If you've been a photographer for any length of time, chances are you've experienced the dreaded slump; Your muse has run off with someone else, inspiration goes down the toilet, everything you create looks like crap, and even the desire to pick up your camera deserts you. If you are struggling through this season right now, there's hope. The slump can become the catalyst for your biggest season of artistic growth. Here are five steps I've found not only to make it through the slump, but to make it work for you.
The slump can begin for a number of reasons, from not making time for personal projects to experiencing too many rejections, but no matter why you fall into a slump, these five tips can help you climb out and into a period of new and exciting growth.
1. Recognize the Slump for What It Is
The first trick to making it successfully through the slump is to recognize it for what it is. Artistic pursuit moves naturally through seasons of change; seasons of learning, of practice, of growth, of success, and of failure. The slump is nothing more than another season, much like winter, that performs an important task. Here is a very apropos quote about the way winter works on plant life from Matthew Kronsburg's article, "Why Farms Want Cold Winters."
For perennial crops, shorter days and sustained low temperatures bring a cycle of dormancy, a deep, almost anesthetized sleep, during which growth is temporarily halted. Measured in “chilling hours,” this is the time when plants’ energy is held in reserve, building up for new growth, and farmers can prune and transplant without fear of sprouting. Without sufficient chilling time, a fruit tree will generate fewer, weaker buds, limiting fruit production from day one.
Think of yourself as the plant. No one can sustain periods of explosive growth indefinitely, because you only have so much energy to expend and, if you try to push it too far, you'll find yourself depleted and less capable of producing stellar work. You need time to hibernate, to rest, build up your energy for next spring. People get into trouble when they allow themselves to think that this will last forever and, from there, can slip from the slump and into periods of depression. But the slump won't last forever. It will only last as long as it takes for you to be prepared for your next season of growth. Discomfort will intensify until it either causes growth, or destruction. Choose growth. Don't give up hope.
2. Strengthen the Work You Already Have
When I start feeling slumpy, that's the time I begin ruthlessly culling my portfolio. During the slump I've found that I view my work with less emotional attachment and a much more critical eye. When we are at the top of our game, feeling inspired and shooting stuff we love, we forget that the rest of the world doesn't see our work with our eyes. They weren't there to see the groom cry when he saw his beautiful bride for the first time, they didn't experience the creative high we felt when we were in studio and everything was gelling, so they don't have the same emotional connection and can view our work objectively. As much as I hate feeling like my work is junk, I've found that the slump is a useful time to critique my own portfolio more objectively, the way an outsider would. I always find that my book is stronger after periods of slump.
3. Pinpoint Your Weaknesses
While critiquing your work, pay attention to the areas in which you're struggling. Many people fall into a slump because they see something missing in their work but they don't know what it is or how to fix the problem. You may already know your areas of weakness, but this period is the perfect time to hone in on them, partially because the slump won't let you forget what they are. Maybe you need to work on posing, color palette, post-processing, how you connect with your clients, the subtleties of lighting, or how to build yourself a team that will help you turn your vision into a reality. You can even ask trusted peers what they see lacking in your work or pay for a portfolio review. Make a list of these weaknesses and save it for step number four. Remember not to let these weak spots dishearten you. Not even the very best photographer is without flaws.
4. Find Education That Centers on Your Growth
Take that list of weaknesses and start searching for information to fill the gap. There is education all over Fstoppers and other parts of the web that you can start digesting, as well as workshops and classes. Fill yourself up with as much knowledge as possible so that, when you start shooting, everything you've learned will begin pouring into your new work. If you can, I would absolutely recommend getting a mentor. Be prepared to devote time and effort, but a mentorship with a strong photographer is invaluable in the learning process and may even help you begin to appreciate the new perspective you can gain from this "winter" season.
5. Search for Things That Will Inspire You
Now that you're armed with new knowledge, start searching for work that inspires you. It may be hard when you're still slogging through the slump, but I can almost guarantee that there is something out there that will reach you even in the depths of the dumps. Keep in mind that it doesn't need to be photography related. You can find inspiration in paintings, sculpture, music, movies, poetry, and books. Find what inspires you and plan a project using your newfound knowledge as a starting point. Maybe it's a series of photos based on your favorite poems, or lyrics from songs that impacted you over the years. Whatever it is, you'll find that the more you dig into your new project and use the knowledge you've gained, the more you'll start to feel inspiration and excitement creep back into your work.
Is this a failsafe plan? I wish I could say that yes, it will always work for everyone, every time. But, having been through more than one slump myself, I've found that these five steps not only give me something active to do to combat those feelings of worthlessness, which is empowering in and of itself, but they also lead me toward creating stronger, more vibrant work when the slump is over and spring begins.
Images used with permission of Kate Woodman.