‘Inspiration’ is a word that comes up a lot on photography forums and blogs. It’s important; after all, we all want to be inspired. We sometimes ache for new ideas to leap into our heads after creative ideas have run dry, but the mechanism often remains mysterious. As we get older and go through a wider range of personal and circumstantial changes, we get to see how we respond (in terms of our creative productivity) to those changes. I’m going to run through some of my own experiences and thoughts, some of which may apply to you.
Stress Kills Creativity
I have not yet found a situation where a deep, gnawing stress has catalysed creativity. Instead, I find that my inspiration dries up instantly as mind becomes consumed with solving the problem (a related article ‘Inspiration: A Fickle Mistress‘ may also be of interest). I’m a fairly obsessive thinker, which can really help me to be creative, but only if there aren’t more fundamental matters requiring attention on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs!
Change Cuts Both Ways
Changes in circumstances can be really helpful if they expose me to new environments, but only if I am free enough from stress to be able to indulge in the luxury of free, unencumbered thinking. I also need available time, which change often denies us until the situation settles down.
Time Isn’t A Luxury
It’s essential. While there are eureka moments in everyone’s creative process, the truth is that we need to give time to inspiration. At the age of about 28, when I did a particular job in the military, I used to say that I hadn’t done a solid, productive days work until I had spent an hour in my office with the door closed and my feet on the desk, looking out of the window. That particular role required constant out of the box thinking and was characterised by a need for continuous forward momentum. What made the job interesting and slightly terrifying in equal measure was that it had no defined path. There was no accepted wisdom, methodology, set of techniques, or culture. The difficulty was that there were always tasks to be completed and if I allowed myself to be consumed by them, I would do nothing but those tasks. When I left, I’d been able to implement quite dramatic changes that transformed the department. The lesson I took away was the realisation that none of that change would have happened had I not closed my door regularly and sat in my office apparently doing nothing. Maybe I’m bad at multi-tasking, or perhaps it is much easier to achieve real leaps in thinking when all of our neurons can play together!
The Immediate Environment
When at home, I need a suitable personal environment to be able to think creatively. I think this is because creativity, feelings and inspiration are all connected and how we feel about the space we are occupying affects the freedom of our minds to feel creatively. Since our school days, I am sure most of us came to recognise those spaces that helped us to work and those that made it impossible. It could be noise, light levels, the furniture, or even the smell that makes a place good or bad as a place to work (and yes, I used the word ‘work’ deliberately). If you don’t have a suitable space, perhaps consider making one? I’ve been busy renovating my home and the clutter, brick dust and stacked boxes really affected me. However, now that I have largely finished my new office, I have a space I feel comfortable in once again. Were I not a self-employed photographer, I would probably be looking for a ‘pondering space’ elsewhere. It could be an armchair in the corner of a room with a side table and lamp. It could be anything, as long as that spot allows you to disappear into your thoughts.
Activity & Thought Combined
Not all activities demand brain time. Most of us become aware of the activities that close down our brain’s free thinking and those that allow it to continue. I find that jogging leaves my brain well alone, but cooking doesn’t, for example. I can only speak for myself, but I often develop seeds of inspiration whilst jogging. The other activity that often doesn’t need to require brain time is photography. New ideas, developing concepts, working out how I am going to do something…. they all place demands on my mind, but walking around with a camera in hand does the very opposite. It is this that I was most interested in writing about.
As some of you will know, I haven’t been back in the UK for very long and I have had neither the time, nor the environment to move forwards with personal work. However, what I have done is occasionally wandered about with a camera without a clue what I was doing. I began a project called Welsh Slate, when I was living at my previous home and I will return to that – I know what I’m doing there. I have ideas for very specific projects I am considering now that I am in Liverpool, but they’re for the future. However, I have had little bursts of activity that are unrelated to projects I’ve been shooting, or projects I intend to shoot. In these cases, I have simply been reacting to my environment as I found it. Often, I have found myself struggling to work through a photo some part of me is intrigued with, but without knowing why. I’m going to show you two bodies of work, which exemplify this. Portfolio 1 is a selection of barely edited images from about 100 compositions I made during snowfall in Eccleston near Chester a few weeks ago. I don’t live in Chester any more, but the weather forecast said no snow here and a few inches of snow there, so I got in the car and spent a morning there. I just took photos. They aren’t a project and won’t be a project, but what they have done is acted as a visual whetstone that is driving my creative thoughts. My own images are serving as inspiration for better, more fully realised images.
As we all do, I find my changing my response to images over time very useful. Some of the images I’m showing appeal to me now, whereas others leave me lukewarm at best. With these series (if I can call them that), each image can have a different reason for being: one image may be more a record than anything else, another may be a safe ‘obvious shot’ that nonetheless pleases, while another may be a little more experimental. It may not quite work and leave me feeling a little frustrated, while at the same time pointing towards what may lie beyond, if I allow those feelings to flow and keep working at it. Across those 20+ images are quite a few thoughts/ideas/ticks that need a lot more grinding before I even think about taking them forwards properly. The images may seem to be related (same location at the same time), but the inspiration that’s forming has quite separate branches. I loved being out there beside the river, but I also worked very hard for a few hours despite not knowing why at any level of complexity beyond ‘I wanted to’. Better understanding what you’re working through can be done later and, as always, the real jumps in image making happen between sessions. For me, they happen when I have time to absorb what I’ve been shooting and what I excited and repels me. This last part is important. Sometimes just going out and photographing reminds you of what you don’t want to do or be as a photographer. We fall into traps made by our own weak or lazy inclinations and I feel a little shudder whenever I make such a realisation.
Almost all of the images in Portfolio 2 were shot in November 2016 within a few hours of each other. The location is in the exact same area as Portfolio 1. I had all but forgotten about these images until yesterday, when I was scanning my Lightroom library and they really got me thinking. I have started the selection with a couple of very conventional images that were perhaps a predictable consequence of being in a beautiful place and having a camera. I’m not knocking such images at all. I’m saying that I don’t personally feel they give me anywhere to go. There are a few images in this series that I feel very strongly about and which may have a place in future permanent portfolios, but I just need to see how things develop. I also have a small number of photographs that hugely excite me, but I don’t have enough related work to make sense of sharing them.
I often feel that I’m wasting my time darting out and making a few dozen images. Without a place (project/portfolio) or purpose (what am I exploring?), why bother? Sometimes the question is ‘what do I do with them?’, but the answer is quite simple: live with them and learn from them. The clearest lesson of all is that inspiration ‘received’ is proportional to the effort put in. That effort can come in many different forms. It can involve controlling and organising your environment so that you feel mentally at ease, closing the door so that there are no mental intrusions, or making conscious decisions to allocate time. However, none of this is much good unless you get out there and make photographs.
I shot the photograph at the top of this article because it resonated very strongly while I was walking along the River Dee in 2016. I had a very clear idea for a project that seemed almost impossible to convey visually, but which accompanied me almost everywhere. It was with me at the time of the photo and the two felt very well connected. I still don’t know if the project will work, but looking at the image brings the idea bursting back to life and that tells me a great deal. Now that the house mess is starting to get under control, I am surrounded by a new mess. It comprises of creative threads that I need to work through and that can only be done with a camera in my hand. The rocket is firmly implanted up my backside: I need to get going! Do you?
P.S. For those interested, Images from Portfolio 1 were shot on a Fujifilm X-T2 and Portfolio 2 with the Sony A7 system.