I asked my peers on the advisory board, "what will I talk about for an hour?"
They responded, "You'll fill the time, the problem will be getting you to shut up."
By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014
First off, events. While I question their wisdom the Association of Texas Photographic Instructors asked me if I would give the keynote speech for their convention/conclave/gathering in Austin this year. I have agreed. The speech will take place at the Texas State Capitol in one of the auditoriums large enough to comfortably seat 300 high school photography students and a like number of their instructors. The topic of the speech is largely up to me but I have been given a bit of direction. It was suggested that I show a few images and tell a few stories to establish my bona fides, my legitimacy to speak at all.
Imagine the peril of trying to come up with a speech about photography that will graceful span the interests of 300 high school juniors and seniors along with an equal number of adults who've been in the teaching trenches for various lengths of time. Kind of analogous to picking out music for mixed audiences.
The task in front of me right now is to go through tens of thousands of images I've either shot recently or have digitized from the film days and narrowing the torrent down to a trickle of 100 or so. Then I have to put them into some kind of coherent order and figure out how they will illuminate whatever the heck I choose to talk about. Which, of course, brings me to the next point on the agenda: What can I really tell kids today that is unfailing true and also valuable?
That the business used to be more profitable? More fun? More challenging? And ask them to turn the lights out when they leave? Or do I reach past the confines of my own ego, grapple with my own relentlessly approaching intersection with mortality and conjure up good news for a whole new generation?
The problem is that none of us who've lived through the transitions and who lived enmeshed in a certain work paradigm can be nearly as prescient about what is being created right now by the very generation who are inventing it. I may learn their visual language (I've tried to find the Berlitz CD's) but they invented the language and are native speakers. I scoff at social media marketing while they are immersed in it (hopefully) and pushing and pulling levers that I don't even know exist.
I'm all set to tell them to diversify and get into video and design but that brings up a very salient question that I need to grapple with myself. To wit, is the world of still photography dead or highly diminished? If that's the case how is it that I'm still doing jobs? And if I am still doing jobs why couldn't I market to a wider swath and get more jobs? And if I got more jobs wouldn't that prove that photography is not really dying it only needed to be re-approached and re-united with a business model that works better on both sides of the transaction?
So, if you do corporate head shots and you've done them for while and your volume drops does that mean the market has ebbed away or does it mean that you haven't changed the way you market your product and you are loosing important mindshare? Are you still sending out e-mail blasts long after that well has run dry? Did you lean on direct mail back in the early 2000's but haven't tried new mix of media to reach new markets? Maybe you stayed on your spot and your potential markets shifted around you. It's entirely conceivable that the markets still need what you are selling but the players have changed, the way of reaching the new players has changed, and if you can find the new approaches to the landing zone you'll earn back the business that you presumed had become extinct.
I'm leaning toward telling them that business has always had the same rules: Invent something people need or want and sell it to them in a way that they can understand. But to sell to people you have to be clear on what you provide. What do you deliver, as a value proposition, that's different from what everyone else is selling? Is your lighting unique? Do you work with a make up person (when doing portraits) who is a valuable synergistic partner for your skills? Are you fun and funny? Can you make people relax enough to take your great direction? Can you turn the client's "brilliant" creative concepts into visual art? Are you a reliable partner for an ad agency? What makes your product (vision) and services unique?
I've been saying for years that each generation of artists grows up with their creative counterparts. A person just starting out in photography today, just graduating from school, probably has scores of friends in related fields like graphic design, web design and advertising. They may be interns right now but in the blink of an eye they will be associate art directors and quicker than you think they evolve into senior art directors, art buyers and partners. And the relationships that are forged in the beginning seem to have a way of lasting and growing and spreading. Kinda of like Linked In is supposed to do only in a genuine and real life way. It's a process of aging together into affluence.
I might tell them that each generation grapples with scary change and that what follows is a new normal that they can build on. I see the last 13 years in the economy as a strange disruptive cycle that exceeds everything we've seen in ages. Because it wasn't just about a financial services meltdown it was about the retirement of an old technology and the introduction of a whole new way of thinking about technology. Gone are the Marxist constructs of power going to the people who own the tools or the factories and they've been replaced with a paradigm that's not yet totally up and running but it's based on aggregating value from mass distribution and fractional payments for enormous sharing. Will it work? Maybe. But my generation won't be the ones to ride it hard when the kinks are ironed out. That's going to go to the generation just coming into the markets today. The future is super bright it's just that most people don't have the right sunglasses.
But the thing I know I'll tell them is to constantly prepare for change, to constantly experiment with new ways of doing old things and old ways of doing new things. To go out and try stuff and mess up and improve and try again. The victories, I am certain, always accrue to the brave, the determined and the prepared.
The big event is Friday, February 7th, 6:30pm at the State Capitol Building. Austin, Texas. Hopefully the Texas Rangers will keep the hecklers and protesters away.
On another note: I'm mulling over the idea of changing our regular business name to The Visual Science Lab and relaunching the business. The thought process is that we are emphatically doing more stuff in more different ways than before. We're hooking up with other creative services providers on projects and then separating to work on solo work. Having a business with the name "photography" in it seems so antiquated and limiting. We're too small to get a big conference room at a hotel, gather a large focus group of targeted creative services users and dig down for hours and hours looking for an answer. Then it dawned on me that I have a very talented group of defacto experts here on the blog and I could query them.
So here are my questions: To market to new clients, ones whom we've never work with before and for whom my company has no name recognition, which sounds better, more modern and more effective for a company that actively markets both still imaging and motion imaging (including all the necessary disciplines therein): Kirk Tuck Photography or The Visual Science Lab ? Toss your votes into the comments and we'll see how the consensus pans out. I'm partial to the Visual Science Lab but I've lived with the other name all my life and it may just be stale to me...
Random Thoughts: Somehow being ill last week really focused me on the future. I've pretty much recovered though I am not quite up to eating an anchovy pizza with jalapeños just yet. But I keep thinking about how to continue to gracefully continue a career in such a weird and physical market. I was pondering this on Saturday morning as I loaded my car with lights, stands, sound gear and cameras for the quick shoot across town. I was moving slow. And when I got back home I hit the couch for a necessary nap. This is an anomaly and it's random but I wonder when I'll run out of energy to load up hundreds of pounds of gear and head out on locations day after day.
On the other hand that's the work I really like to do. I like it more than sitting behind the computer working on files or messing around with writing assignments. I just wonder if photography careers are time limited by dint of exhaustion and waning spirit.
A camera thought: I was downtown for a much needed walk today. It was 70+ degrees and sunny here in Austin and everything felt so positive and new. Construction everywhere. I took a camera that I haven't written enough about here because I'm loathe to leap to its defense or to appear to proselytize it. That camera is the Panasonic GH3. I've spent a lot of time over the past week diving back into its menus and checking out all of the customization options. But today I finally understood why I really enjoy that camera enough to have two of them (and pine for one more). It's because it fits perfectly in my hand and it does everything without drama or over complication. I want to love the OMD EM-1 and I am convinced that it makes wonderful, incredible images but I remember my experiences with previous generations of Olympus Pen cameras and I just find all of the custom functions, function buttons and deep, deep menus to be overwhelming. I know, everyone tells me that you only have to set everything once and then just use the quick menu but what they generally mean is that you assign the buttons to the tasks you generally use one time and you'll just need to remember the buttons.
But that's not the way photography ever worked well for me. I would need a laminated card with the changes I had made and I'd need it for a while. With the GH3 the optimizations aren't as Draconian or complex. And the camera body itself seems molded for a man of about five feet, eight inches of height with average sized hands. Any smaller and the buttons are pushed together, any bigger and the camera becomes a burden.
There are a few glitches to the GH3. The color of the EVF rendering doesn't match the (more accurate) color of the rear LCD. And the finder optics aren't at the level of the VF-4. But that's about it. The rest of the camera just seems incredibly straight forward, fast and usable to me. I squired it around with the Pana/Leica 25mm f1.4 on it today. I think I shot three images during the entire walk but it really didn't matter. If I saw something great I felt confident we could get the shot. Today, the walk was the important thing.
In my mind this is a camera that pushes you to pre-edit. You really start to look only for stuff to shoot that's worthy of the camera and of your own time. There's enough junk out there without grinding out more useless imagery. Maybe I'll tell them that at my speech...
Layers and layers of photography...