Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera series. In this feature I will usually take a question that has come up during the previous month and flesh it out a little more in detail. I will also use this forum to simply speak what is on my mind at the time. I’ve chosen to go with the latter for this entry, since for most of the month of February I have been dealing with a pretty big creative block. Because of that, my attention has been on finding that creative energy once again. I have alluded to it several times in the different blogs that I have written, but wanted to get into a bit more detail as far as what has been going on. It also just so happens that a photographer that I follow on Youtube has talked about some of the same concepts that I have been struggling with and I wanted to share this video as kind of an introduction to this entry.
Now that we have this great introduction by Sean Tucker, I want to kind of get into what has been going on with me lately. Through the end of last year and the beginning of this year I have been going out very regularly and creating some of my favorite work several times a week. This tempo is hard to keep up with, but I was doing a great job of it and that kept fueling my creative energy. I was exploring new places and seeing scenes that I haven’t seen in the past. Each time I went out I had the anticipation of creating something better than the time before and largely that was happening. The momentum started to fade about the middle of January though as my trips were becoming a little less fruitful than they had been. This wasn’t too much of a problem, but when I add in some things that have been going on in my personal life that momentum really started to take a hit. I was plowing through though, forcing myself to get out there and be creative on the days when the weather would cooperate with me.
It was this forced creativity that maintained my artistic vision and the hope of finding the right images to capture. That came to an end with a short weekend trip to the mountains where I didn’t take my camera as the point of the weekend was to enjoy time with Toni without having photography come into play. It was a great weekend for sure, and we had a lot of fun in Asheville and at Biltmore. It was actually kind of nice to put photography out of my mind which I needed to do in order to not instinctively look for compositions at every turn. It was a conscious flipping of the switch in a way and it was a very nice relief to have a bit of a vacation from what has become a large portion of my life. That is the risk when you turn something that you enjoy into your primary focus as a business venture. I do need to turn it off from time to time, and this was a perfect time to do just that. It was also the first time that I have just decided to turn off that creative side of myself while still wanting to continue with photography.
In the past, I have always known my creative energy to ebb and flow depending on the seasons, and my own state of mind. There have been a couple of times that it became severe. The first of which was in the Spring of 2011, April to be exact. I had been on a downward spiral with my photography and was feeling that my images weren’t as good as they should be. I went out looking for images one weekend and ended up at Hanging Rock. I found a view that I liked near Tory’s Falls and got the camera set up to capture the image. I had a great leading line, good background, and a sky that I could tolerate. I tried several different compositions until I had a collection of images that I thought would work out.
OK, I know that this is not what I would consider my best work, but that is why I am posting it. When I got home from this trek and started to look at the images I was met with an overwhelming feeling that I was a fraud and out of my league when it came to photography. I wasn’t able to compete with other landscape photographers on any level and I should just hang it up. Harsh right? I wasn’t thinking about all the photographs in my collection that was forming a body of work much better than this image. However, something that I think all photographers suffer from is rating their own work based on their last image only. This was the image that I was basing my worth on at a time when I was seeing a decline in my desires to create. The end result…I sold every bit of my camera gear about four months later to start cycling. I was done with photography and I sold about $12,000 worth of equipment for a fraction of that cost.
The urge to create didn’t come back for quite a while. It wasn’t until the middle of 2013, that I started to see rural scenes on my bike rides and began to think about how I could photograph them. The decision was made in the late Fall that I would get back into photography once again. I got a kit selected and purchased to begin once again. The difference was I was going to put less stress on myself and keep it just for fun. That was easier said than done, and before long I was back on track to do photography on a level much higher than that of a hobbyist. I kept trying to achieve that perfection in my images that never quite came. By 2014, I was missing my bike and the fact that I just rode for myself and my own enjoyment. I didn’t sell the camera gear this time and decided to keep it in the closet for those times when I felt creative. It was a lie, I never really felt creative because I would look at that last series of images that I had shot in August which were just not what I had in mind at all. That feeling that I was just a hack and a fraud surfaced again and I didn’t bring the camera out again until December of that year. While I felt happy with the images, they still weren’t on the level that I thought I should be at and that pushed photography further down once again.
I tinkered with photography off and on for the next year and a half more out of guilt for having so much money tied up in the gear than for the love of creating. This made it a sad experience every time I would go out with the camera as I knew it was out of a self imposed duty to use the gear. It wasn’t until I discovered Lightroom in the Summer of 2016, that I found my love of photography once again. This was the missing link in my creativity and I finally could present the visions that I had at the time of the capture. This addition to my tool box really changed things for me and propelled me back into photography more and more as my ability to realize my creative visions became much more of a reality.
You can see here that my history with creative slumps have been rather severe and I have taken them to heart too many times over the years. So, after a wonderful weekend where I closed the door on my creative side for just a couple of days, I found it very hard to rekindle that fire in my mind. I am not sure exactly how it happened, but my ability to see compositions had been blocked pretty severely and I wasn’t able to turn it back on as easy as I had thought. I knew from experience that I didn’t need to jump ship and do something crazy like ride a bicycle 200 miles to the beach…because I’ve done that before…twice. I just needed to give it some time and keep trying to ignite that creative spark once again.
This is where Sean Tucker’s video fits in so well for me. He talks about the different “Resistances” that will block your desire to create. To a certain point, I was experiencing all three of the resistances that he was talking about. It wasn’t so much a matter of losing my creative voice as it was my mind was playing tricks on me and convincing me not to be creative. It was really depressing to look outside on a nice cloudy day that I knew would be good for photography and then think to myself that I just didn’t have any desire to go out and find anything to photograph. I just kept going into a darker and darker place with each passing day.
As Sean mentions, there is a down side to being a perfectionist. I don’t think that there is anyone out there that would disagree with me saying that I am a perfectionist to a very high level. I love that I try to achieve that perfection in everything that I do, but I also know that hitting that mark is usually unobtainable. That is why what he says about perfectionism being a crippling force, especially to a creative, hit so close to home. I could see that was one of the reasons that I didn’t want to go out. With my satisfaction with my images falling off before the slump happened, I was really concerned if that trend was going to continue if I went out again. If I couldn’t create an image better than my last, I didn’t want to try. Remember how I tend to put a lot of weight on that last image when it comes to my views on my photography? That was becoming a real big deal for me. I doubted very seriously that I was going to create something wonderful, and even if I did, in my current state of mind I wouldn’t recognize it as wonderful at all.
That is where the “Rationalism” comes into play. I began to overthink everything that I was considering shooting. Either the conditions weren’t quite right, or I couldn’t decide on the perfect subject because every location had some form of negative associated with it. I had shot it too many times over the years, other’s had shot the same thing too much, I wouldn’t be able to do any better than I did on previous occasions. The list would go on and on, but in the end I would just stay home.
Sean mentioned feeling inferior to other photographers due to the gear that you have in this particular resistance as well. I’m not a big proponent of having the latest and greatest at every turn so I am still working with the same equipment that I selected back in 2013 when I got back into photography. It was top of the line at that point, but technology has come a long way since then. I’ve been waiting on Canon to announce and release their new mirrorless camera for us Landscape Photographers and I believe that will be in the form of the EOS R5. It is not available yet, but if I go that route, I will be getting new RF lenses to go with it. The resolving power of that combination will be amazing and should allow me to have much bigger prints that retain much more detail. With that upgrade on the near horizon it is very easy to feel inferior using my nearly seven year old kit.
The struggles in creating images also seemed to be insurmountable for me. Whether it was finding the right scene, or finding the right composition and exposure to capture the scene. These struggles are no different than ones that I have faced for years and they are no different than the struggles that any photographer has, but at the time they felt very specific to me. I would look at work of other photographers which I don’t routinely do to try and get inspiration, but would just imagine that they arrived at the scene and shot the picture quite easily. I wasn’t able to put myself in their place and decide on how I might approach the scene. Sean talks about the “ugly games” that he regrettably plays at this stage and I will admit having looked at other works and picking it apart in the past, but I didn’t even have the creative energy to be able to do that which is a good thing actually. There is nothing positive that ever comes from tearing down another photographer and it is a side of myself that I don’t like and am very happy that it hasn’t surfaced in years. I’m sure it will come back at some point, but I’m not looking forward to that little demon should it come back. I actually make it a point not to compare my work to that of other photographers. It serves no real purpose at all. I will occasionally use other’s work as inspiration but I am even careful of that since I really enjoy approaching a scene with virgin eyes so that I can let my voice be heard with a particular scene.
The last of the resistances is “Fear” which is always present in my photography. It is a double edged sword actually just as Sean talks about. I too have a fear of failure as most do, but also a fear of success. I have always wanted thing to come on my terms and even good things that come outside of that are difficult for me to deal with. It is all too easy to tell myself to stay home and not go out with the camera because I might just not find anything at all which would be an utter failure in my eyes even though I am used to not finding things in my travels. I also have a fear of coming across a totally awesome scene and not being able to capture it in time which would be a success in the hunt, but a failure in the capture. What about those times when it all comes together and I create something wonderful that people love. Will they then expect me to create even better in the future, can I achieve that? Remember how I said that I felt like a fraud? Well, I still do many times when it comes to photography. Am I as good as I like to think that I am? Have I just gotten lucky a few times with images? Maybe everyone is just being very nice in the kind words that they say about my photographs. I really wonder if I am good enough at this, and I have a fear that I’m not, and the truth will come out. I really think that this is a fairly standard feeling among artists since the core of what we are doing is putting our heart and soul out there for public consumption and potentially ridicule. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and that is why I really hate it when I start to think negatively about other’s work.
So with my main resistances identified thanks to the video by Sean, it comes down to what did I do to overcome this creative block I was in? I needed to jumpstart that creative side of my brain. Sitting in the house wasn’t doing it, so I needed to go somewhere and get a picture. Even if it was just one, that was all that I needed. On any trek that I take, that first composition is always the most important. Once I get it in the bag, the creativity runs much easier. I tried to keep the pressure off to create and just went out driving in areas that I thought I might get some inspiration. It didn’t work out that well, but I was seeing an interesting sky and remembered that I missed out on an opportunity to shoot a long exposure a few weeks prior and I decided that I would look for something to put under the sky. Since I was nearby, it seemed only logical to go to Salem Lake where I have always had good luck with long exposures. I tried not to worry about creating a better image than I had previously, I just wanted to create something.
I remember not really feeling it, but I was trying to fake it while I was there. I didn’t even venture far from the parking lot. It was more due to creative laziness than anything else. I saw something that might work from where I was sitting in the car so that is what I started with. I will say that I had a good composition in mind there and managed to fine tune it into something that would work out. After just a handful of images, I had accomplished my goal of shooting something. I had no desire to continue with other locations so I called it a day. I spent a good amount of time editing this image because it actually looked pretty good to me as I started to work it out. The all important second step in the creative process has always been the final edit of an image and this one was turning out better than I had hoped. That really helped that creative spark because I had that last image that I was proud of, but now I had pressure to create something even better the next time I went out. Just like that, I was back in that loop of depression and blocked creativity.
Not wanting to lose the momentum started at Salem Lake, I decided to go back out a short time later to try again. This time I ended up in Downtown Winston looking for some simple geometry with the buildings. I really struggled here and I didn’t want to force the issue, although I might have done just that. I found a staircase behind a business that captured my eye. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was simple and that was what I wanted. I didn’t give nearly the thought that I should have to the lighting while I was setting up the shot. It was fair, and I thought that I could really pull the detail out in the editing process. I managed to get a single image while I was downtown that didn’t really hit a home run with me. I take it as a positive thing that I wasn’t exactly done with the day and proceeded to find another location to shoot. It turned into a simple image of a pair of trees located off of a main road that I pass regularly. Again, it was nothing special, but I had the drive to create after capturing an image already which was a step in the right direction. The landscape image was the better of the two and it gave me hope that I might be on the mend finally.
I got to thinking about the past images that I had been shooting and realized that I have been concentrating on a very restrictive subject matter with the rural areas. After shooting the image of the two trees, I started to think that maybe I was needing a change of pace and needed to get back to my landscape roots for a bit of a recharge. I decided that my best bet was to go and shoot some natural scenes, but since it was still Winter I wasn’t quite feeling the typical landscapes. Waterfalls are great this time of year for many different reasons so I decided that I would try some moving water which went along with the Salem Lake shot that I was so happy with. There is something inherently creative about photographing movement in a still image. I chose South Mountains because of the timing that I had to work with and the fact that it had been a while since I had been there.
The trek was a success! I stayed motivated for my entire time there and continued to want to shoot more images even though I had run out of time. Surprisingly I managed to capture several compositions that I had never attempted before which showed that my creativity was still there. The conditions at the park were wonderful and I just had the best time. Even during the editing process of the trek my excitement maintained. I was itching to get out and do it again which was a feeling that I had not felt in some time. I was feeling more like myself and there was a comfort that came along with that.
Just two days later I was back out there again with the camera. This time I was looking to photograph some more waterfalls, but also had the opportunity to capture a promising sunrise over Pilot Mountain. The sunrise never really materialized which kind of set me back a little bit, but I was able to get an image of the Upper Cascades at Hanging Rock that was what I had been after for quite some time. That evened things out for me and I was still rather satisfied from the day. Ironically, after a disappointing sunrise, I actually have come to like the image of Pilot Mountain much more than I expected. I think it had to do with the creativity behind the concept with the light trails and moving clouds above the mountain. It showed that I was working on a familiar level once again and I was doing more than just capturing images. By this point, I was pretty sure that the way out of my slump was going to be through landscapes which are much more low key than doing rural photography. You see, when I am shooting landscapes, I get to be completely by myself and one with the subject. With the rural settings, I am right there on the side of the road, or talking to somebody about getting permission to be on their property. There are more roadblocks for that type of photography when compared to landscapes. I think at this particular time, I’m wanting the simplicity and solitude of nature. I suppose that the timing is pretty good as we are quickly coming about the time of year when landscapes are my primary subject.
As it turned out the night after I had been on this trek we had snow. This was a mixed blessing for me as I had been waiting for snow for quite some time and had a list of places that I wanted to shoot after that snowfall. That list was primarily rural subjects which I wasn’t really feeling after my recent revelation. However, knowing that I would only have a short amount of time in the morning to work with since the snow would melt quickly, I needed to get out and create something. That was kind of my mistake. I was forcing the creativity on this trek and it showed as I was going from location to location. I came up with excuses as to why the scenes wouldn’t work with every scene I came to. To be fair, the light was not the best, and pretty much all of my intended compositions were facing the sun which was not advisable on a clear day. I was starting to get desperate but at the last minute I did find a barn which I had never really considered before, but now was looking really good. That creativity was back, but that little voice was telling me that there were parts of the scene that wouldn’t work out. Oddly enough though, there was another voice that seemed to be louder and told me to get my wide angle lens and get in close, using the sunlit trees as a background with the blue sky. I wasn’t convinced at all that this was going to work, but when I got home, I realized that the voice that I was hearing was that creative voice. It was back and it was telling me how to photograph a scene.
I know it sounds odd, but I have always had this little subconscious urging, or voice that if I listen close enough will tell me the best way to photograph a scene. It will come up with odd ideas at times that I am not sure will work, but more often than not when I get the images home I find that I really like how they turned out. This barn was one of those times and I found a really great image developing on the screen as I made my slight adjustments. That little voice was leading the way the whole time. It was so good to have it back!
The very next day that voice was screaming at me and forced me to remember a suggestion that I had received a while back about photographing the Pepsi Building here in Winston Salem. I don’t know why this idea popped into my head like it did, but I wasn’t going to find excuses about why that wasn’t going to work. Oh no, I was going to go there, not having a clue how to photograph the building and give it a try. I waited until nearly sunset and went out there to scope it out. It was an interesting building but the compositions weren’t exactly jumping out at me. I almost quit on the concept and went home, but I kept telling myself that there was a picture to be had here. I went into my mode of isolations and looked for angles and light. I knew that ultimately this scene was going to come down to how the images were edited and I was looking forward to the challenge. That little voice was directing me even though I really didn’t think that I had anything for this location. By listening to that voice though, I was able to get three individual images out of nearly 40 frames that I really liked. It wasn’t the landscape that had inspired me, it was the geometry. I was able to see the shapes as more than they were which was something that has never really come easy to me, but has produced some very unique images in my catalog when I have been able to do it. The fact that I was back to that point meant that my slump was largely over and I was getting back into the groove of being a photographer once again. That felt really good!
It took me another three days before the voices were telling me to go back out again. This time I was wanting to do more waterfalls and capture that moving water. I chose to go to Stone Mountain this time and photograph one of my favorite waterfalls. After the recent rains it would be looking good I was thinking. Yes, I managed to get quite a few images that I liked of the waterfall which was another boon to my self confidence. I was now proving that I could work a scene and get different images from the same subject once again. I was seeing alternative compositions which I hadn’t been doing quite so fluidly in the past. I was using different lenses and different approaches which yielded different images. I was drawn to the isolations and abstracts which was something that I had not been doing much of recently. It was nice to be able to pick out the details and focus on those for a change. I was back to creating art rather than just documenting a scene. I was feeling much more like myself and when I decided that I was done with this waterfall, I was still wanting to create more. Strangely though, my drive was outside of the park in the unknown areas that surround it. I was no longer afraid of failure in finding a subject and that voice was telling me to explore.
I took the advice and went out on a rural road trip as I slowly worked my way home. When I saw a Ford N Series tractor I gave it a second look. My gut told me that there wasn’t anything there to photograph, but my inner voice told me that there was a picture there and I needed to get out and work the scene. I stopped and got out and ultimately got two different pictures of the tractor as well as two more from the neighboring building. Not too bad for a scene that my gut had told me wouldn’t work. Just goes to show that the creative voice in my head comes up with odd ideas at times, but they do tend to work. It was this secondary location that cemented the idea that I was back. I was able to take a jumbled scene as rural subjects typically are and create a simple and well executed image from it.
Creative slumps can be really bad for an artist, and this one has been tough on me. Maybe harder than the previous ones since I have put so much effort into doing photography as a business venture and a source of income. I didn’t allow myself to take the easy route and shelve the photography as I had in the past. I knew that the slump would be temporary and I knew that I needed to get over the hurdles that were standing in my way. To do that, I tried to take the pressure off of myself to create. I didn’t let it worry me that I wasn’t overly interested in photography. I continued with my routine of sharing my images though social media which kept me interested in my own photography. When I had even the slightest interest in new photographs I would go out and hope that I found something, but wouldn’t be upset if it didn’t happen. When I would find something that interested me, I would try to capture an image or two of it without the pressure of making a world class image. I just wanted to create something while I was there that captured what drew me to the scene. In time, the creative voice go louder than the one that voiced the resistances. I know that both voices are present in my head at any time, and depending on my mood, I will hear one over the other more clearly. My goal for the second half of February has been to quite those resistances. I don’t have to be perfect, and neither do my images. I can’t overthink a scene, I just have to shoot it and let the composition flow. I can’t let fear of failure, or success keep me from creating. Whatever will happen will happen, and whether I am creating or not has no bearing on it. I might as well create and enjoy photography while seeing where it leads in life.
I do hope you are still with me after that rather long bit of navel gazing that I have just done. I didn’t write this as an excuse, or even as a reason why I have been having the troubles that I have had recently. I wrote this as an inspiration for the other creatives out there that suffer from these blocks every so often. It is a part of the process, and if we understand why they happen, we can better recognize the signs that they are coming and maybe understand the steps needed to get back on track. Maybe that will be in the form of a couple of years off from your art while you tour the countryside on a bicycle…or maybe that is just me. Whatever your diversion, understand that it will likely be a short term thing and you will be back to your craft at some point. Creative energy is like any other type of energy. It needs to be recharged from time to time. I’ve found that the best way to do that is to photograph something different or in a different way. That will get the juices flowing, and had I done that earlier I think I would have avoided much of the downtime that I experienced this month.
Thank you for joining me for this installment of Behind the Camera and remember if there is something that you might want to hear more about feel free to drop me a suggestion. I’m always looking for topics to discuss here.