More and more, I try to live in harmony with the seasons, not the clock.
Here in the Midwest, we’re experts at seasons. And I definitely pick projects and to-do items that reflect the time of year. Winter? Get outside and shovel, and a few photographer interviews. Spring? Yard work and thinking ahead to summer projects. Fall? Finish up projects, enjoy a shit ton of apple cider, try roasting some acorns, etc.
Maybe I’m a creature of habit, but the seasonal routines are very comforting for me.
Start the crockpots full of chili, folks. It’s autumn.
It started with such promise. But as the months passed, more and more projects started to slip. My musicians portrait project fizzled, and I found myself picking up my camera less and less.
Just today, I turned in the keys to my studio. I paid for the whole month of August and only accomplished one portrait shoot. I held on to it a month longer than I should have. Guilt made me keep it – you paid for this great space, don’t give it up! – until I couldn’t logically justify the expense.
After a while, I had to tell myself to stop feeling guilty, and accept this new-found funk for what it is: a down period.
Plenty of creative people go through it, and there’s tons of ways to deal with it. My own method has been to recognize it, accept it (grudgingly), and hope things get better.
The sticky part is thinking back on previous years where I was productive. I look back through my Lightroom catalog and Flickr albums and yearn for those creative periods. I was shooting every season, every day, every situation. I was making documentaries and exploring my community and learning about other artists. From 2012 until this spring, I feel like I was on fire with photography.
At the start of the summer, I tried to power through this down period I felt coming on. I started my musicians project with half a heart, but after a while I couldn’t ignore my creative block. I tried really hard, too.
With this blog, I wanted to make it a daily thing for at least a year, and then try posting a few times a week after that. My strategy worked decently well for a while, but now I feel like I have nothing to say about the larger world of photography. I’ve turned inward, sharing and documenting what’s going on around me, with little thought to best practices or experiments in picture making. These days, it’s mostly just picture sharing.
Could it be that I was so steeped in photography that I got burned out? That doesn’t explain my desire for more productive times.
Several things happened in the spring that I can point to and say, “Maybe that was it.” We moved into a new home, into a new community, had a new baby. I was a year into my new job, hitting my stride. My commute wasn’t what it used to be. All of these were big life-changing circumstances. Did they affect my photographic output? Or was it something else?
Time will tell. I’ll let the autumn come and try to capture the season and its changes, and use the cold months to think about this funk.
My hope is that, on the other end, I’ll come up with a recipe for whatever the opposite of feeling like a failure is.
August in Michigan means hot days, cooler mornings, and a slow dive into autumn.
For me, it’s always the seasonal transitions that are the most fun to photograph. Summer is nice, sure, but the end of summer always holds something special.
Same for when spring (my favorite) comes, and the fog rolls in as the snow melts. Or when winter starts frosting the yet-to-fall leaves.
This time of year is always hard for me emotionally, for some reason. I don’t know if it’s because Winter Is Coming™, or the days are shortening, or what. But I get to feeling down. The last few years, I’ve tried to work my way out of the funk with a few photo projects and writing more.
The Grind is the selecting your location, choosing which equipment to bring, selecting a film stock, lining up subjects, finding an open slot in your schedule, making time to send/respond to emails, editing the photos when you’re finished with the shoot, picking your favorite picture to present to the world, sending a select few to the subject, backing up your Lightroom library…
But that’s what “photography” means – it’s the photographs, and it’s the Grind to get them made.
Lately, it’s the Grind that has me feeling overwhelmed. If I can pick away at it, bit by bit, I do okay. Otherwise, I feel like I’m swimming in “photography.”
Better learn to love the Grind if you really want to accomplish that project.
Busting your ass planning something important? Feel like you can’t proceed until you have a bulletproof plan in place? Replace “plan” with “guess” and take it easy. That’s all plans really are anyway: guesses.
As my old boss used to say, plan the work and work the plan.
But I take the same approach to planning as I do for traveling: set up the ground rules and structure, and then let real life interject – as it always does.
All of my photographs during the year just “happened”. Nothing was planned in advance. I was able to capture them just because I brought my camera with me everywhere, every single day. And sometimes, because I felt brave enough to ask a complete stranger for their portrait, and I didn’t get chased away.
Planned versus unplanned. Project versus un-project.
This idea of the 365 project keeps coming up, because I’m starting to see it as a worthwhile challenge to any creative person. “Discipline and constant work at the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed,” says Stephen King. Keeping at something, day after day, is intrinsically rewarding.
But what about a planned project versus a project like Patience’s? Bill Wadman, for instance, is doing 365 portraits this year. It’s a project with a set of restrictions: pictures of people, with Wadman’s new-ish medium format camera. There’s a schedule to set and people to line up. There’s structure.
Patience’s project – “capture real moments and make memories, to tell about the good and the bad times” – is a rambling, take-it-as-you-get-it 365 project. He takes the world, day to day, exactly as it is, and lets chaos and randomness dictate his project. Apart from one camera, one lens, one film, there’s very little structure.
My preference? One of each, which is my goal this year.
Last winter, off my big portrait project, I needed something to keep me entertained during these cold Michigan winter months. I needed a photo project to keep my mind and camera busy, and something that I could do inside.
When Sandhill Crane Vineyards invited me to be their featured artist for May, I felt like I needed to show some fresh work in their gallery. Wine would be fun. But what if I did more than wine still life photos? What if I made it bigger?
A few months back I was invited to speak to the Jackson Civic Art Association about the project. One of the members, Carrie Joers, dug my still life shots. More than liking them, she wanted to paint them, and figured a how-to session on setting up a still life setting would be good for her drawing and painting friends.
Here’s what I told the group in terms of restrictions and things to think about:
Look at good still life paintings and photos to get an idea of what you like. I started with the Dutch masters, and went through to good product photography. Keep an idea board (I used Pinterest).
Get yourself a theme. Doing random stuff is fun, but I found a theme (seasons, with food as the focus) easier to keep myself focused and organized. Pears go with winter, acorns go with fall, and colors matter, etc.
Look for materials and items around the house, and keep texture in mind (the more, the merrier). Figure out what you don’t have on hand, and then go bargain shopping: yard sales, thrift stores, stuff in your parents’ attic, that kind of thing. Fabrics, containers, decorations – all that stuff can be had for cheap. To get the fresh ingredients, I went grocery shopping.
Set up near a window for good light, and make your own backdrop. This was a lot of fun for me: I got to experiment with painting on a canvas, and setting a mood (here’s my simple set up at home).
Experiment and practice. Move stuff around. Try a bunch of shots. Take 50 photographs to find the one killer shot.
Challenge yourself. I went with one camera, one lens – and a 100mm macro lens at that. Set restrictions, stick to your theme, and don’t make it easy.
I’m making my slideshow (with notes) available as a download (PDF), since I can’t give my presentation to you, the reader. It should give you some background, some ideas, and some inspirational crumbs to follow.
From looming billboards to glittering shop windows to the myriad distractions flowing through the pocket-sized screens we carry everywhere, vast and sophisticated efforts prod us to look in specific directions, at specific things, in specific ways. Taken together, they add up to a kind of war against seeing. I try to be part of the resistance.
Walker’s tips are all good strategies for design, writing, and photography exercises. What do you spot that’s interesting, new, or unseen? There’s a photo project in the making.
Notice things that aren’t meant to be noticed creatively – “attend to some recurring thing that is ubiquitous” Walker says – and you get one of those cataloging projects that are such a joy. For myself, that includes handmade yard sale signs. It’s a little thing, but it’s fun.
Last week I participated in an area authors book publishing forum. Me and two other local authors spoke about our book projects, and what it took to get them into the read world. After a brief introduction, we opened up the forum to audience questions. One question really got me thinking, from a thoughtful lady:
“What did you do to keep away the self doubt?”
All of us agreed that self doubt played a role in our projects. What if our books didn’t sell? What if we couldn’t make it work? Was it a big waste of time?
Perhaps more frightening: What if no one cared?
For my part, a large part of my project went into the pre-planning. As I’ve shared before, I thought about having a built-in audience, using my connections to get the word out, and relying on marketing to make my project a known thing.
Even deeper and scarier than getting the word out, however, self doubt means wondering whether a project even deserves to exist. What’s the big idea, and has it earned an audience?
Plenty of artists deal with self doubt. I wonder if there’s extra pressure on those who put physical things into the real world. Ones and zeroes can exist virtually and bother no one – but a book? That takes materials, space, and time in the universe. There’s gravity associated with it.
Good Ideas deserve the atoms that make up a book or print or sculpture or whatever. Getting rid of (or at least easing) self doubt means convincing yourself that yours is a Good Idea.
Ask anyone who’s had to promote a project – a book, a gallery showing, a performance – and they’ll probably tell you how exhausting it can feel. Especially if the project is close to their heart, and especially if the person tends toward introversion.
It feels like you put your heart and effort into something, and then you have to put your heart and effort into making sure enough people (a) care and (b) hear about it to be interested. Yelling is tiring, even when it’s about yourself.
Some people are pretty good at this. But when I think about it, usually those folks are speaking to a big enough audience that cares. They hit (a) and (b) from above every time they promote something.
My projects started small: a portrait project here, a documentary there, each with a modest built-in audience. They cared. Over time, the number of people who knew about me grew.
Organic growth means taking the long view. Person by person, project by project, you’re increasing the number of people who know what you do. It takes patience, and planning, and a bit of humility. But I love the process.
Dampen your expectations on the first few projects, because it’s going to take time to reach people that care. Start making stuff that people might have an interest in (that’s the first part) so that, for the next project, they’ll hear about it (the second part). Each time might just get easier.