Overcoming Creative Ruts

Creativity sucks to try to maintain. In fact, I do not know how to maintain it very well, but my guess is most of us are like me. I know this because a substantial amount of Youtubers regularly state this in videos. There seems to be endless chatter in the podcast-sphere about losing creativity and finding it again. There are always new articles about how to find your creativity by buying new lenses or learning new techniques and so on. There always seems to be a solution.

My hunch is that there is no specific solution. We all suffer from the condition but no one prescription can be given. The reason is that creativity is in the mind of the beholder. It's a personal problem, and unlike some mental disorders, the cause is not a uniform road to recovery.

My Darkness

In 2020 I graduated from graduate school with a degree in Biology. I had hopes and dreams to continue on my journey in wildlife ecology working for a state or federal agency working with fish. The act of working with animals with your bare hands is something hard to replicate in any fashion and I know of nothing like it. So I applied for work as the pandemic ravaged the world and the darkness set as applications went un-answered and the void collected more of my resumes. Government agencies shut down their hiring and I soon found myself looking day after day and not seeing any new jobs for months. Little did I know that this frustration was setting the stage for what would be a long-term personal slump and a feeling of a lack of creativity.

Time rolled on and I did end up making a bunch of interesting photos in 2021 but my love for them generally waned. The unemployment continued and the frustration mounted. Soon jobs opened and I began to interview again, but then the next problem kicked in. I interviewed across the western half of the united states and was rejected from job after job. The frustration began to seep black tendrils into my thoughts on photography. (“Why do I do this? All my photos feel like they suck. Zion National Park is boring.”) My new work was not selling at art shows as well as I hoped, and the financial risk to reward began to become more prominent in my mind. The trip cost became a burden to creativity because if the photo would never sell it just means I spent money for something to sit on my hard drive.

The two-prong attack continues to this day as gas prices sit at an all-time high and here I sit with no biology job as I had hoped. Two obstacles I cannot control, with both having direct effects on my well-being. The darkness and frustration continued to seep into my work and as time passed an entire year's worth of images have become tainted. Long do I wish I could just go back to 2018 when I felt at my most creative and relive that period in my photographic career with the skills I have now.

Lessons Learned from the Past

I cannot go back in time and relive those years. Years when I had fewer children, less responsibility, and less loss. But I can look at those years and see what I can learn and see what I can try to rekindle.

So I begin the next phase of this article with an exercise.

Two weeks ago I went through my entire catalog of photos, year by year. Images that were set aside at that time to be worthy of a portfolio shot (holy crap I have been photographing since 2013, shouldn’t I be more famous by now with more awards?). The positive thing I noticed was that I really did grow. I could see moments in my career when there were dramatic shifts in my quality. The change from aps-c to full frame, multiple exposure blending, and luminosity masking. 2018 was the year when all of these skills combined into a solid understanding of photography and I really did a lot of great photography. I also photographed a lot that year. Probably two times a week and I visited a lot of new locations. And all that effort paid off and I improved and I shot a lot of great shots. Creativity I guess.

Photos from 2018

Boom, there you have it articles done, you do not need to read on just go out and photograph… Just kidding there is more than that. For this next part, I do need to take a detour that will help wrap up where I want to go with this article. I recently dove head first into the world of Brandon Sanderson and the Cosmere books he has written over the past 15 years. After bingeing a lot of books, I began to listen to the author give interviews and his advice about writing and so on. In a recent video I watched about this, he spoke about finding creativity in his writing and how different authors overcome this. He described a few methods in which authors overcome “writer's block.” Option one was only to write when feeling creative and do revisions as necessary. Option two was to write even when you don’t feel like it and do major revisions later on. Option three was to think about every part before you write and do one really solid write-through and then do minor revisions. Mr. Sanderson chose option two and layed out a few key points that really lay a foundational understanding for making creative work for me and my photography and possibly for you.

Writing for Mr. Sanderson is hard work and it is his job. So when it's time for him to go to work he writes anyways and plans to go back and revise and edit afterward. And because it is his work he treats it like work. He has time set apart, he removes distractions and pushes through the hard times, knowing he can come back and revisit and revise. And when he is done, he sets it aside and focuses on other things.

Bringing the Pie Together

I feel like there are three lessons I want to bring together that I have touched upon with this article to help you if you are feeling a lack of creativity. Lesson 1- Dark tendrils of your personal life can alter your ability to photograph. Lesson 2- Monetary philosophies can limit your creativity. Lesson 3- Mis-understanding that photography is work can limit your creativity. Understanding and possibly addressing these three lessons I think can lay the foundation to possibly finding creativity again.

Dark Tendrils

Many photographers deal with depression and use it to fuel their photography. I on the other hand when feeling depressed in life feel like my photographic work is not going anywhere and thus sucks. Same feelings opposite results. But addressing that darkness is the more important factor to your creativity than anything else. What are your dark tendrils pulling you into the upside down that is keeping you from reaching your highest achievements? Are you at odds with your family, work, or self? What do you need to do to overcome these challenges? For me, I have been sliding into the darkness thinking I need to fulfill some arbitrary goal that I need to work for the state of Utah working with fish. Each job interview where I failed at achieving that aspiration led to one more step down the staircase into darkness and frustration. Step by step down and the darkness consumed my photography along the way. But the rise out of that has been primarily affected by the fact that I do not need to conform to some idea of aspirational biological goals and a paradigm shift is beginning to shake these dark tendrils. They are not gone, but they are beginning to fade and I am finding the light of creativity again. Photographic ruts are in the mind and a paradigm shift may be the way out. Find your paradigm and pivot as needed.

I photographed this image the day of an interview but didn’t get the job.

The Monetary Slice

The second lesson can be just as damaging to creativity when you assign a dollar amount to each image and each trip. If you do photography as a part-time career or full-time endeavor, this is a very challenging thing to not think about. Mentally the miles mean dollar bills and each time I come home with no “keeper image” I feel it. But recently I have been turning to my exercise of looking at past images and finding solutions to the financial roadblock that you and I face.

Each image in the past is a potential financial reward for the present. Having a catalog of images that work for you each day can be a stress release valve and provide room for creativity to find a foot again. Understanding this can lead you to remember that your older images very much can be utilized just as effectively as newer images. Let the new images be what they are and do your best to enjoy the process of the here and now rather than worry about the future and what your images can and can’t do for you.

Let the financial burden of the present be supported by the past. If you are not selling your work let the financial burden be a driver to perfection and use the time given to compel progression. But in the end do your best to enjoy what you created, remember you made life in your art. Don’t hate your child because it did not turn out like your imagination thought it should, be happy with it and the cost it took to create it.

One of the most expensive photos of 2022

A paradigm shift indeed.

Let Work Be Work

Photography is work, and treat it as such. Not the crappy part of work, but the part of work you love. In my work as a biologist, the best days were the days when I was knee-deep in mud, surrounded by cat tails while their seed pods exploded above my head raining fluffy seeds across me as I pulled fish out of the river with my net. At the end of the day, I was tired and smelled like a swamp donkey, but had a blast. Let landscape photography be enjoyable work, and do it when it is hard.

In 2018 I let landscape photography be work, and I went out and worked a lot. I photographed often, in many hard conditions and I learned and I revised and did it again and again. I improved and I photographed a lot of images that I really liked. I didn’t stop when things got hard, and I revisited a lot of locations until I got what I liked. I put the miles under my shoes and in the end I was rewarded with a lot of images I sell to this day.

I walked the river four times just to see if I could see anything new before I got this shot.

Final Thoughts

The creative endeavor of landscape photography is a burden we all bear. And heavy is the crown we wear. In the end, creativity is a head game, and finding the cause of what is leading to your lack of creativity is up to the individual. I have highlighted a few methods in this article to help possibly overcome your creative ruts, but in no way is this a comprehensive list. Good luck my fellow photographer who find the muddy ruts of muddy roads on our creative journey. Hopefully, the ruts are not too deep and keep you from exploring further, but creativity can get you out of those too. Just don’t give up.