As I wrote recently to a friend — Steve, I think you are looking in the wrong place for a solution to your photo-malaise. You are looking at process, not purpose. Changing cameras, lenses, experimenting with film, seeking to emulate other photographers (although that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself) — these are all process issues and are not a solution.
As the always iconoclastic and often perceptive Andrew Molitor says, “Photographers, culturally, seem to have a terrible problem with looking for technical solutions to creative problems.”
The cure for photo-malaise is not process, it is purpose. Why are you taking pictures? If the goal of making pleasing photographs is simply to make pleasing photographs, your efforts will sooner or later run out of steam and lapse into photo-malaise. I was a photographer for many years, even a professional for most of that time, before I discovered who I am as a photographer. When I was photographing for clients I was usually working on some kind of project and toward a specific purpose. I often found that work satisfying, although I did not at the time understand why. When photographing for myself I sought to make pleasing pictures, but more or less at random.
It was while working on a project — photographs for the book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era in the mid-’90s that I began to find a sense of who I am as a photographer. I think of it as “finding my voice.” After the book came out it attracted some attention in the art photography community and I received a letter from a well-known art photographer who urged me to create an artist’s statement, defining myself and my work. I thought about it, and this is what I came up with:
“My domain is the old, the odd, and the ordinary; the beautiful, the abandoned, and the about to vanish away. I am a visual historian of an earlier America and a recorder of the interface between man and nature; a keeper of vanishing ways of life.”
While traveling to make the photographs for the Rock City Barn book, I began picking up pictures for another subject that interested me, and now it’s almost ready to become a book: Found on Road Dead: An Anthology of Abandoned Automobiles.
Since that time, I’ve been accumulating photographs for various projects in keeping with my statement of purpose. Photography is almost complete for Lost Barns of Rock City — a book of barns that were lost from Rock City’s records and which I discovered on my various travels or in response to tips from people who knew of barns that were not in the first book. Other book projects in various stages of photography include Old Houses of Georgia, People of Georgia, Tennessee: A Backroads Portrait, and Israel Today: The Land and the People.
Does all that sound ambitious? Of course it is! Will some (any) of these books see publication? Possibly. Georgia: A Backroads Portrait is complete and is currently making the rounds of publishers. And Countryman Press, which rejected Backroads Portrait because they no longer do coffee-table books, nevertheless assigned me to create a book in a different format, Backroads and Byways of Georgia, which was released in 2017.
Meantime, I don’t have to worry about photo-malaise. I only have to worry about finding time and money (for travel) to work on my various projects. I am 82, in reasonable health, and have a reason to get up every morning. I will continue to pursue my photo-projects as long as I can. Find yourself a project. Or several. Breath new life into your photography. The world is full of opportunities.
By the way, this is exactly the approach recommended by Magnum photographer David Hurn in his great little book On Being a Photographer (written with Bill Jay).
Check out Georgia: A Backroads Portrait at Blurb.com
And if you should happen to have a friend in the publishing business. . .
Dave Jenkins blogs at alifeinphotography.blogspot.com
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