Finding Focus Amidst The Endless Allure Of the New

image: dan james
image: dan james

The chances are that if you’re an artist, you’re also someone who is very aware of their senses, and the various ways these are stimulated.

You notice beauty where others don’t, and quite possibly experience it more vividly and deeply than others too.

Which is all wonderful source material for stimulating new artwork.

There is literally an unlimited supply of new stimuli and inspiration even on a simple short walk or visit to a new place (or a favourite old place).

Where this heightened awareness and enjoyment of our senses can cause us problems though, is in the area of the materials and equipment we buy and use.

If you’re a painter, it doesn’t matter how many tubes of paint you already have at home, you can walk into an art store and fall in love with those glorious new full to bursting tubes that line the shelves every time.

If you’re a photographer, a camera shop or fair offers greater promise than a sweet shop for any child, all those inquisitive lenses peering their single eye at you hopefully, encouraging you to take them home and make beautiful things with them.

This endless allure of the new (which of course doesn’t have to be brand new, just new to you) can distract us greatly from getting on with the main things artists do.

Make art.

Personally, since I discovered film photography about 18 months ago, this has been something that has occasionally been difficult.

When I shot only digital, I had one little Nikon compact camera. I only really used it on two modes – Auto and Monochrome – depending on whether I wanted to shoot in colour or black and white.

With film, and with SLR cameras especially, there’s a little more choice.

Aside from the camera body itself, there are a multitude of lenses available. Using readily available, cheap adapters, we can also use lenses from other camera manufacturers and fittings too. Even more possibilities.

Then there’s film itself.

Colour negative, slide, or black and white, each has dozens of available types.

Then the further variations of expired film with its promise of shifted colours and unpredictable effects.

And redscale, where everything takes on anything from subtle vintage tones to an often apocalyptic looking orange glow.

And film soups, simple marinades that cause the film to expose new colours and textures.

When you have these three equipment variables – camera, lens, film – then before you even leave the house, there are a vast array of combinations.

Just three bodies, three lenses and three film types for example give 27 different combos.

Step up to four, and the total is 64. Five makes 125… Yikes.

This of course applies to other creative forms too.

Think about the different elements of your own favoured artform(s), and all the possible variations of each of those elements.

There’s obviously a dilemma here.

As artists we like the new, the excitement of the unexplored, the promise of possibilities.

But most of us also like to feel we’re getting towards mastering just one or two materials and pieces of equipment, rather than dabbling with dozens.

To this end, more choice doesn’t make us happier.

It makes us confused, overwhelmed and, if it becomes bad enough, we stop creating because we simply can’t pick what to use.

Towards the end of last year year I went through such a phase.

I was buying up film like it was going out of fashion. Well, it is, but that’s not the point. I have over 200 unused rolls.

Now, you can only shoot one roll of film in one camera at a time. Then you can start again with a new film, or switch lenses, or cameras and carry on.

The fatal trap I fell into, and that made things worse, was loading more than one camera with film.

If only one has film in, then that’s the one I use. It’s an easy choice, I grab it and go.

I might switch a lens sometimes partway through a roll, but that’s rare. I generally like to stick with one camera and one lens for the duration of the film.

Having two, then three cameras loaded meant I was overloaded.

I couldn’t choose one, so I, unaware at the time, began withdraw from taking so many pictures.

Subconsciously at first, I looked for a way out, one that meant I didn’t have to make a decision between all these films and cameras.

That way out came in the form of an instant camera (like a Polaroid), ironically closer in use to my digital point and shoot compact than any other film camera I have.

Making photographs with the Instax has been at a very slow and measured pace. Each film pack has ten shots, as opposed to the 24 or 36 of 35mm film rolls, and is considerably more expensive. Both of these factors make me more mindful of what and how I’m photographing.

By slowing down, I’ve got back to a manageable working practice again.

I’ve taken I think 11 shots in nine days so far this year, about a shot a day.

In contrast, a couple of months back I shot 15 rolls of 35mm in a month, some 500+ photographs, nearly 20 a day, on average. Quite a different pace. One that worked back then, but wouldn’t right now.

I’ve learned, once again, that as an artist and an evolving minimalist, that these two aspects sometimes don’t seem to fit together.

Can one claim to be a minimalist with 15 cameras and 200 rolls of film?

(If pushed I’d argue yes, as it would all fit in a small suitcase!)

But being vigilant to the times when so much choice becomes not a luxury but a liability, is crucial if we’re to stay creative and engaged in our work.

Right now, the Instax and its enforced slow and deliberate pace is very enjoyable.

Part of me is considering a month or two or three shooting exclusively with the Instax and donating and selling most of my other cameras to fund new Instax film.

But another part of me knows that these things swing and sway and ebb and flow, and that at some point not far from now I’ll have an undeniable urge to feel the weight and shape of one of my favourite SLRs back in my hands again, hear the soft click of the shutter and the whirr of the wind on.

How do you stay focused amidst the allure of the new?

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