2.15.2015

Making photographs is a full time job for me. Or at least it should be.

Ben, Pre-College. ©2015 Kirk Tuck.

I've long come to grips with the realization that I'll never be mistaken for a genius or an earth shattering, artistic, photographic savant. I've tried a number of different careers and over the arc of the last 37 years and I've come back again and again to the practice of photography. I wanted it to be a working career mostly because I was so intent on photographing that any other career would be a distraction or a detour from what I enjoyed doing most. Or at least I thought.  My secret has always been that I care less about composition and style and all the surface trappings of two dimensional art; the reality is that I come to photography all the time as an observer. A sociologist, a historian and a writer. I'm looking for a spark in a photograph that makes you stop and look at an image because you are curious about what is behind the photograph. I want you to wonder what the back story is. I want you to ponder what happened five minutes after the frame you see was captured. I want you to be curious about the person in the photograph in a way that is deeper than their costume of the interplay of tricky lighting on trendy make up.

In a portrait I rarely think about backlighting or what people should wear or how to make things sharper or more----something. I think about what I would like to know about the person and how I can capture an expression I saw when I talked to this person or observed them and decided that I wanted to ask this person to come to my little, white walled room and be photographed. In my personal work it's rare to find a big grin plastered across someone's face or a chesty blond girl in a halter top with her head slightly lowered in the submissive pose/attitude that every glamour photographer seems hard-wired to try and coax out of young women. I want to talk to people about subjects in which we have an intersecting interest. 

In the last year, since Ben went off to college, I've worked through a series of thought exercises to try and understand my long time discontentment with my personal photographic work. In some part the sheer effort and time of culturally shedding film was an impediment to savoring the actual process of taking portraits. Instead of trusting to the technology we had gotten down cold (film and film cameras)  I was (and still am) wary about how the digital images will translate on the screens and then on to prints. I've been side-tracked by the pursuit of finding the tools that mimicked what we could do with our film cameras. By that I mean one day in the past we could easily load a Leica R8 with fast, black and white film and, using a fast Leica lens, capture highly detailed slices of life that intermixed grain and wonderful tonal transitions into an amalgam that was the essence of a black and white sensibility; when printed onto paper. An hour later I could put a 100 macro lens on the front of the camera, load some Kodak Ektar 25 film into the same camera and have an image making machine with no grain and almost infinite detail.

All that was second nature in the days of film was re-thought for the digital age. Early on the cameras with acres of detail also had excruciating noise when used in a high ISO configuration. Cameras with clean high ISOs had smaller files. All of the cameras had piss poor handling and viewing and focusing. Few of them felt like tools---an artist could instantly feel the electronic disconnection with the eye and hand synchronicity. As an example, until recently, if you were a Nikon user and you wanted the best tool for high resolution you had to buy a D3X. If you wanted great high ISO performance you needed to buy a D3. The same relationship occurred in the Canon camp as well. The tools in the film age could have handled both jobs with a $400 35mm body and a change of films between projects. Four years ago the same binary approach would have set you back about $12,000 for two different and complementary digital bodies. This was a huge financial cost which we were paying in an age of declining fees and an economy in turmoil; sometimes in seeming freefall. 

I've been side tracked by the technical issues from just mellowing out and engaging people and making images. Then I got distracted by the process of writing and illustrating photo books. I've also written 2200+ blogs that were partly meant to create content to anchor marketing for my book projects.  I spent a lot of time (which I don't regret) getting up early in the morning to take Ben to school or cross country practice or science fairs or other extracurricular adventures. I tried never to miss a track meet or a school function. And I worked on so many commercial projects that were boring and mentally exhausting; draining, in order to pay the mortgage and put away money for all the things our culture tells us to put away money for: A rainy day. A rainy year. Retirement. The college fund. The family vacation. Club memberships and swim dues. And every single engagement that had nothing to do with making personal photographs ate at the joy of photography like the sea lapping against an ever eroding shoreline. 

It seems that our middle class mantra, our excuse as we go through life, is that all these things we put off and delay will become magically available to us when we retire. As though, magically, we will emerge the day after we finally say goodbye to our real jobs as full fledged artists will a full set of skills and visions and enthusiasm, ready to charge out and begin competently making the art we craved to make all along. 

But I don't think it works that way. I think art is a process that takes time, in the same way that becoming really good at surgery or musical performance takes time and practice. I think about art sometimes in the same way I think about swimming. If you swam at a high level; if you swam in high school and college and then, for the sake of work and family life and other obligations, you walked away from the pool from age 22 till age 65 you would not be able to jump in on the day after your retirement from responsibility and slam out five or six thousand yards at the level of effort you could bring to bear in your late teens and early 20's. You wouldn't be able to make up for lost time in the space of a few days, a few weeks or even a few years. You might first need to lose that 50 pounds you accidentally gained, over time. You'd need to rebuild muscle mass. You'd need to rebuild flexibility and you would need to clear out arteries and veins clogged by forty some years of being sedentary. 

At some point you'd realize that swimming fluidly is the result of thousands of days, back to back, of doing and honing the same strokes over and over again. A daily trial and error that informs your flow and your position and comfort in the water. And that doesn't begin to speak to the mental training required to be truly disciplined. 

If you don't get the athletic analogy then think of pianists. Even great concert performers who've been working musicians for decades and decades still need to get up every day and spend hours and hours practicing. Practicing the same music over and over again. And with every cycle of practice there's more fluidity and interpretation. It's a deeply embedded requirement of doing art at a sophisticated level. 

Artists should wake up every day and realize that today is your only chance to engage and practice your art and craft in the way you need to in order to really connect and do the work at the level that will make a difference in your life. If you lose today you still have tomorrow but you are one step closer to blackness and have one less day to practice the way you need to in order to really work on your vision at a high level. Every day lost is one more day of erosion and entropy. 

I know my readers pretty well and most will rationalize that what they do in photography is a hobby; a clever and enjoyable pastime. Something they do for their personal enjoyment. And that's valid but I know some of you are like me. You want to be immersed. You want to make work that's different and better. And you chaff under bounds that are self-imposed or culturally reinforced. That's the struggle I understand. The desire to sit in the studio having a wonderful conversation and making what is, to you, a beautiful portrait that reveals something real and wonderful about the person on the other side of the camera. Instead you find yourself in a meeting with the sales team or at a corporate dinner trying to stay awake or cloistered in a cubicle trying to make the balance sheet balance until well into the night and then you go home exhausted and the camera that came along for the ride never left the briefcase. You think you'll shoot on the weekend but the kid's soccer game is scheduled and then the piano recital and while we convince ourselves that taking the obligatory images from the sidelines or from the folding chair in the front row of the auditorium is somehow satisfying enough. 

It's enough to satisfy your parental pride and your need to capture family memories which you will indeed cherish in the years to come but no one is really fooled into the self delusion that this is the satisfying use of photography you once imagined. That you once saw yourself doing. 

All of you practical people will say that it should be enough. That we should be happy. At least we could justify buying that 400mm f2.8 for the soccer game, right? And you might think I am one of the lucky ones. That I get to practice my craft all day long on every day. But I can only wish it were so. 

95% of the work I do for clients is not work I would do for myself. It's just not. I might be able to sell the work I love but I'm pretty certain that I'd be making a fraction of the money I can make selling the clients what the clients love. I spend time in meetings, time in front of the computer screen, time retouching the faces of people who I never had time to really know or really talk to. I spend time sorting through images that have no meaning to me but which mean something (very briefly) to my clients. I spend time in airports waiting for the next plane that will take me not to an exotic and richly visual location, but which might take me to a waste water treatment plant in Biloxi or to shill for a camera company in an aging and crowded convention center in some city I was never really interested in. I am like you. I am bogged down in the obligations and the details of life. Trapped by innocuous continuity.

But we make these choices over time. We agree to obligations. We  think we understand the tradeoffs while we are making them but there is no way we can understand how much we will have given up until we wake up thirty years into the future. By then there is no going back. No retrieval of the lost days and the lost opportunities. Realizing that means grabbing opportunity by the balls right now and taking control. It means saying no and being selfish and working on your work instead of doing everything for everyone else. 

But everyone is so different. If you are reading this in a public library because you can't afford a computer at home your reality will be different from the two or three readers who have enormous net worth but still haven't engaged in their singular pursuit of their art. The common denominator is the need to disconnect from the distractions and focus on the work you want to get done. Even if no one else agrees or likes it. Even if it's not profitable or sellable. The artist does what he does in the purest sense because he has to do that thing. Some artists are lucky and the work they crave has immediate acceptance while others work on stuff that is unaccessible by the public at large and in the community of photographers. 

It's always good to remember that though there are millions and millions of hobbyists in the world and on the web, the vast majority are shooting the same stuff as everyone else and adhering to the same hoary rules that photographers have been given (and have repeated ad nauseum) for decades and decades. Rules mostly made up by industry writers trying to wrap sellable content around the boundaries of ads.  They are mostly wrong rules and mainstream rules and boring rules and in art the only real rule is that there are no rules. So fuck em if they can't take a joke and ignore them if they don't get your work. Just do what you have to do. 

In the end we all walk off the cliff and into darkness at some point in the future. It would be sad, at least to me, to go into the abyss knowing that there was much I didn't get done because I was too busy talking about it instead of actually doing it. Do you see where we're going from here? Do you have some guarantee that there will always be time?