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Not that long ago I wrote a blog post where I discussed the “return of the muse” as it related to my own making and crafting of an image. For many of us who ply away at this craft we call photography, and especially if we have done so for a long time, the Muse can and does leave us at times. When I was much younger this loss of creative force was a hand-wringing affair and I was certain each time it happened my creativity would never return. To be honest if it had not returned it would not have been the total end of the world. Life does go on and cares not for such impetuous thoughts.
Though not the end of the world it is nonetheless a struggle if you are bent towards being creative. Breaking free from such windless doldrums is actually easy for me now, (more on that below). Not so much when I was younger. It was easy to claim that it was all the cameras fault, or the lens, or even the location. Change any, or all of those things, and I was going to kick that old muse right in the mouth. The fact is none of the “stuff” of photography, or even any art that one practices, is going to make you a better artist. Intent, though, well that is different. When you SEE something in a scene - when a scene catches your eye - what does that scene evoke in you? What are the emotions that arise? What are you going to do with it? What is your intent, your vision for what lies before you and within the frame?
When I see something in a scene that interests me, I am reacting to a stimulus - a particular quality of light (which informs much of my work), or perhaps an interesting composition, tones or colors, or forms, shapes, and lines. Raising the camera to such a stimulus is often my typical knee jerk response. And this is exactly what occurs when I fail to take the time to explore the possibilities between stimulus and response. No questions. No exploration. Just reaction. I might make a few images but I fail to go deeper. Such a response is not the path of an artist.
When I was in art school many years ago I would not begin a painting until I had created a series of sketches ostensibly to explore the forms, the ideas, the palette of colors. Only once I had established a direction and vision of the idea would I begin to commit to a canvas. It was no different a process for me in architecture school, where iteration after iteration of design was explored before finally, and often at the last moment, all the parts came together into a final building plan. And what about writing? No author I know churns out a complete book in one sitting without the benefit of drafts, rewrites, and editing. The profound process of exploration, sketching, writing, rewriting, testing, trial and error, is THE space - where vision and intent - is discovered, lying in the void between the stimulus and the response.
Everyone who ever taught me, or mentored me, and who I cared about as teachers always pushed my boundaries. I did not know it at the time but they were simply encouraging me to step into the void and get uncomfortable. One of my print-making professors actually told me to tear up an entire set of screen prints after declaring them cheesy and pedestrian. In fact they were. An architecture professor would stop by my desk daily, look at the work from the night before, and simply ask “what’s the big idea?” Most of the time I really didn’t know. And another still would listen to my less than adequate justifications for a design, while simultaneously and silently making little sketches or rearranging the elements in my architectural models. He rarely said anything, something I found frustrating as hell, until I discovered how my voice was ultimately influenced and transformed into my own by his drawings and scribbles on top of my sketches. In their own ways each of them was pressing me to think, to not settle on the first idea, to experiment, and more importantly, to find meaning in what I was doing. Meaning, vision, and intent all mean the same thing to me now. Back then though, through the lens of youth, I never really considered them.
When the muse leaves me it is often from my own complacency. Why would a self-respecting muse want to hang out with such an attitude. I wouldn’t, that is for sure. When I become complacent I bypass the process and head straight for the response assured that the scene I am shooting was intentional, told the story, and can carry the day. I stop asking the questions that can take me deeper. When I do this I am really missing out on the joy of being in the space; of basking in the light and watching it unfold over time; exploring the organizational options in the compositions; to ask myself what it is about this scene that made me stop. In order to find that you have to step into that zone between stimulus and response. When I am complacent I most assuredly never get it right.
Intention and vision are the drivers to exploration. Without them you are merely going through the motions. Discovery of the possibilities can only come from the process of making images. Not one image, but images, plural. Sure, you might just get lucky with one image. But creating many images makes you step into the space to consider not only what drew you to the scene in the first place but also how to compose it, simplify it, make the choices that add meaning, vision, and intention. That is what the Muse loves. When the Muse leaves me it is because I have left the Muse. I carry the camera forgetting all the joy that comes with discovering the world through the viewfinder.
So, when I become complacent about the work, what do I do? Actually, nothing. I used to fight it, force it, often with mixed results. Now I just sit with it and take a break. I read more, write perhaps, or just walk and look at the light. The Muse cannot be brought back by new gear, changes in locations, software, or fancy presets. The Muse knows better than to be bought off by such things. Nor will it come from the over stimulation brought by social media. I am the only one that can bring it back. I am the only one that can make the choice to return to the space where light, composition, exploration, form, and joy are engaged in making art. The Muse wants me in that space.
When the Muse leaves you, and it will, don’t fight it. Don’t sell off your camera gear or buy new lenses. Don’t make radical changes. Sit with it and when you are ready take small steps to bring intention and vision back into your process. Shoot with one lens, shoot only in black and white, make digital sketches and work to simplify your compositions, study light, create a project centered around a unifying theme, work with a mentor, engage with other photographers, study the work of those that inspire you, switch genres, stop thinking that you have to “craft a diamond” every time you are out shooting, and the list can go on and on. Use your power of choice to ask questions that can take you deeper into the frame lines of the image. What ever your strategy just remember that the joy in making images is the goal. The more you practice this craft, the more you will grow as a photographer and an artist, and the more your visual vocabulary will expand. Enjoy the process.
Thanks for stopping by today! RHC
A Note on the images. The three images in this post are part of a series where I limited myself to just one lens for a month and were part of a project where I returned to the same locations multiple times and in different light and conditions. The stimulus was informed by the light and the response was to simplify the compositions to express that sense of light. I was looking to photograph these scenes in ways I had not before.
All images shot with a FujiFilm GFX 50S and a Fujinon GF 23mm f4 R WR.