Settling into the creative process by embracing my anxiety.

I've always been an anxious person. I'm sure it's something I inherited from my mother who is a constant worrier. For a long time I thought of my pervasive anxiety as a "flat tire" on my artistic journey in photography and as a writer, but lately I've come around to the idea that, in a certain sense, anxiety is, as Kierkegaard said, a reflection and realization of the possession of freedom. Freedom to make any choices from an infinite selection of choices. We have anxiety because we question our choices but if we had no anxiety in the process it might indicate that we have somehow removed free choice from our mental construct.

I get nervous about projects, in part, because my brain generally goes directly to the idea that there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of ways to do a project. All of them are flawed and yet, in another sense all are valid choices. It's the implied responsibility to come up with the right choice for the job or project at hand that causes the discomfort. And it makes sense.

I added the image of Belinda (above) to make my point. This image was done the way I wanted to see it for a amalgam of interconnected, personal reasons. In one sense it represents a point on a long time line. It's not the apocryphal image of Belinda for all time, rather it's a small inflection point. A memory of a kind of look, in a certain place, preserved for my pleasure. Had it been "commissioned" by Belinda I'm sure she would have requested a more pleasant look on her face, time to remove the sunglasses from her head and to smooth and fuss with her hair. She might have preferred a different garment and even a different venue. Had it been done with her parents as the final audience we certainly would have done the image in color and I would have coaxed a happy smile onto her face. Technically I might have pulled away from the wall to minimize the shadow on the rock work and I almost certainly would have pulled in a reflector on the shadow side of her face to fill in.

Had we been shooting for the city of Verona's chamber of commerce we would have dressed Belinda up a bit, brought in the make up people, shot in color, placed her on the ramparts of the wall instead of beneath it, used a wider lens so we could also see the city behind her and finally, I would have used a big, battery powered flash in a soft box to balance the light on Belinda with the sunlight drenched scenery in the background. Or would the right choice be the one I already made?

To an extent every assignment frightens me with the same kinds of choices presented in different ways. In my mind I see the choices in terms of client preferences but that doesn't really make sense. I start down a line of thought that endlessly presumes what I think the client has in mind. What the client really wants. Do they want movement? Should the camera's strength be its portability and ability to focus well on the fly? Or is the client looking for ultimate technical quality? Should I be renting a medium format Leica and a couple of car's worth of lenses with which to do the project? The anxiety comes in trying to resolve which leg of the triangle of choices to shorten and which one to lengthen.

While a pragmatic business man would just say, "They only have this (X) budget so they only get this camera and they only get this much effort." the sad truth is that artists (to their own detriment) aren't wired that way. We almost always presume that the client wants perfection as much as we want to deliver it. And so we go back and start looking through all the compromises to make the best match for our presumptions. Not just choices of gear but also choices of process and style.

The truth is that clients don't really care about technical quality unless it interferes with the ultimate audience appreciation of the image. If a lesser quality detracts from the overall presentation only then is the project a "failure". And the truth is that we artists trap ourselves by making presumptions about the client's parameters and expectations. We share culpability with our own tenacity in holding onto cultural assumptions of (ever shifting) technical and stylistic norms.

The closer I get to a big project the more my anxiety wells up. The more choices I see in front of me which are all valid, all accessible in some form or another. My worry is that to choose incorrectly will result in some sort of failure that will be laid at my feet. One false step and you'll see me doing street photography with an albatross around my neck....

But there it is. The underlying truth of my photographic process. Be it a personal project or a client assignment, the underlying current that powers what I do is the anxiety presented by choice. And freedom to choose. Because with that freedom is the constant intimation that I can choose incorrectly.

Is it any wonder that we change cameras as often as we change our underwear? I don't know about you but the subconscious (partially conscious? fully conscious?) conceit is that the next camera will be the one that makes all three legs of our quality/price/creative triangle equal and powerful. A talisman to ward off the bad luck of too much choice. The new lens is like a bottle of Xanax, absolving us of error by dint of its innate imaging prowess, conferred to us. But we quickly develop a resistance as we build up our dose of "miracle" lenses and realize that underneath, nothing has really changed. And all we can do is make the choices and move forward.  But the anxiety does drive us to make the choices.

I envied my associates who exist by "blinkered" belief. They reject so many avenues of freedom of choice by choosing one from the menu of many options and eating the same diet of process everyday, every minute, every shutter click. They have no anxiety because they did their "research" bought the best compromise and never looked back---changing only when replacing damaged goods or following the mainstream along the curve of complacent, and slower paced acquisition. It must feel good to make every sortie in photograph in the same unquestioning way. It must be calming to make each photograph in exactly the way one made the last one and the one before that.

We are all wired differently. We all look over the chasm of choice with different mechanisms for coping. But at its essence the anxiety we feel is conscious embrace of choice. The reality of its existent and the reality of our freedom to embrace it. Or be humbled by it.


Omer said...

Wonderful, both photograph and article. Thank you.

Patrick Larson said...

Love your posts Kirk. I always love reading about portrait photography and the different cameras you try out.

John Krumm said...

I occasionally envy the apparently less anxious folks myself. Are they rockin' through life with Zen like calm and concentration, or just oblivious to the obvious? Hard to say, but judging by national prescription rates, a huge percentage of people both suffer from at least mild anxiety and moderate depression. So perhaps they just hide it well.

Frank Grygier said...

Waking up everyday not knowing if you will succeed or fail....Bliss

Yoram Nevo said...

Thank you Kirk. You described exactly my feelings when starting a new project at work. And it just remind me a quote from the great Israeli play writer Hanoch Levin: "you just started to ponder and already twelve points of view?"