Photography, Creativity, and Angst

It seems that a lot of photography blogs that aren’t caught up in discussing the latest equipment and technology (as I find myself doing lately) are often addressing the struggles of photography, art, and creativity. Most every photographer seems to relate to the frustrations of not being able to create the images that they wish they could – images like the ones of the photographers they admire or images like the ones they envision in their own mind.

This isn’t a bad thing, and in fact this dissatisfaction with one’s current work is one of the most important components in inspiring and pushing oneself to improve. But there is a huge problem if this struggle becomes angst and doesn’t serve a positive purpose. It is an easy path to fall into with photography, especially when just starting out or soon after technical and equipment mastery is attained. There is so much to learn and everyone else seems to have picked up important and secret knowledge which you don’t know where to find. And there are so many great photographers out there who you like and no matter how hard you try your images don’t look anything like theirs.

Rome Casa Blanca and Statue piazza del quirinale black and white italy
Rome – Statue in front of Palazzo del Quirinale

I fell into this trap when I first became serious about photography. I saw images in galleries, museums, and magazines (there was no internet yet…) that I wished I could create, but had no idea how. What kind of camera were they using? What kind of chemicals and darkroom techniques did they use? Where did they come up with their ideas and inspiration? I had no idea, but tried to learn what I could from books and experimentation. But the learning curve was so steep, my interests and ambitions were too broad and scattered, and the dedication was not yet there. The angst and frustration built and slowly I stopped even taking photos. I had wanted to create great images at will but knew I couldn’t. My results rarely matched my vision, so I stopped making any images at all.

Rome Bernini Fountain piazza navona italy
Rome – Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini facing Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini and Rainaldi

I thought the angst was part of being an artist, a photographer, and that holding onto it would lead somewhere. But the angst didn’t get me anywhere. In fact all it led me to was abandoning photography. Years later, when I became frustrated with the limitations of my digital compact and dSLRs became affordable, I decided to give it another try. I went out on my first self-assignment, not really knowing what I was doing, relearning how to use a camera and compose photos. But this time I had a different attitude, a new mindset. The photos on my LCD screen still didn’t look like the ones in my head, but I didn’t care, and I continued to happily work away. I knew I was learning with each photo, I didn’t expect instant masterpieces. I knew I would improve over time when I studied the results and identified the differences between where I was and where I wanted to be.

Rome Piazza Navona woman walking italy
Rome – Piazza Navona

Most importantly I had finally given up on trying to take Ansel Adams’ photos and started to take my photos. If they weren’t any good, I would keep taking my photos, and figure out how to make them better versions of my photos. For the first time I was truly happy with my images because I stopped comparing them with some real or imagined perfect images that I would never take. It doesn’t mean I still don’t have the angst. Every time I look at Ami Vitale’s photos I want to take Ami Vitale’s photos. But I let it go, I don’t let it become a negative, limiting frustration. I study them and learn from them, but I continue to take my photos. Because those are really the only ones I can take, and those I the ones I am happiest with anyway.

So it is true – as everyone concludes their “photographer’s struggle” blog posts: just get out and shoot. That is virtually all there is to it. But there is another important component. Let go of the angst. Art and creativity does not equal angst. Change your mindset. Stop dwelling on creativity, thinking about creativity, reading about creativity…and just go create. Shoot your photos, improve on your photos, and be happy knowing that with each frame you are learning and progressing. Besides, you shouldn’t want to be imitating anyone else because you don’t want to be called “The next Henri Cartier Bresson.” You want some future budding photographer to be called “The next (your name here).”

Rome Sant'Ivo Sant Ivo alla Sapienza Borromini Italy
Rome – Street with view of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini

(These photos were taken the first time I ever used a “real” camera, an SLR – a Canon AE-1 I borrowed for an afternoon. Taken in Rome, Italy in 1990 or 1991 while studying with the University of Notre Dame Architecture Rome Studies Program. Not a bad start, huh?!)