Repost: the value of having a muse

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.** Being able to revisit these at will is useful, I think: it’s for the same reason a local will always get better images than a visitor; they’re simply more likely to be there when something interesting happens.

**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.

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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 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.

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From the Paradise Lost series – I’ve now shot there perhaps a dozen times; what I need now is a dark, rainy atmosphere, and lots of it. I think the mood will be something else.

Then there’s the difference between various types of equipment: image quality aside, I find some cameras are simply more conducive to some types of images than others. Smaller cameras seem to encourage experimentation, larger ones, more care and considered shooting. There is also progress to be made from experimentation of what I think of as ‘unfit for purpose’ – shooting street with medium format, or landscapes with an iPhone, for instance. Interestingly, cameras where you can see outside the frame – rangefinders, some of the Fuji cameras and any Hasselblad with a crop digital back and mask – seem to subconsciously make you concentrate more on ensuring that the subject itself is the most immediately obvious thing in the frame. Hopefully this in turn means 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.

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KLCC – one of my usual haunts in Kuala Lumpur. I carry a camera just in case; sometimes you will encounter unusual light or a perspective you’ve never seen before while waiting for your wife.

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.

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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.

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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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  1. Spencer H. says:

    When I was ten, I had a Kodak 110 camera. When my parents would give me a cartridge of film to go use, I would end up using the whole thing on our neighbors husky. He was fascinating to me. I never had a dog growing up, and here was this beautiful fluffy dog right next door to me. It was truly the first thing I loved photographing.

    Fast forward to when I got my own dog, and the amount of photos I have of her compared to my wife is probably 20 to 1 in the dogs favor. She is not only a gorgeous dog, but also incredibly athletic, so I have by photographing her become both better at portraiture (with other dogs and people) as well as better at photographing action. She really does inspire me to shoot more often, and reminded me of my childhood love of photographing animals (though not wildlife)

    Great article!

  2. I try not to be prescriptivist, hewing to Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy, but still. In general, a “muse” isn’t just any old thing that inspires, it has connotations of singularity, of uniqueness, or near uniqueness. It’s more than simply an inspiring subject.

    This quibble, should not, of course, stand in the way of investigating what happens to inspire us.

    • Oops, I am stupidly logged in to my, rather zesty, wordpress account. You may wish to delete the previous comment, or, um, edit it if possible, to avoid linking your blog to mine, as mine is, well, it’s smut innit. I meant to post anonymously. Sorry!

    • Singularity/unqiueness to the particular artist/individual is the key, right? And that could be an inspiring object or place or feeling or…?

      • I don’t wish to sidetrack from the essential point you’re making here, but yes, common usage of “muse” is that an individual artist normally has one or a small grouped set at a time. The muse, while often a person, can be anything, as you note. One does not speak, generally, of disparate things, people, places, as being “muses” at the same time. “She is my muse, I also find Yosemite Valley inspiring” (i.e. Yosemite, while inspiring, isn’t my muse). But, honestly, your point is perfectly clear and this is just quibbling about word usage, so I will hush up now if that’s OK!

  3. A very warm, interesting and in some aspects touching and personal view – I loved the article, what a great interruption of a quite busy day! Thank you, Ming.

  4. liramusic says:

    Wonderful thread! Now, I tend to be dreamy by nature so how can I even respond without rambling; here it is, this moment of muse upon muse. So this, to mull, muse, to ponder, or to contemplate. I am thinking inwardly and even thinking that love is a muse with its never-ending way. I am inwardly feeling a sway of feelings with not as much specificity when it comes to… the muse; a beautiful drift f thought. I think it’s a verb. Within a muse this poetic sensibility.
    I wander far in my thoughts from the hard work of craft and that sort of tangible discussion.
    In music (wait, muse… mus-ic?) there is this thing off to the side to an experimental musician which is sound poetry. I bring that up thinking that muse has cadence. A cold, foggy bog at 5am in summer has cadence. So too a night sky or sunset. So does a gaze.
    I am imagining now that “inspiration” is more specific and outward…
    In music, thinking of jazz, my work, there is this thing called riffing. It is a sort of muse. It has no beginning or end. It has a more prayer-ish feeling and, unlike inspiration, is not meant to be remembered or written down. It is self indulgent.
    I’ll end here and no reply is needed for this. Thus my muse-y response. 5:49am & rainy. Muse.

    • Riffing = meditations?

      As for cadence, I’ve always thought of it as mood/pace – even in a static capture such as a photograph; more so with a passage of music or a snippet of video.

      • liramusic says:

        The riff, to me at least and i had bumped over to music muse, is where there is no plan, no goal, no exact beginning or end. If there was it would not be riffing. It is done aimed more at mood and involves a loop in some sense. Musical riffs singular become a sort of spot, as if it were a location. One “goes” there. I myself alone settle into fourths coupled with thirds with jazz. So it seemed meditative to me, and like a muse. I hope this added a little. I have to run. A muse, like riffing, is decontextualized I think. Also like meditating it thrives on a meditative loop of some sort. Then if we allow for shape, I suddenly think here, the jump back to photography might make sense. Does that kind of make sense. The repetitive sense of something and then cadence, but quite without context. Well like I said I hope this adds a little.

  5. Ming, I’m seeing you become more philosophical since you took on the mantle of a Hasselblad Ambassador. :D)

    Do you feel one can stretch the definition of “muse” to include a specific camera or lens? Mostly, these are simply tools to enable us to capture an image to the best of our ability, but can one have a relationship to a particular camera or lens, such as no other? Or do you limit it to the process of capturing the image, irrespective of the tools used?

    For me, there are times when a specific camera or lens, in these cases my Contax IIIa/f1.5/50 Sonnar, and the Voigtlander Heliar 15mm, draw me to use them. I needn’t have any pre-conceived subject, I just feel a need to take them out, but I know that when I shoot with them I am definitely more focused (sorry about the pun) and in the case of the lens it just isn’t its extreme perspective but which, naturally, does force my eye to see differently. If muse isn’t appropriate, what is there more than simple pleasure that draws me to use them for no other reason than what they are?

    • Not really. I just don’t have to think about gear anymore, so it’s back to the photography and the philosophy 🙂

      Yes, I think hardware can be a muse too – if something makes you just want to go experiment and shoot, then why not? That sounds very much like a muse to me.

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Mine is “light” – I find it fascinating to attempt to see what is there, in all its forms, in front of me – sometimes it translates into a shot, other times I like to believe that observing different light and lighting effects embeds itself in my head and leads me to a deeper understanding of things I want to capture with a camera.

    The sky, the clouds, and all the “effects” they can create are major part of this. While walking my dog yesterday afternoon, I looked up and was moved by the way the clouds seemed quite unreal – painted on a blue background, but not really part of it. Another day I tried to draw the attention of someone I was talking to that the real beauty of the sunset was NOT in the west – it was in the clouds to the east, forgotten by practically everyone, as they lusted after the rich glow of the setting sun – but the subtle colours on the opposite side of the sky, behind their backs, were vastly more interesting on that particular evening.

    And when I later head out to take photographs, I like to think that spending time absorbing greater knowledge, understanding and detail of how light mutates or varies, helps me to improve my photography. The sky, for instance, is generally a feature of landscape shots – often a feature of architectural shots – but it doesn’t stop with skies. Most of the lighting for most of our photos comes from the sky, and while I may have my back to the sky, it still affects and colours what lies in front of my camera’s lens.

    • Skies, of course! There’s inordinate pleasure to be had in a beautiful cloud, and a little melancholy knowing that it will never be repeated again, too…

  7. Sometimes we have to stop , step back, muse,
    to be run later..

  8. Very well written article, great reading to start the week! My main source of inspiration (muse) are my photography books as well as a few blogs of unbelievably creative photographers I follow. They provide input for new things to try out and guidance in what areas I need to improve. I believe that as photographer there will always be room for improvement and ways to expand your horizon. A level of full perfection will never be reached, but satisfaction with the progress or reached milestone (e.g. mastering a certain technique) can be achieved. And to continously drive us forward (especially in times of mental blockage with happens to all of us once in a while) inspiration (or a muse) is vital. Besides the books its also gear that drives me to shoot/improve. I treated myself to an Olympus PEN-F. The beauty of this camera makes me pick her up and go out and shoot.

    • Thanks. Cameras of beauty definitely make us want to pick them up and go use them! I also think there is probably something in the malcontent: maybe this is the artist’s perpetual quandary; always a bit dissatisfied that leads to unhappiness in one’s own work, but also the underlying source of the drive that makes and artist keep creating…

  9. Very interesting reading. While, like you, I am married to a very interesting person (who also has little interest in photography), I don’t consider her a “muse”. She’s fine with me taking her picture, but I tend to only do that when something special is going on.

    If I have a muse, it’s probably “travel”. There are things about traveling I can’t stand : mainly the getting there, the airports, and all that hassle. But when I’m in a new place, or somewhere I don’t go often, then my eyes light up and my photographic antenna goes into overdrive. This is in one sense obvious – you see things which you either have never seen before, or see infrequently, so they tend to excite the imagination more. Tokyo in particular does it for me – I go there on average once or twice a year, and never fail to come back with a lot of keepers – but I also visit Hokkaido regularly for family reasons, and that’s a totally different environment too. While my “home city” in Japan (Nagoya) has plenty of visual stimulus, it’s probably like Kuala Lumpur for you – you have to look that much harder to find a new angle, or a novel look.

    That being said, could we also maybe say that “learning” is a muse? I’ve been studying composition and colour recently, and the very act of trying to integrate what I’ve learned into a picture is in itself very rewarding – it slows you down a lot and really makes you think, and when you successfully get a picture using that knowledge, there’s a considerable amount of satisfaction to be had.

    In any case, a good subject for discussion!

    • We may be straying from the original intent a little – a muse is the same subject that you feel compelled to reinterpret (or inspires you to do so) and thereby experiment and improve one’s seeing. A place is therefore perhaps a bit too general, since you may well visit areas you’ve never seen before. I do agree that Tokyo is one of the photographically richest places on earth though…

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