The annual round of “best of” photoblog posts is depressing me. I follow a link on Twitter to see pictures that looks just like seven other photographers’ top ten shots for the year. Worse, it looks like the same stuff as last year. It’s like they are all chasing each other’s tails, reading the same three magazines, a mutual admiration society that is as insular as a fundamentalist Mormon colony.
Clearly, my job #1 is to follow some new people on Twitter. The bigger message is that if I want something different for my own work, I need to go to a different source for my creative supply. That’s why I planned a personal retreat last month: to restock the well with an abundance of fresh ideas.
Our host Ricki at La Luz* in Escalante greeted us with “the bookworms are here.” It did look odd as we carried in stacks of books and magazines, enough groceries for a week and R’s electric guitar. I brought my camera gear, but the main objective was to drink deeply from the page.
Leading up to “reading week, “ I made lists of topics to explore, then we made a power seep through the Salt Lake City library on our way out of town. I found an Ansel Adams bio for my talk, and I wanted to know more about the western movie industry in southern Utah, but the book on English puppetry was a random impulsive grab. No rules in the forage, except “does this interest me?”
I accumulated way more material than could be read in a month, so I gave each book an hour of full attention. At the end of that 60 minutes, I moved on. I could get through 2 or 3 magazines in that time too. At the end of each day, I summarized my notes, listed actions and ideas, and then picked one book to enjoy for the evening.
We didn’t do much else – a quick trip to Torrey, a meeting with a potential builder for Stray Arrow and I made a few photos. R wrote a paper. Neither a vacation, nor a full-stop photo mission, we made ourselves a real retreat.
My creative output has to be replenished with an intake of new ideas, art and sensory experiences. Restocking the well is all too easy to defer and neglect for more urgent tasks. The Artist Way prescribes weekly “artist dates,” which I don’t take nearly often enough. In 6 days in Escalante, I gorged myself with medieval line drawings, Edward Weston’s photos, Zane Grey’s deep sea adventures and plenty of interesting stuff I didn’t need to know.
So I go back to my routine and trust that some magic will happen, a mental version of James Burkes’ Connections. It doesn’t always work so fast though: in the car on the way home, an abandoned idea resurfaced in an exciting vision that may become my next project. This idea is completely orthogonal to anything I read, and yet my mind was receptive to seeing it in a new way. When I resist those artist dates, I need to remember that the time invested in restocking the well always repay in multiple.
A week-long retreat is a huge luxury, and one that takes some planning. But there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. Libraries are free, and an hour of walking random aisles offers stacks of free inspirations. Or go to the big box bookstore and collect a random magazine that you would never admit to reading. Ask people what they are reading. The inspiration is out there, just not the same place every time.
I’m looking into Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision 1846 next. What are you reading this week?
* We cannot recommend La Luz highly enough. The location is perfect for a few days of exploring in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The rental unit had everything we needed and more, the view from the main rooms is gorgeous, and the hosts were splendid when needed, and respectfully private when we wanted to be left with our books. We will definitely go back.