We all know writers get writer's block, unsure where to take a story or article or essay. And you're probably aware that painters and other visual artists like sketch artists and illustrators can deal with artist's block. But were you aware that landscape photographers can get blocked too? I'll file it under Artist's Block for want of a better term, but even those of us capturing scenes that already exist, as opposed to having to conjure stories and paintings from our imagination, can have a creative block from time to time. So, what are the signs, and how do I deal with it?
Can Landscape Photographers Get Artist's Block? And How I Deal With It
For me, creative block tends to manifest in two ways. The first is that none of the local landscape spots excite me. I'm dealing with that right now. The thought that generally goes through my head is "How many times can I photograph that lighthouse, anyway?" Or "How many lobster boat photos do I really need?" Of course, this thought process is self-defeating, but it's all part of the self-doubt that creeps into many an artist's mindset from time to time. It goes right along with doubt about whether my work is good enough, am I producing enough, am I producing too much? And on and on. Something all creatives tend to deal with to some extent or another.
When I first visited Maine in 1998, I thought, "I could move here and never tire of photographing this landscape." And I meant it. But at the same time, familiarity breeds contempt. When I finally did move here in 2016, I was working a full time job, but I made it a point to get out and photograph every day off I had. I'd pick someplace I'd never been before, find out what was in that area, and off I went. I spent my first 3 years after moving here doing nothing but exploring Maine, only briefly leaving the state to photograph nearby in New Hampshire or Vermont. But now it's six years later, and while there are still places in Maine I haven't seen yet, they tend to be more distant and require more than a few hours' drive. They're on my list, but harder for me to get to because I have to plan a few days away to do so.
So how do I deal with this malaise where I want to be get out and photograph and create new images, but I have to choose something closer to home that can be reached in an hour or so? One thing I do quite a bit is watch the weather. Extreme weather conditions, such as a passing nor'easter, a winter storm, or even just the fall foliage turning, can change the familiar into something fresh and new. So I keep an eye out during hurricane season. Even if the storm won't affect us directly, it can create dramatic waves that can change the landscape entirely. And everything looks different in the snow. For instance, the image of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse that leads off this journal entry is the only time I've ever seen it snow-covered. I'd photographed there dozens of times, but the snow made it different, made it fresh. And I must say, I have yet to see another photograph of the lighthouse that is anything like that image. And that's what we all strive for- unique images that elicit an emotional response from people.
Another method of dealing with artist's block for me, is trying new techniques in a spot where I typically photograph it differently. It may be long exposure, or it may be that I plan for a black and white image long before I get back to my computer to edit. Forcing myself into working in ways different than my usual can sometimes keep me from repeating myself too much, and sometimes works magic in getting me an image I'm really excited about, from a location that doesn't inspire that excitement on its own. Sometimes it can be as simple as using a lens I wouldn't normally use at that spot, and forcing myself to look at the scene differently.
I mentioned earlier that creative block tends to manifest itself in two ways for me, the first being a general boredom with my local area. This tends to lead me into the second manifestation. I've often talked about how I have a wicked case of wanderlust. When I visit somewhere new, I am always inspired to try and capture the character of the area, the feeling I have when I see it for the first time. This was especially true of the first time I visited Glacier National Park, or the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, having never seen mountains taller than four or five thousand feet up close before. They continue to call to me, since I've only had a few chances to photograph them and explore.
I think the wanderlust grows out of the creative block, knowing that in a new place, I'll be inspired to photograph because I've never been there before. Also, knowing that my time there is limited and I don't know when I may be able to get back, I want to make the most of it, so I'll photograph even when conditions are less than ideal. I'm often surprised at the images I can make even though I wasn't enamored of the conditions while I was making them.
The wanderlust is a harder symptom to deal with, unfortunately. Travel is expensive, and as most of us know, being an artist isn't quite as lucrative a career as it could be. So I bide my time, save when I can, and try to plan a few trips a year with other photographers to keep costs down, all in hopes of keeping the wanderlust at bay.
Finally, if I'm not feeling up to getting out and photographing locally- locally meaning anywhere within about two hours' drive- I'll dig into my files to see what hidden gems I can find. I have every photo I've taken in about the past 15 or 20 years, give or take a few, and there are plenty that, while still unedited, are still worth showing off if I ever get to them. Sometimes it's nice to revisit a trip long past, and find photos I haven't edited yet, and go back there for a while as I edit the image now.
These methods have served me fairly well over the years to help break a creative block. I'm always open to other suggestions if anyone has any! And if you'd like to feed the wanderlust, I'm always open to commissions of photographs to capture the essence of a special place for you.