Letting Your Imagination Speak

rooftops, photograph

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.’

Vincent van Gogh

As an artist I have a double-edged relationship with my subjects.

On the one hand, I look to them for inspiration. On the other hand, I make them yield to my imagination. This give and take exchange should permeate the entire creative process, from the moment a piece is started until the finishing touches are applied.

I pay special attention to van Gogh’s admonition to not become the slave of my model. As a photographer it is all too easy to find an interesting subject, capture it’s image and consider it done. Doing so tips the scales in favor of the subject (model) at the expense of the imagination.

A subject with no imagination is boring, imagination without a subject is too personal. A balance is needed. Sometimes a subject that is too impressive on it’s own can dominate the conversation – consider how many wonderful paintings have been made of very mundane subjects or how uninteresting cliched photographs of Yosemite have become.

Once I’ve captured an image, the give and take begins, the dialogue with the subject starts and the imagination must be given its voice. I try to make sure it is heard.

Torn Asunder

not quite myself, photograph

“Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”

Max Ernst

Sometimes I like to experiment with “photocollage”, taking textures or multiple exposures and layering them to combine them in unique ways. Working with planes of content, manipulating them in ways to convey new meaning, breaking them down, reconstituting them. The dissonance that results from combining or breaking apart is stimulating.

The lines are blurring between photography and general mixed media fine art as photographers start incorporating new elements in their work and other artists begin to use photographic components in theirs. I like this ambiguity as it creates new space for both types of artists to explore and find new meaning.

Instead of relying on the subject alone to make the point, this approach allows me to layer additional information through how I add to it or change it. It’s very exciting to look at the photographs I take and hear them ask me, “And now what?”.

Anything that perpetuates the creative moment and inspires you to look for more to say is good.


“Do artists ever really take a vacation?”

Eileen Doughty

If they do, I think it is rarer than for most.

First of all, for few artists is their art just a job. I suppose there are folks like this, especially in the commercial art world, and maybe they need a break from the grind. But for most artists, they get nourishment from their art. Often a break from that kind of sustenance is actually painful.

Secondly, artists tend to view everything they do as potential material or inspiration for their art. So even when they’re not “working”, they’re working. I’ve done some of my best work when I thought I was doing something else entirely, like being on vacation.

Finally, what’s more fun than making art? Vacations are just going to a new place to make help you make some more art.

The integration of doing what you love (making art) and the rest of your life is just another one of the perks that comes with the territory.

Follow the Leader

bunkers, photography

“The secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.”

Edgar Degas

Another needle to thread as an artist. To what degree do you follow and to what degree lead?

I like to look at the work of others, particularly those much better than me – fortunately a large sampling to draw from! But what to do with what I see?

Sometimes I actually will try to emulate the work pretty closely, though this is more as an exercise, typically to learn a new technique that I can use later.

More often I go through a process of trying to identify those qualities that I admire. If I can extract those in abstract form from the actual work, it’s more likely I’ll be able to use them later in a more personal way rather than be overly influenced by what I’ve seen. Though too abstract and I don’t take away enough. I’m always teetering in between the two, trying to find my balance.

As artists we’re constantly editing, sorting, and evaluating everything we see. We absorb it, let it churn away in our internal incubator and then try to put it to good use in our work. Each step involves decisions about following and leading…

Abstraction vs. Representation

transits 65, photograph

“Why not acknowledge that all representation is an act of abstraction and that all abstraction must be conveyed through the act of representation and be done with it?”

– Peter London, No More Secondhand Art

And with that London puts to rest one of the ongoing debates in the art world! And he’s right, of course.

The process of taking an actual object and depicting it as an art piece involves a complex act of abstraction. All sorts of decisions go into what to include or exclude and ultimately the art is not as “complete” as the real object. Which is what can make it more interesting to us because we are invited to react to the unique way the artist has decided to abstract the reality into his/her work.

Then there are many qualities which do not manifest in the world as any specific object: intimacy, longing, consummation, delicacy, rarity, etc. The artist has to invent images to portray these immaterial qualities. What is abstract, without reference to a specific object in time and place, must be given form through an act of representation.

So every work of art has elements of abstraction and representation in it. With this understanding, perhaps the artist will not feel compelled to identify with one camp or the other and needlessly limit their mode of expression.

In fact, your willingness to explore both sides of this coin will expand your ability to create your world and your place within it, and that’s what it’s all about!

The Blank Space

dandelions, photograph

“The blank space can be humbling.”

– Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Tharp is referring to the empty room in which she has to choreograph a new dance, though she also mentions the virgin canvas in front of the painter or the empty page staring at the writer. Most artists have their equivalent to the “blank space”. The first step beyond that blankness can be the most challenging.

I’ve been thinking lately about whether photographers face that same situation in our work. We can always create an image by clicking the shutter – it may not be a very good image, but going from nothing to something is pretty straightforward.

But I am familiar with that feeling of “how do I start?”. For me it comes when I try to think of something to photograph that I care about. Which images to capture is my blank slate.

I’m part of  a small photography group that meets monthly and all the members have to decide upon a long term personal project to work on next year. What to do? What will challenge, inspire, interest me? While I don’t often feel I’m looking at a blank canvas once I have an idea of what I want to shoot, getting to that point puts me in the same mental space. It’s one I have to work to get beyond.

I’m about to choreograph a dance of images and I’m feeling a little humbled right now…

The Perfect Trap

view from lombard, photograph

“The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Phew! What a relief. I can now stop trying to achieve that pesky perfection in my art!

In reality, I am so often aware of dissatisfaction with my work. I can look at any individual piece and see how it lacks something and, on the rare occasions when I feel perhaps I had success with some image, I can look over the body of work of which it’s a part of and note the failure of the whole to rise to the level of it’s best part. Even with my best work, I find something new I wasn’t aware of before that I feel compelled to address somehow.

For which I am grateful. Can you imagine how boring being an artist would be if each piece were a triumph? We need the occasional success but it’s the overall insuffciency of what we do that propels us forward to try to do better. Few activities in life depend so completely on not realizing our aims to have a chance to someday achieve them.

Just one of those quirky qualities of the artistic landscape…

Productive Patterns

transits 39, photograph

“A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Do you have productive patterns in your life that enable you to more produce art more easily?

The authors emphasize the importance of making a lot of art, quantity breeds quality and perfection is an aim that gets in the way. This is certainly true in photography – good photographers shoot all the time. Your own work teaches you what you need to do next, that’s it’s main purpose in fact.

So it’s a good idea to figure out what strategies, techniques, tricks, habits and rituals facilitate you making more art. It might be something very idiosynchratic that seems a little obsessive-compulsive. It might be a particular form that is the gateway for you to make art. The authors cite Chopin’s fascination with Mazurkas – some might have advised him to try something else, but the consistency of the form allowed him freedom to roam creatively and prodigiously. Making a series, photographing the same subject over and over in different ways, is another method of expediting production.

Constraint can be an impetus to creativity. You don’t have to reinvent yourself with each piece, you can narrow the focus of your imagination, honing it’s edge so it cuts through the inevitable impediments that arise in the face of artmaking.

Of course, just making a lot of art, while necessary, isn’t sufficient. You have to examine what you create, look for what has worked and what hasn’t. Everything you need to know to make your next piece of art is contained in all the art you’ve made so far. No one else can teach you more than is there.