Forty years ago today, something happened that would change the lives of millions and usher in a new type of moviemaking: Star Wars opened in theaters. While I didn’t see it opening day, I did see it in the theater — dozens of times, in fact, throughout the summer of 1977. The first time I saw it, I was 9. It was a watershed moment because it was the first time my mom ever let me go to the movies by myself. She dropped me off at the Wescove Theater in West Covina, California and went shopping at the mall next door. I had my popcorn and my Coke and when the lights dimmed and that opening fanfare pinned me to the back of my seat, I was hooked (I still sometimes get goosebumps when I hear it). For the next two hours, I was no longer in a Southern California suburb. Like so many of my generation, I was swept off to Tatooine, speeding through hyperspace aboard the Millenium Falcon, and piloting an X-Wing to destroy the Death Star — good thing I spent so much time bullseyeing womp rats in my T-16 back home. Star Wars was the first movie I ever lost myself in so completely that I lost track of time.
The idea of losing ourselves in what we do is what many of us aspire to — to be so engaged with the act of making that time simply seems to stop. It’s a state that psychologists refer to as “flow” and it feels like finding a unicorn. The first time I ever experienced flow in relation to making was during my sophomore year in high school in the darkroom my grandfather helped me build in the garage. On more nights than I can count or remember, I would go out after dinner and homework and not emerge until the following morning. Bathed in the amber glow of the safelights, one image after another fading up in the developer, time in darkroom relative to the outside world would stop. My friend David says flow happens “when the challenge meets your ability in a craft and the sparks begin to fly” and I don’t disagree, though I may change “a craft” to “an effort” or “an activity.” It’s not just being creative where flow exists, though we sometimes want to believe that it is. That elusive flow state can be achieved while making, but it can also be achieved by exercising, by reading or by losing yourself in a galaxy far, far away.
As I approach my fiftieth year, I find that am making more of a concerted effort to enable flow states — or at least moments — throughout my own life, and not just when I’m making. The making has definitely become more purposeful, but so has the time away from the studio and the computer. Picasso is famously quoted as saying “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” and while I think he’s right, I think his quote has been misinterpreted. It’s the “working” bit that we stumble on. We assume that Picasso meant working on your preferred craft or your primary passion — and perhaps he did — but we all know that many of our most revelatory “aha!” moments happen when we ARE NOT working, but on a walk or in the shower or reading a book or making an omelette. Rather than working, I think inspiration has to find you present — receptive to the idea of something either radically new or only slightly different which will inform or in some cases completely change the path you’re on. Thinking, daydreaming, and planning are not only generative pursuits, some argue (there’s even science to back it up) they are also extremely important forms of “working.”
It’s also worth noting that where you create can have a profound impact on what you create. While I believe creativity loves obstacles, there are definitely limits and then the obstacles (rather than the making) become the focus. In my own life, I am grateful to have spaces that meet different needs, whether it’s the forest just beyond our back yard I regularly walk to clear my head and recharge, to the space where I record On Taking Pictures and Process Driven, to the basement workshop where I paint and tinker. Each of these spaces serves a unique purpose that connects each of the otherwise disperate activities into what I am finally believing is not only a creative life but also a life well lived. I stopped painting in college because I thought being an artist meant that my work had to be hanging in galleries or at MoMA, and while for some that may be true, the life of an artist — or better yet, my artistic life — has little to do with where what I make ends up. What’s important is that I am making, something a friend reminded me of recently when he said “you don’t BE creative so much as you DO creative.” The thinking is an important step, but to create is rooted in the action of doing. Creativity is the transformation of thought into thing.
What is your favorite creative space? When was the last time you were in a flow state? What inspired it?
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Although I love Instagram as a source of inspiration, I don’t really use it, per se, as a tool to promote my own photography — not with any sort of strategy anyway. Nor have I really embraced the Stories functionality. Here’s a terrific TIME article discussing how six photographers are using Stories for more than just showing what they had for lunch.
The Putter is a wonderful short film by Shaun Bloodworth about Cliff Denton, who is “literally a Putter-togetherer of scissors” for Ernest Wright & Son Limited, a company in the UK who still make their scissors by hand. It’s an homage to the craft and care that some still take in producing a simple tool that has remained fundamentally the same for thousands of years.
Every year, students from a private school in East Hampton, Long Island called the Ross School spend three weeks traveling and documenting a foreign country. This year, they went to Morocco and as you’ll see in this Washington Post article, the resulting photographs often capture a subtlety and nuance that belies their years. Wonderful stuff.