The story goes like this: A student asks Jay Maisel, “How can I make more interesting photographs?” to which Jay sagely replies, “become a more interesting person.”
Having never formally studied Art, my creative is process is probably a little unsophisticated: I daily try to live the most vital, engaged, and interesting (to me) life I possibly can. Intentional. Passionate. Sensual. Simple. I draw the cleanest water from as many wells as I can find, and listen to the most interesting voices. And I do as I please when I hear the muse begin to whisper. Sometimes that’s picking up a camera, sometimes it’s a notebook and pen. Sometimes it’s neither. But I act on it. Scribbles, drawings, or sketch images made with whatever camera I have on me. A great many very bad photographs have been made this way, but I don’t censor my images any more than I censor my ideas, because creating a good photograph is no different than creating a good idea: stop short of creating the bad ones and you’ll never see them lubricate the cogs that lead to the best ones.
What refines the good ideas and makes them great, then sets about putting them out into the world, is work. Often very hard work. The idea that inspiration comes from work is trumpeted by so many artists that we’d be foolish to close our ears or minds to it. My art may be conceived during some hedonistic bohemian love-in with my muse, but it comes into the world, like any birth, with labour. Always.
Most artists have a messy process that begins in chaos. For the writer it’s notes scribbled on napkins and shitty first (and second, third, fourth…) drafts. For the photographer it’s frame after frame of sketches until the lines, light, and moments, finally do what you want them to. In between there is doubt and fear: we’re not good enough, the project is too large, our hopes too grand. Along the way, before our process gets us where we’re going, there is the temptation to see the incomplete fruit of our creative process – our many sketch images – as failure. Give in to this temptation and beat yourself up about the crap and you close your eyes to the good stuff yet to come. None of us can afford that.
Self-pity isn’t humility; it’s arrogance. It’s the assumption that we should make art, unlike everyone else who faces the chaos and the doubt and the hard work, easily. We should get it right the first time. Why? No one else does it that way. What makes us so special? We spent more on a better camera? We’ve paid our dues longer? We’ve got better clients and won more awards? At the risk of being too direct, the muse doesn’t give a shit about anything but your willingness to feed her and honour the process with your sweat. She doesn’t stick around longer or give you inspiration that burns with a brighter flame because of past success or how good your promotional materials are. She cares about one thing alone – the art. She doesn’t care how bruised we become, how much sleep we have to lose, or how much criticism we have to bear, in order to get there.
You are incredibly inspiring. Your words are like your art. Wonderfully imaginative and they paint a beautiful picture.
Thank you for the wisdom.
Jay Maisel’s quote reminded me of Steve Jobs’ “Connecting The Dots” speech, about how you just have trust that your seemingly random interests and experiences will somehow connect one day. You can’t expect to know how or when they will connect (10 years later maybe). I think becoming a more interesting person means collecting more dots.
Tim, that’s brilliant. I love the simplicity of that. Collect more dots!
Getting it right the first time is the absolute worst thing that can happen … because from then onwards, chances are you’ll steadily get worse!
Personally I get a lot of enjoyment and fufilment from engaging in the process of photography, be it fully 100% dedicated, or just casually while doing something else. Sometimes the results please me, sometimes not, but that in itself doesn’t stress me. What does stress me is being prevented by whatever circumstances from doing it. But worrying about making great work? Seems a bit self-defeating, really. This urge to suffer, to bear hard work… it’s all a bit Protestant work ethic, isn’t it ? 😉
Interesting question, David. I think it depends on why we do this. I love writing. But I don’t get it right the first time. I fumble around a lot. I long to create something beautiful. So I make lousy first drafts, and then – often with difficulty – go back to edit, re-write, or scatch it all knowing it just didn’t get there on the first try. I still love it, but it’s work. Often hard work. I think where the Protestant work ethic thing comes in is in how how we’ve come to see work as some purgative process we shouldn’t enjoy. For me the suffering would not be in the doing of meaningful work, but in being prevented from it.
holy shit, David. knock me upside the head with some hard truth, why don’t you? sheez, dude. *walks away muttering something to herself about getting her lazy ass to work*
Inspiring words as always David. I do feel it’s all about listening to that inner voice and following it, to whatever means or ends it takes us.
I’ve been reading “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer (no relation) and there is actually science that backs the Art = Muse + Hard Work equation that so elegantly write about.
Lehrer describes writers who habitually used speed to get their work finished. From a scientific standpoint, the inspiration happens when you are not concentrating on the problem – your Muse. But the inspiration only comes to fruition with hard work and persistence. Many/some(?) famous writers apparently needed their amphetamines to allow them to concentrate on the hard work. Kuroack (no surprise there) but more famously W.H. Auden.
I think, however, I’ll try to stick to less habit forming methods for increasing concentration.
If you have not read it, it is a fascinating book.
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I agree wholeheartedly. I go through many mood swings with my process and with my work. Self-pity may be arrogance. So may self-deprecation and self-hatred. It’s all facets of the self that we should try to tame–and must tame–to make our work have some meaning and purity. .
The Maisel quote, which Chris Orwig shared years ago, literally changed me and changed my entire photographic journey since. I am a Maisel junky (in addition to being a duChemin junky).
Great stuff David. When I look back over the years I realize that you need a lot of faith along the way, as well.
When I started down the path of arts and craft, I was “called” by some mysterious inner voice, but in truth I had no idea what was good and what was junk. I had to learn with no true compass, but the works that came before me.
The muse is a demanding mistress, she wants you perfected, but you must find your own way….sometimes in total confusion.
The comical thing is that many folks think it’s all “fun and games” to be an artist or craftsperson, when in truth I don’t think you can choose a more difficult path. The salvation is that there is no more fulfilling path for the creative.
Some powerful…DIRECT,inspiration with which to end a year and begin anew… and like last year I have already begun considering my RESLOVE for 2013… work/labour is part of that… and heading outside today at -28c is part of that plan… my muse, will be bundled up as warmly as I will… because although it may be hard work we don’t need to make it harder on oursleves than necessary… creature comfort is still a significant consideration and consisitent with smart choices…
This and the previous post come at a good time for me personally. I strive and yearn for creative development sometimes to the point of frustration. It’s not about going out head strong and getting it, what I take away from this is to work, do the right things, be open, willing and receptive of it when it happens. The clear mind open heart approach, sometimes I just need to hear it said. Thanks David.