This has been another one of those tricky articles to write – mainly because a lot of self-reflection went into it, and as we all know, it’s very difficult to do that and remain objective. The essays is illustrated with images that are representative of experiments that worked – things I was inspired to try with various muses, and in turn learned something from.
What is a muse? In its purest form, a muse is perhaps best defined as something that triggers inspiration in an artistic or creative sense. It doesn’t have to be an inanimate object; most artists’ muses tend to be people; in fact, most artists tend to land up romantically involved with their muses. Creativity is impossible to separate from inspiration, and inspiration is a very close bedfellow of attachment – attachment to an idea. (I know this sounds like Inception, but bear with me here.*)
*On an unrelated note, that movie contains one of the most spectacular dining rooms I’ve ever seen – from a design and architectural point of view. And I suspect it would be pretty cool as both a photographic subject and backdrop, too.
This attachment can take many forms. From a specifically artistic point of view, the main one is to try and capture the essence of the subject in the artist’s work; in fact, an extremely challenging muse is probably the best thing an artist can have, because no matter how hard they try, they will never feel as though they’ve done the subject justice – and this is what drives the growth of creativity. It’s not so much attachment to the subject per se, as an obsession with the desire to capture the subject in a medium or object other than the subject itself – which is in itself doomed to failure, because the more one understands about a subject, the more one realizes that it’s impossible to reproduce it in another medium – especially if the subject is something live and changing, like a person.
So in effect, muses are necessary stimulants to creativity. There are a few things that make a good muse: complexity and multidimensionality is one; ease of access is another (you never know when an idea might strike, and you just have to try something out); finally, some sort of flux or dynamism is another – which is why most muses tend to be things that offer infinitely variable possibilities – for instance, Ansel Adams and Yosemite – or a person.
Having a muse is also an admission of the artist to imperfection – at least in their own minds. If the artist was happy with their work, they’d finish one piece of art – take one photograph – feel like they’ve nailed the shot, and then never look at the subject again. By trying to photograph something repeatedly, it says both that there’s perhaps more to capture than is possible in a single frame, as well as all of the past frames being insufficient or incomplete in some way.
A person may have many muses. You might, for instance, be inspired by a particular place or location; an object, and a person. Most of mine fall into the latter two categories, though the objects tend to be somewhat short-lived. I’ll start with the easy one – objects. I tend to accumulate objects of design. I have a huge weakness for things which have unique (but functional) design elements; things made of unusual or highly tactile materials and textures; and things that just look good. Past random acquisitions include a miniature fountain pen with no clip; a vase with a hole so impractically small that you would be hard pressed to fit even a single flower stem in it, but an incredibly unique texture; and fifteen stuffed polar bears.** And of course there are the watches, too.
**You may have already seen these make cameo appearances in various camera tests. Their white fur is an excellent test subject for highlight tonality, microcontrast, and of course fine detail reproduction.
Most of these objects will be the subjects of several photo sessions, or until I’m happy with at least one or two of the images I’ve captured. After that, they don’t change, so they don’t really serve much of a challenge photographically; however they litter my apartment as monuments to my design curiosity. But by far the biggest guilty pleasure of mine are cameras and lenses; yes, they are technical tools used to capture an image. But different cameras also force you to shoot differently and think about composition in different ways; a great example is a compact, or a monochrome-only camera. The former removes the crutch of bokeh, and forces you to rely on subject differentiation solely via framing and light; the latter forces you to see luminance, texture and shadow, rather than contrasts in color. Both are refreshing, and mastery helps you improve overall as a photographer.
Then there’s the difference between rangefinders and SLRs – viewing and focusing method aside, I find the biggest difference is that a rangefinder forces you to focus more on your subject – you can’t see what’s in focus and what isn’t; you can’t frame precisely. Shot properly, both of those things subconsciously make you concentrate more on ensuring that the subject itself is the most immediately obvious thing in the frame, and the primary composition is so strong that whatever might be in the edges or out of focus areas of the frame become secondary, and do not detract from the subject. A new camera makes you want to go out and shoot with it, too – and that motivation is often enough to make you get images you wouldn’t otherwise have managed if you’d either stayed at home or not bothered to experiment with.
Japan is also a source of endless inspiration for me – perhaps because the place is just so different from anywhere else in the world, especially the old world of Europe where I used to live, and the developing world of South-East Asia where I now live. I step off the plane and feel excited – those very differences that pervade every aspect of daily life force you to approach subjects with fresh eyes and curiosity; you take experimental risks and try things you normally wouldn’t at home or on a commercial shoot, where risk might equal loss of a client. I think every photographer needs these creative trips on a semi-regular basis as a way of forcing your eyes not to take things for granted, especially when back home. Seeing something done differently overseas tends to make you wonder what’s normal – it is of course all relative – but perhaps enough for you to find a worthwhile frame in the course of your daily life you might have otherwise ignored.
My biggest muse, by far, is my long-suffering wife. She is crash test dummy for new equipment and technique, a partner in crime for experimentation, and a handy anonymous body when an empty scene happens to need one to complete the frame. (She isn’t that patient, though, which also forces me to hone my instinctive composition and technical skills – the less one has to think about something, the faster one works.) And as a person, I find her endlessly fascinating*** – which means that there are always facets of her personality that I’m trying to capture; regardless of whether I do or not, I’ll always feel there’s something left over the next hill – and that motivates me to keep shooting.
***I suppose if this wasn’t the case, then I probably married the wrong person. Perhaps there’s a photographic metaphor in this – maybe in choice of camera or choice of subject – but that remains another topic for another day.
Conversely, there are places I visit frequently with a camera – either as part of testing, or because I always have a camera of some sort on me – I will take some photos, but nothing in the location compels me to return. These I do not consider to be muses because they don’t inspire me; I just happen to be there and see something.
I highly recommend you find your own muse; it doesn’t have to be a person, or even a fellow photographer (my wife doesn’t really have any interest in taking pictures, and she is almost always surprised by the way the images turn out – despite having participated instrumentally in their creation). Rather, your muse is a reflection of you as a photographer – what is it that fascinates you? What inspires you? What makes you want to create? Finding and understanding that is a hugely important step to unlocking your creativity. MT
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