Sometimes, All You Need To Rekindle Artistic Inspiration Is a Little Space

Sometimes, All You Need To Rekindle Artistic Inspiration Is a Little Space

It's easy to get inspired when all your momentum is going in the same direction. But what do you do when you're feeling stalled?

Generally, I like to write articles drowning in positivity. I can't help it. I'm a pretty positive guy. But, by definition, a positive can only exist in the presence of a negative. It's only because of the down times that the good times feel so good. As an artist, you know that better than anyone. Our jobs are to literally go out and dream the impossible dream every day of our lives. If you do this for a living, you already know the long odds of being able to financially sustain a career. But, even if you just pick up your camera for the love of the game, it's highly likely that you have often faced periods in life where that tiny mirrorless camera, whose lightweight ergonomics you've lost many a friend droning on about, somehow suddenly feels too heavy to even be worth picking up.

As a professional photographer and filmmaker with a career that spans three decades now, I will attest that there have been points over that timespan where I have, shall we say, lacked motivation. To be clear, never once in that time have I lacked the inspiration to create. In my case, because I've worked in several different areas, my fallow periods are generally more characterized by my losing interest in one of those areas at a time while I obsess over a different area. But, I always want to be creating something. Whether that's through a still camera, a motion picture camera, or a fountain pen is another story.

Yet, despite these periods of disinterest, over the long term, I do truly love each art form, so it is important to me to continually engage in them, even when the urge might momentarily not come naturally. Especially because to pursue a career in the arts means to give 110% all day every day just to compete in an oversaturated market. But that begs the question. How do you relight a fire when all you seem to have left is kindling?

Sometimes the best action is inaction. When I first fell in love with photography, it quickly became an obsession. That's not surprising given my O.C.D. But taking photographs went from an afterthought to my only thought with the speed of Usain Bolt freeing himself from the starting blocks. Despite already having a career as a filmmaker, stills began to dominate my brain cells. I wanted to get better. I wanted to get more clients. I wanted to one day see my name on some of the same awards as my photographic heroes. In short, I wanted it all.

This obsession helped motivate me to build my career as a commercial photographer. And, while I still have plenty of ways to go to reach my goals, I have accomplished more over the course of my career than I ever dreamed of in those early days. One of the pinnacles came a few years ago when I had just finished shooting a major campaign for an iconic brand that was pretty much the ideal type of project I wanted to work on. Large-scale production. Multiple moving parts. A still campaign mixed with multiple commercials which I would shoot and direct. I was like a kid in a candy shop. So why, directly following such an achievement, did I find myself suddenly losing all interest in photography?

Well, some of it had to do with the multiple interests I mentioned before. It's less that I lost interest in photography and more that my obsession shifted from the still photography side of my brain back to the directing/cinematography side of my brain. There was something about those particular commercials which I produced for the client that reignited my directing fire which, in the previous years, had slowed a bit while stills moved to the forefront. In the months following that big campaign shoot, my brain seemed to do a complete 180 and shift its entire attention to the moving image instead of the still one. True, the two things are somewhat related. But, as filmmaking was my first love, the act of doing a still campaign and the act of making a film still feel like two distinct art forms to me. And my brain has trouble obsessing over each simultaneously and tends to pick one at a time.

So as I became more and more obsessed with the filmmaking side, I suddenly realized that, without knowing, I had gone months without picking up my still camera. I had fully gone from obsessing over my next photoshoot to obsessing over my next film.

None of this is completely out of character. In a way, I was simply reverting to my base state, which was obsessing over film until I discovered a passion for the still image. But, as I was no longer obsessing over my photography, I soon noticed that I was feeling equally disconnected from the entire photo industry. It wasn't just that I wasn't taking images. I was feeling a lack of motivation to reach out to clients. I was feeling a lack of motivation to come up with new ideas for personal projects. Posting images to social media for promotion had become a chore. And having this feeling of disconnection come after so many years of hyper-connection left me feeling a bit like I was floating in the wind. How could something I was so obsessed with for so long suddenly feel a million miles away? How could I go from only caring about this one thing to caring very little? Did it mean that I never really loved photography in the first place? Or was it a sign that I needed to excise all these other things from my life and refocus on my goals? What was the message the world was trying to send me? Had my photographic passion ended just as I was hitting my professional stride?

I didn't know what to do. I had never had to try to be passionate about photography before. I just was. Furthermore, I had advanced to a point where photography was not only a hobby to occupy my weekends, but the key to my ability to feed myself and keep my dog's belly full of Kibbles ‘n Bits. It wasn't just an existential crisis. It was a practical one.

Since I've repeated about a gazillion times already in this article how much I love film, it's probably no surprise that I'll use a film reference to describe how I eventually was able to rediscover my joy of photography. If you are of a certain age, you no doubt remember the film "Indecent Proposal" with Robert Redford, Demi Moore, and Woody Harrelson. That's the one where a billionaire, played by Redford, offers a financially struggling married couple, Moore and Harrelson, a million dollars in exchange for the husband letting the billionaire sleep with the wife for one night. I won't ruin the movie for you by disclosing too much of the plot. But the central thesis of the film, repeated early and often, is that, if you love something, let it go. If it doesn't come back, it was never yours to begin with. If it does, it will be yours forever.

So while I wish that I could say that my solution to my dwindling interest in photography was some special potion that you could buy online for $19.95, the actual thing that rekindled my joy in photography was allowing myself the freedom to let it go.

Now, to be clear, I didn't shutter my business completely. I continued to take on assignments as they came along. Rather, what I mean is that I didn't try to force myself to be passionate about photography. Instead, I allowed my brain to follow my obsession towards filmmaking and allowed photography to ride along in the passenger seat for a little while. Remember, if you love something, let it go. If it doesn't come back, it was never yours to begin with. If it does, it is yours forever. You can't force passion. Passion is pure. True passion comes from within. It's less the world trying to tell you something and more you accepting what's been inside of you all along. If me and photography were meant to be, I had to trust that the passion would once again rise to the surface. And, eventually, it did.

When I first started writing this article, my intention was to make you a long list of things that could turn a lack of motivation around. Things like doing more personal projects to help remember the love of the artform rather than only focusing on less meaningful commercial commissions. Or, trying out shooting a different genre of photography to identify whether or not you've truly lost passion for photography or are simply feeling stuck in the rut of monotony. Both of those, by the way, are solid practical pieces of advice for how to get unstuck short term.

But love is "til death do us part." And, as I started to think about that moment after the big campaign where I felt most disconnected from the art form, what really sunk in for me is that what helped me most was to allow myself a bit of distance. I had to give myself time to miss it. I had to give myself the space to allow my heart to pursue what it needed at that moment. I had to accept that, sometimes, what I need to fulfill my passion is to pick up a Nikon. Other times, it's to pick up an Alexa. Still other times, all I need to fulfill my artistic passion is a laptop and a blank page. I've spent a fair amount of my life with those various interests seeming to battle each other to occupy space in my brain. I've tried, both actively and passively, to forcibly submerge one of those interests in favor of another. Usually motivated by my brain's desire to overrule my heart in favor of a more practical path.


But, at the end of the day, the most effective way to sustain my long term passion is for me to follow my heart rather than trying to lead it. Listen when my passion is telling me it would rather flow in one direction than another at a given time. But, at the same time, not fear that my passion for one thing is permanently gone just because it is temporarily out of the spotlight.

Allowing my passion to return to photography at its own pace, rather than forcing it, allowed me to naturally remember what it was about photography that I loved in the first place. It gave me space to miss those benefits and desire their return. In short, I trusted photography would return to me if I was brave enough to let it go. And that’s just what it did. 

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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1 Comment

This is such practical advice. The life lessons of a long career are a help for me, not least in showing me how to accept an occasional need to change tracks for a while.