Getting Back to My Photographic Roots

About a hundred years ago, in the late 1980s, I stumbled into photography. I took a class, played in our high school’s darkroom, and set out to create photographs. I owned one 35mm camera, a few lenses, a handful of filters, and a cheap flash I’d picked up from Kmart. I didn’t even fully understand the exposure triangle, but I still managed to shoot a roll (or more) each week for the next few years.

Having little idea what I was doing enabled me to explore the world through my lens with unbridled enthusiasm. Nobody had yet scared me away from making those dreaded cliché photos. I hadn’t seen a lot of photographs outside of family snapshots, as nobody I knew was a serious shutterbug. Significantly, there was no social media around to dictate what made for a successful image.

A page straight from an old photo album. This dates back to around 1989. I have no idea what exactly I was going for here, but I was obviously having fun with offsetting closeups of the soda can.

This weekend I pulled out my old photo albums – something I’ve been thinking about doing for weeks – and took a visual walk down memory lane. A lot of the photos in those albums show every sign of a kid who didn’t know how to compose a decent shot. It got worse when I attached my zoom lens and pointed it at random distant things and, naturally, zoomed all the way in.

Among the many unremarkable photos, I ran across some mini projects I’d done, including a series of pictures showing water dripping, gradually progressing to full-on pouring, from the kitchen faucet. None of them are particularly interesting viewed in isolation, but there’s some sense of cohesion when you view them as a series. I spent a lot of time creating macro images with close-up filters: a box of Tri-X film, my little brother’s Lego men, flowers, etc.

What prompted this revisiting of my past work is a gnawing discontent I’ve experienced concerning my photography today. Simply put, for the past 6 months or more, I feel like I’ve lost my photo mojo. Much of the joy has been sucked out of something that I’ve been insanely passionate about for years. I find myself questioning if I continue. Should I quit, and maybe move on to something else? Or do I just need some time to reflect, maybe put away the cameras for a while and reevaluate where I’m headed?

When I mentioned this funk on Twitter recently, someone suggested I read the book, On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn. It sounded like good advice, so I bought it. I’m always on the lookout for artistically inspiring books. This book is essentially a conversation between two seasoned photography pros. There are a lot of interesting insights shared therein, and it’s certainly a worthwhile read. But I found myself despairing even more after reading it.

One of the recurring themes in their discussions is how you need to have a theme or project in mind, generally with a view towards exhibiting your work. Venturing out to take random photos of things doesn’t make you a photographer. This hit a nerve for me, because that random approach characterizes so much of my photography. I’ll pick a place and go exploring, but usually I’m not trying to communicate anything. No profound ideas, no social message, no sweeping themes – just a jumble of disconnected photos of things I find interesting. Every now and then, I’ll get lucky and hit upon some interwoven theme, but that’s not the norm.

As the authors write: “The fundamental issue is one of emphasis: you are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.” The argument being that you’re a photographer because you’re interested in a subject. There are exceptions relating to some particular interests of mine, but what they described as being non-photography constitutes the lion’s share of my portfolio. When I survey the bulk of my life’s work so far, it’s largely a reflection of my enjoyment in taking photos.

I’ve pondered a great deal over this issue. Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books and articles by well-known thinkers in photography – people like David DuChemin, Steve Simon, Chase Jarvis, Bruce Barnbaum, and Michael Freeman. I’ve also read more general art books like The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri, and books about creativity, like the excellent Steal Like An Artist, by Austin Kleon. I’ve amassed a fair collection of photo books containing images by masters like Dorothea Lange, August Sander and Edward Weston. I’ve even read a few books on the history of photography, and a biography on Edwin Land.

I’ve brainstormed and made notes to myself about project ideas. I’ve tried to spend time in the company of creative people I know. None of it seems to stick for me. I can see what makes an image great, but the best I seem to manage is a thin, derivative copy of what I’ve seen before. It seldom leads to any truly creative output on my part. I’m a reasonably skilled camera operator without a vision.

Elsewhere online, and in the real world, I’ve made no secret about that fact that I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) about 5 years ago. A year earlier I would have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, but the official terms have changed. It’s not a subject I’ve discussed on this blog, mostly because it seemed somewhat irrelevant to the topic of photography. Gradually, though, I’ve realized that autism may have a lot more to do with this creative block than I’ve previously considered.

In autistic terms, photography is a special interest of mine, meaning I have an intense fascination with the topic that has led me to explore it in considerable depth. I know a great many facts about photography that I’ll gladly share with anyone who will listen (just ask me). I’ve written about these special interests in my book, so you can check that out if you’d like to understand more.

The relevance of photography being a special interest is that I hugely enjoy the act of taking photos, the process entailed, the look and feel of the gear involved, and so on. The actual output, while important, doesn’t rise to a level higher than the craft itself. Intellectually, I understand that the camera is just a tool; on an experiential level, I’m obsessed with using the tool and the process of creating photos.

Despite all my attempts to understand what it means to be creative, it’s like I hit a brick wall whenever I try to conjure up new ideas. I’ve been taking essentially the same photos again and again for over 30 years. Occasionally I manage to break out of that rut, but I’m right back in it again the next time I pick up my camera. I’m not sure how to fix that. I’m fighting deeply ingrained habits with each press of the shutter. Frankly, no matter what level of technical excellence I might achieve (and my photos in the past 5+ years are undeniably better technically), I have this nagging feeling that I’m not a real photographer.

This brings me back to revisiting my old photos. I’m not sure exactly how to go about it, but if there is any hope of rediscovering even the tiniest spark of the creativity that once inspired me, it has to be something apart from a preoccupation with the latest trends. I think it may be possible to forge a new creative path without paying undue attention to what others are doing. It’s nearly impossible to completely ignore the work of others in this day and age, but that shouldn’t define one’s creative vision.

What I do know is that there was a time when I took photos because I loved doing it. I knew that only a handful of people, if any, would ever see them. I photographed things I cared about (like family, and familiar places from my childhood), and other things that I deemed interesting. I set up weird little miniature scenes and experimented with placing everyday objects in front of my lens. I had no thought of sharing these photos with anyone. These experiments were carried out for fun to see what kind of results I would get.

I’m not sure this renewed approach to creating for its own sake will solve the problem of not having a particular message to communicate. It may, however, be the answer to getting myself out of a rut. Maybe along the way some new ideas will come to me. Another avenue I hope to explore is finding ways to photograph some of those subjects that do carry significant meaning for me. The hard part is figuring out how to execute that well.

What do you think? Have you found ever yourself losing your love for photography, and what have you done to rekindle your desire to create?