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Pepper Dreams

by Royce Howland | November 9, 2008

Last year was highly fulfilling for me in terms of photography, and I had more goals for this year, building on everything I felt was going well. However, as they say, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. A number of things didn’t work out as needed, and most of my photography goals were scuttled. I fell into a photographic funk, and passed through most of the spring and summer hardly picking up a camera. It was a downward spiral – the more I didn’t photograph, the more I soured about my photography. It took a simple, repeated suggestion and a small pepper plant to help me reconnect with my enjoyment of photography.

Creative Chickens and Eggs

The kind of thing I’m talking about is nothing unique to me; likely it’s familiar to a lot of folks who have been practicing photography for awhile. Much of life involves peaks, plateaus and valleys. I think this is especially true with forms of personal, creative expression. They can bring a greater sense of “high” when on a peak—with a correspondingly greater sense of “low” when coming off the peak. It’s something I experienced with my photography for the first time this year, and it provided a good lesson.

There’s no need to make a laundry list of things that contributed to the valley I wound up in, because the situation with my photography wasn’t really about those things. It was about my response to them and how it sapped my inspiration to photograph, even though I still could have picked up a camera any time. That’s part of what made it a “funk”—regardless of what I knew, I wasn’t thinking my way out of the creative fog. As it turned out, I was going to have to act my way out.

Now, one thing I know is that I’m a lucky guy in many ways—none more so than sharing life with my wife, Deb. (No, this isn’t a ploy for brownie points. Honest!) Observing my unproductive churn, she would simply say from time to time, “Why don’t you take your camera and go out?” Grudgingly, I did so on one or two occasions, but it took several months for me to really get the wisdom at work in her simple suggestion.

At the root of it is a question of chickens and eggs—do I feel creative and therefore I photograph, or do I photograph in order to discover creativity? This question plays out with other contrasts, too. For example, there’s the relationship between seeing and photographing – which comes first? The real answer is that both are valid perspectives; it’s the chicken and the egg. But at certain times, it’s more important or useful to lead with one than with the other.

What I came to realize is that it’s not always important for me first to feel inspired or to have some big idea, and then to go out and photograph my vision. Rather, the process of photographing actually can help me positively frame my outlook. By putting myself out there, I can find good, interesting, fun or even just plain ordinary things that aren’t about my preconceived ideas, or lack thereof. Either of these can be a creative block.

This understanding is something that probably any accomplished artist, athlete, or other professional learns bone deep, sooner or later: if I want that sense of fulfillment from my craft, the discipline to keep doing it even when I don’t feel like it can carry me through. By seeing and photographing – or photographing and then seeing—I can widen my perspective and rediscover inspiration even when I feel deeply uninspired.

Hot Peppers and Photography

Eating hot peppers can be addictive, because the burn from eating them triggers the brain to release endorphins.

What’s this got to do with photography, creativity or finding a better balance? It’s simple. When I was stressed out by life events and most of my grand photography plans for the year fell apart, it wasn’t actually the end of the world. I was still left with many other photographic opportunities. One of them was the front garden, including a small collection of pepper plants Deb had growing in pots right outside our front door.

People who know us well will confirm that I’m a “food is fuel” kind of guy, whereas Deb is the epicurean member of our household. But she has been a good influence on me—food may be fuel, but it doesn’t have to be boring fuel! One of our favorite places to travel is the U.S. southwest – for the landscape, birds—and food. We’ve both developed a good taste for a variety of peppers, no coincidence due to their role in southwest and Mexican cooking, among other cuisines. As a result, different pepper plants have appeared in Deb’s garden over the past few years.

While thinking about her advice—”take your camera and go out”—my eye went to the front garden plot, and the possibility of exploring it through the lens. In the past, I’ve done little macro or close-up photography, though I admire the creativity found in this style (including many images found in the NatureScapes.Net Flora and Macro forum). So I started spending a few minutes, then more hours, sitting, looking at and trying to photograph things that were almost literally under my nose every day. Among these were some Mariachi, Super Chili, and Hungarian Wax peppers.

I didn’t initially like much about my resulting images. Not to mention, the low and crazy angles were hard on the knees and neck! But I came to identify my experiments with eating hot peppers. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling great about it at first, but as I kept at it, not only was I able to tolerate it but it was actually making me feel good about photography again. Lo and behold, I started to get some results that were interesting and fun. Who knew that photographing a small pepper, a faded echinacea flower or a bee atop a thistle bloom could be as fulfilling in its own way as photographing a grand mountain view or a storm rolling across the vast prairie?

I started thinking about other photographic opportunities that fill the world around me. The more I got back into a groove of photographing—seeing and becoming inspired by what I saw—the more I realized that the creative spark is really as much outside of me as it is within. I just need to be receptive to it. This is not some kind of new age mumbo jumbo, a slam on “previsualization” or advice not to set goals. But as a friend of mine said to me when he described his thoughts on the difference between painting and photography as art forms, “A painter can be limited by his or her own imagination and experience. Everything on the canvas has to come from inside. Whereas a photographer has the entire universe to work with, including anything that was never seen or imagined before.” This is no critique of painting, far from it… that’s a talent I don’t have but for which I have a healthy respect. The point is that with the whole world to consider, surely I can find something inspiring to work with—even in places so familiar that they don’t even register!

Pepper Dreams

So what does it all mean? I’m not a therapist, and I don’t even play one on TV. What I do know is that I was in an uncreative funk that was clobbering my photography. I didn’t fix my outlook with some miracle insight, and then resume photography with a flourish. Instead, after finally really listening to the suggestion from Deb to”just get out there and do it,” I got back into the photography and re-discovered how fulfilling it was. As the fog began to clear, a small, red Mariachi Pepper gave me a metaphor for what was going on.

Even though other priorities are still the main focus for now, I’m not giving up on my photography dreams. Indeed I’ll be fortunate to follow one of them to New Mexico late this year for the first event in the NatureScapes.Net Photography Series. (Mmm, all this talk of chickens, eggs and hot peppers puts me in mind of some good huevos rancheros.)

However, now I have new dreams to go along with the previous ones. I realize more than ever that something good and creative could be anywhere—literally right outside my front door in a ceramic pot that I normally walk by without a glance. It’s up to me to dream of these good things and then find them—or to find them first, and then dream of them. From now on, if I’m tempted to get dispirited about some grand vision not materializing the way I want, I’m going to remind myself: pepper dreams, pal, pepper dreams!

Cast of Peppers:

Mariachi Pepper:

A small, round-ish, red pepper. Sort of sweet like a red Bell Pepper. Flavorful, not very hot.

Super Chili (Thai) Pepper:

A small, thin, red pepper. Often used in Asian cuisine. Extremely hot–yow!

Hungarian Wax Pepper:

A larger, yellow or orange pepper, similar in shape to an Anaheim. Light taste at first, almost citrus-like, but with a very hot follow-up–sneaky!

Yum…

Useful Things for Shooting in the Garden

Walkstool:

Useful to relax for a minute, or to shoot from a seated position. This kind of closeup work isn’t really a “run and gun” style of photography.

Therm-a-Rest foam pads:

I cut sections from a folding sheet of Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite closed-cell foam padding purchased at a camping shop. A small section is excellent to kneel on, avoiding hammering the knees on hard ground and small rocks.

Kenko extension tubes:

I have a set of 3 extension tubes for my Canon cameras: 12mm, 20mm and 36mm; they can be combined. Whether used with my Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens or Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 zoom, the tubes allowed close focusing.

Wimberley Plamp:

Even a slight puff of breeze can make for unacceptable subject motion in closeup photography. I often used the Plamp with one end clamped to my tripod and the other end holding a plant stem to keep things still.

About the Author

Royce Howland is a photographer and IT consultant based in Calgary, Alberta. He's also a member of the editorial team at NatureScapes.Net. Whether in the front yard, driving to work, out on the prairie or up in the Canadian Rockies, he tries to remember to keep seeing while on the roads more traveled. To see more of his work, visit www.vividaspectphoto.com.

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