Sunday, May 04, 2008

Finding New Things in Old

I am always amused when I hear young photographers lament about there not being anything interesting left over to take pictures of (after they have spent all of a few hours somewhere taking pictures). The lament only deepens and becomes more poignant after a particular place has been visited a number of times (days, weeks); and reaches a fever pitch after visiting the "same old place" for months (or - goodness - years!). To be sure, even experienced professional photographers go through inevitable dry spells, during which they find their wellspring of inspiration at a low ebb, and nothing seems aesthetically inviting or interesting (especially - so the argument goes - a place that the artist knows extremely well).

But there are really two issues at play here: (1) the feeling that one's inner muse has temporarily put up an "out to lunch" sign and does not wish to be disturbed, and (2) that the worst place to find the muse quietly "munching on its lunch" (and in a receptive mood) is somewhere where the photographer has already "been" with his or her muse. An artist’s chagrin during such lows is certainly understandable, and (speaking as a photographer who has had his fair share of "searching" for his "lost" muse) immediate family members are usually the ones who suffer most since they must bear the brunt of the artist's unhappy "low tide" mood (never a pleasant experience for anyone involved! ;-) But it is still sad for me to see young photographers, who genuinely aspire to find and develop their artistic vision, continually lament the apparently dull visual landscape that they've convinced themselves is all their "day jobs" permit them to be surrounded by and in which to find their "vision." I suspect that the real problem is not the place - per se - but what needs to be done to reconnect to the place (the "connection" being what may otherwise, and more poetically, be called one's "muse").

"Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen." - Minor White

“How many times can I go to that same park?” one might ask; or, “I’ve shot a dozen rolls of film in that garden, and I’m bored; all the flowers are beginning to look alike!” While there is no magic elixir to remedy such moments of temporary angst—which all artists, from aspiring to established, are destined to experience countless numbers of times in their careers—I can offer two useful pieces of advice: (1) the angst is temporary, and requires nothing more than simple patience for its effects to wear off, and (2) to accelerate its disappearance, remind yourself that any place in nature, no matter how small or transient or seemingly devoid of any interesting features, can be perceived in an infinite number of ways, in an infinite number of contexts, and yield to an infinity of interpretations.

Case in point...not far from where my family and I live in Northern Virginia is Great Falls state park; indeed, I have written about it several times (Rocks, Leaves & Water and Staccato Flow Abstracts). Because parks and kids go rather well together, and my wife and I have two, we visit this park often all year round.

It is no exaggeration to say that both my wife and I are familiar enough with this park’s many paths and walkways to be able to navigate it in the dark. As such, one may be forgiven for believing that my intimate familiarity with the sights of this park robs me of my photographic muse.

But - perhaps paradoxically - not only does my familiarity not diminish my desire for picture taking, it — if anything — amplifies my ability to tune out distractions and focus entirely on what intuitively catches my inner eye. Familiarity, in other words, somehow (for me) breeds detachment. A detachment (i.e., an "objectivity") that, in turn - and involving yet another seeming paradox - enhances my subjective artistic/aesthetic sense. Despite frequenting this park dozens and dozens of times over the years, I have never failed to see something entirely new, or failed to reinterpret—contextually and photographically—something that I may have seen and photographed many times before.

Perhaps the most visible benefit of my frequent visitation of Great Falls (at least, from the point of view of the consumers of my photography, namely my family;-) that sometimes (but just sometimes;-), I manage to leave the park with images that actually look like something that was photographed in the park (rather than my usual "abstractivization" that robs photographs of all possible clues as to where they were taken; see previous blog entry).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words about Bodhi. It means a lot.

I LOVE Great Falls park and enjoy very much your graceful visions there. It's a way to be there without being there for me, and in such a wonderful place I can't imagine being bored or uninspired about its offerings! Well said.

Diane said...

Thanks for this post. Being a beginner myself, it's very comforting to know that experienced photographers suffer "temporary angst" or lulls in creative inspiration. Thanks for the advice and it's been great seeing another new post!

Anonymous said...

This is really cool!

Gary Nylander said...

Andrew, your post hits the spot right on. I know because I have often found myself visiting familar spots to photograph not far from my home, and I have made some of my most creative images there, these places is like visiting an old friend, there always seem to be something new that comes from the vist.

Anonymous said...


I think we've all suffered 'dry spells' over the years... but among the photo books I have on cameras, lenses, techniques, etc. are two titled, 'Photography and the Art of Seeing' and 'More Photography and the Art of Seeing' by Freeman Patterson. Those books taught me how to see things in a very different way and gave me a new perspective on how to see through my camera.

For a different way of looking at the issue (pun intended), consider that Tom Brown of Tom Brown's Tracking, Nature Awareness and Wilderness Survival School says that most people don't see 99% of what goes on around them. So how much more IS there out there that isn't noticed?


Kali said...

Congratulations for your great blog, I read some of your posts and your thoughts help me a lot to clear my own mind. I'm also having that kind of times a lot, but things got better when I'm again on certain mood, wherever I could be taking pictures.

Thanks for sharing your view on art, and greetings from Spain!

Juan Riera said...

Hola Andrew,
I have read just about you in last LensWork edition, just my first nunber of that magazine. Great work. I like so much the Energy, Flow and Mystery photos, and others too of course. Your thoughts about photography and inner experiences are very near of my own experience. I will try to keep in touch :)
Take care!

Lilly said...

Hi Andrew,

My wife is the photographer in our family. This post reminds me so much of her. Not because she has difficulty finding something to shoot, but because she can spend hours in one 20 foot square location taking image after image and go back the next day and do the same thing over again.

I love going out on shoots with her and watching the excitement as she discovers something new; a lady bug on a leaf, a pile of twigs or bark peeling from the trunk of a tree.

We go to the San Diego Wild Animal park. We could spend all day there and only see a small section. But I have no complaints. The park will always be there. There is no need to see it all every time we go.

There is "always" something new to see and experience. You just have to let the new things find you.