Robert Frank was inspired by hanging out with Jack Kerouac and his friends in the heyday of the beat generation. Brassaï found motivation in his surroundings, visiting the parks and back alleys of Paris after dark. Diane Arbus challenged herself by switching from the 35mm camera, favoured by most photographers of the time, to an unconventional square format twin lens reflex camera. Saul Leiter did something similar by using expired Kodachrome 35mm film, which produced rich and unexpected colours.
Where a photographer finds inspiration might be personal to the individual, but artistic blocks or ruts are shared universally by all. We asked eleven photographers of all genres, from fine artists to in-demand commercial shooters, about how they navigate these moments of frustration and get their creative juices flowing once more. Here are their most helpful tips.
1. Get messy
“I have been working as a photographer for over 30 years, and in order to not get into a rut or experience a block, I have incorporated various techniques into my practice,” the California-based fine art and commercial photographer Kristianne Koch Riddle tells us. “The first one is to force myself to make ‘mistakes.’
“I do this by getting messy with the technical side of photography. I break the rules by shooting wide open, slow motion, or under/over-expose images with subjects not normally photographed in this way. Many times, when I’ve done this enough, I learn to control the mess and incorporate this technique into my ongoing work for clients.
“This has definitely become a part of my style. The important part is that I pay attention to what I am doing when I am getting messy. I understand what happens technically to create the messiness and learn to duplicate it in a controlled way. This has taken years of practice to finetune, but it has paid off in the long run as a unique way of seeing the world.”
2. Change your environment
“When I find myself in a foreign country or an environment very different to my home, it’s hard to feel like I’m in a rut,” the Australian photographer Damien Drew admits. “I feel we tend to have our eyes prized open by difference, and there seems to be an endless supply of new content, photographic ideas, and thoughts in a new city. It is much more difficult at home, as I think we are rendered blind by familiarity.
“It’s not that there is nothing to shoot in one’s home city; it’s just that we have lost our ability to see as the background is overly familiar. For that reason, I suggest pushing through that hometown block and visiting new suburbs, suburban markets, new housing developments, or industrial areas you might never consider driving let alone walking through. A shift of context, however small, can open our eyes to new possibilities and provide an opportunity to see our hometowns anew.”
3. Try a new genre
“The pandemic’s dampening of my creative juices forced me to venture far afield of my usual comfort zone,” the fine art photographer Calli McCaw tells us. “Unable to work on the portraiture projects I had necessarily put on my back burner, and with all the time in the world and nothing to lose, I challenged myself to investigate new realms of photography.
“Braving the unknown, I completed two online classes in still life photography, opening entirely new avenues of creativity for me to pursue. The combination of my love of digital manipulation with my newfound affinity for still life gave rise to my series, The Dürer Botanicals, a digital collage of actual still life floral arrangements with bits and pieces of images culled from my archive of past photographic work, all of which I composited against Albrecht Dürer prints.
“Landscape photography also provided an alternative space within which to stretch my creative sea legs when I felt blocked. To infuse my efforts with a new twist, I took an online class in infrared photography, repurposed a camera for infrared, and began to shoot landscapes with renewed enthusiasm. Infrared photography by its very nature provided me a new perspective with which to view the natural world through the lens of my camera. And nothing excites creativity like seeing through different eyes—or, in this case, wavelengths.
4. Experiment with different gear
Like Calli, the award-winning photographer Charlotte Curd suggests finding inspiration in new equipment. “I have recently been in a photography rut since moving back to New Zealand from Sydney due to Covid,” she tells us. “Things that have helped me overcome this block are switching up my equipment, using my drone or different lenses to create a new vision. I also recommend taking long drives to find that secret hidden image somewhere and just getting out there! If you can push yourself for an early sunrise mission, I promise it will make your day.”
5. Start a journal
“Years ago, I experienced the worst artist’s block of my life—a solid three years of dissatisfaction with every image I made,” the award-winning photo-based artist Jessica Hines remembers. “It felt as though I had lost my creative insight and that, perhaps, I would never make another successful image. Desperate to fix the problem, I turned to stream-of-consciousness writing.
“Before a photographing session, I wrote several pages, and I was always surprised by the creative ideas that came to the surface of my mind when writing pen in hand to paper, writing continuously without pause. I chose handwriting as opposed to typing on the computer because something special happens when using our hand to write, and the speed at which this happens. This writing brought forth a plethora of new ideas that seemed to pop up out of nowhere and this broke the creative block.”
6. Take a social media detox
“Whenever I am feeling like I am struggling to create or dealing with ‘imposter syndrome’ that leaves me feeling like my work isn’t portraying my visions, I always take a step back,” the Scottish beauty and fashion photographer Lisa-Marie McGinn explains. “Sometimes, it’s a week or so; other times, it’s been a month. I step away from social media, which helps me stop comparing myself to other artists and doubting my work and ability.
“During this time, I start mood and vision boards with ideas that pop into my head. I find this helps me focus on one idea at a time, as sometimes I have so many ideas running through my head that this contributes to my block. I’ll start putting a team together—usually women I have met in this industry who have become friends. This helps me feel at ease, as it’s just friends shooting together with no pressure and no end goal beyond just having fun. We all come together and bring different ideas to the table. These shoots end up being some of my favourites, and this is when the motivation and determination come back to me.”
7. Look outside of photography
“I find that studying art of other mediums is a good way to expand my visual library,” the New York City-based photographer Paul Crispin Quitoriano tells us. “Looking at paintings has helped me in understanding colour better—abstract paintings especially. Portrait paintings are good for studying light, composition, and posing. Look at details in shadows and catchlights in eyes. Another exercise I like to do is the visualisation of music. Listen to a song, preferably one without a music video, and think of what you would pair with this song visually. What colour does the song sound like? Sometimes I even picture what I think a music video would look like.”
8. Study what you love
Sometimes, stepping outside of your own portfolio and into someone else’s work can kickstart your creativity. You can find these resources on and off-line. “For me, it’s almost always about forcing myself to go into creativity, as it doesn’t always come naturally,” the Swedish photographer Isabella Ståhl explains. “This is when you have to search for inspiration: go online, go to the library, read blogs and photo books, take a workshop, go to lectures, visit art shows. Do anything and everything to find your way back to creativity.
“It doesn’t take much to actually go from feeling uninspired to inspired once I do these things. Ideas flow, and I immediately feel like either going back to my archive to revisit old work or going out shooting new things. I also think it’s super important to have photographer friends to converse with. They know what you’re going through, and it can feel helpful just to talk about it.”
9. Visit a book shop
The Brooklyn-based fine art photographer, set designer, and filmmaker Adrien Broom also finds inspiration in the work of other artists, but she recommends a specific destination. “Galleries and museums are always wonderful, but one place I personally always find inspiration is my local book store,” she explains. “Often, I go in without even knowing what I’m looking for.
“I love to just pick up random image-based books I know nothing about and look through them. I remember once I found a book of art nouveau Japanese postcards. I brought that little book home with me, and it still gives me inspiration to this day.
“Just getting out of your normal creative space and going to see other work, different from our own, always sparks something. Cookbooks, travel books, arts and crafts books—all of it. It could be the shadow of an arch from an architectural book, or certain colours thrown together in an unexpected way in a cookbook. The children’s book section has always held a treasure trove of inspiration for me as well. Get out of the house, get a cup of coffee, and go sit at your local book store and just explore.”
10. Stop thinking and start creating
“Fear is one of the main reasons people stop making,” the North Carolina-based photographer Joshua White admits. “We self-censor and second guess all of our ideas, afraid they aren’t good enough or won’t be accepted. We fall victim to the idea that we don’t have anything important to say. Artists worry that we won’t be able to sell what we make, rather than focusing on those crystalline moments of creation.
“When I get stuck and fall into these traps, the best thing I can do is make work. I will never think myself out of one of these ruts, but the work itself begets the best ideas. When I am actively making, I see differently. My focus changes, and I am able to set fear aside and follow my creative instincts. The poet Marge Piercy wrote, in her poem For the Young Who Young Who Want To: “Work is its own cure, you have to like it better than being loved.” It can seem like you are spinning your wheels, but I promise that most of the time, the way out of the rut is to get back to work, no matter what that looks like.”
11. Photograph for the joy of it—not the end result
“Creative blocks happen to us all, but feeling stuck and uninspired is part of the creative process,” the fine art photographer Jacqueline Roberts admits. “Instead of fighting it, let’s accept it. Better still, let’s embrace it. When it happens to me, I usually let go and let it be.
“Many times, I have found myself striving for ‘perfection’ only to end up frozen and hesitant to move forward for fear of messing up. I have since embraced imperfection and turned my errors into a ground for creativity and inspiration. I am a rather intuitive person, and that reflects on my process. My work flows best when it simply comes to me. Creativity is a process that grows almost organically. It is something that I feel rather than think.
“Find within yourself what moves you, what scares you, what intrigues you, what repels you, what fascinates you. Creativity is only the form; substance is what matters. Most importantly, have fun. Enjoy it without expecting anything in return. Photograph generously and unconditionally.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.