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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All Images by Thomas Hawk (click to enlarge)