After last week’s post on Daniel Boorstin, I’m hesitant to put up yet another short post with a link to someone else’s stuff. With that said, A: I don’t plan to make a habit of this, and B: I haven’t been able to get this video out of my mind since watching it last week. I hadn’t heard of Sir Ken Robinson before seeing this talk he gave at TED, and in case you hadn’t either, I’d like to remedy that, since what he has to say — about education, creativity, and where those things intersect (or, sadly, fail to) — is witty, heartfelt, and vital. Share this with a friend, an educator, and/or anyone who doesn’t quite understand why the arts and creativity matter, in or out of education.
MTV and Photography
I get to thinking about MTV every so often, and then I try to stop because it makes me sad. I’m old enough to remember when the channel first went on the air in the early 1980’s, and the absolute mess they made of the television dial in those early days. Production values were rough around the edges even for the time, the programming was an eclectic mess (you were as likely to see the Charlie Daniels Band or King Crimson as Modern English), and everything about the channel gave the impression of something being made up as everyone went along.
Over time, things changed. While I miss those freewheeling early days, I realize looking back that the creeping change from a DIY ethic to the slick, corporate, non-music playing behemoth that the channel has become was probably inevitable, mirroring the death of free form radio at around the same time. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the whole debacle that MTV has become, and it’s one that artists of nearly any stripe can learn from.
To quote a song that was big in ’83 or thereabouts, “Money changes everything.” It doesn’t have to, of course, but it tends to do just that. If you stop to think about the early look (and, for that matter, the early playlist) of MTV, you start to realize that it was cobbled together from whatever was available and affordable at the time. A mix, in other words, of improvisation and desperation. As the money started to roll in — reflected both in the channel’s slicker production values, and also by the attention (not to mention cash) paid by bands and record industry types — much of that improvisational spirit started to wane. Innovation, such as there was, fell by the wayside, to be replaced by programming that had the look and sound of that one person at every party who talks and laughs just a little too loud to let you know they’re edgy, or having so much fun.
What’s that mean to the rest of us?
When we start out in our craft, most of us (there are, of course, always exceptions) are broke, relatively speaking. We can’t afford all the best stuff. We don’t have the same tools, or knowledge, or sense of history, that the heavy hitters in our little niche have. Some people piss and moan and flame out, but others look at what they’ve got and decide that one way or another, they’re making this thing work. They improvise. They break rules they don’t even know they’re breaking, then invent new ones on the way to learning the old ones.
I don’t subscribe to the O’Jays school of thought on money… it’s not the root of all evil. At the end of the day, it’s a means to an end; in other words, like anything else in your kit, it’s a tool, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on how you use it, or misuse it. Some of this gets back to the idea that if we just had a bit more (x many more lenses, x many more dollars), it’d all be better. We’d be better. We’d have more tools, more time at our disposal, and we could finally get around to that project we’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s street photography in Melbourne or photographing polar bears on the ice floes.
The thing is, just the same as the gear doesn’t make us better photographers, the money doesn’t either. Your net worth and your artistic or human worth are not one and the same. I’m not suggesting that we should all subscribe to the myth of the “Starving Artist,” since artists who consciously decide to suffer for their art for the sake of some kind of misguided “purity” generally want us to suffer right along with them. But we ought not to mistake the means for the end, or think that there’s a single magic bullet that’s going to get us where we want to be.
You have resources now. Use them. Use the gear you’ve got, granted, but also don’t forget to use the time you’ve got in the best way you can. Don’t wait for a set of conditions to be met in order to do what you want. Wing it. Can’t get the polar bears in their natural habitat? Head for the zoo (just don’t pass those photos off as something they’re not). Can’t make it to Melbourne or Mumbai? Unless you’re living in a ghost town, there’s things going on and people living their lives just steps from your door. Improvise! And later on (or right now, if that’s where you are as you read this) when you have the resources to burn on anything you’d like, and can shoot whenever and however you’d like, remember where you came from. Revisit it from time to time.
Don’t let what you’re doing now — the creativity you’re bringing to bear on your craft, whether it’s born of desire or necessity or some combination of both — be overtaken by the desire to shoot, or to be, something else. Shoot as though you have nothing but this camera, this shot, this now to get it right (or interestingly wrong). Shoot as though nothing but the photo matters. And, perhaps most important, shoot each time as though the only payoff you’re going to get is the love of the process.
Beating the Block: Taming the Muse
As I alluded to in yesterday’s post, muses are fickle creatures, coming and going more or less on their own schedule. If you wait around for inspiration to strike, you could end up waiting a very long time, which is bad enough. What can be just as difficult is when your muse just won’t shut up. I know that for a creative type, that sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s not always. So how do we deal with these cycles of feast and famine?
As I’d also mentioned yesterday, one way of getting around the famine that is a creative block is by simply, stubbornly, plowing through it. That works surprisingly well some of the time. At other times, however, you’ll need or want a bit more structure than you’d get by just “winging it.” When that happens, it helps to have a little something saved up, as it were.
I say this because in my own experience (your mileage may vary), ideas don’t often come one at a time. They come in clusters, or clumps, and sometimes they take on a life of their own, with some ideas spawning other ideas that lead to still more ideas… Before you know it, there are actually too many ideas, too much stuff for one person to do in a day, or week, or even year. Even when we’re working at full capacity, other things (work, food, water, sleep, social activity) have to be taken into account sooner or later.
And if you have a good idea, or even just one that’s got potential, why let it go to waste? If you can’t get to it now, save it for later:
- Write it all down. If you do nothing else on this list, at least do this. If you’ve got just the bare bones of something — a title, an overarching concept — get that on paper, but if your mind takes you farther than that, follow it, and jot those thoughts down as well. You may not need these ideas now, but if you hit a dry spell later, this can be one of the things that gets you out of it.
- Prioritize the list. Your ideas, mine, or anyone else’s, aren’t all good, and even the good ones aren’t equally good. It will be easy to picture some things as completed projects or fully realized ideas, while others may be only half-baked or might only be the vaguest starting point. Depending on what you need, or what you’ve got the time for, go to that part of the list.
- Revisit your list from time to time. Some things that seem blindingly obvious to you when you first think of them may not hold up quite as well given a month on the shelf. Others may have barely made sense when you wrote them down (you did write them down, didn’t you?) but might make more sense now that your subconscious has had the chance to mull them over for a bit.
And by the way, if you have ideas that have nothing to do with what you’re doing now, write them down anyway. The reason I bring this up (and actually, the genesis of this post) is that over a period of about a week some time ago, I got ideas by the dozen for several different visual projects. This was before I’d ever picked up a camera, but I wrote every last one of them down. Hey, you never know when you might change directions or want to try something new; you also never know when you might come across a collaborator (or a friend who’s blocked), and you might find that you’ve already got the seeds of something, just waiting to be planted.
Do you have any proven “cures” for the dreaded block? Let’s hear ’em!
The Lightning Rod Theory of Photographic Inspiration
Wow, that’s a mouthful. Let me explain:
You hear creative types talk about inspiration all the time. Sometimes, it’s because the muse is talking, the inspiration’s flowing, and it seems as though, artistically speaking, you’re a fount of useful and interesting ideas. Other times, of course, it’s because of the dreaded “block.” You and the muse aren’t on speaking terms, and as far as ideas go, someone might as well have shut off the spigot, because what was once a torrent of stuff now seems to have slowed to a miserly drip.
And think about how we talk about inspiration. It’s the “lightbulb moment,” a “bolt from the blue,” or the “shock” of recognition when it all comes together. Very charged language (pun partly intended) for a feeling that, when it comes, can definitely be electric.
Let’s take that electrical metaphor a step further. If we’re waiting for that lightning bolt, like Ben Franklin flying his kite in the middle of a thunderstorm, it helps to remember that lightning — both the high-voltage, knock-your-shoes-and-socks-off variety, and the inspirational kind — tends to strike the tallest thing it can find.
Of course, unless you’re fixing to be electrocuted when a thunderstorm comes, you’re likely going to get your ass indoors, or find some cover. It only makes sense. But what works when it’s raining is counterproductive if you’re looking to get inspired; laying low, not getting out there and even taking the small risks, means the odds of a good flash of inspiration are pretty dramatically decreased.
A couple of days ago, I advised you to always have your camera with you. One reason, as I stated in that piece, is that you’re simply not going to get pictures if you don’t have your camera with you to make them. There’s another, more elemental, reason as well. Photography, I’ve found, can be a lot like exercise. The longer you don’t exercise, the harder it gets to exercise. If your only exertion is vacuuming the crumbs out of your bellybutton, it’s going to get difficult after a while to drag yourself off the couch, to say nothing of running a marathon. If, on the other hand, you’re active every day, it becomes much easier to stay that way.
Similarly (yes, there was a point to that bit), if you let your camera gather dust for days, weeks, or months on end, it becomes a lot more difficult with the passage of time to get out there and get photos that don’t look like they were a chore to make. You don’t need to have an angel on your shoulder to take good photos, but if you feel dull and uninspired, don’t be surprised if your photos reflect that. If you make photography a habit, you can make inspiration a habit as well.
Here’s what it all comes down to: photographing every day (or, if you came here by accident, doing whatever else it is you do, whether it’s writing, cooking, or interpretive dance) makes it stand taller in your consciousness, and gives those lightning flashes of inspiration something to strike. The longer you do this, don’t be surprised if those lightbulb moments become much more regular, and much less unpredictable.
The Mindful Photographer
I really dislike the term “point and shoot.” At some point, it isn’t just a description of a camera; it becomes instead a description of a mindset and way of seeing that sucks the life out of your photos. To be sure, snapshots aren’t somehow evil. They have their place (more on that another time). But if you want to move beyond the crap shoot that is snapshot photography, it’s going to take an adjustment not only in technique, but also, more importantly, in your approach to photography. In short, you need to rethink the how and why of making pictures.
There’s a difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo because there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and it goes deeper than simple semantics. If our eyes are in reasonable working order, we look at things all day every day. We can’t help it. The world is a visually saturated place, whether you’re standing in the middle of Times Square or stuck behind a desk working on spreadsheets. We’re continually bombarded by visual stimuli, and we can’t possibly pause to take in every last millimeter of what fills our field of view. If we tried, we’d have no time for any of the rest of what life has to offer. So we scan briefly, and if something sufficiently bright, shiny, or colorful wanders into our field of vision, we might give it a few extra seconds’ half-assed attention.
Often as not, we take photos the same way. Bunch of visible stuff? Check. Camera? Check. Point. Shoot. Done. Then we wonder, when we didn’t stop to consider the dimensionality of our subject, why its photograph is flat and lifeless. Whether we’re seeing with our naked eye or through a viewfinder, think for a second about all we’re missing.
Seeing is active, a process rather than a result. It’s a conscious choice, a slowing down and a decision to focus. It’s taking the time to study something, to engage it with your head or your heart. Too often, we let stimuli of all sorts flow over us like water through a coffee filter, rather than being present in the moment and asking what that moment requires of us.
At first blush, this probably sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical babble. It’s not. Don’t just point and shoot. Be still for a minute. Take a good, long look at what’s in front of you. What does it say to you? If something in your field of vision hasn’t grabbed you, will it really make a good photograph?
I use the term “making” a photo (versus “taking” it) on purpose. You can “take” anything, whether it’s a picture or a package of cookies, without giving much thought to it. But to “make” something signals intent, effort, and mindfulness. You can taste the difference between cookies you’ve taken and the ones you’ve made; your photos are no different. Sure, if you take that extra second, you’ll miss the occasional shot. Just like anything else you’re not in the habit of doing, it feels a bit awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.
Further reading: Darcy Norman’s “On Photography as Mindful Seeing”