A Chip Off The Creative Block

29th April 2019

A Chip Off The Creative Block

Writer’s block, creative slow-down, work paralysis – call it what you will but, as people who rely on a steady flow of creative juices to make a living (or make a life), we will each face creative block at some point.

It can manifest in many forms and have many causes, but the terror that comes with creative block has a very recognisable face – that blank page or screen staring back at you expectantly, while your mind screams “I’ve got nothing, I’ve got NOTHING!”. As a 25-year graphic design veteran, I have had my fair share of such moments. It’s never fun. There are many articles on the internet about this kind of creative block, its causes and how it can be fixed quickly and predictably in the fast-paced world of advertising and design. This is not one of those articles.

I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.” Vincent van Gogh

What happens when you have a creative block in a creative activity that you put your heart and soul into – one that doesn’t make you a living, but which gives you a life?

I consider myself something of a mix of semi-commercial and serious hobbyist photographer. The modest amount of commercial work I do is all shot digitally, while the bulk of my ‘creative’ work is shot on film. I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to stretch myself as a photographer at work, and I also achieve a huge amount of creative satisfaction through photography outside of work time. Most of the time…

Creative block has recently re-appeared in my life as a photographer.

I started learning photography at age 17 while I was still at high school, and consider a handful of the pictures from that time as the best I have ever taken. Working through the technical minutiae of film photography, hours of darkroom time and hanging out with fellow photography-nerd friends – these were the things that were at front of my mind back then. Subject matter and ‘creativity’ were secondary, they just seemed to be part of the process of learning how to use a camera. At times like this, I wish I could unlearn all those rules which sometimes seem like impediments to creativity – to taking photos like the ones I took back then. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I should forget about the rules and impediments and just go out and shoot. As Picasso once said “Inspiration does exist but it must find you working”.

After I was unable to continue taking and developing my own photos a few years out of high school, I took a long break from photography. I lacked the funds to replace the borrowed darkroom equipment that I’d recently returned to its owner, and digital photography was not yet even a thing (yeah, I’m that old). Fast-forward a decade and a half, I got back into photography after winning a trip to the US. I bought a cheap little point-and-shoot to document the trip and I was instantly hooked (again). After the trip, I quickly sought ways to build my digital photography skill-set. Inevitably, this meant upgrading my equipment when I could, eventually making my way to the pinnacle of enthusiastic hobbyist status – a Canon DSLR. As a casual hobbyist I was able to explore a number of different photographic styles with the freedom of a novice. Once more, I produced some shots that I remain very proud of, but I find myself telling myself that creativity came easy then because I was still just learning, and the real challenges would come when I committed to one particular style. Hmmm… maybe that’s it. Maybe I need to commit to learning lots of styles and not limit myself to being an expert at any. 

At a certain point a few years ago, I began to become very frustrated with myself and my progress as a hobbyist photographer. I called myself a photographer, but I hardly ever took photos. I had a couple of cameras, but they mostly collected dust. I would plan days out to shoot, but as a husband and father of two young kids, more often than not I would find myself too busy or too tired to go out. Understandable? – yes. Forgivable? – indeed. Inspired?, creative? – no. I seriously considered giving it up. Who was I fooling? I wasn’t a photographer, and much less an artist.

That Picasso quote was coming back to haunt me.

One Sunday night, I made the decision that I would take a photo every day. I would commit to it. I charged up my smaller, more portable camera and packed it in my bag ready for the future. Next morning I headed out to work, but before I got there I took a photo – I can’t remember what of, and it doesn’t really matter. I went out at lunchtime that day and I took photos. I did the same the next day. I was very limited to where I could shoot – a walking-distance radius from my work. I was very limited in when I could shoot – pretty much my lunch break. Obviously, the subject matter was fairly uninteresting, and so the shots were far from breathtaking and over the first few months, very repetitive. But I didn’t care. I was shooting every day.

After about a year I started to notice a couple of things. First, I wasn’t taking photos every day – but it didn’t matter, because I had begun thinking like a photographer. What does that mean? I guess it’s kind of like: when a person learns a new language, at first they think in their native language, translate the words in their mind and then speak the words in the new language. After a while, they begin to be able to think in the new language instead of having to translate in their mind first. As wankish as it might sound, I began thinking in the language of photography. I began to see my daily walk differently.

The second thing that I noticed was that my photos began to look different. After nearly two years of walking the same streets and shooting the same things, it began to feel like I had scraped off a surface layer and was able to capture more than what had been there before. With my commercial work starting to take off a little bit, it started to feel like I had become a REAL photographer. Maybe that was that. Maybe that was the end of creative blocks.

With my new-found confidence, I was ready to expand my horizons and re-visit my years as a film photographer. I always felt I had unfinished business with film and the darkroom, and for a long time I had missed the hand craftiness of film photography. I also missed the slowed pace and deliberateness of film, and let’s face it – old cameras are really cool.

About six months ago, after a year of saving, I was able to purchase the camera I’d dreamed about for decades – a Hasselblad medium format film camera. In my initial excitement I was able to produce some work that I was very proud of, but a fully manual camera with no exposure metering is a steep learning curve.

Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but those first few rolls were invigorating. I had decided to process my own black and white film and, after a bit of research and experimentation, it came reasonably quickly. The results were very positive. I had a go at processing my own colour film and it was much easier than I’d thought. I had so much self-confidence and I was processing and scanning a couple of rolls of film a week, and once again, shooting every day. I was posting my work online, following and being followed by fellow film photography enthusiasts – it was finally all coming together.

A few short months later, I am sitting here writing this. I have three film cameras loaded and ready to go, but I haven’t taken a photo in earnest for nearly two weeks. I’ve recharged the battery in my digital camera more times than I’ve pressed the shutter in the last month. After mis-processing two rolls of colour film and a roll of black and white, I grew wary of the processing tank and I started sending my film out to be processed by professionals. I experimented with a roll of expired film, and it came back less than inspriring – kind of as expected, but disconcerting nonetheless. I’ve scanned whole rolls of film and been happy with maybe one shot. All the work I see online seems out of reach, and my well-trodden lunchtime path has long given up its treasures.

As days of creative block roll into weeks I have been doing nothing beyond thinking about whether I’ll ever be able to dig myself out of this (un)creative hole. 

I start looking back over my earlier work – digital and film, and surprisingly I find more there than I expect to. I remind myself that I was less experienced when I took these and I knew less then than I do now. I see some of my very first digital photos and, despite remembering how much my gear sucked at the time, I really like them. I go through my binders of negatives and remember I have successfully processed nearly 30 rolls of film – and lost only four. I think about my kids and the times I’ve chosen to be with them and not with my camera and I remember that it’s just a hobby. I think about the other times I felt like there was nothing inspiring me and there was nothing left to learn and then I remember that it always happened right before a new set of breakthroughs.

So.

Maybe the most satisfying moments of creativity happen when I just get out and start taking photos with no expectations of who I am or how much I know, or what other people think of my work. Maybe I need to accept periods of inactivity as part of the process. Maybe these times that feel like creative death are just really meant to be be a time to relax and take stock – to think about what I’ve just gone through and what I’ve learned.

Maybe I should stop being so hard on myself.

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” – Ansel Adams

– Chris Dixon,
Senior Designer at Nick Did This