A Double Edged Sword

Selvportrett

Don’t we all have to admit it; that we as photographers or creative persons of some form—at least to some extent—all crave for recognition, one way or another, whether we are professionals or pure amateurs? But don’t we all also know that recognition is a double edged sword? On one hand, yes, it’s nice to get recognized for the work we do, for our effort, but the flip side of the coin is when recognition becomes the driving force for our creativity. Then we stand to lose it, the uniqueness of our vision and expression.

What one day may lead to recognition is ignoring what makes us crave it. That’s the only way we can create from our heart. Without heart and without ourselves invested in our creative work, it only becomes an act of deceit and thus has no artistic or creative value.

What do we actually take for recognition? Money? Fame? Both—when talking about creativity—are black holes that easily destroy us and the uniqueness that sets us apart as artists. Being true to our inner artist may, if we are lucky, result in work that sells or gain recognition—but often not. If money determinates what is good art, neither Paul Gaugain nor Vincent van Gogh were artists worth our attention. But despite lack of recognition, fame and money in their time, they kept doing what they felt they were meant to do. Their creativity flourished and had to be expressed, it wasn’t depending upon recognition.

Only by doing what comes from inside of us, without second thoughts to money or fame, may we be true artists, be true to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we are professionals or amateurs. Still the professional is often caught up in the money-game since after all he or she is making a living out of a creative field. Thus for them it’s even more important to protect their own integrity and their inner artist.

Often enough I may have to make my editors happy by doing what they want me to do, but still I try to bring my own vision into the equation. Sometimes it won’t work, but then I can always fall back on my own personal projects in which I only answer to myself. And even if amateurs don’t create for money, they can still fall into the trap of recognition and fame. We all want it—in one way or another, no?

As Julia Cameron writes in her book The Artist’s Way: «I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem—whether it will sell or not. I need to create what wants to be created.»

The same goes for photographers. Our vision needs to be expressed, whether the pictures sell or not, whether they will bring us fame or not. The joy is really to feel how our vision—our true creativity—becomes reality, becomes expressed. That is the biggest fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction. The creative process in itself is what makes it exciting. Let’s not confuse it with money or fame. Let’s not slip into the black whole of vanity.

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.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

No Easy Way Around

I often get questions about photographic voice and how to create a signature style—not the least since I regularly teach a workshop called “Your Photographic Voice”. However, there is no easy answer to the question, simply because there isn’t a quick and simple solution to finding this unique way of expressing oneself, not as a photographer nor in any other art form.

The not so helpful answer is; it takes time to develop your own signature. Moreover, it’s not something you can sit down and figure out or construct. As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it. Or let it find you. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to allow yourself the freedom to grow into your practice and find your way. Once you fully accept this freedom, originality follows almost inevitably.

So keep in mind, the way in which all artists discover their individuality takes time. In fact, you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer. It’s in constant development, and the longer you have been nurturing your art, the more distinctive your voice grows to be. If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original. This is something I have addressed before. If you try to be original, the result will rather be contrived. Instead, don’t think about being original, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment, exploring as many different mediums, subject matters, and approaches as possible.

It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality, as he or she slides subconsciously into repetitive patterns that build upon one another and over time form natural habits. Originality is the accumulation of a series of these subconscious processes, that when seen as a whole are a representation of the originality inherent in each individual. Not two people are the same, and thus no two people’s work is the same. When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.

To be true to your own individuality, you need to pursue your passions. It’s through passionate work you develop your voice. Passion is simply the foundation of any successful, personal expression. As such, I think that is the strongest advice to take to heart—literarily. Photograph what you are passionate about. Find themes and subject matters you really care about, not only photographically but personally.

Then make photographing these subjects personal, that is to say photograph what you know. Photograph close to home, physically or figuratively. For instance, photograph your family or photograph your friends. Many a renowned photograph has made a name for him- or herself by photographing their personal relationships, among others Sally Mann, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, to mention a few.

What makes your photography stand out—over time—is showing the rest of us how your world looks like photographed. Tell us your story—in your photos. When you share your personal life, you share your life experience and your heartfelt revelations. Just remember, when I write personal, I don’t mean private. Nobody wants to pry into your private life, but sharing your personal experiences will make us curious and capture us. Through a personal approach, your photography will be able to touch others and make them learn more about life, in general.

The late photographer, Diane Arbus, once wrote: “The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes”.

A final thought about how to pursue a personal, photographic voice or encourage this budding individuality is to take in as much art as possible, from as many different approaches as possible. And I don’t talk only about photography now, although if you are particularly interested in nature photography, for instance, open up yourself to other photographic approaches as well. If your only reference material is nature photography, it is easy to see how the work you make might quickly become a reworking of other nature photographs. When absorbing a vast array of different approaches to making, alas not only photographic approaches, some will filter their way into your work, distilled through the prism of your personality. So give yourself as much inspiration as possible, from as many varying sources as possible. Even seek out work that you dislike. It will refine your own signature.

A Devilish Ride

I continue my ride down memory lane. This time literally. You may have noticed that the last couple of blog posts, I have been writing and showing images from past experiences. Two reasons for this: First of all, I have been re-organizing my analogue photo archive, and then we have this travel ban imposed on all of us, so if nothing else, I can at least travel back in time.

This time, I will take you to Bolivia and a mindboggling bike ride I did quite a few years ago. The ride took me down what used to be the main road between the capital La Paz and Las Yungas, the lowlands north in the country, the spring of the Amazon. Today a new road has replaced it, but back then the Inter-American Development Bank designated the old trade route to be the world’s most dangerous. Every year, around 100 people lost their lives on this important but life-threatening trade route.

The bike ride was organized by a local tour agency and the group was brought to La Cumbra pass at 4700 metres or just under 15500 feet. Ahead of us was a 65 kilometres (40 miles) winding road down 3600 metres (11800 feet) of altitude difference.

The first part went along the new road already under construction, paved and just pure fun. The biggest danger was dogs chasing the bikes—not something you want to hit at a speed of, at the most, 90 kilometres per hour (56 miles per hour).

About halfway down, we enter the old road, caved out along a steep mountainside. Many places the dirt road cut straight into the vertical rock wall. Several hundred meters of free fall to one side made it a trembling experience. In some places, the dirt road is actually narrower than some of the trucks, which used to use it. Most accidents along the death road happened due to truck drivers who had to hurry to earn enough for a living.

While we had sun the first part of the ride, when we enter the old road, fog came in from the mountains.

After a while, I could see absolutely nothing. The fog was like wet cotton. The last remnant of sight, the torrential rain took away. I knew the abyss was there, just a metre or so to the left of where I now raced down a bumpy and muddy dirt road by bike. 300 metres straight down.

As we descended into the valley, the temperature rose. After a few hours we were met by the steaming jungle. As we came out of a narrow gorge and the valley opened up, the fog and rain eased, and soon the sun would be shining from an open sky again. The last kilometres would be pure victory ride.

Learning by Doing

Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. You make a mistake that you will never do again. While the last week has seen further strengthening of lockdown here where I have been grounded for the last year or so (hopefully the last spell before things start to get better), I have spent time organizing my analogue archive—those stories and images that I never got around to properly store after they were shot.

One such story was from a travel to Japan and about sumo wrestlers. This is back in time, way before digital cameras were even thought of. Obviously, the story was captured on film. However, it never made it into a published story. I screwed up.

I had been in Japan already for some weeks, trying without much success to get access to a gym where the sumo wrestlers train. I had been attending a tournament but was not able to access their training grounds. Then someone, now years later I can quite recall whom and how, tipped me about a gym where the big fellows trained every morning. It was in the outskirts of Tokyo.

So, I just turned up at the break of dawn. And there they were, already into their morning routine. I had no appointment, but just started photographing. It was still dark inside the gym; with the only light provide being daylight streaming through the doors and windows. Aka, harsh contrast and difficult shooting conditions.

While I was in Japan, the big Japanese film manufacturer released a new slide film with, back then, the exhilarating speed of 1600 ISO being able push to 3200. Remember at the time a slide film with 200 ISO was at the high end—before this new film. I had just bought some rolls to test it out, and I thought it would be perfect for this dark gym.

First mistake! Never do important work with equipment you have not tried out beforehand, whether a camera, a new lens or, as in this case, a new film. I pushed the film to 3200 ISO. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rolls developed while still in Japan. When I got back home and got the rolls developed, all the images where too dark. Somehow, the lab hadn’t gotten it right, I believe because they had never developed this film before.

The second mistake, which wasn’t doing things worse, really, since the films were screwed anyway, but would have been, if not for the underexposed and/or underdeveloped rolls. I didn’t move close enough. I felt I was intruding, most of all because I had not made arrangements beforehand, and couldn’t communicate with anyway at the gym. It was a little intimidating being in a place where nobody understood, and I wasn’t sure they wanted me to be around in the first place.

As I was photographing the sumo wrestlers’ morning training, albeit not knowing nothing would come out of it, a crowd started to gather outside the gym. I slowly gathered it was me, that I was the attraction. Nobody out in this suburb of Tokyo were used to a gaijin—a foreigner. That sure put extra pressure on me, and maybe part of why I failed so miserably.

At least, I got back from the whole experience with a lovely memory. As I was packing down my equipment, believing I had done a scoop and would get the biggest story ever published in a major magazine, a young Japanese man from the crowd approach me and asked in poor English if I would like to come along and have breakfast with him and his family at his home. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the invitation—and wouldn’t want to—and had this lovely breakfast with him, his wife and their only child. We couldn’t say much to each other, but used the international sign language.

Today that would be quite unusual, to be invited home to a total strange in the middle a big city. At least I got away with something.

The images here are an attempt to recover some of the images, by scanning and processing them. Took quite some time…

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Easter Ponderings

Easter is a special time for many Norwegians. Not so much for its religious significance, not at all in fact. Easter is when we seek up in the mountains, to go skiing and enjoy the last spell of winter. It’s one of our major holidays, and as such I think Norwegians are almost alone in the world to have institutionalized the whole week between the weekend of Palm Sunday and the Easter Weekend, included Easter Monday, as days off. That is 10 days of holidays in March or April—depending on when Easter falls in any given year.

For many Norwegians having a cabin in the mountains it what means to be Norwegian. Almost as their birthright. And part of that legacy is the pilgrimage up in the mountain during Eastern.

Certainly, plenty of Norwegian don’t own a cabin in the mountains. Some prefer one along the extensive coastline. And some don’t have a cabin at all. Me being one. I have never wanted the bonds and the limitations owning a cabin impose on you. I want the freedom to roam wherever I desire. Of course, it’s an economical question as well.

Even without my own cabin, I have sought out the high mountains during Easter, but then rather backpacking; sleeping in a tent, snow caves or public cabins or lodges spread out in the mountains. That is another special feature of Norway. An outdoor organization runs a network of cabins or huts all over the country. Some are run like lodges—with full board and lodging—but some are unattended, with only food you may use, stored in the cabins. The system is based on trust; that you leave payment for the lodging and the food that you use.

The alpine region of winter mountains can be quite weather prone. I remember one Easter, many, many years ago. A friend and I was captured by a full storm with heavy snowfall and strong winds. It lasted for almost a week. We dug a snow cave, and spent the next many days inside the cave. Safe, but pretty bored by the time the storm dwindled.

Despite both the danger and the nuisance of possibly bad weather during winter in the mountains, I have learned that waiting for good weather, will only make sure you never get going. In fact, I have discovered that defying foul weather often gives the strongest, most exquisite and most memorable experiences (at least as long as you play it safe). Not the least for a photographer. It’s in the moments of transitions between bad and good—or good and bad—that the mountain show off its best. Besides, I live in the part of the world where, if you wait for nice weather, you may wait for a long time.

And here comes what this is all leading up to: It’s exactly how inspiration and creativity works. You cannot wait for it to show up. You will have to go after it with a club, as the writer Jack London once said. Or as the American painter, artist and photographer put it: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work”.

Inspiration isn’t prone to show up when you need it—just like nice weather in the mountains isn’t. If you wait for it, you might wait a long time. Instead, get yourself properly dressed, to use the outdoor metaphor¸ and get going. Set yourself down in front of the computer or the drawing pad, or grab your camera and get outside. It might be hard work and rather unpleasant in the beginning, but suddenly everything changes. Suddenly, you find yourself in a magical moment, the light of inspiration spiriting you away, the flow of creative taking you to unknown places.

Enjoy Easter, whether you celebrate it or not. And enjoy being creative.

The photos in this post have been captured over several Easters.

Regretting Those Images not Captured

I don’t think I have ever regretted photos that I have actually taken. But I sure have regretted those I didn’t capture. The reasons for not taking those photos may vary. Sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to start photographing, for instance after a strenuous a hike, and sometimes it was my inner self that lost the guts to take photos, most often when I wanted to photograph people.

No matter what the reasons were, I still clearly remember those times when I thought to myself, I need to capture this moment—and didn’t.

During the passed weekend, I went through my old film archive. I wanted to clean up and get it all in better shape. One of the first shoots I came across was captured long time ago, when I still was a student—and before turning myself into a photojournalist.

It was a weekend. A good friend and I wanted to go for a hike up in the mountains on the west coast of Norway. My friend knew about a mountain farm we could stay at, beautifully situated in a lush but steep valley.

It was about a two-hour hike to get to the farm. There was no road to the place, only a steep and at places quite narrow trail. It was summer; the weekend was blessed with gorgeous weather, sun warming from a clear blue sky. The hike up to the farm was almost effortless despite the steepness and quite rough path. We arrived when the sun was about to set, everything was bathed in the golden rays of the sun. It was like a fairytale. I remember it so clearly.

At the farm lived two sisters and a brother. They were in the 70’s and had been born and lived their whole lives together at the farm. They had some sheep, a couple of horses and some other animals and made do with a very simple living. No electricity. Whatever they didn’t produce themselves they would have to carry up the same trail my friend and I had arrived by.

My friend and I had a lovely weekend with the three elderly siblings. We relaxed in the meadows and hiked up on the mountains surrounding the farm. And of course I took photos. Of the landscape, the farm itself, and some with my friend as an extra. But no, I did not photograph the two sisters and the brother. Well, I captured one photo of him from behind walking towards a shed.

Why didn’t I take any more? I was thinking about it all the time, but couldn’t muster the courage to push the camera in front of their faces. I just didn’t have the guts. Today it seems ludicrous, but then I couldn’t make myself do it, despite the fact that they were the sweetest people on earth.

To this day, I do so severely regret not having documented their lives. Today it’s history. No one, not in Norway, does farming in places without infrastructure, having to carry everything on their backs, and nothing like motorized cultivation.

In fact, I went back twelve years later with the intention to document their lives. But it was too late. By then I had established myself as a photojournalist and knew what I had missed. When I returned, a road had been built to the farm. An urbanization project was underway, new house popping up all over the valley. One sister and the brother stilled lived at the farm, now in their early 90’s. One sister had passed away. Of course, I photographed them and had a last, by lovely time with the siblings. But the historic opportunity had vanished.

So, the moral is: Don’t postpone or don’t let go of photographing when you have an opportunity. You will regret it later on.

Capture Unique Photos

In the first months of 2021, we have been blessed with some lovely winter here in Bergen, Norway, where I have been grounded for the last year. Blessed for those of us who like winter, that is. Right now and for the recent weeks, winter is receding, though, but it might still show up again for an occasionally appearance.

Of course, when winter showed up in its full splendour, I had to take advantage—photographically—of the snow, which suddenly adorned the city (contrary to what one should expect, we only irregularly have winter come for a visit).

While walking the snow-covered streets and photographing Bergen in winter garb, I came across another like-minded fellow photographer, who was out on the same errand. I noticed he was both capturing stills and shooting videos. Naturally, we ended up talking with each other.

It turned out he had only been photographing for little less than a year, but already had a Youtube channel up and running. About photography. He told me he was adamant about wanting to capture images that weren’t like anybody else’s. If he had already seen another photo of a scenery, he would go out of way’s length to find a different angle, something distinct. He wanted to capture unique images.

That is a worthy approach, something most of us aspire to. However, in retrospect I thought a little more about the desire to create original photos. You see, there is a danger. In wanting to be original, we might just end up been possessed by what is different, and instead of capturing something unique we end up with a result that is rather contrived. Maybe different, but most likely uninspiring.

We risk losing ourselves in the search for the different.

All good photos emerge from a personal engagement; they materialize through our hearts. In fact, that is all it takes. Yes, you still need to know you craft, understand the visual language, be able to use your camera, but to create captivating and compelling images; you need to become emotionally engaged with your subject. If you do, you don’t have to “look” for the different.

You are unique. Your person is exceptional. No one is like you. That’s where the creative uniqueness surface from. Be yourself, involve yourself, lose yourself in the process, and your photos will be yours, different from anyone else’s. The point is; everything has already been done, been photographed. However, nothing has been done with your eyes and through your emotional filter.

That is the secret to captivating, compelling—and unique photos.