Photographer, photo book author, and photography blogger Kirk Tuck's monthly column on TOP was planned to appear on the last Saturday of every month, but he was on deadline for his next book on lighting last Saturday. A week late is better than never, I think you'll agree.
I'll be travelling Sunday and Monday so unfortunately the comments to this post will go up late, but I'll be back shackled to the leg of the desk again by Tuesday. —Mike
By Kirk Tuck
Action and activity are two very different things and it's important for an artist to know which one they're focusing on. Action derives from need or reaction. You are hungry so you eat. You need to get somewhere quickly so you walk faster. You need to get warm so you head for shelter. You have a vision you want to interpret as a photograph so you do the process of making that photograph. You are pushed to eat from necessity and you are pushed to create the photograph by necessity. One driver is physical while the other pursuit is driven by passion. Both are pretty unencumbered pathways and both have an immediate aim. Eating gives you the fuel to go on while creating art gives you the emotional fuel to enjoy life.
Compare honest hunger with a more common variation: Eating because you are bored. Eating because the food is in front of you. Eating because you want to keep your hands busy. And, eating because the taste of whatever you’re eating entertains you. In this sense eating becomes an activity instead of an action. And activities are the biggest time wasters in our lives.
As photographers our focus should be on the making of images. But that's hard work. Even if you are hungry to make an image, there are all kinds of impediments. You might have to find models or subjects that truly resonate with the vision you have in your head, and you'll have to find locations and you might even have to get permission from a property owner to make your image on their property. But if you are really driven to make the image and express your art you'll find a way to channel the resources and the energy. If you are committed to expressing yourself and sharing your interpretation of the world around you then you'll punch through the mental and rationally-based "resistance" to actually creating art, and you'll get your project done. That's action. It comes from a need: the need to express your art. The action fulfills the need.
And if you practice your art with a focus on the action you'll find that it becomes less and less scary to pick up the tools of your art and head out the door to just do the process. But...some of us get trapped by one or more of the insidious spider webs immobilizing us from taking the right action. We get stuck in one of the levels of hell that I call "Endless Preparation." It's also known far and wide as "Research."
For photographers endless preparation begins with the selection of camera gear. As rational, educated and affluent adults we move in a world of bountiful information but we’re not always good at asking the right questions or divining the right answers. In fact, we focus so narrowly on some parameters and not at all on others. We've been taught that good preparation is paramount for any successful mission and we’ve taken that to heart. And so we begin the first part of the journey into the sticky spider webs of rampant indecision and quantitative ambiguity.... I’ve been doing it all month. I would be better served inviting my quirky and interesting friends into my little studio and making their portraits with whatever camera and lights I already have, but...shamefully, I've allowed my subconscious resistance to getting that project started push me into the un-winnable endless loop of trying to decide which little mirrorless, compact camera deserves my true affection. Will it be the Nikon V1 or the Olympus EP3? And, of course, it doesn't matter which decision I make because I'll end up using it for casual work and not the work that really motivates me to create my own personal art. But I've already wasted plenty of time shooting with both cameras and then writing down and sharing my observations. In a sense I'm also guilty of enabling other would be artists' progress by inferring that the issue of picking the ultimate "little camera" from a "moving-target" list of camera is an important and valuable consideration. Which, of course, it's not.
And even though my mercurial and unstable selection processes are becoming (sad) legend among fellow photographers, I find it hard to resist. Just like everyone with a facile and functioning mind, I've found that my subconscious can rationalize the hell out of just about any equipment "research" and acquisition. The latest is a little voice that says, "The art of photography is getting more fluid and fluent. We’re capturing sequences and interlacing it with video and all the presentations are going to the web. We need small cameras that can capture both quickly and easily. The small cameras with fast processors are the equivalent magnitude of destructive innovation engendered by the screwmount Leica cameras of the 1940s and early 1950s." Hell, given time I'm sure I could rationalize selling my car and buying all the small camera models.
You may laugh at my personal quagmire but I see variations in and among my friends and colleagues and all over the web. You may be the kind of person who finds the activity of researching and testing small cameras lacking in restraint, but your "activity" might be endlessly profiling your printer, your monitor, your camera, your wall, your light stands and so on. While my wasted time is spent comparing reviews and specifications of delightful neckwear bling, your wasted time is spent scanning and shooting Greytag MacBeth color targets and "mapping" them to some new paper from Croatia. It’s really the same thing. It's a preparatory activity that's powered by the rationalization of mastery, but it's really just a strategy to procrastinate from dipping a toe into the unknown.
I also have a friend who is really a good photographer who has been on a relentless workshop circuit. If someone's offered a workshop somewhere on the web he's probably been there and taken it. And yet what each workshop offers is a new set of technical skills that he feels he must master before he heads out to do his "real work." But since there's an endless supply of workshops, and a nearly endless reiteration and repackaging of techniques, he's mostly ensured that, without some effective catharsis, he will never really get around to doing the work he envisioned when he first became entangled in the sticky webs of photography.
If the activity that fills your nervous void is something like eating or smoking, chances are you will either become very large or very sick. But if your activity is the research and mastery of every corner of our craft, you will become an expert in arcane lore and analysis and a pauper in creating and sharing finished art. And there's is no law that says you can't make that choice. But so many of us are so well trained in debate and rationalization that we suppress a reality that we should at least give a passing nod to. In some ways my own blog tends to enable the endless search for endless things for which to search. But it sounds preachy if I tell everyone to stop reading and contemplate what it is they really want to say with images.
So, what am I getting at? Well, I'm trying to become a "recovering" researcher in my own work and I've made myself a little checklist to work with. I’ve set some ground rules to keep myself within the design tolerances of sanity. We'll see how well this works out....
Kirk’s Rules of choosing Action over Activity:
- It's okay to buy a new camera, but I am required to go out and shoot fun images with it for more time then I spend writing about it or measuring its results.
- It's better to shoot images that are fun, make you laugh and make your friends happy than images you think will impress other photographers. Even better if the images can work in both camps.
- If there's no reason for me to be out shooting I can default to a nap on the couch to replenish my body and spirit. Sometimes pushing myself out the door is just the wrong move.
- If I catch myself shooting test charts I stop immediately and head out the door with a good book. Or a camera.
- The feel of a camera in my hand should always trump someone else's written evaluation. No one really knows how I want things to look.
- I have a post card sized white card pinned to the wall behind my computer that says, "Making Portraits is my Art. Anything else I do is not-art."
- Quiet contemplation is more conducive to having fun ideas than relentless study.
- All the things I really need to know to create are already locked away in my brain, I just need to be still and quiet enough to open that door. Sitting quietly beats looking at DxO results for thinking about creativity.
- Inspiration comes to those who leave space for it to come in. A busy mind usually lacks the space.
- I have a smaller card tacky waxed to the bottom edge of my monitor that says, "To stop suffering stop thinking."
And therein lies the real secret roadblock to all creativity...at least for me. We spend far too much more time thinking about our art than just doing our art. Being smart is highly overrated because it requires us to do too many mental exercises to prove to ourselves that we should be doing what we already know we want to be doing. And the process of rationalizing and the desire to master each step is the process of not doing the final step. The "going out and shooting."
The photographic process (in a holistic sense) works best for me when it works like this: My brain comes up with an idea for a visual image. (Not the overlay of techniques but the image itself ). I quickly decide how I will do the image. I go into action and book a model or call a likely subject. We get together and I try to make my vision work. Within the boundaries of the original idea we play around with variations and iterations. Finally, the photo session hits a crescendo, and the subject and I know we've gone as far as we can, and are spent.
My years spent as an engineering student taught to be logical and linear, but have been my biggest impediment to doing creative work. Because there's always a subroutine running that says, "This is the step-by-step approach to doing X." And I'm always trying to approach things logically. But to get to X is hardly ever a straightforward process and being able to step outside routine and to stretch past logic creates the time when fun stuff happens.
Beyond my ten steps to choose action over activity is the realization that I already know enough technical stuff to last a lifetime. And, if we admit it to ourselves, the technical stuff it the easiest part to learn because there are no immediate consequences to learning or not learning the material. Really. You might waste a bit of time and money but for most of us that's about it. The hard part is being brave enough to stake out a vision and work on it. The hardest part for most of us is to continually engage the people around us that we want to photograph and convince them to collaborate in the realization of our vision. But it's only through doing it again and again that our styles emerge and our art gets stronger. The technical stuff is so secondary.
As an exercise, when I'm out walking around with my camera I make it a point to approach a stranger each time and ask them if we can make a portrait together. If I get turned down, I approach someone else until I find someone who's willing to put a toe across the fear line and play. The image isn't always stellar. Hell, it's rarely great work. But it gives me the practice and the tools to abate my fears so that when the right muse comes along I am ready and willing to give it my best shot. Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice frees your art. Relentless activity depletes that same energy like air escaping from a balloon.
I hope you'll accept what I've written here in the spirit I've intended. We're all on a journey to amaze ourselves. The first step is to choose action over activity.
And by the way...there is no ultimate camera choice.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jacques Pochoy: "Kirk, you triggered back some memories that would reinforce your thoughts...
"Some years ago, sipping our coffee at a café's terrace in Paris, a photographer friend and myself were surprised by an already quite old man with a camera shooting the premises, then, seeing our cameras, joined us in a photo-philosophical conversation...
"Everyday, whatever the weather, he took the Metro and got out randomly (about 300 stations) and homed in on the nearest café with the goal to take pictures and to engage at least one conversation with strangers (and thus some portraits). As he confessed, most of his best pictures were from the 'in between' parts! The Metro voyage, the finding of a café, initiating the chat, and the going back home, not always by the shortest route...
"While he wasn't one of the top ten French photographers of the golden era, he was just behind and both of us could remember one or several of his pictures from that time. This 'technique' was his way to keep in touch with reality, just an exercise forcing randomness or chance on his side.
"Oh, and his camera was a pocketable apparatus. I can't even recall the brand or even the shape, but he did carry a tiny portfolio of several years of metro hopping, very impressive in quality...."