If I could only reach you
If I could make you smile
If I could only reach you
That would really be a breakthrough
Queen - Breakthrough
We all get it at some point...writer’s block. I find it happens towards the end of each month in particular when I sit down and try to pen the monthly photography essay for this publication. It happens in more than writing though, and photographer’s block can be even worse than writer’s block (at least for photographers that is). The inability to ‘find one’s groove’ and see the picture. It becomes frustrating and rapidly descends from there to demoralising, until we pack up our camera in disgust and stomp away from the scene we have been trying desperately to photograph.
I watched this unfold several times last year while on the Composing The Dunes Workshop. A photographer would be presented with incredible light, mind-numbing vistas, unique perspectives and then sit down and say, “I can’t see the picture!” The problem here is that photographer’s block has a nasty habit of happening when you are under pressure...and a workshop tends to add some of that pressure.
This is where we meet the primary blockage that so many photographers struggle through, seeing the picture. Or more accurately, not seeing the picture. Walking into an incredible landscape like those afforded to the photographers on the Composing The Dunes Workshop can be a an exercise in damning frustration. There is so much to photograph, so much to see that it becomes almost impossible to start. In a sense we are so overwhelmed by our surroundings that we cannot make visual sense or order of those surroundings.
As I have written before, landscape photography is not easy. With genres such as wildlife or sports, for an enthusiast, capturing the moment is the most important aspect. Then comes technical prowess and as a bonus aesthetics takes third place. This is certainly not the way it should be and master wildlife photographers will probably reverse that order as a matter of course. To the average enthusiast though, it is easier to capture a ‘good’ photograph of an animal, than a ‘good’ photograph of a landscape. Composition is almost secondary to the creation of the image in enthusiast wildlife photography, whereas with landscape composition is all important.
Moving from the singular moment to the broader issue of photographic block, many photographers can find themselves in a rut where they seem to be producing identical images with little self-perceived creativity. Onlookers might gush over the images but the photographer looks at them with disappointment. Approaching new scenes she might fall back on well-tried compositions and techniques, producing more sameness again and again (watch out wedding photographers this happens very easily).
So how does one break out of this block? Sadly I don’t have any absolute cure for this torrid situation that as a photographer you will experience. The best I have found in the singular situation is to simply put the camera down. If you are struggling to shoot it means that you are not enjoying yourself. Put the camera down. The more you fight it the worse it will get. Sit down, look at the view without the pressure of standing behind the tripod. Enjoy being where you are. Chances are as soon as you stop thinking about photography the pictures will start coming back.
If you are a methodical sort of person, consider wandering around without the camera looking at things until you find something that interests you (a tree, a stream, a rock, a leaf, anything). If you feel up to it, pick up the camera and photograph just that thing. The joy of being a photographer is that you learn to notice and appreciate the minutia.
Breaking out of an extended photographic block is a little harder. Personally I found one of the best things to solve this problem was getting hold of a small mirrorless camera (the Fujifilm XT-1). Selecting a piece of equipment that was so counter to my usual style of photography changed the way I used the camera. It was like a holiday in some ways. It allowed me to go back to my usual equipment with a new eye. This solution costs money though, which means that it is less than ideal for most photographers.
Creating great landscape images is a little bit like wooing the scene in front of you. We develop a relationship with the land at our feet. Sometimes I think of it as a kind of Zen, but more and more I also realise that it’s a kind of romantic poetry. For landscape that moves us we produce images that we hope are Wordsworths or Donnes. For landscapes that scare us, or move us to image the ‘place’ as less than ideal, possibly we feel a little bit of Yeats inside us. Whether it is fleeting or prolonged, as a photographer we are romancing the mountains, the desert, the forest, the ocean.
A photographic blockage is hard on the soul of a photographer because it feels like a yearning for love. It is as frustrating as a teenager confused by their own hormones. We fight it and in this fight we fall deeper into the despair of not being able to create the images that we so desperately want to...
We do find love in the landscape. We get the groove back. The first few days of Composing The Dunes workshop had several photographers hitting the photographic wall hard. The blockages seemed insurmountable. Like a good AA group, being with other photographers, completely immersed in photography for 12 whole days, I saw several breakthroughs. The results, a poetry of desert and sky and photographers with new found knowledge and a renewed desire to create great images.