Viewpoints

Inspiration in photography

19/11/2019
Finding the inspiration to make new images is the challenge every photographer (in fact every artist) ultimtely faces. Can inspiration be created?
"Inspiration: The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative" (Oxford English Dictionary)

'Borrowdale Beech #2'
 

Finding the inspiration to make images is the challenge every photographer (in fact every artist) ultimate faces. Oftentimes, inspiration comes to us on a plate. For example moving to a new home in a different part of the country, finding a new location that seems to have so many opportunities for images or having success with a subject that motivates the photographer to try to repeat the process. The journey of learning photographic skills usually sustains people with inspiration in their early days, each step of success encouraging movement to the next rung of the ladder.

Eventually, however, the well of inspiration seems to run dry. This can be because the cycle of learning and improvement has finally run its course. Or because the perceived originality of one's ideas has diminished, maybe saturated by too many similar images. The act of closing a previous project (whether it is a book, portfolio or series of images or a chapter of one's life) can leave one suprisingly disorientated and lacking the energy to re-engage. And other factors can impinge on the creative process - work pressures, mental or physical health or issues in one's private life can diminish motivation or limit the opportunities to practice.

I would argue, to borrow an aphorism made famous many years ago by the French philospher Voltaire, that if inspiration doesn't exist it has to be invented.

Inevitably, considering personal motivation strays into a minefield consisting of all kinds of complexities of psychology, past experiences, personalitiy traits and life context, there is no universal panacea or magic wand to be waved that can 'fix' every situation. It is a personal journey that is difficult to share with others and impossible to dictate to others.

However there are some strategies that I or others have tried that might help one navigate the mindfield of personal motivation to make photography.

1. Relationship to a subject is built on personal knowledge, experience and interaction.

I learned this concept years ago from the work and teachings of John Blakmore. If you accept the notion that one starting point for making art is to start with a very clear notion of a subject, then finding that subject, thinking about and learning about the subject and inventing different ways to visualise the subject in photographs is where one needs to invest time.

Whilst the process of building a relationship with a subject does happen in the 'field' (i.e. out with the camera interacting with the subject), I would argue it needs to continue when one is not in the field or carrying a camera as well. By expanding one's knowledge of the subject it can stimulate new ideas, new ways of seeing the subject and thus trigger new images. For example, when the subject is a place, this can involve looking at maps or other pictures of the place for sources of inspiration. Understanding a place's history or current issues can also reveal more about the subject and stimulate new ideas.

The subject I am referring to of course can be representational (e.g. a person, place, a particular tree etc.) or be more abstract like a shape, a pattern or an emotion.

One's attitude to a particular subject changes and develops over time. For example, I once considered pine trees in Scotland not a subject worthy of photography. And I think I said so, knowing me, probably at length! At best I considered it a boring uniform element in a composition that needed to be avoided or to be integrated with other more interesting elements. At worst an area of the landscape to be completely avoided or if I was forced to be there to mentally go on strike. Crazy and irrational in retrospect and showing nothing but lack of understanding of the Scottish landscape. But we do this to ourselves all the time. The more I saw of pine trees in context in the Scottish landscape, the more diversity and quality I saw in the pine trees and the more I learned about them then the more interested and attracted in the subject I became. I then made one or two images of young pine trees that really inspired me and I was away - to the point that I am now actively working on a pine tree sequence of images.

If increasing knowledge is an important approach to stimulate inspiration then visiting or walking in new places, talking to other people about what inspires them or looking with an open mind at other people's art work are all potential remedies. If one sets one's mind to it, many other solutions are also available.

In short attraction to a subject can be stimulated by aquiring or reflecting on knowledge and understanding. Attraction creates a motivation and ultimately an inspiration to photograph.

2. Think in terms of themes and sequences and fill in the gaps in sequences and portfolios

A theme is an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art, literature or music. In photography terms it is an idea for seeing a subject in a particular way that can be repeated with other or similar subjects.

Learning to recognise themes in your own work or in the work of others, apply them to different contexts and to incrementally improve or adjust a theme to create something new is one secret to generating new sources of inspiration. One exercise that might be worth doing is to organise and group one's images into potential ideas and themes. This can be revealing and stimulate new ideas for future pictures.
'Borrowdale Larch'

The concept of photographing and presenting multiple images as finished portfolios or series rather than individual images is obviously important and not just because of the mathematical laws of numbers. By analysing one's work so far and by trying to visualise the final collection of images, one identifies gaps that need to be closed. For example if 'place' is the subject, can one's portfolio be complete if a diverse range of other aspects are not considered? e.g. details of some of the subjects in the landscape, the work and life of people who live there, how the landscape is changing, what social, economic or environmental issues exist etc. One may rationalise not to include some of these elements in the portfolio but by at least thinking about their possibility, it triggers new ideas.

A few years ago I attended a workshop led by Paul Wakefield, one of the greatest UK landscape photographers of the last 50 years. Amongst the things I learned was watching him construct sequences of images whenever a portfolio of images was shown to him. He instinctively ordered images in such a way that there was a natural flow from image to image. Each image was connected by colour or tonal balance, subject or content, compositional shape or image shape. This is a game one can play with one's own images. The idea is to get from image A to image B via a series of intermediate images, with each transition feeling natural and authentic. Even more challenging is to try to do this with a set number of images such as 6, 12 or 15. The point of this anecdote is that it is not only by visualising the final portfolio content that one can create ideas to fill gaps. By considering the sequence, one can recognise the need to make a particular kind of image with a particular subject, colour balance, compositional structure or image shape.

The process I find that works best once I recognise a new theme or a successful adaption of a theme in one of my recent images is to immediately try to repeat it. If I can get it to two sucessful images, it can probably get to 3 and then 6 and then 12-15 images.

3. Work to an assignment or invent a preconceived challenge, objective or constraint

As I worked more and more with portfolios of images, I began to realise that paradoxically I was at my most creative, productive and motivated when I was at the 'filling in gaps' stage of my work. At this stage, one is kind of working to order. A particular image is needed in terms of subject, colour, style, composition or image shape. By focusing down the parameters of what is needed, one becomes creative in finding the solution needed based on the limited resources availble. It motivates you to place yourself in the right place, in front of the right subject at the right time for your intended objective.

The point is that this state of mind can be created at any time, not just when filling in gaps in a portfolio. I heard an interview with Peter Gabriel once where he talked about the 'rules' he set for himself when creating his famous string of albums in the 70s and 80s. By putting constraints on his composition (e.g. no cymbols) he limited the arc of possibilites and it ultimately helped him to create new solutions.

I have had some success in the past when I worked out in advance a specific objective for an kind of image I might make - for example 'make something combining leaves and water'. Or tackle a known subject using a particuar image style or theme. It doesn't always work but it sometimes can.
'High Stile Ridge from the Gables'

Another idea to try is to develop the idea of restricted choice by going in to the landscape using only 1 fixed focal lens for a time. This forces you to see the world through a single window. For years I have gone into the landscape with just 3 or 4 focal lengths. In 35mm camera terms something around 28mm, 50mm, 80mm and then optionally something longer ~100-120mm. The application of this notion of restricted choice paradoxically increases my creativity, vision and therefore my productivity. If you carry a zoom lens try restricting yourself to 2-3 focal lengths.

Most people coming to serious photography in the last 10-15 years have got there through a very different path to many of the full time photographers of the previous generation. Me included. In short they haven't been to art school. I realised this last year when I photographed my father's art. When he retired early in his 50s he attended his local art college to undertake first an A' level in art and then to start a degree course. I photographed his paintings, drawings and sketches before his college years, during his college years and afterwards. The diversity and richness of his output during the college years was simply astounding. I simply had no idea. Why was this? He was working directed. He was set assignments and projects in a variety of different mediums. He had mentors to help him. He had fellow students to talk to. He learned about how other artists worked and what they produced.

The closest thing for my generation (for whom photography is a hobby) has been workshops. With the right people leading the workshops, they can be an important part of one's education. But are they as effective as an arts school education? With a business model that requires the experience to be a holiday rather than an education, I seriously doubt it.

Given that attending arts school is probably not a practical option for most people in work, what is it possible to do instead? Can one find a suitable mentor or teacher? Can one undertake a self imposed assignment if inspiration is running thin? Can one self educate in how other photographers or artists working in a variety of different mediums produced their art (and why)?

4. Compartmentalise making personal art from the rest of one's life

Personally I have had very little success making art whilst I am travelling, working or spending time with my family. Even when I am on longer, recreational walks in the country.

I have always needed to create the space and time to concentrate fully on art making. I set aside certain times of the year to have a few days away making pictures. Sometimes I have been able to set aside a couple of hours on sunday mornings or afternoons to get out and make some images. And I find it often needs to be engineered, for example arranging to meet a friend in the lanscape in order to guarantee my motivation.
'Wasdale Head'

In this sense, photography for me needs to be a retreat from work and life not the point of work and life. The stronger the pressures at work or home, the more inspired I am to think about or practice my art at the first moment I can and the more of a release of tension the act of practicing that art becomes.

Of course the contary challenge is also one of time. Inspiration seems to also require a success feedback loop for it to be sustained. The more images one makes on a theme that seem to work and be successful, the more one becomes inspired. However if there are long gaps between the photography sessions, the likelihood of making a sufficiently strong images declines. And the risk of losing or never attaining momentum increases. The old addage of 'get out more often and make fewer pictures' still applies.

5. Try to gain some stability of equipment and master that equipment

This notion runs counter to all our desires to use or own the latest equipment or the belief that if we just buy the latest gadget we will be able to take better pictures.

However the truth is nobody ever got to a place of sustainable inspiration just by buying a new camera or a new lens.

On the contary I have found that it is only when I used the same camera system for many years and I have become so fluent in its use that it seems to disapear in my hands that my creativity peaks. It is no longer a complex tool getting in the way of making art, it is an extension of my imagination.
'Rust Abstract'

However having said that, the experience of using other kinds of cameras can stimulate new kinds of images. For example, it wasn't until I used a medium format film camera that I learned to incorporate minimal depth of field in some of my images. Coming from a 5x4 view camera background where the objective seemed to be to get everything in focus, it was a revelation.

Learning to use other kinds of camera (including film cameras) is akin to learning a new medium like watercolour or acrylics. It is not the same as buying a new brush and expecting that to lead straight to a new masterpiece.

6. Recognise when 'flow' is happening and learn to be 'in the moment'

Another thing that has helped my photography (and I know it has helped others) is to learn and practice yoga (and other meditation techniques). As well as the obvious physical benefits, it is the mental aspects of learning how to be 'in the moment' without taking notice of current distractions, past or future worries that is most useful.

The moment by the way can be 'yin' (quiet, peaceful and 'zen' like - think a still forest with no wind and very slow chaging weather conditions) or 'yang' (active, dynamic, reactive, requiring lots of rapid decisions to be made - think photographing a landscape with rapidly changing light). I would argue that practicing yoga and meditation helps one to prepare to act instinctively in either of these situations.
'Abstract #7 Mulgrave Creation'

Linked to this idea is the notion of flow. Flow (the 'flow state') is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Self awareness and learning to recognise your own flow state and the conditions that triggered it can give you a degree of control over entering that state again in the future.

What does this mean for photography? I have often had periods of time out in the landscape when I seem to enter a flow state. A string of strong, creative images seem to appear almost effortlessly in a suprisingly short period of time. Years ago this flow state was very infrequent, maybe once a year. Now they are much more frequent. Imagine if you could enter this state more often? At will?

Mental preparation to make images is not just about thinking deeply about subjects, themes, styles and techniques and planning periods of dedicated art making. It is about preparing to be in the right mental state when you arrive on location.

7. Remember art is a process not an outcome

Overly obsessing (and getting either far too elated or far too depressed) about the pictures that come out of a photography session is missing the point that making art is a process not an outcome.

It is important to setup feedback loops from each session and to retrospect (to use an Agile Developement expression). A retrospective is a regular period of time set aside to analyse what went well, what could be improved and what will be done differently in the future. It comes immediately after the last iteration of work has finished (a sprint in agile terms) and during a regular (e.g. quarterly) review point.
'Buttermere Oak Tree #1'

Reflecting on a session, a day or a trip after it is complete is a useful skill to aqiuire. Peer review helps. I have a small number of close friends who's photographic opinion I value highly. I share most of my pictures electronically with them shortly after I have made them and again when I print them and we meet to get feedback and reaction. Usually their observations are invaluable but in fact it is also the act of sharing that stimulates my own analytical process. This is another reason why I post most of my recent images on my blog and try to capture something about how and why I made the choices I did. Seeing the images on my site helps me to reflect and maximise my learnings from those images. By the way, I have found simply posting the images on social media has a negative rather than a postive retrospective effect. Affirmation is not good retrospection.

These retrospectives need to be focused on adjustments to either my photographic process and technique or my 'projects' that are in flight. It is my process (and especially what I feed it in terms of ideas and themes) that ultimately creates the art. The work itself does not appear fully formed from thin air despite how inpsired or creative I am.

8. If all else fails, take a break and come back later.

By this I mean either a short break or a long break. For me, thinking about and making photographs in the landscape is a long term strategy to generate or recoup the energy I need to do the other things in my life like work and family. But sometimes when one is out making pictures, one's motivations and energy levels suddenly drop. This dip can occur for a few hours or it can occur for a few months or even years. Recognising when it has happened is important and I find the answer is just to take a break and do something else instead. I have plenty of other hobbies that can occupy my time if necessary.

* * *

What is the conclusion and main takeaway from all these ideas?
'Leaf detail #4'

1. Inspiration is essential to sustained quality photographic output

2. In most photographers the inspiration to make pictures will eventually wane

3. If it doesn't exist, inspiration has to be created

4. Inspiration is mostly about mental preparation for making photographs (which in my experience always trumps waiting around in the landscape for the flash of genius to happen)

5. There is no magic formula to creating inspiration - it has to be a personal journey and a path that one wants to walk.