I’ve noticed that my periods of creative productivity tend to come and go in cycles. I’m going to use as a gauge the number of folders of portfolio grade images I produced in a year. It’s a reasonably proxy given that my ‘hit rate’ has remained relatively consistent – about 1/5 to 1/10th of the images that survive the multiple editing cuts and make it through post processing, and that I keep folders to approximately 40 images so as to be able to find things easily (the number must be some psychological holdover from the earlier film days to do with the length of a roll).
2002 – I didn’t know what a portfolio was and was just pleased to have images vaguely resembling the things I saw at the time of capture
2003 – I knew what a portfolio was, but didn’t think any of my images qualified
2004 – 13
2005 – 21
2006 – 21
2007 – 31 – a peak year for camera testing during my editorship of CLICK! – I had to get out and shoot
2008 – 20
2009 – 26
2010 – 22 – a very, very busy year at work
2011 – 29
2012 – 30
2013 – 6, (and it’s only early Feb; if I keep going at this rate, I’m looking at a whopping 52 this year)
However, this isn’t really a full picture, because creativity spans a large range of pursuits. In 2010 I also directed two short corporate videos; in 2007 and 2011 I designed a number of watch calibers; last year and this year, there were 508 articles posted to this site, spanning about a million words of content and the dictionary and camerapedia, each of which are upwards of 40,000 words alone – all in all, that’s about ten paperback novels. (And this isn’t even my primary job!) By comparison, 2004-6 and 2008 were relative creative deserts; I know know for a fact that this was due to having a very high workload in my day job – I was either in audit or management consulting* at the time, which left almost no time for photography.
*A land where ‘weekend’ is a word without definition or enthusiasm, and the concept of ‘work life balance’ had to be invented to describe something that really didn’t exist. I got a call from another project team from my ex-company late on Chinese New Year Eve – a time when most people in this part of the world are having a reunion dinner with their extended families – begging me to help them with a case.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think periods of prolific productivity coincide with lulls in other things. That’s to say that my overall workload doesn’t remain constant. At a more macro level – on a weekly or monthly basis – I definitely go through stages where I don’t produce anything at all, and don’t even feel inspired to; I also go through stages where I’ll have five or six shoots in a week, and create work that I feel moves the bar for me. Late January was a good example of both: to be honest, I didn’t feel very inspired or much like shooting in Myanmar; issues with Paypal and wonky internet services as well as dealing with the restrictions of shooting a prototype meant that my mind really wasn’t tuned into the creative process; sure, I shot a lot over those five days – somewhere around 4,500 images – but partially that was to test the extremes of the shooting envelope in the course of evaluating the camera, and partially because I didn’t really feel like I was nailing things first time around. (I suppose I could blame the camera, but that would be unprofessional; in the end I still got there, but with a bit more fiddling than I would have otherwise liked.)
Conversely, I shot a one-day job at the end of January where I went through six rolls of various types of MF film with the Hasselblad – about 60 shots in total because some of the rolls had other things on them from previous occasions; my hit rate here was perhaps as high as 80-90%. This is very, very high for me – digital yields are normally 1-5% because I chase perfection – and high even for my film work, which is usually closer to 50-60%. I don’t think it was because of the way I was shooting – nothing much changes there – but I do think it was because of the environment in which I was working; it was inspiring and I was seeing absolutely no end of possible subjects. I spent an entire day inside one building of industrial/ heavy engineering processes covering perhaps half an acre – and felt like I didn’t even remotely begin to cover everything.
Even within the same location, job or trip – I see similar patterns. Take my two-week trip in late 2011 to Vienna and Prague, for instance – I wasn’t really seeing it in Vienna, and felt so-so about the product. Prague improved dramatically; on the last two days of the trip – one in Prague, one in Vienna before flying home – I think I probably made 3/4 or more of my portfolio grade images. I think something changed for me in those two days: whether it was because I had a better feel of the place, and thus had some idea or expectation of what to look for, or whether it was because the light/ weather was simply better – it was – I don’t know. Quite possibly a combination of both.
During these periods of prolificacy, it feels as though the world is throwing images at you so fast that you can’t seem to get everything; you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shooting opportunities and potential frames. The photographic process almost becomes a stream-of-consciousness exercise. The curious thing is that while you keep shooting, there are definitive frames you remember taking, and those you don’t; I personally find it’s those I don’t that seem to stand the test of time and rigors of the editing/ culling process better. Perhaps it’s because that bias of favouritism has been removed – my theory is the longer you spend trying to execute an image, the harder it is for you to walk away from it afterwards if it doesn’t meet quality control or compositional standards. If you don’t remember shooting an image – i.e. not have any bias of favouritism – then it’s easier for you to assess it objectively (or as objectively as you can when it comes to a subjective art) later on.
I actually don’t know if it’s a good thing or not; most of the time, photographically, I feel like I’m either walking in a desert or trying to drink from a fire hose – there really is no balance. It’s the difference between having to actively search for a shot, and just seeing it in front of you. You feel pressured in a good way – not like I’ve-got-silly-deadlines-and-I’m-going-to-die, but more akin to Neo-mowing-down-the-hoarde-of-Agent-Smiths-in-the-Matrix-Returns way. I’m pretty sure long term exposure to this kind of thing is likely to induce some kind of manic behaviour; I sometimes find myself torn with restlessness when I’m uninspired, and worn out after being unable to do anything but shoot, and even more so – adding frustration to the list – when you have to produce images of something that doesn’t inspire you at all. (Though I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have to explain this to my boss.)
The point of this rather meandering series of thoughts is that I frequently wonder if this kind of behaviour is something all photographers experience, or whether it’s just me; most sites and fora are too busy discussing equipment to actually think about why and how we shoot. Producing outstanding images is an ongoing and holistic process that involves light, subject, photographer, camera and audience; if we restrict ourselves to the common two or three – light, camera, subject – and ignore the others, we’ll never fully master the outcome. Personally, understanding how I shoot and under which conditions I produce my best work is important so that I can consistently achieve this.
The troubling thing is that it seems my best work is generally produced when I’m in a semi-autopilot state and don’t consciously think about all aspects of the photographic process; or perhaps this is when everything falls into place without having to force it. Now, I either need to figure out what combination of external factors triggers this state – and either look for it, or learn to engineer it – and/ or try to work out exactly what it is I do differently, and consciously replicate it. Or perhaps it’s something that you simply can’t fully control, and this is what adds that extra something. MT
It would be interesting to hear your thoughts in the comments: what conditions make you produce the work your most proud of? What conditions do you like to shoot under?
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