Incubation Time

Last week I spoke with a photographer. She told me she had lost inspiration and hadn’t photographed for a long while—despite her love for photography. The frustration was radiating out of every word she spoke. She so wanted to find a way back to her muses.

Of course, I had no wonder cure for her ailment. I certainly couldn’t bring back the muses just like that. Nobody would, included herself. Nevertheless, I told her that any photographer, anyone doing creative work, experiences times of lapses when nothing seems to move forward, but rather the creative life comes to a standstill.

Creativity works in a flux. Sometimes we are on top of everything and creativity seems to ooze out of every pore. At other times, the head feels embalmed in cotton or some thick substance that keeps every creative thought out of reach.

It’s just the natural order of things.

The more we experience this lapse of creativity—and the regaining of it again after some time—the more we can accept the condition without panicking. In addition, what is just as important to realize, is that those dry spells are not only part of a natural flux, but in fact part of the creative process itself.

We may feel uninspired, but our subconscious is still working for us. It’s the natural way of replenishing our creative well. As photographers, and as any artist, we need to realize that we have to maintain a balance between what we take out of the well and the need to replenishing it. Sometimes we experience dry spells because we have drawn heavily on the creative well, even over-tapped it. It’s like overfishing a pond, it leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain, for the creative ideas we require. Our work dries up, we lose inspiration, and we wonder why, “just when it was going so well”.

Creativity needs replenishing. Sometimes because we have overfished the pond. Other times because we need the small fry to grow big before we want to catch it. The latter corresponds to a variation of replenishing: Creativity needs incubation time.

We do so by letting it all go, and letting the subconscious work its own mysterious ways. Suddenly it’s all back again, fresh and eager to express itself again. We can even help the process. By doing something totally different. Going for a walk. Visiting a gallery. Cooking. Go paragliding. You name it. Even sleep. Haven’t we all experienced, struggling with some Gordian knot, going to bed without having resolved the problem, only to wake up next morning—eureka—having found the solution.

It’s like on an overcast and raining day. It might feel disheartening and dark, but if you think about it, you know that the sun will eventually shine upon you again. It just needs some incubation time to burn the clouds away.

54 thoughts on “Incubation Time

  1. So true Otto, I had a creative lull all through last year, but didn’t stop reading about or watching videos about photography and photographers. This year I’m doing better!

  2. Det var väldigt fint skrivet. Det är nog många som känner på samma sätt. Inspirationerna kanske inte har försvunnit, men vi är de som inte längre känner igen de. Men nog kommer livslusten tillbaka och då kommer det flöda mer.

  3. This speaks to me at this time. We are on lock-down again. Just need to go out for a walk, with the camera, and even if I don’t get good shots, I have done something. Thanks for your article.

  4. I don’t doubt that’s true, Otto. It’s not possible to run on full power all the time, is it? I’m sure most people have ‘flat’ times. As you say, makes the good times better 🙂 🙂

    1. That is true. We need to have low tide to be able to enjoy the high tide. As you write, it’s not possible to run on full power all the time. A telling analogue.

  5. There is much truth into this, Otto, and I’m glad you brought up this subject. Myself I find it often harder to get inspired,
    though I have some projects in my mind, yet to go out and capturing it, is still another challenge , because of the many restrictions.

    1. The restrictions sure put some limitations on us. Goes without saying. But at least the prospects look better than in a long time – although we are not quite at the end yet.

  6. Thoughtful piece Otto – thanks. Besides inspiration I admit to a bit of ‘photo envy’ these days. I’ve enjoyed walking with my camera for over 40 years and even took a couple of courses but never got beyond taking mediocre shots. Then everyone started posting their shots on social media and there are some really amazing natural photographers out there! I have to admit that it discouraged me and now I admire the work of others and the occasional time I pick up my camera I am often as not disappointed in the result.

    1. I think we have all experience “photo envy”. Understandably, as there are so many good photographers out there. However, no matter how good you are, there will always be people better than you. Thus, at some point, I think we are better off if we are able not compare ourselves with others, but rather concentrate on our own work and the pleasure of creating in itself. I hope you can get over being discouraged and get back into the groove of photography. There is so much fun to explore in the activity. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure it’s valuable for others to know that we are all at times struggling.

  7. Creativity sometimes is just like a ghost; you can never get a hold of it but only strongly believe that it is there to comeback somedays.

  8. You’ve provided good advice, Otto, for anyone involved in creative works. We aren’t machines, and sometimes we need to rest and refuel. 🙂

  9. beautifully written, and very encouraging, Otto… tho i have gone for MANY YEARS at a time not taking photographs, and it IS heartbreaking, i feel for your friend xoxoxoxoxoxoxox

      1. yeah, i didn’t know that before lol coz i hadn’t met you yet xoxoxoxoxoxox

  10. Excellent blog! When my creative muse for nature/landscape began to wane, I turned to a subject I’d rarely touched in the past: urban architecture and landscapes. Having a new subject passion reignited my interest in rural/nature.

  11. I wonder if some of it is not so much lacking inspiration as getting stuck in a rut. The recent year’s lockdowns have narrowed access, and probably mindsets as well. I suspect a good way to regain inspiration is to break out of the routines we’ve become stuck in, even in a small way, and let inspiration take care of itself.

    1. Surely, being able to move and function more freely again, will free the creative mind. At the same time I think it’s dangerous to wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes when you do the work – even when it’s mediocre in the beginning.

  12. This is so true but also encouraging to know that other people experience the same thing. Learning how to bounce back after such a phase is what is so important.

  13. Sound advice, Otto. Everyone needs to step away now and again, refresh, replenish, find other avenues to discover so they can come back, ready!

  14. This is the most acurate description I have ever heard/read…” the head feels embalmed in cotton or some thick substance”. I think there are a lot of people feeling this way now. It has been a long haul to get through this required isolation we are all experiencing. No one was prepared for how bad it would get or how long it would take. I imagine that it will definitely take time to unclog that substance from our heads.

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