Sometimes, before a photo shoot, I’ll grab something like B&W Magazine and just look at the photographs: randomly turn the pages and let my gaze float. Away from the house, I might arrive a little early and look through photo.net on the phone. It’s kind of like a runner doing stretches or a musician playing scales. I sometimes think of it as “tuning up the eye.” I start seeing regular life as images. Maybe it lights up the brain’s photo neuron pathways.
For one thing, you start seeing the world in shapes—a triangle here, a rectangle there—and the relationships between them. The empty space becomes a shape of its own. Like Miles Davis, you start playing the space between the notes. And you start to see tones. You look at scenes to spot that 18% gray for the camera’s meter to latch onto—especially important if you’re using a spotmeter. (I find that my Canons read more like 12% gray.) A frame begins drawing itself around the everyday. Once you begin seeing that way, it’s sometimes hard to shake.
In almost any art, it’s vital to experience the work of others. If you write plays, read plays (or reread favorites). Play guitar? Listen, even if the guitarist works in a form that leaves you a bit cold. The country Telecaster picker can teach the Ibanez-wielding shredder a few things and vice versa. Take photographs? Look at pictures. Lots of pictures. All the time.
A point comes, however, to put down the book or magazine or close the website. Obviously, if everything you shoot comes out looking a bit too much like your favorites, it’s at least best to look at someone else’s work. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to look at anyone at all. The tank fills. In fact, particularly if you’re feeling stuck, it’s best not only to put away the big Weston collection but to stop looking at photographs altogether. Just for a stretch. Do something else. Anything else. Maybe not go to the movies (as they’re moving photographs), but go for a drive. Listen to music. Dig in the garden. Go for a walk and leave the camera home. Let the photo brain take a rest. The same goes for whatever art you’re engaged in.
A few art forms lead themselves to this. One of the things I like about writing for theatre is that it takes two forms. The first comes when you’re composing, whether that means conducting research or actually putting down words. The second comes when you have a production or reading, and you collaborate with a director and actors. You get the introvert and extrovert time. Even so, really making a concerted effort to stop thinking about your form, much less practicing it, not only can make you happy—it can keep you sane.
That is, we kind of get locked into our art. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when you’re facing a deadline. Other times, it’s a symptom of the artist’s obsessive side. People often ask me how I can write every morning before work. They praise my discipline, but, really, it’s a mixture of habit and bloody-mindedness: I can’t think of anything else. And my brain’s become so conditioned that it starts coughing up ideas around 6:00 and won’t let go until I shake some words loose. (It’s worth noting that some of those dedicated writing hours are spent staring into space and sipping coffee to kick the brain into working order; other mornings, I just give up and read something: the brain’s hung up its gone fishing sign.)
This won’t necessarily be easy, especially if you’re locked in deep. If you practice multiple arts, whether professionally or as a hobby, working in another form can distract the mind—shiny, shiny!—and give your overworked gray areas a breather without going into total withdrawals.
Strangely enough, the tension you may feel not working on your chosen art may be a good thing. It’s a sign that your unconscious mind is throwing its weight around, churning under the surface. Because, realistically, you’ll never stop working. It’s just not going to happen. You’ll start dreaming about it. You’ll experience intrusive thoughts that will make you want to run to the pen or the camera. But if you can get to the point, where you’re not in acute discomfort and you’re enjoying something else…like life…finally returning to your form can bring more than relief. You might find that you’ve improved. That you’ve been able to do something that, previously, you could not, whether it’s automatically spotting that 18% gray or playing a guitar riff that’s been eluding you.
Though a seeming paradox, sometimes you have stop to progress. You have to give your unconscious time to run. Often, it’ll surprise you. If nothing else, you’ve had a break, a little vacation from the Effort That Never Ends. And that’s never a bad thing.