25 foot long, shielded microphone cables. The whole place is a disaster.

I open the third drawer down on the equipment cabinet and begin the camera rumination which ends with me selecting, more or less, one from each category. An A7rii as a nod to the full frame. An RX10iii as a grudging nod to the power of a long, long zoom and the a6300 as the compromise in between. The two things all three cameras have in common are the silent shutters and the batteries. Every camera can back up every other cameras. But dear God! what a crazy mix.

Out of habit I start to pack every lens under the sun. I get ahold of myself and decide just to pack what will fit comfortably in a little, rolling Pelican case. Really, it's a small case. Smaller than a Think Tank Airport Security case. You can put it in an airplane's overhead compartment. I work it down to three cameras and three interchangeable lenses. The wide to just longer than normal and the 70-200mm along with an 18-105mm for the APS-C camera. The RX10 fits in as does the flash that I'll bring and never use (damn Boy Scout training = be prepared) the extra batteries and a little soft case for extra memory cards. For once though, I don't think I'll be changing cards. I have a 128 GB in every camera and I'm shooting fine Jpegs...

I remember that the A/V company who will be doing the staging, lights, audio and video mag. is one that I love working with and that they, in turn, like getting glamor shots of their staging, so I bring along a tripod.

With everything packed I go online to read the crew agenda. The call time is 7:00 am. Time to do those 50 push ups, the 50 crunches and then hit the sack.

The alarm on my (non-explosive) phone goes off at 6:15 and I pull myself into consciousness and get myself dressed. I make a cup of Irish Breakfast tea and have some whole milk, Siggi's yogurt. Forget the Greek yogurt, this is Icelandic style. Yummy. I take a quick look at e-mail, probably subconsciously hoping that the show has been unexpectedly canceled and that I have won the lottery and can go back to bed and sleep in as long as I want. Studio Dog gives me a withering glance and pads back down the hall to actually sleep in a bit longer. She quickly realized that, with the camera case and tripod hanging out by the front door that this early wake up did NOT presage a pre-dawn walk...

I toss my gear in the back of the car and ride off into the pre-dawn, Halloween fog, heading for the Barton Creek Conference Center, a location I've become too familiar with having photographed hundreds of corporate events, conferences and golf tournaments there over the past few decades. I could drive it in my sleep if not for all the crazy people on the road and the herds of deer who appear randomly, crossing the highway with reckless abandon...

I find the last non-valet parking spot in the area near the golf shop and head inside. I know that none of the executives will hew to the schedule but that's okay as long as there is coffee ready and the stage is lit up. There are a few early birds hovering in the foyer to the conference hall nipping at the bagels and cream cheese, sporting steaming cups of coffee in their hands.

I head to the area that the A/V people have set up in order to run the show. The two show directors are people that I've worked with for nearly 25 years and in six countries. We ask each other about the kids and we get the quick scoop of who is working for whom. Then I offer to shoot some beauty shots of their staging. We shoot from the left, the center and the right. We shoot with various light looks and various graphics on the screens. I'm doing all of this with the RX10iii on a tripod because at ISO 100 it will all look great. I surprise myself by having the presence of mind to turn off the I.S. when I put the camera on the tripod. I'm trying to maximize what drama and flourish there is on the stage and minimize the empty, round tables in the foreground. It's nice if they just silhouette.

The stage designer has made my job easier this year by using a desk with a white front and white chairs and couches. It's easy to do a quick custom white balance on each camera as I pull them out to use them. The front lighting doesn't change color much during the show. Any color change is a result of increasing or decreasing intensity causing the shift and I try to be attentive to it. The front lights are hot lights that have been gelled with half daylight gels. My cameras all tell me the same thing: It's 3900K with a plus 2 magenta cast.

There is no reserved seating at this function; all attendees will be sitting at 8-top rounds laid out through the main tent. I'm there first so I select a seat at the front, center table that gives me a good view of the stage, the presenter couches on either side of a center desk and a line of sight on the podium. (You don't want to be straight into the podium because, almost every time, the microphones will be right in front of your speaker's face...).

I grab out the two cameras I think I'll start with and leave them at my place at the table. The Pelican case goes back to the A/V command center so it's out of the way. I grab a long lens out of the case and add that to the two cameras on the table. I also grab a couple extra batteries and put them in my jacket pocket; just in case.

It's nearly 8 a.m. and I head out to grab something to eat. People are starting to show up. Women in pant suits, men with open collars under their sports coats. Everyone seems ready to get the day started. About half the people choose ceramic mugs for their coffee while the other half chose paper cups with lids. Some are fastidiously toasting their bagels while others are consuming them untested but slathered with flavored cream cheese. There's yogurt (not Sigi's) and granola and fruit and pastries as well. Some adventurous person has made the pilgrimage to Voodoo Donuts (Sixth St.) and gotten the BIG box of some wild donut assortment. He's offering them to all comers but I'm leery of the sugar crash that will inevitably follow the thrill of a thousand calories of fat and sugar and I decline.

The lights in the foyer start blinking around 8:30 to cue people to head to their seats and we make our last runs down the hall to the restrooms and then head into the main tent. The show starts at 8:45 and I use the last few minutes to flight check the cameras. I white balance them, set them to the same focusing settings, chose appropriate ISO ranges for each and set each one to silent shutter. We're ready and waiting for the walk in music.

The owner of the conference hits the stage and welcomes the crowd. I begin shooting. Tight head shots looking for a positive expression and no blink. A middle shot the same way and then a wide, establishing shot of the speaker and the full stage. This is a pattern I'll follow any time we have a speaker at the podium. If I have time I'll move to one side of the room for a different angle.

After the conference principle finishes a group of six people come out onto the stage. Two sit on the right hand side couch and two on the left. Two more occupy the white desk in the middle, between the two couches. They engage in an hour long panel discussion. Through a new phone app the audience can send questions to the panelists which the panelists see on two large screens facing them from the floor in front of the stage. As my brain glazes over from the technical information and unknown acronyms I engage myself in a game I play at all of these conferences. It's called, "What can I do to make these photographs more interesting?" 

For the first time since I began photographing this type of conference in 1988 I have at my disposal two tools that change the paradigm. First, silent camera shutters. Damn.  That's nice. It means I can sit at the center table with people on either side of me and shoot as many frames as I like. No one gives me the "hairy eyeball" and no one bitches to me about the noise. The downside is that I find myself shooting many, many more frames. Second paradigm shifting feature is the 600mm equivalent lens on one of my shooting cameras. From nearly 40 feet away I can zoom in an fill the frame, from chin stubble to balding head. And, with state of the art image stabilization I can handhold the camera with it's integrated lens and expect sharp, sharp, sharp results.

This combination led me to experiment more with image sizing in the frame. After shooting images of the whole group on stage, and then subgroups, I'd dive down a bit and fill the frame with a loose head and shoulders shot of each person. Once I had a good one of each participant I'd choose the panel members with the most interesting faces and expressions, wait until they started speaking or responding, and then try to get interesting shots at extreme close up. The game was to time for expressions while keeping the frame stable enough at full magnification to preserve my composition.

I've never been able to shoot this tightly before and have never been able to capture as many frames from the audience area without fear of becoming a distraction. But....an hour per panel is a long time and I get restless. When I have (too much) just enough coverage of the panel I choose a raucous stage moment to move out from the center and make my way to the back corners of the room. Now I'm trying to find compressed angles with the silhouetted crowd in the foreground and the stage in the background. The action on stage ebbs and flows. Some people are on more than one panel and I try not to "over cover" them.

Once I've gotten a lot of good and interesting shots in the bag. I ask myself "what would this look like from the other side?" I go behind the stage and shoot through the gaps in the curtains to get more interesting shots of the speakers in profile. Sometimes a panelist will turn to address someone sitting next to them and I get a wonderful "over the shoulder shot" that looks just like a movie still. With a long zoom and close proximity your choices of what to include or exclude expands. An ear and the side of a head in the foreground with a compressed full face just to the side of those details.

Every once in a while I will have a crisis of confidence in the camera I've chosen to use; especially if I'm continually shooting with the one inch sensor camera. I worry that ISO 800 will be too noisy or that the high ISO noise reduction will result in files that are too plasticky. I have a panicky moment of realization that the last five or six hundred shots I've made, including those of the keynote speaker, are coming from a camera that would not have been considered "professional" a few years back; by some, not even a few days back. When I feel the butterflies of fear float around in my chest and my stomach I reflexively grab the for the "legitimate" camera ( a full frame with a white lens on the front) and start to go back over territory I've already covered. It's useless gesture since the money speaker has already exited and that one very interesting guy on the last panel has already jogged out of the auditorium to catch a plane to the next speaking gig...

Just as I am starting to get a bit jittery about my choices we break for lunch and I borrow a laptop from one of the A/V guys and start checking the files from my "bridge" camera. I toss a few samples into Photoshop and look at the 15 inch Retina screen. My fears fade away as I use the magnification tool to dig in all the way to 100%. Granted, the files from the one inch sensor will never match the ones from the full frame sensors but I can see that as long as I stay under 1000 ISO these files are competitive and the magic bean of the long focal lengths builds a compromise math equation of features that provides effective balance.

It's now lunch time and we head for the conference center's beautiful restaurant where they serve up a delicious buffet. I know that photographs of people eating are less than useful so I take a couple of full room shots to show off the show ambiance and then I grab a plate, try to make healthy choices, get bushwhacked by the warm bread pudding and find an empty spot at a table. With my camera tucked away under the table; hanging from my knee on its strap, I am mistaken for just another attendee and soon we're all chatting about the conference and the future of XYZ.

We're back from lunch in an hour and we all dive back into the afternoon sessions. This particular show is famous (in my notes) for tossing unexpected stuff at me. This afternoon the show's main driver appears on stage to announce that the next session will be a "Champagne Session" and waiters appear to hand out flutes of Champagne to all the audience. The "emcee" is pouring for the panel members on stage. I'll need a flash to really freeze the action of the toast and sometimes the silliness that surrounds it. To that end I've got a "flash designated camera." I chose a camera to use and set it up at the beginning of the day with a flash and short zoom. I get all the settings dialed in and I test it before the show doors open at the beginning of the first session. If I sense something about to happen I grab the camera, flip everything on and get ready. Sometimes I'm wrong and sometimes I'm right on the money but I've done without before and ended up wishing I'd captured the group/stage action at f8 with bounced flash just to stop motion AND get everyone in focus...

The sessions continue until 5:45 and I'm still playing my game and keeping track of wide shot/ stage shot/ panel shot/ interesting two shot/ individual shot/ super tight shot/ angle search and reverse shot. The game goes on all afternoon. The part of my brain that listens to the show tries to take in the overall information. The 40,000 foot understanding. The markets will recover and here is why. The millennials are the biggest demographic with the highest education and the U.S. markets are buoyed by net population growth. Etc. 

Every once in a while I jot down notes. When I get bored by that I make lists of things I'd like to do. Not things I need to do.

After the sessions we move on to a very nice cocktail party before everyone breaks up and heads to private dinners downtown, sponsored by relevant companies who can offer services to the heavy hitters here who make decisions for their companies. At the cocktail party I try to time images of small groups of people chatting so that no one is holding a drink to their face or putting food into the mouths. I'm balancing this by trying to figure out how to balance the blue-ish, late afternoon sunlight coming through the wall of enormous windows with the very warm room lighting from tungsten balanced LEDs in can lights at ceiling level. At some point to decide to filter the flash I have halfway between sun and 3200K and to fill in with it. Seems to work okay.

I'm using a 24-70mm lens for the cocktail party. By now I am one of the tribe and everyone is comfortable with the camera and with the photographer. No one bats an eye when I line up a composition. But the routine of wide to normal zoom, flash fill and nothing pushing the edge of the process bores me and I grab the premium full frame out of the bag, slap on an 85mm f1.4 and put all that high ISO promise to the test. I will subsequently open one of the files, note that it's nothing special, technically, and then look at the exif to see that I shot the frame at 16,000 ISO and it looked pretty darn good. On par with the ISO 3200 image I shot on its little brother on the 24 megapixel, full frame model.  As the party winds down I decide on just where the point is where the basic happiness of the party started tipping toward accelerating entropy and I grab my stuff and head for the door.

In years past I would rush to the computer in my office and start loading the files into Lightroom so I could see just what I'd done. Now I'm more complacent. I've spot checked. I've chimped in between sessions. I trust my gear more. Instead, I pass out Halloween candy to the neighborhood kids while Studio Dog keeps a watchful eye.

My only real question at the end of the day is: "With an 8:45 start can I ditch the call sheet time of 7a.m., hit the pool for the early workout and still make it through rush hour to be there comfortably before the start of the show the next day????" Sadly, I decide that a bargain is a bargain and part of the agreement is to play by the rules. Who knows what the show creatives may have cooked up for me to do before the "curtain rises" the next day?

In the end I want to come away from my final edit with about 1200 images that show, pictorially, what the look, feel and design of the show was all about. The images are used to advertise future shows and I want to make sure I've captured the emotions of being interested on the faces of both panelists and audiences. I also want to make sure I've covered the event completely.

While there is much knowledge floating about at the better shows it tends to be hyper-specialized. Photography isn't about conveying the knowledge but it is about conveying the experience. If I am successful I will have crafted a visual narrative that shares the visceral experiences of being at the show but with the extra layer of excitement that comes from being closer to the speakers than reality.

In the down moments of the show I worry about my property taxes going up while my investment yield goes down. I worry about missing too many swim workouts. I worry about that portrait job coming up this Saturday. I think about how many things have changed in the running of these shows. How the big, printed graphic signs have begun to disappear. How big monitors with changing screens continue to replace them and I wonder if next year we shouldn't be shooting this all on highly mobile, 4K video. But really, who wants to wade through 24 hours of continuous coverage?

Toward the end of the show I start to think about how I will do the photography differently next year ( or next show ). Will I default to all bridge cameras with one inch sensors? Will I capriciously try to shoot the next one with two full frame cameras and two bourgeois lenses? Will I calculate the time value of the return and stay home to play chess with Studio Dog? (I usually win. She's a good sport). It's hard to say but there's a lot of time to think about stuff like this at most shows. Maybe too much time....

Yesterday I got serious about editing. I imported everything into Lightroom and then went through and flagged the winners. I selected the flagged images and made them the only ones visible. Then I started in on enhancing them via post production improvements in Lightroom. The process was efficient. We are ready to deliver. That's what we do at conferences.

Stage Set. 

A Keynote Speaker portrayed at podium with the "one inch" miracle camera. 


Wyatt McSpadden Shows Us How It's Done. A gallery exhibit of photographs from Mississippi.

My friend Wyatt is having a show at the Gallery@Lewis-Carnegie at 1312-B E. Cesar Chavez in Austin, Texas. The images are from a ten day shooting trip he did with a writer named, John Morthland, through Mississippi way back in the 1990's. They were working for a magazine on a story about musicians in Mississippi.

All of the images in the show are black and white. The prints were done digitally by a master printer at Agave Gallery from black and white negatives that started life in medium format cameras from the time period.

The show opened on my birthday. Belinda and I went by the gallery to find Aaron Franklin of Franklin's BBQ slicing gorgeous hunks of brisket for Wyatt's guests (this being the BBQ equivalent of having Willie Nelson playing at your opening.....). The royalty of the Austin photo community all showed up. The energy in the courtyard was amazing. But the work was even better.  Many of the prints were of older, African-American musicians and all 40 of the prints were square; from square format film.

How good is this show? Well, I consider myself to be two things: First, a really good critic of photography, and second, a really tight-fisted person when it comes to spending money on anything but cameras, good wine and lenses. I walked into the gallery, took a spin around the show and immediately pulled cash out of my wallet to buy a print that just hit me right between the eyes. Perfect content, perfect execution and perfect printing.  Cash money to buy work from another photographer (which is one thing we might consider doing more often). My logic? Buy work you love from people who are better artists than you and learn by osmosis...

The show is really, really good but it's only running through the 10th of November. If you are one of my Austin photography friends you need to get your butt over to the gallery and check out the beautifully done prints. Just seeing the prints is a master class in understanding what is possible in the  printing arena. Seeing what's in the prints is even better.

For all my VSL readers outside Austin I went by today and shot an interview with Wyatt. He talks about the show, the experience of shooting it and, for all the gear appreciators, he even delves into technique. I'm booked to shoot a conference on Sunday evening, Monday and Tues. but I'll try to have the video edited and up by the end of the week. I loved the video footage (from a gear nerd perspective) and the audio from my AT 835 shotgun microphone was really good. Can't wait to cut it together.

Go see this show. So refreshing to have a photographer make a statement with actual, physical work; shared with all comers, instead of just a stream of pontifications on a blog...


A Photograph of Rebecca from this afternoon. At Zach Theatre.

©2016 Kirk Tuck.

I've been on a mission lately to photograph the people I find interesting. I met Rebecca at a rehearsal for Priscilla Queen of the Desert and I loved her energy and her quirky beauty. Earlier in the week I sent a message to her asking if I could make a portrait with her. She responded quickly and we set up a time for today. 

This morning I was making marketing photographs at the theater of Jaston Williams, one of the originators of A Tuna Texas and Greater Tuna, and after we were done (wonderful shoot, images to follow) I walked over to the big Topfer Theater and scouted a good location in which to make Rebecca's portrait. 

I chose the second floor V.I.P. lounge and used a combination of ambient light, streaming through floor to ceiling windows, and two continuous lights shining through a 50 inch circular diffuser. I used one more circular device, a 48 inch round, black flag to add a shadow to one side of Rebecca's face. 

I used a longer than normal lens (135mm) on a full frame camera and tried to stay in the range of f2.0 to f2.8, which required shutter speeds around 1/125th of a second with an ISO of 320. 


I wrote about the importance of chairs earlier this week. What an odd topic. No, we won't be starting an affiliate relationship with a furniture store....

A while back I had a walk-up studio in an un-air conditioned hotel in downtown Austin. It was primitive but then so was Austin at the time. There was a couple who shared a space across the hall from me. They converted their studio to a live/work space, which required a level of suffering in the Summer (from the heat) and the Winter (Because the only shower was a cold water hook-up outside in the courtyard at the back of the building. 

Since we were all in the same big building we leaned on each other for artistic support. I would often have them over to my studio when I needed to practice my lighting or work on posing. When I was ready to move on from that space they presented me a with a chair they'd found. The seat had been recovered with several different textures of leather and they had carved "R&P" onto the back. It stood for Robin and Paul.

That was the chair I was referencing in the previous post. I loved that chair and used it for dozens and dozens of portraits. It was just the right size for most people. Sitters seemed to sink in and come to grips with the chair quickly. I hesitate to say it but I think it had some sort of posing magic in it. 

Eventually the chair disappeared. I guess that happens to magic stuff. But I keep my eyes out even today for a replacement. As you can see in the image of Mousumi, above, the chair gives people a resting place for their hands and helps to anchor them in the scene. Most of my favorite, mid-1990's portraits were done with this chair somehow incorporated as a prop or a posing tool. I'm at a loss to explain why I have been unable to find another one to replace it...

On another note someone wrote that they enjoyed seeing the latest stream of portraits EVEN THOUGH they were done on OBSOLETE equipment and with dead processes. Sorry, I don't see it that way. While I know the tools help to drive practice I have to say that changes in my portraiture have more to do with the acceleration of culture that we are living through. 

People seem to be more frenetic and rushed and the idea of settling in for a half an hour or an hour of conversation and experimentation just seems out of most people's mental reach these days. 

I recently watched a movie called, Shakespeare In Love. I've watched it several times before and each time I walk away amazed at the brilliance of the movie and a new idea about life and process. I've come to believe that most of the great art through the ages was created by people who rejected distraction. They worked at a pace determined by the art and the process itself instead of working to external deadlines and irrational and breathless hurry. If Shakespeare was alive today he'd no doubt be rushing from meeting to meeting, from coffee shop to coffee shop and answering messages so often that something would have to give. Probably the Sonnets. And maybe, after the first successful play, he'd be paralyzed by the process of giving profitable playwriting workshops and never write another.... But maybe he was so mindful of his process that he might be one of the few who could turn off the distractions and work without regard for the invitations for interruptions.

Artists seem to work with a mindfulness that's almost entirely missing from the frantic lives so many of us engineer for ourselves. We'd like to write a book or paint a painting or create a body of work but we reflexively answer our phones, send cascades of vapid texts, compulsively check the weather and our stock portfolios on a parade of screens. On iPads, Laptops, phones and even the obnoxious TV screens infiltrating restaurants (like a nasty plague) we are glued to streams of information that are irrelevant to our own best interests and our day to day lives. Everything adds up to keep us from our real work. 

I am amazed at friends and acquaintances that watch sports on TV for hours and hour a week. What a horrible way to bleed down the clock of life. Watching endless newscasts via CNN on a big cellphone is just as bad.  

People's work has changed not because digital cameras are amazingly different tools but because everything conspires to quicken (and cheapen) the basic process of creating work. Instant review robs us of continuing to experiment because we think we have "something decent" in the tank. Post processing has become archly codified and almost automatic. And without sufficient time to sit quietly and ponder the unique flow of our individual lives everything becomes homogenous. The constant pull of the devices in our lives robs us of so much and replaces it with so little. 

I did a portrait of an actor yesterday. He came into the session with the idea that I expected him to be efficient. He was ready with outfits and he was ready to pose. We started talking and sharing life experiences and then we started photographing in drips and drabs and when I finally slowed him down he began to smile and gesture in a genuine and authentic way. When we ended up the session he was amazed at how focused we'd become during the session and how different it turned out to be than the sessions he'd done with photographers recently. 

For me it was a re-learning experience. I re-learned that one of the things I need to control in a portrait sitting is the pace. That's something I do have control over. I also need to create space for a genuine connection. In deference to the idea of mindfulness I left my telephone on the dining room table before getting in my car and traveling to the theater. I didn't even want the pull of the phone from my glove box, quietly coercing me to check messages, check updates, check to see if people still like me, to check and see if I am still "connected." 

It's a subtle thing but having the intention to concentrate is pretty vital to a pure process. Anything  you can do to eliminate distractions from what is right in front of you is a valuable move. It's not enough to turn something off because its very presence and availability is a temptation. A phone in the pocket is an invitation to break concentration during a costume change and change mental gears toward reaffirming something different --- your fear of being left out, or becoming micro-uninformed. 

My exercise in leaving the phone totally behind made a difference to me. Sure, if the actor called to cancel I would not know until I got to the theater and someone gave me a message but I'd already blocked the time and it's not like a client will call in a panic and try to book an emergency shoot...
I might have had car trouble and it might have been good to call to let people know but really, car trouble is rare with modern cars. There really is no reason for us to carry phones all day long. If we keep them in our pockets we're probably giving ourselves butt cancer (if you keep the phone in a back pocket) or we're frying our upper thigh (in the front pocket). But the intention to carry the phone around is an invitation to becoming distracted and fracturing your attention to process. 

Back to cameras. There is some stuff we learned to do with film that created interesting work but none of it is beyond the capabilities of modern cameras, if we are comfortable with shooting images that don't look good on the review screen. By this I mean that one of the many reasons we had unique art in the film days is that people didn't judge the intermediary part of the process. We knew that creating really flat negatives gave us opportunity to control contrast and preserve highlights in a very unique way. We can do the same thing with digital files if we aren't so compulsive about seeing a perfect histogram and a perfect review file on our camera screens. Heck, we could even shoot in one of the video S-Log settings to good effect. But it's the willingness to delay our visualizing gratification and accept processes that might take a number of steps to reach fruition that are important. And it's our acceptance of possible failure that allows us access to make interesting (from a technical point of view) images in the first place. 

The emphasis everywhere now is on perfect files in the camera. Post processing is little more to many than making sure everything is brutally sharp and exposed within conventional parameters. Give me a flat and nasty file that has promise and I'm betting the image will be more interesting. 

If you feel pressed for time to do your work and do your art I suggest you have two paths. One is to give up taking pictures and find something that occurs in smaller portions in order to occupy your time. The second would be to cut off the cable TV, turn off screen devices of all kinds and leave the phone in a drawer when it's time to really think clearly and produce. The distractions are not a positive feature but a insidious tool that creates resistance in nearly everything we try to do. 

More time spent thinking and more time spent experimenting. These things should be our goals. 

Just a thought on my birthday. 

Finally, I do like the old work. But I like the new work I am creating just as much. You might not appreciate it the way I do but that's why you get to do your own work....


Sarah. Painter. Portrait.

©1995 Kirk Tuck.

Artists are fun to photograph. 

They realize the amount of attention making good images takes. 

They have marvelous smiles.

Kathy K. In the old studio.

Not very hard to guess the camera.

I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Clients keep calling me to do portraits but mostly they want me to shoot against white so they can drop out the background and paste the image of the person into some other background. I get it. I lived in advertising world for years and my spouse still heads into an agency everyday to ply her art direction and design skills. But really....what happened to the idea of a holistic portrait?

Well, I figured I could either sit around a bitch about it or I could do what we have always done; get off my ass and self assign. I sent around some messages to a couple actors I've seen lately and nailed down three portrait shoots this week that should be interesting. Each of the people I've chosen is quite different from the other two. All are wonderfully talented actors. One is from Boston, another from NYC and the third is a person who tours nationally but happens to be in town to rehearse for an upcoming holiday production.

There's no client, just me and my collaborators. We'll attempt to do these portraits exactly the way they should be. I've got my gear picked out and my batteries charged up. One shoot tomorrow, two on Friday. Hope to have images post processed and ready to show next week.

A re-learned lesson: If you have pretensions of being an artist you sure as hell can't wait for people to throw inspiration into your lap...

The image above is of a musician from Austin, circa 1994. She was dating a friend and we arranged a shoot in the studio. The background reminded me of two things: Our studio downtown was huge! We could set up three or four portrait areas at a time, or back up nearly 50 feet from the background to drop everything out of focus. Second, the place was always a mess ---- even when we cleaned it up. There was always a pile in one corner or another that we called "transitional piles." Stuff that we weren't finished with yet...

Some stuff never gets done.

By the way, just listened to Bob Dylan's Album, Blood on the Tracks. The track,  A Simple Twist of Fate, should have been enough to qualify him for that Nobel Prize.

Mr. Tuck will be taking Thurs. off from blogging and rational thoughts ---- he will be writing in the third person only in order to celebrate yet another birthday. My big plan? Ask the swim coach if we can swim 61 X 100 yards on the 1:30 to celebrate. Then nap. Better take my vitamins.


Portrait of Renae. One large softbox. One grid light on the background. An intense conversation. A practical chair.

One of the nice aspects of being a photographer in the age of film and slower processes was the need to have an assistant more or less full time in order to do our work. During the few slow moments a good assistant made for a great stand-in or a good model with which to experiment with everything from the films we used to the chair in this photograph.

This was taken in the pre-production phase of a project that required (art direction) a dozen or so seated portraits for a university. We were actually experimenting with which chair we would use for comfort, consistency and a more or less anonymous profile. It was a burgundy colored, red leather chair that we found at a nice furniture store. We did end up using it for our assignment and then it became the "take a break, sit down and read a book" chair at the studio until we moved and downsized. I've forgotten what happened to the chair but I know it didn't make the transition with us.

Funny that a chair could have been such a critical feature in a photo-shoot when, in fact, it was more or less hidden by nearly every portrait sitter who participated.

Photographers as a group tend to severely underestimate the visual and posing value of their furniture. I love good, old dining room chairs that aren't big and heavy. They are wonderful for those Texas subjects who like to sit backwards on their chairs and lean their arms on the backs...

Chairs. Good props. But they will never generate the debates and enthusiasm of a good, Nikon vs. Canon or DSLR vs Mirrorless discussion.