On maintaining creative momentum, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the process

April 21, 2014  •  5 Comments


"Seaside Meditations" Seaside, Oregon. (I don't understand what that white line is doing on the right- some kind of uploading artifact that I'm figuring out on right now-)

Every once in a while I find myself struggling to keep up the pace of making new 'good work', photographs that is, and the haunting idea of "maybe there will never be another 'good picture'" crosses my mind. It's not an impossible possibility- but that would be bad, hang it all up and put the kit up for sale on Ebay kind of bad. The worst kind of bad! A very real challenge that faces my photography is that I live on an island, it's attached to the mainland by a bridge but it's still an island. The island (Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine), does happen to contain Acadia National Park, which is completely beautiful and has all kinds of different terrain and always gorgeous and varied landscapes, but I've been photographing on this island and in Acadia for the last 14 years and after a while it feels like I've made all the photographs of all the places in all the weather, from macro to 360 degree panoramas from dawn till dusk and into the night. That's not really true- there's always more places to find and more weather to influence them and more ways to photograph them, but I'm human and sometimes it can seem like there are a finite amount of possibilities. Certainly it does become more challenging to tour around the island and through the park with my gear and feel as inspired as I felt ten or five years ago while I was doing the initial discoveries. And the chances of going out to find something new and exciting are definitely not as productive feeling as it used to seem to be. So sometimes that can be a bummer. I remember "back in the day" while I was chasing sunrises thinking that if I get skunked today then the chances will be better tomorrow for getting something amazing, and if it didn't happen tomorrow then the chances would be even better the next day- somehow thats permeated into maybe sometime this month I'll find a novel photograph to make and work on that thrills me close to what I used to feel. And that's scary. 

So I've been fighting this skeleton in the closet for a while now and more and more it seems each time I go out to make new work. It's so easy in comparison to go someplace new even if it's as close as 2 hours away by car and see clearly an exciting image to make- and that's one of the great values of travel, but I don't get to do that too much. My folks live on Cape Cod though in Mass and whenever I visit them I can usually charge up with the inspiration of finding something new, and I'll often stop in Boston on the way to partake in some street photography and get some fantastic pizza in the Italian North End, but I'd like to think that it shouldn't take going so far in order to satisfy the desire to make a good image.

Therefore I've picked up a few tricks along the way that helps break up the feeling of being stuck on the hamster wheel and repeating myself like a stuttering photographer in a terminal feedback loop. I added filters (neutral density, graduated neutral density, polarizers), I went on a panorama bender for a few years, an HDR addiction for another few, now black and white with the occasional digital filter from the Nik Suite, abstracts through camera motion (kinetic photography), macro studies (not as much there so that has plenty of room for exploration), still lifes in my home studio using natural light and off camera flash. And there's really lot's more to explore so there's no reason to panic. 

Part of the problem though lies in that there have been years when it seemed like I could make as many as three or so great portfolio worthy (my portfolio that is, not Ansel's) images a week- week after week after week. So to compare the productivity of now to then seems like I'm way off the mark. But the root of that problem would seem to be the idea of competition. Competition with myself. Comparing now and then. Surely I feel like I'm a much more mature photographer than I was two or three years ago, (last year is too close to consider without imparting emotion into the images and remember when making them). So I do feel like I'm on the right track. And I try to stay somewhat removed from considering what my peers are making and comparing with them- I hang out on the social media a bit but hardly as much as I used to, there just isn't enough time! Speaking of time- it's time for a graph. This is what I'm feeling that the graph of my productivity might be represented as: the old bell curve. Nobody like a bell curve!

Quality of photographs vs time spent photographing.

Realistically the graph wouldn't bottom out on the right like this does, I just didn't really feel like creating my own graph so I apportioned one from the internets. This graph would go to show that initially as a newb photographer there is nothing but dung, but after not much time has passed you develop enough skill to make dependably satisfying imagery, then you're on fire!, then you develop your harsh critical inner voice that informs your sensibilities regarding making new work and it's all down hill from there! But my point here isn't to be pessimistic, my point is to share the conversation that I've been having with other artists over the past few weeks regarding this.

Key point number 1- focus on projects. Ken Perrin my glassblower cohort (http://www.atlanticartglass.com) and more recently my photographer friend Heather McKenney (http://hmckenney.tumblr.com) reminded me that cohesive work is buoyed through focussed projects. This is no new news to me but a helpful reminder, especially coming from people who's opinions I respect. As mature photographers we all know this lesson, we aspire to make work that compliments our previous work, we fill out our catalog of work in as succinct a way as possible. The "everything photographer" is a tough game played best by those Nat Geo guys like Joe Mcnally and Steve McCurry, but even those guys have a shtick and a style and there are very few "one-off" images or "friggers" (in glassblowing jargon). But after a while even the deepest project becomes worked, and then overworked, and then worked to death! My thing has always been about seascapes- I love landscapes but if there is no water in it I'm more than a little bummed out. And if there's a lot of water in it then I'm the most happy. But after a while worked stuff needs a rest! So this winter, which was one of the coldest and craziest that I can remember, I took to the still life studio and started messing more with photoshop compositing and stuff like that and the refreshing change that I felt making that imagery was like a very real breath of fresh air. However my portfolio doesn't have any of that kind of thing so I felt torn- like: is this what I really want to be doing? It's fun and all but does it fit? And those questions are the really complicated ones that we as artists have to occasionally consider. Can we make a drastic departure in style and not put off our fan base? Is this really the direction that I want to go in?  How will it be received, etc. See it's pretty complicated in the end. I have this idea that my reputation is all that I have, I don't have lots of money and I don't have lots of Brad Pit-ness but I do have something of a style that I've worked hard at and therefore a sense of what is good and bad and right and wrong, especially when it comes to photography. So is the artistic pursuit of photography that hopefully will get me through my whole lifetime, which will hopefully be long, and hopefully will be as interesting and fascinating to me 20 years from now as it was 2 or 3 years ago. Am I overthinking this? Do you guys ever think on this kind of thing? Has any of this made any sense? Have I just spent the last three hours lining up words vainly and should I have been trying to make pictures instead? Did the chicken really come before the egg? Does it matter that I am even alive? 

I'd appreciate your thoughts on this in the comments- 

I do know that I will be pursuing two newish seascape projects that will keep me entertained. I do plan to go back to the big cities a couple times this year to make more street, I'm looking forward to some more still life bones and photoshop projects, and who knows what next year may bring in the area of inspiration. Maybe by then I'll have taken up something freaky like skydiving and start in on freefall photography- that's the great thing about life and living, you never know what tomorrow may bring! Right?

For now, have a good one-



It's hard for a photographer to maintain his creative momentum for long, particularly when he concentrates on one place and his subject is the landscape. At least that was my experience over many years in photo. Eventually I lost interest entirely and packed it in, taking down my darkroom, selling and giving away my enlargers, and then selling most of my cameras (all formats, 35mm to 8 x 10), lenses, and filmholders. Then I took up drawing, painting, and printmaking and turned the darkroom into a studio, and gave up photo entirely for 8 years. Instead of tripods, I got easels. Instead of an enlarger, I got an etching press. . Now one of the big reasons I lost interest in photo was the change from the traditional silver, wet-darkroom, processes, to digital. It seemed that 50 years of experience came to nothing. My skill and equipment, which had been state of the art, became obsolete - real fast - and I had no interest in starting all over as a rookie in digital imaging. I just couldn't do that, and that's one of the reasons I turned back to the oldest imaging processes; I knew that pencils, charcoal, paints, printing inks, and papers would always be there. But that wasn't the only reason I changed media. A lot of it had to do with just getting bored with photo. It happens! One of the problems with photo is that you're always at the mercy of your subject. Yes, you can manipulate and play around with image, but in the end you're always stuck with a subject and what you see in your viewfinder. In drawing and painting there are no such limitations; you don't even need a real subject. You can just make it up - gundeck it- so in that sense the older media are freer and easier than photo. Plus, they require more manual skill, a lot of manual skill that can take a long time to acquire. But it's fun and a real change from photo. I recommend it. If you feel stuck, change media for a while. It's what artists do when they're stuck or don't know what else to do. Try something new, because it can change your seeing and complement your photography. But you don't have to make such a radical change. When I would lose interest in large format photo, I took up Holgas, Dianas, and pinholes. That gave me a new way of seeing and revived my interest.

You might look into Lensbaby. It's the digital equivalent of Holgas, etc., and fits right into the digital workflow. Anyway, after 8 years away, I returned to photo last year. I did it because the quality of digital imaging improved to an extent that I never would have believed possible. Now I have a beautiful little mirrorless 4/3 digital camera; Lightroom, Photomatix, and Silver Efex software; a PC with more memory and speed than I'll ever need; and an Epson 3880 printer. And I have the Lensbaby Composer Pro with a number of different optics. And all of this digital equipment takes up a very small corner of my studio and even less than 1/10 the space that my old analog photo equipment required. If you come down this way (Hope, ME), give me a shout and I'll show you what an all media studio looks like. You can look at the Lensbaby, too, and see how one old photographer/painter/printmaker changed but still kept producing images over many years.
4.Jason Philbrook(non-registered)
Your discussion of style changes and fan bases brings to mind popular musicians. Bands that started off cool and energetic got all whiney and melancholy. Or musicians that were liked for doing their own thing took up country or rap to build a bigger fan base and lost their roots. I don't photograph for an audience. Yeh, I got a bunch of people who follow my photos of flickr, but it's not why I make photos. I haven't personally met most of them and don't understand their likes/dislikes. I deal with other photographers for learning and inspiration.

The "Everything photographers" you mention aren't working for themselves. They've got art/photo editors to please and they know will stoke that business relationship to pay the bills even if it's not exactly what they wish to shoot. Sort of like if you're super hungry at a restaurant you might order something you know will satisfy and if you're only a little hungry you might go for something more adventurous.

I think you are good to keep experimenting with styles in a limited geographic area. It worked for Eliot Porter in Penobscot Bay. It worked for the Wyeth family of painters. It works for many artists. I am "on call" for work and can't venture far from the midcoast region and like my peninsulas as much as you like your island. Photography is limited only by our imagination, not so much by geography. Edward S Curtis had essentially one project that spanned many styles over the years (he did get to travel though, and I wouldn't try to emulate him). Lots of interesting characters in photo history though.

Ansel failed at a couple of styles (pictorialism and color), but I think the failed attempt in pictorialism was a good education and was the entire basis for his teachings on previsualisation which helped him in straight modern photography. If you want to try another style, try it. The suggestion of IR is good. Abstract things like IR or B&W make it less about chasing sunsets and sunrises and more about the basics, things like composition, shapes, light and dark, mood.
"Is this really the direction I want to go in?" In a nutshell, you can't know until you've gone there. It's like asking, "Will I like Paris?" If it matters, you have to go and find out for yourself. I enjoyed the winter still lives - look forward to seeing you try other stuff!
2.Eyal Oren(non-registered)
Nate -
There's a lot going on in this piece and I'm glad you put pen to paper so to speak.

I would venture to guess that part of the problem is that we just came off a brutally long, cold Winter and are now firmly in 'stick season' - that horrible no-good in between period before Spring really comes into its own and life does its reboot thing. I just went out today after what felt like forever and saw my favorite patch of cherry blossoms about to 'pop' and got that excitement back that had been drifting away for the past few weeks/months.

Another point is one made recently be a mutual friend (Ron C) who asked (and I'm paraphrasing) - if the social sharing word disappeared tomorrow, would you stop taking pictures?
You wrote "Can we make a drastic departure in style and not put off our fan base? Is this really the direction that I want to go in? How will it be received, etc."
I would argue that if you enjoy the images you are making then that will come across more so than going through the motions of capturing a seascape that the fan base may be expecting. I doubt you'll lose fans and are likely to gain more by exploring new avenues.

Don't get me wrong, I love your black and white seascapes but there's nothing wrong with trying new avenues.

Along those lines, I just got my old Canon 50D converted to IR and am dying to be the next Andy Lee (fat chance) but that really does open up a whole new world of possibilities (especially in black and white) and takes time to master and understand the advantages and limitations of seeing in a new light (literally).

Anyway, just some of my rambling thoughts and hope they make some sense and help get the creative juices flowing.

Can't wait to see what comes next...
Thanks for writing this, Nate. I think that all of us creative types experience this on regular intervals and I guess part of the deal is whether you can weather the ups and downs of self doubt that come with making art. I was talking about this the other day with a fellow artist who has been a potter for 40 years and he says he still has it, so that made me feel better. I also think that Ken is definitely right about focusing on projects, although this can be hard when you have a job that means you can't just focus on those projects 100% of the time. I was just sitting on my couch looking at my to do list and realized I haven't completed one piece of art jewelry all winter: it's been all commissions which is awesome but there is a part of me that is sad or feels like I've let myself down because I haven't focused on my art, only my interpretations of the ideas of others. So. I often find the best projects come out of little planning and just doing: so maybe you just keep plodding on and one day the truly great stuff just jumps out at you and you say, "Hey! There you are!".....:)
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