Stacking the deck with inspiration
A few Sundays ago the both I and mother nature were under the weather. It had been raining straight for weeks. Autumn had reared the ugly side of its head and brought cold temps. All the leaves had dropped, ushering in what we in Vermont refer to as "stick season," when all of the hills are drab brown. Needless to say, I was having a tough time finding anything I felt excited about shooting.
Fortunately, my wife came to the rescue with an idea: field trip to the DarkRoom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont. On that day the gallery was having an artist reception for a juried show of self portraits. Perfect, I thought. If I can't figure out what to shoot, I'll go look at some great photographs and talk with other snappers and maybe find some inspiration there.
So that's the first part of this post, and something I intuitively knew but it hadn't really dawned on me until I was standing there looking at and thinking about photos. Getting better at photography can occur all the time. The gist of it is this: if I'm not shooting, or processing, or reading about photographs, then I can still grow by looking at photos, talking to people about photos and thinking about photography. Duh. Light dawns on marble head...
You'd think this would have come sooner, too, given the number of hours I've put in working on my photography when not actively working on my photography. In fact, Ansel Adams in his book "The Camera" talks about pre-visualizing photos all the time as a means of better acquainting our brains with the idea of a finished print.
Actually, I often go to bed thinking about a photo-related problem, or a concept, and wake up with a much clearer understanding of it. Some time ago I spent quite a few nights a while back running the f-stops through my head backwards and forwards while falling asleep. One morning later, I woke up and they were there for good, and still are.
So the upshot of this is if you want to become a better photographer, be a photographer all the time, whether you have a camera in your hands or not.
But to be quite honest, sometimes it takes a bit more than this to get myself going. Fortunately, my trip to the Darkroom Gallery provided me with something else to help with this -- Vision Quest Cards.
Now, we're all familiar with the lists of inspiring things to shoot that can be found all over the Internet nowadays, and to some extent, that's what photographer and photo workshop teacher Douglas Beasley has created here. But trust me on this, these cards are infinitely better than similar lists found online.
First and foremost, being slightly larger than a set of playing cards, they're easy enough to toss in my camera bag and have with me in case I'm out and about and at a loss for subjects. Thirty-six assignments, beautifully packaged in a folding cardboard box and designed with simplicity in mind, all at my fingertips no matter where I am.
Then there's the goal of the cards, spelled out on the back of the box as:
"I offer these Vision Quest assignment cards to help jump start your creative process and invite the power of intuition into your photography." -- Douglas Beasley
And equally important, found on the first non-assignment card in the deck:
"Invest in your vision, not just your equipment." -- Douglas Beasley
Here's what I like about this: Beasley's Vision Quest assignments approach the teaching as a loose path that will help the student develop their skills as a photographer by better learning to trust their intuition and listen to their creative voice. Nothing here about specific equipment or settings needed to complete an exercise, just pure assignments focused enough so you don't have to think through the whole process but structured loosely enough to allow for some creative freedom.
To be honest, when I first picked them up I thought to myself, "I'll be familiar with a lot of these assignments for sure." Having scoured the web for these types of things over the years, I've seen a lot of photo assignment lists. Surprisingly, Beasley's offering has a few of the standards -- Photograph the color red -- but by and large, there's a lot in here that I haven't come across. Take this one for example:
"Make a scenic photograph. Eliminate one element and re-take the photo. Repeat until there's nothing left to take out. See how many steps you can make."
I haven't tried this one, but I'm excited to give it a go once I draw that card. And that's how I'm using this deck of cards at this point. I randomly grab an assignment card, give it a read, decide on time limit based on the assignment and go from there. That in and of itself makes these an incredibly valuable resource when I'm struggling to find an idea. And as Beasley points out, you'll be surprised at how often you pull a card out that works for exactly the situation you're in at the time.
For my first foray, I pulled out the card that reads "Take a walk, stop every 21 steps and make a photograph. Challenge yourself."
Easy enough. Or so I thought until I realized that 21 steps isn't very far, and finding subjects wasn't always an easy task. In fact, I came away with a number of pretty boring photographs, but I also grabbed some that I'm happy with. The real value, of course, isn't in amassing an arsenal of great photographs, though. It's in learning to see photographs in all situations. Finding photographs and new ways of seeing in the everyday, which is really what we as photographers are trying to achieve.
In actuality, this exercise speaks to exactly what I wrote a few paragraphs above, i.e. being a photographer all of the time. Here's why: the difference between 21 and 42 steps isn't a whole lot. Panoramas won't change a whole lot. Even building facades won't photograph too differently. However, the details between 21 and 42 and 63 and 84 steps will, and you'll have to really look for the details that define that spot in order to come away with a photo that holds any interest. Believe me, it's harder than it sounds, but well worth the effort. It's a much different approach than taking a picture and then moving on until something else catches the eye. And if you're anything like me, after a while you'll find yourself ten steps in and wishing you could stop to take a shot, because you'll be thinking and seeing photographs the entire time.
So, if you're looking for another tool to add to your quiver for inspiration, or maybe a gift for a photographer friend, I recommend Beasley's Vision Quest cards. As for me, I'm going to follow the instructions found on the first card:
"Quiet your mind. Pick a card. Set a time limit for completion. Explore fearlessly. Repeat as necessary."
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