The Creative Malaise

Untitled (black and white photograph)
Untitled (black and white photograph) (2020) by Paul Politis
Untitled (black and white photograph)
Untitled (black and white photograph) (2020) by Paul Politis

I’ve been in a bit of a creative malaise recently.

Wait, have I?

I’m not even sure it’s true, though I feel a bit … uninspired, I guess? I’m still making new work, in fits and starts as I always have, but the pace feels to have slowed recently, and the original and surprising and exciting discoveries feel less frequent. But is it just a feeling, or reality? I’m not sure.

Because I’m neurotic, I always fear that the creative muse has left me for good if I go a few weeks without making any photos that excite me at least a little bit, in some way. If I go a few weeks without advancing in some of the various streams of my work, or without feeling I’ve progressed in some way toward something new, something that I can explore for a while that will then lead to the next thing, then a little voice in my head starts talking shit, and I start listening despite my best efforts.

These days, I’m telling myself that this is just a calm period before my next creative burst. I think I can muster faith in that for a while, but at some point it’s going to be difficult to tell myself that and buy it.

Familiarity breeds nuance?
For the past three or four years I’ve consistently returned to the same two or three locations in my city in order to wander and take photos. Why do I keep returning to these same places, I sometimes wonder, long after I’ve grown bored and tired of being in them? Certainly this habit is not helping me to feel creative and inspired?

In part, the reason I keep returning to the same areas is that I live in a small city, so there’s not a hell of a lot of walkable city areas to begin with. I mean, it’s certainly not like wandering through Manhattan.

But I think the main reasons I do it are that I sense that these areas are rich in photographic possibilities for me, and also that I’ve grown to feel rather comfortable wandering around them. This comfort and familiarity work together to yield a specific creative environment. The fact that I’m comfortable makes it easier to get into a creative state of mind, and the familiarity (grey and ugly and boring is how it usually appears to me) forces me to be more creative, to look deeper and be more attentive to what’s around me and to what flickers inside me as a result. It’s harder, but the rewards, when there are any, are generally beyond what I could have imagined.

The thing about wandering around with the sole goal of taking photos of anything that interests me is that this goal demands that I free my mind to actually be interested in my surroundings. If I’m walking through the city with a destination in mind, say I’m going to an appointment, then the city streets and the people around me are simply something I have to navigate to get my destination. The world is full of obstacles, things I need to put behind me. But when the goal is to be open and receptive to the details of the world, the city is a billion different things, a billion perspectives, a billion opportunities.

Ray K. Metzker, a photographer I’ve long admired, once said: “I don’t need exotic places to be stimulated. Out of familiarity comes nuance. The more you revisit a subject the more you’re likely to discover.” There’s certainly a lot of truth to that. I think I’ve always intuitively believed this to be true, it seems self-evident.

The jury is still out for me, though, and I think the next year or so will show me if I can, through sheer perseverance and will, work through my recent malaise on these streets and find something fresh and new.

One other caveat about my creative malaises to date (though the current one feels different): In the past when I’ve thought things weren’t going well for me creatively, it turned out that I just was not appreciating the work I was making. I was looking for what I for some reason expected rather than looking at what I actually had done. Often, I can’t really appreciate the work I’m doing at any given time unless I put some space between me and the work. So the solution is to keep working and, eventually, I’ll look back at what I did a few months earlier and it makes more sense, and the beauty and the interest becomes apparent, or at least easier to make out. My eyes have come around to what I already saw.