Overcoming Photographer’s Block, Part 1: The Creative Process

(First of two parts.)

All artists, including photographers, go through dry spells. In my case, the symptoms of being creatively blocked are obvious: ideas for new images or projects stop flowing; I take pictures of things that don’t really interest me; I find myself photographing the same people, places and things, in the same “old” ways.

Understanding what psychologists believe happens in the brain during the creative process — the subject of this post — can help photographers get the creative juices flowing again. In the second part of this article, running next week, I’ll share specific steps that have helped me get out of creative — or rather, non-creative — ruts.

Five Phases of the Creative Process

One of the first models of the creative process was introduced by psychologist Graham Wallas in 1926. It has survived pretty much intact, with a few additions, deletions and reinterpretations over the years. Wallas thought there were five phases involved: preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification.

Those are big words for what are actually simple concepts. I’ll go through each of them and explain them in photographic terms.

1. Preparation. In this case, preparation doesn’t mean reformatting your memory cards, recharging your AAs, or packing up your lenses. It’s defined as the moment when a “problem” is first recognized, or a goal is first set. I usually formulate these objectives as questions. It might be a very general idea, such as, “How can I take newer, fresher landscapes?” On the other hand, it might be highly specific, for example, “What must I do to take a truly distinct photograph of the Statue of Liberty?”

It’s important that we spend some of our non-photographic time thinking about what our goals are, whether they are purely commercial, purely artistic, or somewhere in between.

2. Incubation. Incubation, according to psychologists, is one of the most interesting phases. It’s largely a time of subconscious reflection on how to get that Statue of Liberty photograph, or those fresh, new landscapes. You may not even be aware that your brain is working on the problem, and sometimes, it’s easy to confuse incubation with creative block. The important thing is to recognize that real inspiration does not come without serious consideration of the issue at hand, and to be prepared to give yourself time.

It’s also important to “feed” your brain during this phase. Look at landscape photographs or paintings. Read about how other photographers have worked. Look at existing photographs of the Statue of Liberty. Arm your brain with as much information as possible so that it can come to the best, most informed solution. Because a solution is coming — though you may not realize it.

3. Intimation. The idea of intimation is pretty simple, even though it’s a big word. You might get the feeling that the solution is “coming to you,” because, in fact, it is.

4. Illumination. Illumination is usually called the “eureka” moment. It’s the breakthrough, the instant when you have a clear idea in your head of how you want your landscapes to look, or how exactly you’re going to take a unique photograph of the Statue of Liberty for a client. It may come when you least expect it, while you’re in the shower or commuting to work, but it’s the result of a lot of work on the part of your faithful old brain.

5. Verification. The final phase is where the idea is verified and then applied. Because moments of inspiration come and go, and are quickly forgotten, I always keep a small notebook with me to write things down. Examples might be, “Shoot Statue of Liberty with toy Holga camera and black-and-white film,” or, “Photograph roadside landscapes with slow shutter speeds from a fast moving vehicle.” Those may seem like radical ideas, but they’re also the kinds of things that pop out of your head when you’ve spent a lot of time trying to resolve a problem.

The important thing to remember is that creativity, like photography itself, is a process, with its own theoretical laws. Understanding that the brain, similarly to a computer, sometimes needs time to find a way out of the creative doldrums is an important step in avoiding those moments altogether. It’s also helpful to remember that creative block, for any artist, is not permanent, much less fatal.

3 Responses to “Overcoming Photographer’s Block, Part 1: The Creative Process”

  1. Applies to so much -- thanks!

  2. I find that some of my best 'eureka' moments come when on long drives - but if I don't note it quickly, some of these ideas can be lost before I reach my destination. To prevent that, I now keep a small digital voice recorder in my vest to record the ideas as they occur.

  3. I feel like I'm in a huge dry spell. Ready to open the gates now though! Thanks!

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