4.29.2013

A Portrait. The way I think my portraits should look.


The portrait is a collaboration.

A.Z.  ©kirk tuck

I met the woman in this image a few years ago. We were shooting some big graphics for a trade show and she was one of the talents the ad agency selected as a principal for the ad campaign. I was smitten by her quiet and unusual beauty when she walked through the door. After the project was completed and the 9 foot by 12 foot panels were installed I sent her an e-mail and asked if she was willing to come into the studio and have a portrait made, as a fun project. 

I set up my usual lighting. A big, soft light coming from the left and used in fairly close. At first there were the obligatory smiles and poses but as we got into the session I found that the quieter, more serious expressions were the ones that made me happy. People remark that my portraits can be too serious but the bigger the smile the smaller and squint-ier the eyes. And A.Z.'s eyes were one of the features that attracted me in the first place. Why hide them behind a smile?

I used my camera of choice at that time. It was a Nikon D2x and the exif info tells me that I was using the 85mm 1.8 Nikon lens. I know this will sound monotonous but I shot all the images in the session with ISO 100 because it's the optimum ISO for that camera. 

We shot a lot of stuff in a short amount of time that evening and I sent along a few of the best images but lately I've started to go back to my favorite images and re-work them. Funny how four or five years passing makes such a difference in my perspective about how faces and lighting and post production should look. 

Here's another version:


 We are all attracted to different ideals of beauty. You work better when you work with the kind of human you find most amazing. Knowing your creative muses may be the most important aspect of making great portraits. Not commercial, sellable portraits, just great portraits.




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Why the reset? Here's my quandary: My market and my interests are shifting...


We live in a world of insanely fast changes and I work in an industry that changes even quicker. The things I've written about for the past five years have all referenced a continuum of photography that more or less reflected the viewpoint that digital didn't really change any of the underlying structures that made photography what it is, digital was just a new media to write the images to. A new kind of film that's infinitely cheaper to buy and process, and equally easy to share. And that was a comforting construct for me but it's just not true anymore.

A large number of the skills a lot of us spent decades honing are no longer relevant or even desirable. Who, in this day and age, needs to know the fine points of selenium toning Seagull Portrait fiber printing paper? Who will make use of your dissertation about the Scheimpflug formulas for calculating rear film and front lens standard movements for a view camera? And really, who gives a shit about which version of a 50mm Leica Summicron lens is really the hidden gem in the cosmology of lenses?

Much of the blog space on the web that has to do with photography has devolved into an endless review of cameras and lenses. The bloggers have discovered that talking about the latest equipment introductions is fun for the majority of readers to read. They've also discovered that most readers will click through the product links and return some income to the bloggers. It sets up an UN-virtuous circle wherein we start to customize our content to encourage equipment purchases instead of encouraging an exploration of the art. And that started to bother me. The websites I used to go to in order to read about technique or new works by ascending thought leaders have changed their mixes to be almost all commerce all the time. And while I know that's the basis of the American system (Oh...yay capitalism!!) it's also a subject line that decays quickly and irreversibly. That wonderful review about the Olympus EPL2 already seems antiquated. Like listening to Abba.

When I first envisioned writing this blog I thought I'd be writing about a handful of subjects. I wanted to show work I'd done and talk about the commercial photography world. How we make work. The challenges of keeping our personal visions alive while making a living doing images that weren't necessarily germaine to the visions that drove us into this commercial niche. I wanted to talk about the personal journey of creating art. Of shooting on the street. Of making portraits of wonderful people who made our hearts pump faster and our eyes perk up.

Here's the wonderful thing about writing a book: You only get to see the sales numbers twice a year and once you've written it and put it out there there isn't a hell of a lot you can do to change it if you get lots of good or bad feedback. Here's the really crappy thing about writing a column for a blog: You get hour by hour feedback in the form of comments, pageview metrics and even click through numbers which you can't really help wanting to see. If they are good on an article you wrote yesterday your ego is massaged and you feel vindicated and smart and dialed in. If your numbers fall over the edge of a cliff the next day you become frustrated and you subconsciously start edging in the a different direction. Which direction? Obviously, the one that protects your fragile ego.

A number of years ago I wrote two blogs that I really love. One is called "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" and the other is, "Coffee Time is Over, Shut up and Shoot." Both have been moderately popular in terms of pageviews and comments. But, of course, the numbers are dwarfed by anything I write that covers, reviews or even just mentions the gear. Write a long Olympus review and the numbers are amazing. Write something that discusses our motivations and watch the numbers fall through the couch cushions with all the spare change.

But here's the disconnect, a vocal faction of readers tells me how much they love the non-gear columns while the vast majority of visitors turn off and head for more gear-like pastures.  

The next problem for the blog is that after nearly 30 years in the business I feel that I can clearly see, both in art and commerce, how much bigger video is becoming. And how important it is to the whole sphere of visual communication as we plunge into the future. I like cinema and video and the art of the moving image. I like scripts and writing and acting and everything that goes with it but my audience sometimes makes me feel locked into being that guy who wrote a book about using small flashes or the guy who wrote a book about LEDs and they give me (metaphoric) disapproving looks when I mention video/motion.

Wanna see readership drop off your photography blog? Shift from writing about which camera and lens combination currently has the most magnificent bokeh in the world to writing about how to light faces in video and watch the current readership shrug and trundle off for another cup of Sanka.

The future is coming at us fast. Four of my work days this week will be consumed shooting video for clients. I haven't changed my branding or advertising; my clients just assume I will be able to bring the same lighting effects and personal rapport to the video table. And I feel that the wave is just beginning to swell. 

Sony announced a 4K television set at NAB this year that should be priced under $5,000 so it's only a matter of a year or two until the high end of the market (where the juiciest clients reside) are totally saturated with screens that deliver a much higher level of detail and tonal integrity than even the best units we're using today. And that will change so much. Levels of production will have to rise and the next generation of DSLRs (or, if you shoot with Sony, DSLTs) will have to incorporate the new 4K level of HD video. And the potential to show work on a high quality medium will become ubiquitous. But if we sit around and argue about the death of the traditional photo industry or how we need to go back to printing our own black and white photos with chemicals, or which camera is the best one right now! Then we won't share in the fun.

I don't want to create a site like Phillip Bloom's where everything is a commercial for every video gadget that's offered for wannabe movie makers. And I don't want to be a blog where we worship our past at the expense of the present. I also don't want to turn my back at timeless good work either. 

But in my mind the first step in rehabbing the VSL blog was to take down as much product specific stuff as possible. I'm no longer in the business of reviewing the tools. I'm not any smarter than many of my readers and I think they can figure out which camera works best for them. I'm no longer flogging my previous books. I've worked and worked on that and there's no rhyme or reason to their selling pattern. If I flog a book it will be the upcoming novel or a new e-book after that. I don't want to sell people workshops. I don't want to sell my audience prints.

In fact, I don't want to seek out an audience, I want my audience to seek me out. 

So what do I intend to substitute for all the decaying and moribund content that used to live here? It's easy. I want to write about my experiences making portraits and shooting motion picture projects. I want to write about how this one freelance content creator lives his life and makes his work. I'd like to showcase and interview more and more interesting people in the way I did with Michael O'Brien's video.  And I'd like to talk about this whole life and undertaking as a process that's done with thought tools and not just the cameras and lenses we buy for sport. I want to make portraits that are exciting or seductive enough to make me forget the gear.

You can come along for the ride or you can find somewhere else to live. You can join my imperfect search to bring meaning to my photographs and the work of people that I think are doing good stuff. Going forward I will be much more direct in my opinions (I've felt myself toning things down to keep the virtual peace around here) and if enough people don't like it vocally enough I'll just turn off the comments.

I'm old enough to know that all the stuff we buy is irrelevant if we don't have anything to say. And we'll never know what it is we want to say with our work if we have our collective heads up our butts chasing the latest light, lens and camera stuff. Mea Culpa. I got sucked in by the magnetic attraction of pageviews and the lure of the cash. Not anymore. 

It's hard to write for an audience you don't know. I would sincerely like to use the comment section on this particular post to hear from you, my readers. Who are you? What do you do to make money? What do you do to make art? Why are you here? What do you think the future will bring for you and for the rest of us....in a photographic sense? I'd like to hear from as many people as possible. I'll open up the comments even to the anonymous commenters. Share with me who I've been writing to for the past five years.

Thanks, Kirk





Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.