Every passionate photographer has an origin story. There is an image, a camera, a path-changing encounter. A victorious note resonates even if the urge to photograph is born of loss: because of that, here I am, doing something meaningful.
People are less likely to talk about how they stopped making pictures. For the serial artist, it might be an urge to explore a new medium. For those who come to photography primarily through a passion for cameras, it can be as simple as losing interest in the gear, finding a new class of object to study and acquire. But for some, like me, there is no decision. I still wanted that snap of recognition when a scene ripe for seizure pops out of the world. It just wasn’t happening.
I first saw photography, as child in the 1980s, as a kind of magic: the power to make a moment reappear after the fact. But the trick gets old quickly, and almost immediately my interest shifted to cameras themselves, the embodiment of the magic. I loved their mechanical perfection, and the way I could atomize the world through the viewfinder, picking and choosing what to see. The pictures I made were a cool side effect of manipulating controls, framing scenes, releasing the shutter.
A little later in life, when I was old enough to recognize that nothing lasts and that memory is porous, I embraced photography as a way to bookmark moments I might otherwise lose.
But it wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when digital photography became accessible, that I found the freedom to really experiment with a camera and use it as a tool to explore the world, and maybe, to make art. I still loved cameras themselves, the perfect thingness of them, in a way that’s both irrational and unnecessary to explain to many people reading this. But I also began to feel my life shifting under the influence of photography as a practice. My way of seeing, tightly bound to ways thinking and being, became intimately linked to photography.
My main mode was street photography. I had recently moved to Paris. I carried a camera all the time. I shot a lot. I posted a photo every day on my blog on the pre-social web. I considered myself an amateur in the Frencher, non-diminutive sense of the word. And so passed six happy years.
And then something happened, or rather, stopped happening. I can’t pin down a moment. I was still carrying a camera all the time (by then, a fairly heavy DSLR). But I was barely taking pictures, outside of the life-documentary role that I’d assumed in my circle because I was the one who bothered to lug around a camera. I had stopped seeing the moments that I’d caught so often before. After months of this, I gave up carrying the full-sized camera and got an “enthusiast compact” (that revolution was just starting). It stayed stubbornly in my pocket.
Living in Paris, I couldn’t blame a lack of subject. The transitory tableaux of people, trash on the sidewalk, odd alignments and coincidences, the stuff that changes minute to minute and never repeats, has sustained many photographers over the course of a lifetime. Paris basically looked at me over the rim of her wine glass and said, "It's not me, baby. It's you." When people asked why I’d abandoned my blog, I had to admit: I’d just stopped seeing pictures.
I’m more a believer in the “perspiration” than the “inspiration” school of creative endeavor. But when it comes to photography, what constitutes perspiration? To the extent that I’d considered it at all, I would probably have told you that carrying a camera and keeping your eyes open were enough. Now, I can attest that they are not. Something else, probably involving attention and intention, has to be going on as well, but I haven’t been able to break it down. All I know is that I couldn’t decide to do it, and without it, I was sweating for nothing.
I was afraid that this blindness might signal a more profound problem. Was I getting too jaded, or too distracted, to connect with the world? Was stagnation in other parts of my life stopping up my creative flow? Introspection didn’t yield a definitive answer.
One thing I could safely rule out was gear boredom. The serious little compact I'd bought never quite felt like a real camera, and I ended up trading in the SLR for a much lighter mirrorless body. Despite the fact that the new camera was better in every way than the DSLR (apart from the tactility) I only used it for documenting the basics of life and pretty vacation shots. Very occasionally I'd see something like before, but those brief flashes only emphasized the prevailing darkness.
The drought lasted about three years. I moved to a new apartment in Paris. I traveled. I worked, and didn’t, as circumstance allowed. Then my daughter was born. I took the obligatory baby pictures for her introductory months of life, at first, often with my phone. But something in me balked at poking a virtual shutter button and I limbered up the sadly neglected mirrorless camera. I began taking it out to document her in the stroller as we jaunted around town. I'd never bothered to buy anything more interesting than the kit lens, so I started to use an old manual prime I had left over from my SLR, the laborious focusing perfect for portraits of a baby who couldn’t do much more than stare back at me.
And just as inexplicably as when I'd been cut off, Paris started answering my calls. I saw things. I shot them. Pretty much like before. It's been over two years, so I don't think it's a flash in the pan.
It’s tempting to think that the birth of my child was the spark that relit my vision, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It was about five months after she arrived that things changed. Maybe it took that long to recover from the shock and exhaustion of those first baby-caring days, but I don’t think so.
Ultimately, I don’t know why my vision deserted me, and I don’t know why it came back. But I know that when I lost it, it felt like a failing, and permanent. I write this so that a reader experiencing a similar loss will know that a pause, an extended rest in the symphony of your photography, doesn’t always mean the music is over.