Musings on Photography

Invoking the muse

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on September 4, 2008

Colin Jago’s wonderful post over on Auspicious Dragon seems to have jogged loose a number of thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain.

Colin writes

I don’t understand much about the art process, but I do know that I don’t take good photographs when I’m not taking photographs. The muse doesn’t visit me to create inspiration. It lives inside me unable to get out unless I’m working the shutter.

I suspect, actually, that Colin has a considerably deeper grip on the art process as praxis than he’s willing to admit. Letting that line of thought go, though, what strikes me so deeply is that Colin is very right in a very practical way. That is, you can’t make good photographs if you don’t get out the camera. There’s ability, and there’s opportunity, and they’re necessary but not sufficient skills for making art (or making good photos, or whatever wording you’d like to use to skirt around the whole “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” issue.) You can have the skills, and you have have the opportunity, but until you unlimber the camera and let the shutter go, it’s all potential and not realization.

When someone mentions the muse, I’m always reminded of the opening lines of the Odyssey, which read (in my rough memory of what I think is the Fitzgerald translation)

Sing in me, Oh Muse! And through me tell the story
of that man, skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end…

Oh, yeah. Some years ago, I saw Mary Zimmerman’s incredible, fantastic production of the Odyssey. In the opening scene, an actress sits in a chair, reading these opening lines. Her delivery is leaden and lifeless, despite the obvious effort she’s making to try to bring the story to life. She starts over several times, but each time words are flat and lifeless. Then, from behind her, the Muse approaches, grabs the reader around the throat, hauls her bodily out of the chair, and presses a knife to her throat. Terrified, the reader attempts the words one more time, and this time, with the assistance of the Muse, the story comes to life. It’s been years since I saw that opening scene, and it remains bright in my memory as one of my most authentic theatre experiences. It points out that we invoke the muse at some peril. Inspiration comes, by definition, from outside our day to day consciousness, and it necessarily means that we have given up some amount of control over where things are going and how we’re going to get there. And this surrender of control does not come with a 90 day money-back guarantee that it will be the pleasant journey we wanted.

That aside, there’s one aspect of Zimmerman’s opening scene that I hadn’t noticed until I read Colin’s post. As with so many important points, it seems obvious now that it’s been pointed out to me.

You’ll notice that in Zimmerman’s opening scene, the Muse doesn’t arrive and inspire the narrator until the narrator has been unsuccessfully trying to the tell the story for some time. Inspiration doesn’t come along and motivate us to get out the camera and take a walk. Inspiration comes along while we’re out walking with the camera, after we’re immersed in the process. When I’m feeling uninspired, my response shouldn’t be to sit around and wait until I feel inspired. My response ought to be to get out the camera and start working.

4 Responses

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  1. JuHa said, on September 4, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for pointing out how having the photography process won’t work without a camera. Thus, there is not much point saying “I would have got a good photo if only I had a camera with me”…

  2. JuHa said, on September 4, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Another point: A comparison to writing is relevant here. Only by starting to write is it possible to get any writing done. However, it is sometimes possible to write a piece “in your head”, and later write it out.

    With photography, you may have an idea for a photo in your head, but only a camera makes it possible for there to be a photograph. In this sense, photography is much less abstract than writing.

  3. Anita Jesse said, on September 5, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Another reminder why I read every Paul Butzi post that goes up: simple, yet profound statements that remind me of important things I regularly forget. The vivid description of the staging of the Odyssey will stay with me a long time.

    My experience is that the muse always seems to be far too busy to bother with me until I have begun the work. After I invest some time and energy, the muse just may decide to give me a little push in the right direction.

  4. Alex Brikoff said, on September 5, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Along those same lines, I seem to remember the words of another photographer (whose name escapes me at the moment) who said: “…the greatest photograph I ever took was the one I took when my finger pressed the shutter…”. Alas, I wish I could remember his name.

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