Crisis of Vision

For over a year, I posted daily. A quote and a picture went out over the 1s and 0s every morning, a routine that was at once a burden and a blessing. It was a commitment I made to myself, mostly, as a way of building some sort of consistent and constructive creativity—what Merlin Mann calls “making the clackety noise.”

As you’ve probably noticed, this space has been updated infrequently, at best, the last year. After a huge stretch of daily and weekly posting, I let myself off the hook. I’d created a fairly massive archive of posts, which remains and, to my mind, holds up well. There are over 300 photos of the day, alone. I’m pretty proud of that work.

Frankly, I also got busy with lots of other projects, distractions, problems and life—so much so that this site just took a backseat. Of course, it was just excuses to stop making the clackety noise—and like my grandfather used to say, “excuses are like a**holes: everyone’s got ’em and they all stink except your own.” He was in the Navy and old school, so you’ll forgive him (and me) the language, but the point remains entirely true.

I took on a few photo projects, as well, a few that paid and a few that didn’t, but all of which offered different opportunities and kept me making what I’m going to call “the shuttery noise” occasionally, if not the clackety noise. That shuttery noise is the most important thing a photographer can do, ultimately. It’s motion and momentum, even if sometimes you’re just going through the motions. When it comes to being a creative, going through the motions is more often than not a better alternative to stopping. It’s easier to speed up from a slow crawl than it is to jump-start from a stop.

Some of those projects remain, including working with Hill Farmstead Brewery and Newport City Renaissance Corporation. I’m grateful for the work I’ve been able to do in these regards, not only for the fiscal rewards but the creative and professional ones. Both afford me the luxury of making the shuttery noise in the hours when I’m not stuck in my desk-jockey day job, even if there are times when it becomes overwhelming. Between these two on-going projects and slew of clients—dozens of family portraits, a wedding, etc.—I’m buried in frames and out of energy, not to mention time.

There really aren’t enough hours in the day, are there?

The other huge issue for me has been a substantial creative rut—more of a ditch, really. The “need” to make the shuttery noise, outside of assignments, is gone. I suppose that’s the thrust of this entire post, really.

It hit home the other day in a big way. As fall foliage began its yearly explosion here in Vermont and photos from peers and friends began appearing, I realized that I’m not seeing photos when I’m out and about. Where’s my vision? Part of me knows I’ve got to get out and make the shuttery noise, because this time of year is fleeting and beautiful, but in my daily commute, I just can’t see the compositions that once were everywhere. My built-in mental framing is missing; my vision’s out of focus.

Not only that, some of the amazing, creative work that people like my friend Matt Payer at Empire Imaging is doing blows my mind—but it’s not inspiring me to go shoot as much as wallow in a bit of self pity and insecurity. I know, such a first world problem.

However, it’s something that all creative types, especially photographers, face in their careers. I’ve gone through it in smaller doses over the years, and usually there are a few kick-starter, sure-fire ways to refocus the vision and get back to making the shuttery noise:

• Buy your way out of it.

One of my inspirations, both photographically and philosophically, is David duChemin. That’s abundantly clear with a simple keyword search on this site to see the number of times I’ve mentioned, raved or referenced him and his work. One of his mantras is “gear is good; vision is better,” and I wholeheartedly agree. However, he’s said, and I agree, that sometimes a new toy gets the creative juices running; it’s not a substitute for hard work or vision, but it can be a kick-starter. Gear costs money, though, and this year, is out of the picture; not only that, I’m not even seeing gear I want or think would excite me. Now, I know, that’s crazy talk.

Note to Canon, though: seriously, build a full-frame body with a REAL auto-focus system that isn’t embarrassingly bad like the 5D Mark II, in that price range or lower, and I just MIGHT be interested.

Note to reader and/or potential sponsors: Should the spirit move you, it’s possible one of those Lensbaby kits or even something silly like this could move the dial. I’m not making any promises, but if one arrives at my door, I’d certainly give it a try.

• Travel your way out of it.

I’m a huge lover of travel, especially Europe. Another one of my inspirations is Rick Steves, world famous travel writer, speaker and television guide. “Be a traveler, not a tourist,” is my guiding principle when abroad, which translates to photography as well. I already have a travel hitlist here, but transatlantic travel is expensive at the best of times.

Now, travel doesn’t have to be jumping on a plane for 8 hours and wandering a foreign land, though. There are thousands of miles on my vehicles from me just going for a drive and traveling my own backroads and byways. Some of my favorite images have come from simply heading out across the backroads with no real direction or destination. However, even local travel costs free time, and lately, that’s been few and far between—also, have you see the price of gas?!

• Wait your way out of it.

Sometimes, you just have to let your mind rest, too. A break is not a bad thing. If I wasn’t buried processing images that have to be done, I’d probably benefit from stepping away from the lens and the Lightroom for a bit. Clear the cobwebs, do something else and let the reservoir refill on its own. I’ve done this before, and invariably, the documentarian in me ends up grabbing a camera to shoot my progress, and I’m back making the shuttery noise.

The other part of waiting your way out if it that I’ve found useful is to immerse yourself in other work or books about photography. David duChemin’s books have all been creative milestones in my progression as a photographer and person, and more often than not, just being inspired by the words and his vision have propelled me out of a funk. Unfortunately, his next book isn’t out for a while, and that darn time issue presents itself, as well… I’d have to stay up all night to make free time to read as much as I like!

• Shoot your way out of it.

The surest way to get out of a rut has always been to just go shoot. I’d take a lunchtime walk and make myself pull the trigger. Unsurprisingly, that works a fair amount of time. I have dozens of great images of the waterfalls and river nearby.

The problem, of course, is the stress of then having those images to process. Right now, I have about 2,000 unprocessed frames that MUST get done for clients, not to mention the 5-6 upcoming shoots that will add to that total, so dumping a few dozen or hundred more “non-priority” frames into Lightroom (which is literally drowning in unprocessed frames from past treks—think 10-15,000 frames) just ratchets up the anxiety. Catch-22 if there ever was one.

The double-whammy is that I’m not as confident in what I am shooting right now, which adds to the stress of letting down the clients I have, who deserve my best vision.

Ultimately, it comes down to vision, as it always does. Gotta see before you make the shuttery noise.

Excuses are excuses; excuses don’t make the shuttery noise or the clackity noise, they just make NOISE. They’re what Seth Godin (via Merlin Mann) calls “the voice of the lizard brain,” always battering you with doubts, creating distractions: “The idea of the lizard brain is this: it is hungry, it is scared, it is selfish, and it is horny. That’s it’s job, and that’s all it does.” That lizard brain chatter plagues all creatives.

So, how am I going to get my vision back? How is Stella going to get her groove back? How can I make that reference with a straight face? Who knows for sure on all three counts.

Stay tuned, though. Maybe this post alone created a spark. Maybe the clackity noise I’m making will beat back the voice of the lizard brain enough to make the shuttery noise

Maybe a package will arrive at my door. 

Stranger things, dear reader, stranger things indeed.