Horror vacuii

Some time ago I ran into that big space of emptiness we all encounter from time to time. I had been through a stressful and extremely hectic period of time working almost day and night for various clients. I knew I needed some time for myself to wind down after I was done with the work. Thus I set aside four days after the last job was delivered to do nothing but photograph some personal work.

I had no idea what I would do, only knew I needed to work on something that mattered for myself and absolutely not in accordance with any demands of my clients. As I was busy all up to those days of personal freedom, I had no time to think about a project or even consider if I wanted do something else. Something would emerge, I thought. But when the day finally arrived I was blank as an empty box and no ideas had emerged.

The world was open to me—or at least the world I could reach within those four days. I had all the time for myself and no practical limitations. I could practically do whatever I wanted. But that unlimited universe of options got me all numb and restrained.

Almost every artist in almost every medium—not only photographers but also novelists, painters, musicians, sculptors and any other kinds of artists—has confronted the so-called horror vacuii, which is Latin for fear of empty space. It stifles your creativity or even kills it. It all starts when you desperately search for something to do—anything. The unlimited amount of possibilities almost imposes a mental constrain, makes you think you have nothing to photograph.

Part of the problem is the vastness of the blank page. When you can write anything—or photograph anything—why is a particular subject worthwhile? And where do you start? At least I started to think I had to doing something special now that I finally had a chance, something that would matter and something grand, maybe. And of course that made my creativity all curl up into itself.

The very vastness of the array of possibilities can be paralyzing. Throughout the ages—in whatever medium—artists have confronted empty spaces, blank pages, white canvases, and just trying to figure out what the heck to create. This is no different with photography, except maybe even a bit worse because it is so easy to simply press the button.

The universe is a big place. A photo is a two-dimensional representation of a «chunk» of this vast visual space. Paralysis can set in when you think of all the possibilities. The full range of possible captures using the equipment in an average camera bag is far beyond the capacity of the human mind to visualize all at once.

An answer to this «analysis paralysis» is that it doesn’t necessarily matter so much what you choose to shoot. But you don’t want to spend time staring into space or gazing at your navel. So get out there and start photographing! As difficult and as easy as that. It doesn’t matter what you choose to photograph so long as you are photographing something.

That’s exactly the prescription I followed myself. I just began photographing kids in the neighbourhood and did that for the next couple of days. It was liberating to limit myself and just begin with anything that came to mind. It will not be a project that will change the world, but then, hardly any do, do they… This was anyway for me, first and foremost.

How do you deal with horror vacuii? I would very much love to have you share your experience and dealing with the vast emptiness.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 16-35 mm lens and the zoom set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/4.0. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

95 thoughts on “Horror vacuii

  1. I like the way you put it. I guess it happens more often when you think each creation should mean something to you…it should satisfy all the criteria you’ve set. I personally allow time for inspiration to strike.

  2. When you really think …all this kind of stress is caused by one’s own thinking!! I keep telling myself, so what…do nothing..nobody says I HAVE to take the best shots ever, go to the arctic and photograph polar bears under water!!!…I am getting better at letting go now, but it is difficult.

  3. I just wait until my mind gets focused on something else, for my mind to relax instead of being stuck to that blank canvas… the idea is to relax and let go of it, at least for me it is… then give it some time if need be. i always seem to be on the edge of the problem though. it’s tough for me: i think, all i have to take pictures of are in my house or out the car window, and for some reason, the universe doesn’t seem like a big place to ME lol

    1. I think the best is to do as you do; let the mind relax and let go of any preconceptions. Even a house is a big universe, though, it all depends on the perspective, doesn’t it.

  4. I know I’ve mentioned a time or two that I get this syndrome, depending on were we happen to be. I have a real mental block, put in place by myself, when we have to be in Utah. I don’t like it here, and therefore there is nothing to photograph. Sometimes I make myself go in search of something interesting, and sometimes my camera just gathers dust. Thankfully I found the wild horses, and we can go out and spend a few days with them. That fills my mind, my camera, and my soul. I have noticed, that the more I practice my photography, the more “in the moment” I become while shooting. I miss that zen like feeling the most, when I’m not out shooting.

    1. As you point out, the mental block is indeed due to our own thinking, like with you when you don’t like Utah. For me the landscape in Utah is extraordinary, but I have my places, too, where I can’t see a single picture. It’s really not about the place, but ourselves. I notice when I work with other photographers or teach my workshops, that where I might see no picture, others come back with excellent shots.

  5. Otto, one way is to distract the mind’s obsession with everythingness, finding that place where creative energies can once again surface. As you explained the stresses of life can take away from the moment and the here and now. Diverting one’s mind from the need to do this or that, and turn to being with wherever the day takes you or whatever it offers you.

  6. So true! We all need down-time and balance. That vast emptiness is paralyzing and thank you for sharing your brave journey into that space.

    1. We all approach this blankness differently, but sometimes, like in my case, we just have to start doing something, anything. Good luck getting back on the track again, Michelle.

  7. “that made my creativity all curl up into itself” So true!! I try to get outside, anywhere outside seems to unleash something inside. Just yesterday I went out for a walk. I didn’t bring my camera because I was just walking through the neighborhood and to a stretch of river that I’ve already photographed too many times. But of course, I did have my phone and I found myself pulling that out and framing images. I couldn’t help myself. It seems to be impossible to go for a walk without a lens. Of course that doesn’t always help my writing…lol

  8. I found myself thinking recently that I wasn’t producing any photographic work that was noticeable, let alone any good. I was not only not placing in the top ten in my photo club, I was not scoring any points at all which I found very discouraging. I even thought of giving it up, that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Briefly, but the thoughts surprised me.Then I went on a shoot with same club and didn’t care about the competitions or scoring points, but did find I was having fun again. I do believe that emptiness is part of the creative process. I love the playfulness of your photo, the placement of the kids and that red ball-great!

    1. I think we all experience moments like you describe, like what is the point of it all. But like I wrote a couple of posts earlier, success is not about what other think, but what the creative process means to ourselves. I am glad you are back enjoying the photographic process.

  9. Areal dynamic shot, great! Now, horror vacui….hmmm relaxing, listening to good music (possible live or at least on vinyl) helps. But is discussing with some good friends who also are involved in any creative activity (it’s not necessary it’s photography) can start some new thinking, some new ideas which brings me to try at least one photo just to see if it works. And when I strait with one photo the desire to shoot others will come…and sometimes even a project about…

  10. Hi Otto, this post resonated with me, on such a deep level, not just as an artist but as a woman. That vacuum you write of is so real, but mine has encompassed my world. Having been out of the office workforce for more than two years and doing just freelance work has zapped my confidence big time. People tell me I can do anything and the world’s my oyster but I feel so stuck. Repeated rejections, the loss of my mum and personal crisis makes it so much harder to find direction. Perhaps as you said though, it’s just about doing something, anything to keep moving. Great post.

    1. I know from my own experience, how rejections, loss of those close to you and personal crisis can open up that fear of empty space. And, yes, one way to get going again is to just shoot, anything. I hope you get your mojo going again, Miriam.

  11. Thought provoking as usual. My solution goes by car…I take the car and just drive – along roads I have never driven before. The road map leads me anywhere. New roads, new views and new ideas. Then my appetite for photography comes back.

    1. That’s a good solution. I actually used to do that, too, but these days, I try to let my car be parked as much as possible. But maybe I should try the same approach by biking. I like the thought.

  12. As scary as that blank page always is to me, I find that I love it in some strange way. Probably because I have forced myself to learn to use it, and I have never regretted it.
    As always, a great post, Otto.
    Thank you!

  13. This can be a problem not just relative to creativity, but to life. I’m retired and have all the time in the world to do anything I want. So what do I want to do? Where to even start? It’s too easy to put everything off until “tomorrow” and in the end, just procrastinate your life away.

  14. By co-incidence I now had the same thing (in one way).

    Finally……….the weeks of gale force winds and rain have stopped and I’ve got a window of 3 days to get outdoors and explore my new neighbourhood properly.

    Best thing to do is get off the computer and ignore all emails & blogging. That’s my first step. If I start reading emails and eat breakfast late, half the day is gone.

    Next step is to swap sides of the brain (if I can). Always used to take me at least 20-30 minutes in my old figure drawing classes to be able to draw the figure in front of me, as the class was straight after office work (using mainly left brain). I imagine that you, Otto, need to switch to more creative vision and less to client guidelines (or journalistic mode).

    I used to do what Leya (comment above) does too, when I had a car. But that was BC (‘Before Camera’ ownership). Before I sold my car in 2013, I used to just get in the car, head for the country and keep driving until I had erased that urban mindset and revolving cycle of work, chores, shopping etc. I don’t remember the exact timing, but it was probably the time it took to leave the outer suburbs and urban landscape behind and be driving in open farm land or hills/mountains …. about 30-40 minutes, and then……I felt the freedom and possibilities. I saw scenes and colours (of my next painting).

    1. A great inspirations for others, on how to get out of that stillness a vast empty space my impose upon us. And I know exactly what you say, by postponing getting started, by first reading emails etc. it’s so easy to get nowhere. When you finally are in a space where you think you are ready, it’s getting so late, you may just as well wait till tomorrow… The trick is really how to get the right brain engaged, isn’t it?

  15. That is ironic isn’t it. While we were working hard, we look forward for a good break to do things you want to do. Once we reach that point, we run to a wall of finding nothing to do with the free time. I have this trouble too. I think your antidote is a good suggestion. Perhaps, cultivate some ideas and work on them when you have a free time. Not that I can do this, by the way.

    1. I certainly think cultivating ideas, and collecting them whenever they appear for later use, is a great way to not have to face that empty space with nothingness when you have some time off.

  16. For almost two weeks I’ve not taken my camera anywhere..A new camera arrived three days ago, and it is still in the box… Yes, I am unpacking/moving into a new apt, but there’s more at work there… I have been working through some personal disappointments-awkwardness, and that creative spark just is not there… today I walked thru the village in search of something ‘scientific’ to illustrate for a class – and hit an imaginary wall.. ‘Too complicated…” “too average”… “I don’t know what species /leaf that is…” etc etc…. I asked permission to cut one ‘thunbergia flower from someone’s yard — and picked up one seedpod, but decided to wait for another day- for better inspiration…

    I am lucky, however, that once I sharpen my pencil, all qualms vaporize, and I am back in that alpha then theta mode, and I wonder, ” – why was I stalling?”

    Maybe sometimes we need a period of incubation?

    1. Oh, I always think we need a period of incubation, in between the battles, that is. And, ye,s good routines are always helping us back into the flow, aren’t they, such as sharpening pencils or whatever we do. May you soon get the spark back again. 🙂

      1. Pencils are sharpened (literally!) and camera is now in active mode! Am at the earthquake zone and trying to take ‘after’ photos to go with the ones from years before…

        Listening to the stories is quite interesting this trip.

  17. Hi Otto,
    I try to paint each and every day. It causes me much discomfort when I don’t have any ideas before blog-posting time. Once I have an idea, I can go about implementing it, successfully or not. When I don’t have ideas, I load up a brush with paint and move it across the paper. I sit back and see what that stroke inspires. It doesn’t always work, but it is a process that sometimes yields good results.
    This may be the analog of photographing one’s surroundings even if not inspired the visual possibilities in the environment.

  18. Great insights, Otto. You may recall that my wife Fran is a novelist – currently she’s going through writer’s block, and I’ll forward this to her. Always, I enjoy and appreciate your outlook. Peace.

  19. I enjoyed your post, as ever, but it served to recall experiences that I hated during my early secondary school years. One relates to an English teacher who would frequently instruct us to ‘write a poem for homework’- with no further guidance other than perhaps a suggested number of lines. The other was an art teacher who, again for homework, would require us to ‘draw something in or around the home’, with no further assistance. This is bad, lazy teaching.
    Possibly the hardest part of any creative activity is defining the task. Now, I frequently draw inspiration from the works of artists, not for the purpose of copying their work but as a trigger for my own ideas.

    1. You comment reminds me of my own time in school. Back then I hated that we always got a theme to write about or do an essay about, instead of anything we wanted ourselves. Today I agree with you, of course, if not the teachers hadn’t done their job. 🙂

  20. When faced with either unlimited possibility or apparent nothingness, my answer always is the same: go small. Something always is better than nothing, and even something small relieves the pressure to produce. In my own case, I’ve sometimes matched one of my photos with a poem from one of the masters: people enjoy that, and it allows me to take a breath, reevaluate the possiblitiies, and move on. Even if I have a direction, a big project can be paralyzing. Giving myself space to do the job I want to do is critical.

    It’s an approach that’s grounded in something Stephen King said in his book about writing: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

  21. The number of times I’ve experienced that – not just with photography but with life itself! Aaargh – what a waste!! My solution now is to stop distracting myself from the situation by doing ‘necessary’ things that really are no more than distractions and to get out and do something …. anything. Making myself do something ‘else’ seems to kick start my motivation and imagination. Difficult to put into words but it works for me!

  22. Thanks for writing that Post, Otto. I had never heard of the Latin phrase, but I am familiar with the feeling it describes. The exhaustion after a period of hectic activity befuddles the mind, and making a ‘decison’ becomes difficult. I always find that getting out walking is the start of freeing up the mind. Exercise gets the endorphins flowing and life feels different.

  23. “Horror vacuii!” I have never heard that phrase, but as an artist I know the feeling oh so very well. It makes me think of one of my inspiring teachers, who basically had the same recommendation as you. She said “pick up the paintbrush.” Just pick it up. Once one does that, takes hat first step, the paralysis eases a bit. Squeeze some paint. Stop thinking, just do. “It is not WHAT you paint that matters….just that you do paint!”

    And then, we start to see things. And once we get into the sen of looking, it starts to flow. No need to even go further than our immediate environment. Describe your room or sketch it, the yard, and yes, the neighbors.

    Terrific post on an interesting topic.


  24. I’m going through that right now, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of health issues. Now that they’re getting resolved, I feel like picking up the camera again, even if it’s just the one on the iPhone. These blank spaces used to bother me, but now I just relax and try not to stress because I know they’re temporary. Sometimes you need to just BE.

  25. What an incredible term, “horror vacuii.” I haven’t experienced it in relationship to work and the creative response, but I relate as I think of many times in my life when following a stressful period I come to a point where I can slow down or operate without a heavy set of demands. I think I’m going to enjoy the respite, but I am too fatigued to make a decision about what to do. I often use those times to walk in nature, even if that just means my own neighborhood. With a cell phone I’m never ever without a camera, so I often take photos of squirrels or trees or something that simply pleases me. The photos aren’t anything to brag about, certainly, but it does refresh me! This is an interesting consideration, Otto. I enjoyed it!

    1. You should indeed enjoy your respite, an do whatever you feel like doing. And, yes, the cell phone is a great companion for anyone interested in photography, but not necessarily wanting to drag around a big camera. 🙂

  26. I can understand what Debra says. Sometimes I just need a time out too, and going to the woods or whatever can feed the soul. I can understand bringing the camera along too though. Maybe not the “have to” do something creative, but that I “can” if it feels good.

    1. Time out is always great, particularly in Mother Nature. The “not have to” can be a double edged sword, though. Sometimes it’s necessary to force yourself, although certainly not always. 🙂

  27. A smashing article Otto as always. It’s interesting, Klausbernd used the words horror vacuii when describing my minimalist Iceland photographs. I was busy trying to write about them and he suggested this as a theme. The idea that when you look into an empty wilderness, what you are forced to face is yourself and for some people that is a terrifying prospect, for others a great opportunity. Clearly you turned your horror vacuii into an opportunity. An opportunity to do something different. It didn’t matter what it was, you just got out there and did it. This is a smashing photograph. I love the movement, I love the obvious innocent joy of the children just playing with a ball. As ever, a great post! 🙂

    1. A little synchronicity going on here, in other words. I think Klausbernd has a good point about your minimalist photos. And so do you in your response to my post. I am glad you like it. Thank you, Andy.

  28. I had the insight that I worked better under some sort of limitations when I was pretty young. It forces creativity, at least for me. Too few limitations can leave me with nothing to rub up against. But if that happens, I’ll just tell myself to go out and take pictures, and see what happens. usually something is there that I can work with! I enjoy the way you alternate posts, Otto!

  29. Enjoyed this post a lot, Otto. I think that horror vacuii does not only apply to artists, but to some other professions as well. I prefer to have some ‘stress’ and know that I do much better with some pressure than none at all.

  30. Hög igenkänningsfaktor här Otto, att bara gå ut och sätta igång att fota funkar oftast för mig. Brukar oftast fascineras av något men har jag krav på mig att prestera så påverkas både startsträcka och resultat.

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