April 22, 2010

The Quest for 1 Million Photos: Interview with Thomas Hawk

Interview with Thomas Hawk

A quest combines a passion for something meaningful with a measurable goal. For example—visiting every country in the world. Running a marathon in all 50 states. And so on.

Once in a while I discover someone else on a quest that deserves broad attention, and I’m always fascinated by the back story.

Enter Thomas Hawk, the San Francisco photographer on track to producing 1,000,000 finished, processed photos. He does this while working a full-time job and raising four young kids.

This selection from his mission statement illustrates how Thomas feels about the quest:

Sometimes I like to think of myself as a photography factory. I see my photographs mostly as raw material for projects that might be worked on at some point later on in life.

We all have but a short time on this earth. As slow as time can be it is also fast, swift, furious and mighty and then it’s over. Jack Kerouac is dead. Andy Warhol is dead. Garry Winogrand is dead. Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston are not dead yet, but probably will be at some point. Charles Bukowski once said that endurance was more important than truth. Charles Bukowski’s now dead.

When I’m not taking or processing the pictures I’m mostly thinking about the pictures.

For more, check out our interview below.

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You have a pretty audacious goal of publishing 1,000,000 processed photographs before you die. How did you come to this goal and what does it mean to you?

I started taking photographs when I was about 7. Even back then I shot a lot for a kid. I’d spend the money I earned on film and developing for my little Kodak Instamatic and racked up thousands of snapshots.

I got my first SLR (a Sigma with a detachable zoom lens) when I was 15 and took it with me on a trip that summer when I rode my bicycle across America. Again I shot quite a bit on that trip.

Later I began bulk loading my own black and white film (to save money) and started doing my own developing and printing, I had access to a darkroom through most of high school and college. I was the yearbook editor in high school and edited my college newspaper as well and both those jobs came with a darkroom. So I’ve always sort of shot a lot.

I didn’t really start thinking about such an ambitious goal for my own photography until digital photography came on the scene though. I bought my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica that actually took floppy disks, back in 2000. Quickly I realized that the biggest thing holding me back in the past (money spent on film and developing) was now gone with the advent of digital photography.

I upgraded cameras as new and better digital cameras came on the scene and started studying prolific photographers. I was particularly impressed with the work of Garry Winogrand, who may be the most prolific well known photographer who has ever lived. When Garry died in his 50s he reportedly left behind nearly 300,000 unedited images, and more than 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film.

At some point I decided to publish 500,000 photos during my lifetime. A few months later I realized that 500,000 was not enough and chose to do 1,000,000 instead.

What this goal means most of all for me is that I will dedicate a very large portion of my life to creating art. It means that my life will be intertwined with photography in a significant and meaningful way until I die. It’s a discipline to ensure that I live my life in such a way that art will play a significant and prominent role in it.

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You see your photographs as raw materials for projects that might be worked on later in life. What kind of projects are you thinking about and how will you undertake them?

Mostly I’m thinking of very large scale installations, likely with prints, plasma screens or projection. I’ve thought about filling an entire large gallery space, every single inch of floor, ceiling, wall space, with tightly framed prints of a single subject matter. A giant hall of 10,000 photographs of neon signs for instance. A space that could entirely engulf you in images and best present the significance of a large photographic collection.

I’ve thought about making wallpaper out of 4,000 different images of toys for a child’s room.

I’ve thought about building a 100 foot high bank of plasma displays, tightly connected with each cycling through a loop of the same subject matter. 5,000 photos of animals at zoos. Maybe 10,000 photographs of graffiti art. 7,500 photographs of mannequins. Whatever.

I’m working on a project called $2 portraits where I pay people $2 in exchange for their portrait. I think it would be interesting when I get 1,000 or so of these (I’ve only got 100 today but this collection will grow) to have their portraits all framed in a massive installation representing 1,000 faces of American poverty.

I have lots of other ideas, but all of these ideas are dependent on my having a very large number of photos organized around subject matter, collections etc. So the photographs that I’m making today are the RAW material for these projects that I hope to complete later in life. They will likely be expensive to produce, so I’ve got to figure out that side of it as well.

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Given your passion and success with photography, why do you continue to have a primary career? And how do you manage to have time for your career, your photography and your life?

I’ve got a big mortgage in a great public school district that I have to pay for and a wife and four children ages 5, 7, 8, and 9. The state of photography today is that making high dollar significant and meaningful money from a career in fine art photography is very difficult. I don’t want to shoot weddings or school sports teams or family portraits or other things that could make a career for me in photography. I want to focus on what I need to shoot for me and myself. But I have large financial obligations at present that I have to take care of so I work a day job to pay for all that. At some point my kids will be done with college and the financial obligations will largely be met and I can quit the day job and focus 100% on my art.

In terms of my time, the answer is that I don’t manage time for everything. Things suffer. I get less sleep than I should. My wife would tell you that I don’t give my family enough time. I’m shooting the 100 largest cites in America right now. I’ve got like 24 or so done now; I’d like to have the rest finished in 3 years. That suffers too, though, and it will take me longer than I’d like.

It’s a constant tug of war between competing interests in my life. I deal with it the best I can and try to roll with the tension best I can.

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You make so much of your work available for free, using a Creative Commons license. Why do it this way?

It just feels right to me for some reason. I’m not depending on this work to put food on my table right now. I have the job for that. By licensing things this way my work gets more exposure I think. I also sell a lot of photos without doing any marketing at all just because they are seen on the web. I largely don’t worry about personal or unauthorized use that is not likely to generate meaningful money at this point anyways.

I like sharing. I like the idea that my work can be more accessible and meaningful for other people with these licenses as well.

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What has been the greatest or most interesting return on that generosity?

Definitely the people. I’ve met such amazing people through my photography. Other artists, other photographers, models, subjects. Many of these people have found my work because it’s popular and I think CC licensing helps with popularity, as does large-sized images, no watermarks, etc. So people have found me that I’ve been fortunate to meet. People that have been very generous with me. People that work on the tools side of digital imaging. People that are doing cutting edge things with art today.

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You find majesty, mystery and beauty in everyday life. How?

It’s all there. It’s always been there. You just have to see it. In order to see it you have to see as a camera sees. You have to constantly frame life around you. You compose and recompose with your eyes. You always have a camera with you. You have to force yourself to shoot. To get in that mind set. To be out walking around with your camera.

F8 and be there. F8 refers to an aperture setting that keeps most of your image in focus and “be there” means just that. Be where something beautiful, interesting, majestic, mysterious, etc. is happening. A lot of it is just total luck of the draw. But I’ll tell you this, the times that I least feel like shooting I get the luckiest when I force myself to go out anyways.

How many of the world’s greatest and most famous photographs were just the result of being at the right place at a lucky time? The good fortune of having just the right scene show up in your path?

Winogrand has a famous photograph of an interracial couple walking together and holding two baby chimps. It’s perhaps his most iconic and controversial. How did that photo get made? I wonder. I suspect for Garry it was chance. Some random luck opportunity at the zoo one day. And imagine the delight of coming across such a striking couple carrying a baby chimpanzee.

So many of the most iconic photographs that Robert Frank took for The Americans are unplanned it seems. Random moments that result from spending enough time being there with your camera.

So being there is so important as is opening your eyes. Look for it. It’s there. We all have a creative spirit. We just need to learn to listen to it and focus on it and be in that zone.

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In order to publish 1,000,000 processed photographs, about how many will you have to take?

Right. So, when I say I want to publish 1,000,000 photos, I want to finish 1,000,000 photographs that I am proud enough of to show and publish them online. I imagine that actual camera actuations (shutter clicks) clicked will be a much higher number, maybe as high as 10 million during my lifetime.

Right now I’m probably processing maybe 10% of the images I shoot on average. Sometimes more, sometimes less, so likely somewhere between 5 and 20 million frames in the end I’d guess.

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How much time does it take? And given that life is all about choices, what do you sacrifice to work on this mission?

Well, right now I’m doing these intensive 5-day city shoots maybe every other month. These are “sleep 4 hours, shoot 20 hours 5-day straight” sort of things. I probably spend twice as much time processing as shooting, but that comes later as time is available. I also shoot most weekday afternoons in the Bay Area and some on each weekend. I’ll also occasionally cover specific events at night. I go to L.A. a lot and shoot down there too. Mostly at nights, mostly out late there.

I sacrifice a lot to work as much as I do. I try to be super efficient and that’s part of it. I try to always be working. I give up some sleep for sure. I usually go to bed between 11pm and 1am and get up most days at 5am. Sometimes I’ll be up until 2 or 3 am working.

I give up any possible wasted time that I can. On my commute too and from work on BART, I’m processing photos. If I’m waiting for an appointment I’ll process a few more. I try to squeeze every bit of downtime into my work. I’ll take a break at work and say that I’m going to process 10 photos. When I’m on an airplane I’m processing photos (or shooting). You’d be surprised where you can find little pockets of time.

The bigger answer though is that I quite simply don’t spend time doing what most of the world does. I don’t go see movies, generally speaking. I don’t really watch TV (although sometimes it’s on in the background while I process), I don’t read books ever, except I look at images in photography books frequently. I don’t play golf or do sports (except with my kids a bit). I don’t have any other hobby really except probably some of the blogging and social network avenues on the internet where I’m showing my work. I don’t really shop or cook or do the everyday things that most people spend time doing. It’s really just my family and my art.

I do experience life richly though. I have to go to a lot of places to find things to photograph. Frequently my family is with me. Museums, zoos, parks, walks, trips, etc. but I’m always shooting wherever I go. I really don’t go out at all unless it involves my shooting. I won’t go to a concert unless I can shoot it. I won’t go to a museum if they don’t allow photography. The camera is part of every life experience.

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Once in a while, perhaps while sitting in airports waiting for a delayed flight, I’ll confess that traveling feels like a chore to me. Does photography ever feel that way for you? What propels you to push through?

Sometimes it does. That’s just where discipline has to take over. Having a goal is handy because it inspires discipline. It holds you accountable. Revisiting goals is huge.

But absolutely, sometimes I get tired of it. After taking 10,000 photos of neon signs across America, how can you get excited about one more generic motel sign on one more highway? But the reward is I still get blown away from time to time. The street art in Miami is amazing. Like nothing I’ve seen. Spending 45 minutes shooting every possible element of a Shepard Fairey piece just hits you in an amazing place. Getting up at the crack of dawn and shooting the Bean in Chicago with nobody there. Driving through Death Valley and finding some abandoned road that disappears deep into the horizon with no other cars for miles.

But you don’t get these truly amazing experiences without the chore of it all at least some of the time. The thing is for me that I just need to remind myself that around any corner could be something amazing.

Traveling and shooting actually helps with this a great deal. Coming across new places you have more new things to shoot. Even as beautiful as San Francisco is, I feel like I’ve shot every square inch of it. But that’s just when you have to be more creative and also realize that as much as a place stays the same it changes. Graffiti goes up and goes down. New buildings go up and come down. Most dramatically, people move in and out of the streets every day. If I’m lacking inspiration and have nothing else, I’ll just go wander around the Tenderloin District, or the Mission District or the Haight and just shoot the people.

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I appreciate Thomas sharing so much of himself. The man is beyond prolific! Connect with him here on Flickr, here on Twitter, or here on Google Buzz (he’s one of the few people I’ve seen who uses Buzz well).

And if you have any feedback, encouragement, or questions for Thomas, post it up here in the comments. In between processing his photos on the train and working a full-time job, he’ll probably have time to pop in and respond. You know how it goes: if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.

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All Images by Thomas Hawk (click to enlarge)

Comment on this article

41 Responses to “The Quest for 1 Million Photos: Interview with Thomas Hawk”

  1. Wow! 1 million finished photos, now that’s an inspiring goal. It make me realize that my goals a) aren’t specific enough and b) don’t push me enough.

    Thanks so much for sharing this interview and introducing me to an artist that I will now be following.

  2. Very cool, very inspiring. I think the word “quest” is used perfectly here. “Passion” would also have been acceptable. :) Best of luck to him! Can’t wait to see the finished results.

  3. The old chestnut of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is very true. Images are a powerful medium that really can convey a story.

    Bravo – what a fantastic goal to achieve.

  4. Nice interview Chris,

    I like it when I hear about people with really big goals and then setting out to do them, like you going to every country and Thomas Hawk with 1.000,000. My goal is pretty large too and overwhelming at times to do it. It is nice to get the inspirations from others and witnessing the piece by piece movement of getting the job done — even if it may taker a lifetime. It gives me much needed hope — I am sure many others as well.

  5. I would love to see an exhibit featuring 1,000 faces of poverty in America–and I’d pay for it, too! Beautiful work, Thomas. Thanks for sharing.

  6. HAWK!!!!!

    GAWK!!!!!

    Wonderful brain capturing all this life out there.
    Thanks for the effort, time and beautifully recorded images.

  7. Wonderful interview and fabulous images. The post gives a good sense of the choices and sacrifices Thomas makes every day to pursue his passion while also showing that even epic goals are achievable, one step at a time. thanks for sharing.

  8. “you don’t get these truly amazing experiences without the chore of it all at least some of the time. The thing is for me that I just need to remind myself that around any corner could be something amazing.”

    glimpsing someone else’s passion is wonderful; seeing that they feel this way, too, is powerful

  9. WOW! For the past one year while backpacking, I’ve been taking more than 10,000 photos, and I thought it was many! Among this 10,000, many of them are photos from the same object, just to make sure I get all angles I want with nice color and no blur, so there are a lot of cut downs. From that, how many that I actually processed? Very few! Even label them properly with information, it’s still a half way.
    I thought I took too many photos, but this guy inspired me to take more, and to take photography more seriously.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Hey Chris,

    Thanks so much for sharing my goal and my story and thoughts behind it. I’m equally impressed by your own travel goals that you’ve set out for yourself and find it refreshing to find another person who sees and thinks about the world in such large and grand ways.

    Honored to be included on your blog and appreciate your kind words and your own vision!
    :)

  11. Thanks Chris, this has to be one of the best post I read in the last few weeks, thanks for sharing the story. I hope you find more people like that! it’s good to see he does it for pleasure and not expecting any profit from that

  12. wow, this could be one of my favorite interviews yet. thank you for sharing, it was completely inspiring to hear these words.

    “I will dedicate a very large portion of my life to creating art. It means that my life will be intertwined with photography in a significant and meaningful way until I die. It’s a discipline to ensure that I live my life in such a way that art will play a significant and prominent role in it.”

  13. I realize my opinion may be unpopular here, but what is wrong with him trying to make some money off of his photos? It’s what he wants to do with his life. It’s his passion. He is talented, his skill has taken a lifetime for him to create, and it’s just wonderful that he gives it all away for free? I don’t think so. He deserves to be paid for his skill, talent, long hours and time. There is nothing wrong with that. Maybe he can’t quit his day job because he doesn’t see the possibility of how he could make a living from photography? If he wants to make some images available for free to get his name out there, that makes more sense to me. However, to give it all away. That actually makes me sad.

  14. I don’t think anyone would say there’s something wrong with making money from art (at least I certainly wouldn’t). In this case, he does make some money, but not enough to support a family of six in a good school district in San Francisco. I believe it’s the most expensive housing market in the U.S., and he likes to shoot on his terms instead of doing weddings, etc.

  15. Great writeup on a wonderful photographer.. thanks for sharing

  16. What an inspiring story! It is interesting to see that he is so committed to this project and has made it such a big priority. It was also cool to hear him share what he gives up in doing so. I do not think we hear enough honest discussion about that kind of thing.
    What I am taking away from this is that a high level of commitment is key, and when you have that, you can do anything.

    Thanks for being so awesome Chris! You are an inspiration for sure.

  17. Hey Melissa, thanks for your opinion on the money part of things. I’m definitely not opposed to anyone (myself included) making money with their art. I can think of very few better ways to earn a living actually.

    For me personally I think that the business side of marketing your photography for profit takes a lot of work and many hours. At present I’d rather funnel that time into my work than into the business/profit of my work. I have the luxury to do this because I have another job to support my family.

    I do make some money though. The license I use for the vast majority of my image is Creative Commons Non-Commercial. Meaning that anyone can use them for personal or non-profit use, but if a company wants to use one they would need to contact me and buy it. So I’m only partially giving them away. :)

  18. Gorgeous photography! Fantastic goal! Beautiful artistic thoughts!

    Still, like Melissa, this made me a little sad too. Why isn’t he making a fortune off of his awesome art?

    Perhaps, because I’m a parent and see so many fathers who are so busy with their work & “imprisoned” by mortgages, I also feel sad that there isn’t much time for family.

    Habitual lack of sleep can lead to an early death and is just so unhealthy and out of balance, so that made me cringe. Can’t quests and art be done in a healthy way?

    I’d love to see a quest that also allowed for balance in the most important part of life, giving a good part of our daily life to love ones, especially children. After all, they are is greatest work of art and his biggest legacy. The days are long with kids, but the years are very short, ask any parent with an empty nest. They will learn much more spending time with their talented dad than the best school in the world.

  19. April 22, 2010

    Mariellen Romer

    Fabulous post aboutan inspiring guy. Or was it the other way around…? Thanks Chris and especially, Thomas.

  20. “It’s all there. It’s always been there. You just have to see it. In order to see it you have to see as a camera sees. You have to constantly frame life around you. You compose and recompose with your eyes. You always have a camera with you.”

    I definitely relate to this bit. Being in the middle of my first 365 photo project, my camera is with me EVERYWHERE. I am always, always, always looking around and seeing what’s there, seeing if something may make an interesting photo. I just need to prod myself into shooting more of those pictures that I see instead of being too lazy to get the camera out of the bag… Must be more adamant about working, or else how will I ever improve??

  21. I think artists, especially, need to think of creative ways to make a living doing what they love to do. That doesn’t mean photographers should shoot weddings and painters should paint bad seascapes for tourists, or whatever, because that’s what brings in the money. It means finding a creative way of doing what you love (and in this example it would mean a way for Thomas to shoot the type of images that he’s already shooting) and make money doing it. (His wallpaper idea is one example, collaborating with a large non-profit like Habitat for Humanity to produce an exhibition of his $2 portraits would be another…) I know marketing is time-consuming and San Francisco is expensive, but his photos are amazing. If he threw all of his time into his passion, imagine what he could do. Thanks, Chris, for the inspirational post and Thomas for your passion and gift!

  22. As a wife and mother of 2 young teens and the reluctant ‘owner’ of a chronic illness that robs me of 30-40 hours a week, I relate to the single-minded intensity essential to pursuing one’s passion. In my case, as a mixed-media artist I often battle enormous guilt for spending time in the studio (and retaining my sanity) rather than washing dishes, clothes, fill in the blank. I’ve given up current events media, TV, a social life, etc. My husband, an artist/illustrator with a paying gig (and scant time for his art), and kids profess unwavering support to my art but when inconvenienced (the ‘right’ jeans aren’t clean, I’m too tired to do something, the complaints nudge the guilt. Reading your interview validates my passion and dedication to daily studio time. Best wishes, follow your heart and don’t take advice:) I look forward to keeping up with your journey!

  23. Chris – awesome interview and thank you for bring him out to wider audience who didn’t know Thomas before! I particularly liked this part
    “Having a goal is handy because it inspires discipline. It holds you accountable. Revisiting goals is huge”

    A question for Thomas, if you’re still reading- what do you mean by
    “process photos”? It’s cool you can do that in those few minutes when you would be idoling like on train or waiting in line.

    Etsuko

  24. This is a great story of someone living their passion. Someone who wants to leave a legacy. Great interview Chris. I love Thomas’s photos. It has inspired me to set a new goal around my photography. Keep on inspiring us to change the world.

  25. Thank you for sharing this conversation – and thank you to Thomas Hawk for sharing his images, his thoughts and his goals. Art, of all kinds, is essentially about practice, growth and sharing – and I will follow with great interest the growth that inevitably comes with doing. Congratulations to you both – the example you set is important.

  26. Wonderful photos! Just keep going and going and going….

  27. I love this and have missed these kinds of posts. It’s really inspiring, and I’m sure at one point he thought what he was doing was nothing special. It’s so motivating to see people tap into what just seems like a natural extension of themselves and going for it.

  28. I would not mind donating Thomas Hawk some money because he allows other people access to his photos with CC license..

    I usually try to donate even a little sum of money if someone has great work available on the Internet.

  29. I just finished reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin, where he mentions Thomas Hawk, so I was pleasantly surprised to see your interview in my inbox! :)

    What an incredible quest. Such dedication! As a fellow photographer, what awesome photographs!

    Thomas, if you get to reading this, I do have one technical question: Since you’re taking so many photos, how do you keep track of the stories behind the photographs? Do you process the photos ASAP and write from memory? Do you keep a notebook? Or do you only write the stories that impacted you enough to remember them?

  30. Stuck for words. But a picture says a 1000 words and this is an inspiring snap shot.

  31. thanks for this article, chris. it’s amazing how it answered an unrelated question – “how to do what interests you and still make a living”. i’m sure many of us struggle & are kept from doing just by this dilemma. the choice is clear. sacrifice to do, or go through life without doing.

    i also admire thomas’ honesty. his regular life ‘suffers’, but this is something he has to do. i would have liked to read a little bit more on his wife’s and children’s perspective – do they understand what he’s doing? do they buy into it? do they see an end in sight? do they agree that his focus on his goal (instead of more on them) is worth it? just curious.

    keep up your good work, chris. i enjoy reading (from) you.
    /tochi

  32. Hey Tochi, unfortunately I think it’s hard for my wife and kids. I feel guilty sometimes because the kids will say that I’m always on my laptop or that they don’t want to go on another photowalk. Somtimes they can get very impatient if I take a route somewhere that’s a bit out of the way to shoot something. I give them lots of attention as well, but with 5 others in our family they always want more. I try to manage the best that I can though. I’m not sure that there is any easy answer to the conflict between doing something like this and family.

    In some cases for photographers in the past it quite simply hasn’t worked out. W. Eugene Smith, the famous photographer, pretty much ended up abandoning his family entirely to pursue his work. That’s sad.

    There’s a famous photograph made by Robert Frank when he was shooting The Americans entitled, U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio http://i42.tinypic.com/2ep57jm.jpg that’s always resonated with me regarding the difficulty of managing.

  33. Raam, I rely heavily actually on voice recording for the stories that come with my photos. I used to try to write down details after shooting a person. Their name, where they are from, their story, etc. Now I’ll typically pull out my iPhone and record a voice memo detailing all of the information I’ve collected after I’m done shooting them and move on. Later when I publish the photo I’ll go back to those recording snippets and use them to write a more complete story regarding our engagement.

    My iPhone has actually become a tremendous tool for me in my photography. I’ve been using the camera on the phone more and certainly the mapping and recording functionality is helpful.

  34. Great choice in interviewing Thomas Hawk.

    He’s been a great photography personality on the web for a while sharing his work, experiences, and opinions (often controversial but mostly helpful) and deserves the attention.

    It’s his passion, drive, and desire that inspires many of his followers to push forward on their own paths and to reach their goals on their own terms. It’s how art, in today’s world, should be; raw, hard, and real.

  35. Thomas,

    Great work. Opening up a little about your personal life may have given the impression you don’t spend any time with the family. I read several places in your story about playing with kids and traveling together. I’m sure you regularly re-evaluate how you spend your time and stay in balance. Keep being a Linchpin.

  36. Loved the comments and I love the passion Thomas puts in to his art. So great!

  37. Thank you Chris for interviewing Mr Hawk – his work is gorgeous , the goal is inspiring (understatements), and hearing a little bit about his life behind the lens is really really comforting to hear – because aren’t we all trying to find balance– especially those with BIG dreams and ( seemingly) too little time?! Keep on keeping up and thank you for the openness and the inspiration.

  38. What a cool interview!

    I think your installation ideas are fascinating! Good luck seeing all of this through!

    I can definitely relate to having to carry a full time job and do the art on the side. Kudos!

  39. Been able to watch the passion of this admirable man over many years. It will always be a struggle to balance family and our passions. I know his children well and they love their dad very much he has had a lot of amazing experiences with them. His wife is a remarkable person. When you live with a person with such passion you have to have incredible strength and she does.

  40. That’s amazing – and what is even more amazing is the fact that his photos rock! Normally when people undertake something like this their work suffers and it sucks. Not his – it’s awesome. This is amazing. thank you for sharing this. – Beth

  41. Fantastic interview and wonderful quest. I especially appreciate Mr. Hawk’s focus on the work, and not the details of making money of it.