Inspiration and stagnation.

In almost a week from writing this (12/2) I will be on an airplane on my way back to the Middle Kingdom. I’m excited to be returning to visit familiar faces and familiar places, although apprehensive about flying on a Chinese carrier. I’ve heard more than a few “horror stories” regarding the domestic maintenance standards of the People’s Republic. Oh well; Hard to beat those ticket prices ($1,100 round-trip)! In the meantime I’ve been finishing up this semester, focusing on finals, and, more important, been assembling my photographic kit. I think a major excitement regarding my return to China is the return to a beautiful, inspiring place to have a camera. One thing I have noticed since being back state-side is a severe degradation of my photography. My images are bland, irrelevant, and un-inspiring snapshots. And, it’s not necessarily a lack of technical skill — technical skill doesn’t erode nearly that fast. It’s an erosion of my photographic eye, my creative conscious; My ability to look at something, frame it, and find the beauty in it. My ability to pull the beauty out of it. To do that, you need inspiration. You need to be able to see the potential, you need to be able to see the image. In America, I lack that inspiration. I lack that ability to “see”. The world here is, to me, mundane. Conversely, my images of that world are also mundane. And mundane exposures to the passionate hunter is a soul-crushing thing, indeed. It saps one’s confidence and motivation. The confidence bit is a big factor. I fear even having the audacity to call myself a “photographer” with the recent garbage I’ve accumulated since transitioning to a digital medium and being back in the United States. While I love film to death, it’s expensive and hugely inconvenient. I also don’t think it has anything to do with the quality of my work, despite virtually all of my best images being film exposures. Virtually all of those images were also taken outside of my locality. Outside of the mundane and uninspiring.

Another aspect of photography that I have always, since the very beginning, failed at…are pictures of people. I am, for the life of me, terrified of people. Well, not people, per-say, but taking people’s photos. I envy the truly brash, even downright obnoxious street photographers of the world. They have an ability I genuinely do not possess: a total lack of care about people’s feelings or reactions in regards to having a camera just jammed right up in their faces while walking down a sidewalk. I can’t do that, and I can’t accept that someone who operates like that really has any respect for other human beings, regardless of their claims to the contrary. But, in the same way that all my best images have been those in amazing, inspired locations, and on film…they have also had human beings as the subject matter (or, at least, as supporting, contextual elements). Unfortunately, I just have this deep-seated fear of taking photos of strangers. Or, even asking strangers if I can take their portraits in the first place. Similar to courting a partner, the worst that can happen is to receive a “no”. But, it’s just as scary to make that request as it is to ask out a potential partner. A strong fear of rejection steadfastly impedes my creativity and my expression in photography. I’ve been trying to overcome this fear for some time, and there is no warming up to it. Like trying to enter a pool of cold water, there is no good or comfortable way to acclimate oneself to having the confidence to approach interesting or aesthetic strangers and ask for their image — you just have to do it. Hold your breath and jump in, as it were. Any attempts otherwise will be feeble, awkward, hap-hazard, and result in poor end-results. I know this because I’ve been making those poor, feeble attempts over and over again. Today on my stroll through the city (Asheville, NC) collecting mundane snapshots, as has become the usual routine, I came to sit across from and listen to girl play beautiful music on a guitar, self-taught, while watching a boy make wire jewelry by hand. He said he taught himself how to play the bass as well. It was a brief but relaxing encounter, with the sun beaming right down onto the both of them. Natural sunlight makes anything beautiful. I listened for a while and finally mustered the courage to take their photographs. The photos were okay. Just okay. I was shooting with a 43mm lens (which, while I absolutely love its compactness and construction, I’m starting to realize that my real love is 35mm). At the distance I was from the subjects with that focal length, I was simply too far back to make a good image. It was a snapshot. It was mundane. As Robert Capa said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough”. And Robert was absolutely right. I need to lose this fear and chase good pictures.

Altogether, my photography has hugely declined since being back in the United States. A huge part of that is a lack of inspiration, and, additionally, a lack of good subject matter — or, rather, the confidence to obtain that good subject matter. If all you do is chase the mundane, capture the mundane, you, as a photographer, will, over time, also become mundane. I have become mundane. And I can fix that.

Post-script: Another missed opportunity burned into my eyes: shortly before I came to sit across that girl playing the guitar and that boy making jewelry I passed a older gentlemen who was extremely well-dressed — wearing a sort of top hat, a suit, and interesting glasses. A neatly-trimmed white beard growing from his face. He was standing between cars along the side-walk, staring in the direction of the sun; Natural light beaming all over him. It would have been such a nice portrait. Fantastic lighting with an extremely interesting subject. And the only reason I didn’t take it was because of my own cowardice. My own inability to simply go up to the man, compliment his aesthetic, and ask if I could take a quick portrait of him. Who knows? He might’ve been flattered.