AKA Abraham Bacoln

Plateaued, but on the path
September 21, 2009, 12:19 pm
Filed under: photography

Why do I feel like I’m in a creative slump when I’m still producing good photographic work at a fairly constant rate?

There’s a small critique group with whom I meet here in New Orleans, and sitting for hours discussing the works of artists of all mediums, styles, and calibers has helped me understand better the imagery I’m producing with my camera. More importantly being forced to discuss my photography with others who won’t let me bullshit my way out of the conversation, who encourage (or force, actually) me to truly look at what I’m creating – that’s been very helpful for me. Because of these meetings I have been able to better clarify my thoughts on why I feel like I’m at a creative low point and why I’m disappointed with my rate of production.

When I was fifteen I started playing bass guitar on a whim. I could hardly differentiate the bass line from the guitars in the music I was listening to but that didn’t matter, I liked the way it felt and sounded when I played it. I never took any lessons but I spent most of my spare time playing. When I was sixteen someone said, “Wow, you’re pretty good – how long have you been playing?” I was proud to be able to reply, “Oh, only about a year. I haven’t had any lessons or anything, I just kind of picked it up.” That was a good feeling, to think that I was naturally talented.

Of course time shortly showed me that whatever’s considered good for a kid that’s been playing for one year without lessons is pretty mediocre – or even a little bit sad – when it’s been two years, or three. I didn’t have any drive to improve my playing and I was still treating the bass as a part-time distraction, not even a proper hobby.

With regards to the creative learning curve I shot up rapidly at the beginning, quickly reached a low plateau, and stayed there. With the bass I was content to remain where I was as a beginner. I could clearly see the path ahead of me, and where I could have gone had I taken lessons, or learned to read music, or even figured out a way to practice (as opposed to just screwing around) but I didn’t care to go down that road.

And now I’m transferring that understanding of natural creative talent and the inevitable plateau to my photography. A while back I went through my photos to determine when I personally felt I took the step from “a guy who likes to take interesting snapshots” to “someone determined to create proper photographs” and I mark that time as January 2006. That means that before I know it I will have been doing photography seriously for four years. In some ways that’s depressing to me.

Okay, so honestly if I showed the me of four years ago the photos I’m producing now, he (I) would be astounded. But me of today, me-right-now, is not content. I think my natural talent has taken me as far as it can. In terms of the creative learning curve, I’ve had my rocket upwards and now I’m on my plateau. This is where my overall frustration with my photos is coming in to play. When I was just starting out I learned something new every week, and for a while it was every day. I figured out how better to compose images, how better to edit (both in terms of post-production and also how much to show to other people), how better to visualize in advance where the capabilities of my equipment and brain could take me.

Now I’m missing that feeling, that “Eureka!” of finding or understanding something new, and I don’t know how to spark it. I’m certainly not saying I’ve mastered photography and have nothing left to learn – far from it! – but as the slope of the learning curve levels off the tidbits of learning become smaller in scale. There’s a difference between the huge pure joy of discovering how to manipulate depth of field to good effect and the tiny, almost insignificant, self-congratulation when I think, “Oh, in this situation I should just go ahead and under-expose by a half-stop before I even start shooting” because of learning from past experiences. It used to be that I could see where I needed to go when I would look at photos and say, “Wow! How did they DO that?” Finding that out was my goal. Now I know how they did it. Now I don’t have clear milestones ahead and I feel like I’m trying to track my predecessors on rocky ground. I’ve gone from having huge road signs to sifting tiny pebbles.

When I look through the photographs of others to find the ones that I envy, the ones that are so good that I grit my teeth and can’t think of anything other than just how much I wish that I had been the one to take it, they usually fall into one of three categories:

1.) A photo taken at a location that is foreign to me or to which I do not have access.
2.) A photo taken using huge props, great studio, paid model, or any other indication of someone having poured money into the shoot.
3.) A photo taken with a kind of creativity that originates from a higher plane than mine, something I can only hope to be able to tap into eventually.

The first two I can rationalize away if I spend long enough trying to convince myself that I should. For example the vast majority of the viewers of my photos do not live here in New Orleans so the locations that I think are mundane are indeed foreign or exotic setups to them. Just because I see them every day does not negate their potential usefulness or beauty. Likewise I have been able to come up with some pretty good photos with found props, hastily-rigged home lighting, and so forth. Most of my visions can be created on my budget, even when I get extravagant.

That leaves the creativity, something I can’t force, cajole, plead, or otherwise magic into existence. I am left in despair when viewing the work of Chema Madoz for example. Every single one of his images sends me into a whirlwind of emotions – “I love it for its incredible stark simplicity. I love it for its tone. I want to have been the one who took this image. I need to have been the one who took this image. I can never recreate it because he’s already done it better than I ever could. I’ll never be able to take pictures like this.” For every. single. image.

The upside to all of this rambling discussion is that when you understand where you are, you can hopefully see how you got there and – if you’re lucky – where you’re going. I know I’m frustrated with what I’m creating, and how I feel I’m never making anything new. I know that I rail against the idea of repeating anything in my photography – I don’t like to use the same prop or theme or idea more than once if possible. I know that this artificial and unnecessary restriction is part of what’s keeping me stuck here in this trough.

But meeting with other people, people that don’t know me and don’t know where my photography has come from or is going … that helps. Their opinions (at times blunt or loving or both) help me see that I’m not repeating myself too much, that I am indeed on the right path. To these people that don’t live inside my head my work is indeed fresh, and welcoming, and enjoyable. It’s giving me a little bit of space to stop worrying and just go back to creating.

I just have to accept that the honeymoon is over and I don’t get that adrenaline rush every time I learn or find something new, and that my discoveries will be smaller, but they’re still discoveries. I’m still on the right path.

4 Comments so far
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I was like this as a kid. I picked up a billion hobbies. piano, guitar, drums, models, trains… after a year or less I wasn’t consuming new information fast enough and got bored.

that was actually what spawned my interest in computers. here’s something I can never completely learn, my 10-year-old self said.

of course, 15 years later and they turned out to be simpler than I thought. sigh. at least I got some marketable skills out of it, I guess.

Comment by Scott Perry

Yes, Mr. O’Mara, you are still on the right path. While your photography honeymoon may be over for you, the rest of us still await your next image. So continue on…continue on down that path your on.

Comment by Mel

Not sure why exactly, but as I was reading this, I couldn’t help but to recall this article I had read on gizmodo several weeks ago. I’ll let you read the article, but suffice it to say that we need you.

Comment by Brady

Guess I should post a link eh?


Comment by Brady

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