February 10, 2017

Art, Identity & Doing the Work, Part 2

a loose continuation of the previous post

I'm exploring the trials, tribulations, and traumas of losing one's voice as an artist. Silenced for any reason - be it lack of funds, lack of access to technology and tools, lack of ideas/creative block, paralysis from too many ideas, paralysis from mental illness, fear of failure, fear of success - a non-working artist is an unhappy artist (to say the least). As with everything in life, once inertia sets in, it's really, really hard to re-establish a daily habit or discipline. But the only way to do it is, well, to do it. Simply said, tremendously challenging to put in practice.
Personally, as you know if you'd been here for a while, I've been dabbling in media other than photography, searching for a way back into my art practice. Some of these attempts have sparked fire, but the fire soon burns out. Sustaining the energy and interest to create daily has remained elusive. 

As I continue to search for a new means of expression, with the kind of photography I do seemingly out of reach, I have repeatedly and unhelpfully returned to brooding about whether or not I am still a photographer and seeking to answer why I have not embraced digital photography. Trying to find a behavioral or psychological answer to "why this" or "why not that" is usually beside the point. The questions I am asking might not even be the right questions. I turn inward instead of outward. I brood instead of doing. Brooding obsessively never gets me anywhere except into a nasty funk. This brooding of mine is self-defeating because being low makes the climb back to art making all that more challenging and the goal more distant. Knowing this, and heading down that slippery slope of obsessive brooding, I fully embraced the recent suggestion to write down all the things I love about darkroom color photography.

What poured forth shouldn't have been a surprise. Getting it out of my head and onto paper was eye-opening and completely in character. I have to laugh at myself because it's so damn obvious and yet remained hidden to myself. 
  1.  I love the anticipation and delay inherent in traditional photography. Shooting negatives, not knowing what they will look like until the entire roll is shot and processed and then translated into prints.
  2. I love the physicality of darkroom printing. Touching and handling the negatives and paper, adjusting the enlarger, changing the color balance in the filter pack... All of it is physical, real, touchable.
  3. Because I understand the mechanics behind it all - manual camera operation, lens optics, enlarger alignment, film properties, etc. - I can adjust, alter, or repair any aspect that needs to be addressed.
  4. I do the thinking and deciding. Technology and push button automation don't take the process out of my hands or beyond my understanding. 
A peek at the bigger picture. I don't like driving cars with automatic transmissions. I wish cars were still made with window cranks and locks operated by keys. The more computerized and automated our cars and other products become, the harder they are to troubleshoot and fix, more can go wrong than the average person, or even the best mechanic, can figure out. I don't like this. I read books made of paper pages, not books on a digital device. Ditto for other printed media. Given the choice, I almost always pick the physical over the digital, the mechanical over the computerized. It's just how I roll. Why should I believe I'd feel any differently about photography?
With this basic self-knowledge, I have a plan. I do like a good plan. With bite-sized action steps. (See? Action steps = doing, = getting out of my brooding head, = first steps to re-establishing art practice.) 
  1. Shoot a roll of fresh film with the old 35mm film camera to test equipment for proper operation
  2. Get film processed and proofed (have contact sheet or small prints made)
  3. If necessary, repair camera and repeat steps 1 & 2
  4. Continue to shoot film
  5. Hook up film scanner and learn to use it
  6. Try emulating darkroom process with computer, see if I like / hate it
  7. Like it, continue. Hate it, move on.
The jump from #4 to #5 is a leap of faith for me. I don't particularly want to do this, but I need to do it. Turns out I've been holding out for darkroom access that no longer exists. At least in the photographic arts places I know in the US. Only in the past few days have I taken the initiative to discover that they all have eliminated their color darkrooms. So there it is. I have to move on to digital printing. There is no other way offered to print large format color photographs. By using film and shooting with a completely mechanical camera - no automation whatsoever - I'll retain the anticipation and delay that I love and have control and physicality in the process. This was the key that unlocked most of my resistance. 

Simultaneously, while experimenting with this photo process, I have a project under way that I have returned to time and again over the past couple of years. It may incorporate photographs at some point, but as of now I'm not sure how that would happen. While my vision is for life-sized pieces, I don't have the space or funds to work at that scale. I'm moving forward with miniature, scale models of the final pieces. As working small is more budget friendly, I'm allowing myself more freedom to experiment and make mistakes. And, bonus for me, this project requires a lot of research. I'm having a blast.
I constantly need to remind myself to just do it. That the process of creating is key. That doing the work is what's important. That everything else works itself out through the daily practice of making. But getting started again with the daily creative discipline can seem impossible. Blockages, challenges, or inertia can feel insurmountable. These books have been, and continue to be, the kick in the butt that encourages me to to take that first, enormous step back into the work.
Do you struggle with a creative practice? What do you do or read for encouragement to get back into your work? Please share in the comments so we may learn from each others' stories and find encouragement and inspiration together.

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