Writer’s block, creative slow-down, work paralysis – call it what you will but, as people who rely on a steady flow of creative juices to make a living, we will each face creative block at some point.

It can manifest in many forms and have many causes, but the terror that comes with creative block has a very recognisable face – that blank page or screen staring back at you expectantly, your mind screaming “I’ve got nothing, I’ve got NOTHING!”. I have had my fair share of such moments. It’s never fun. There are many articles on the internet about this kind of creative block, its causes and how it can be fixed quickly and predictably in the fast-paced world of advertising and design. This is not one of those articles.

I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.” 
Vincent van Gogh

What happens when you have a creative block in a creative activity that you put your heart and soul into – one that doesn’t make you a living, but which gives you a life?

I consider myself something of a mix of a semi-commercial and a serious hobbyist photographer. The modest amount of commercial work I do is all shot digitally, while the bulk of my ‘creative’ work is shot on film. I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to stretch myself as a photographer at work, and I also achieve a huge amount of creative satisfaction through photography outside of work time. Most of the time…

Creative block has recently re-appeared in my life as a photographer.

I started learning photography at age 16 while I was at high school, and consider a handful of the pictures from that time as the best I have ever taken. Working through the technical minutiae of film photography, hours of darkroom time and hanging out with fellow photography-nerd friends – these were the things that were at the front of my mind back then. Subject matter and ‘creativity’ were secondary, they just seemed to be part of the process of learning how to use a camera. At times like this, I wish I could unlearn all those rules – which sometimes seem like impediments to creativity – and go back to taking photos like the ones I took back then. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I should forget about the rules and impediments and just go out and shoot.

As Picasso once said: Inspiration does exist but it must find you working.

Chris Dixon - The Adventurers (1986)
Chris Dixon – The Adventurers (1986)
Chris Dixon - Paul (1986)
Chris Dixon – Paul (1986)

After I was unable to continue taking and developing my own photos a few years out of high school, I took a long break from photography. I lacked the funds to replace the borrowed darkroom equipment that I’d recently returned to its owner, and digital photography was not yet even a thing (yeah, I’m that old). Fast-forward a decade and a half, I got back into photography after winning a trip to the US. I bought a cheap little point-and-shoot to document the trip and I was instantly hooked (again).

After the trip, I quickly sought ways to build my digital photography skill-set. Inevitably, this meant upgrading my equipment when I could, eventually making my way to the pinnacle of enthusiastic hobbyist status – a Canon DSLR. As a casual hobbyist, I was able to explore a number of different photographic styles with the freedom of a novice. Once more, I produced some shots that I remain very proud of, but I find myself telling myself that creativity came easy then because I was still just learning, and the real challenges would come when I committed to one particular style. Hmmm… maybe that’s it. Maybe I need to commit to learning lots of styles and not limit myself to being an expert at any.

Chris Dixon - O’Hare to Downtown in 45 minutes (2005)
Chris Dixon – O’Hare to Downtown in 45 minutes (2005)
Chris Dixon - Noah (2009)
Chris Dixon – Noah (2009)

At a certain point a few years ago, I began to become very frustrated with myself and my progress as a hobbyist photographer. I called myself a photographer, but I hardly ever took photos. I had a couple of cameras, but they mostly collected dust. I would plan days out to shoot, but as a husband and father of two young kids, more often than not I would find myself too busy or too tired to go out. Understandable? – yes. Forgivable? – indeed. Inspired, creative? – no. I seriously considered giving it up. Who was I fooling? I wasn’t a photographer, and much less an artist.

That Picasso quote was coming back to haunt me.


One Sunday night, I made the decision that I would take a photo every day. I would commit to it. I charged up my smaller, more portable camera and packed it in my bag ready for the future. Next morning I headed out to work, but before I got there I took a photo. I went out at lunchtime the same day and I took more photos. I did the same the next day, too. I was very limited to where I could shoot – walking-distance radius from my work. I was very limited in when I could shoot – pretty much my lunch break. Obviously, the subject matter was fairly uninteresting, and so the shots were far from breathtaking and over the first few months, very repetitive. But I didn’t care. I was shooting every day.

After about a year I started to notice a couple of things. First, I wasn’t taking photos every day – but it didn’t matter, because I had begun thinking like a photographer every day.

What does that mean? I guess it’s kind of like: when a person learns a new language, at first they think in their native language, translate the words in their mind and then speak the words in the new language. After a while, they begin to be able to think in the new language instead of having to translate in their mind first. As pretentious as it might sound, I began thinking in the language of photography. I began to see my daily walk (and the world) differently.

The second thing that I noticed was that my photos began to look different. After nearly two years of walking the same streets and shooting the same things, it began to feel like I had scraped off a surface layer and was able to capture more than what had been there before. With my commercial work starting to take off a little bit, it started to feel like I had become a REAL photographer.

Maybe that was that. Maybe that was the end of creative blocks.

Chris Dixon - Waxing (2017)
Chris Dixon – Waxing (2017)
Chris Dixon - Neon V (2017)
Chris Dixon – Neon V (2017)

With my new-found confidence, I was ready to expand my horizons and re-visit my years as a film photographer. I always felt I had unfinished business with film and the darkroom, and for a long time, I had missed the hand craftiness of film photography. I also missed the slowed pace and deliberateness of film, and let’s face it – old cameras are really cool.

About six months ago, after a year of saving, I was able to purchase the camera I’d dreamed about for decades – a Hasselblad medium format film camera. In my initial excitement, I was able to produce some work that I was very proud of, but a fully manual camera with no exposure metering is a steep learning curve.

Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but those first few rolls were invigorating. I had decided to process my own black and white film and, after a bit of research and experimentation, it came reasonably quickly. The results were very positive. I had a go at processing my own colour film and it was much easier than I’d thought. I had so much self-confidence and I was processing and scanning a couple of rolls of film a week, and once again, shooting every day. I was posting my work online, following and being followed by fellow film photography enthusiasts – it was finally all coming together.

Chris Dixon - Valiant II (2018)
Chris Dixon – Valiant II (2018)
Chris Dixon - I Remember When This Was All Farms (2019)
Chris Dixon – I Remember When This Was All Farms (2019)

A few short months later, I am sitting here writing this. I have three film cameras loaded and ready to go, but I haven’t taken a photo in earnest for nearly two weeks. I’ve recharged the battery in my digital camera more times than I’ve pressed the shutter in the last month. After mis-processing two rolls of colour film and a roll of black and white film, I grew wary of the processing tank and I started sending my film out to be processed by professionals. I experimented with a roll of expired film, and it came back less than inspiring – as expected, but disconcerting nonetheless. I’ve scanned whole rolls of film and been happy with maybe one shot. The quality of the work I see online seems out of my reach, and my well-trodden lunchtime path has long since given up its treasures.

As days of creative block roll into weeks, I have been doing nothing beyond thinking about whether I’ll ever be able to dig myself out of this (un)creative hole.

I start looking back over my earlier work – digital and film, and surprisingly I find more there than I expect to. I remind myself that I was less experienced when I took these and I knew less then than I do now. I see some of my very first digital photos and, despite remembering how much my gear sucked at the time, I really like them. I go through my binders of negatives and remember I have successfully processed nearly 30 rolls of film – and lost only four. I think about my kids and I think about the times I’ve chosen to be with them and not with my camera, and I remember that it’s just a hobby. I think about the other times I felt like there was nothing inspiring me and there was nothing left to learn. Then I remember that it always happened right before a new set of breakthroughs.

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
– Ansel Adams

So.

Maybe the most satisfying moments of creativity happen when I just get out and start taking photos with no expectations of who I am or how much I know, or what other people think of my work.

Maybe I need to accept periods of inactivity as part of the process.

Maybe these times that feel like creative death are just really meant to be a time to relax and take stock – to think about what I’ve just gone through and what I’ve learned.

Maybe I should stop being so hard on myself.

~ Chris

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Good article! I can really relate to it. I love to shoot with film. When I started back on my film journey, I was planning to take it further and set up my own darkroom, with all of it’s exciting possibilities. I looked into it and came to the realisation that, for a hobby photographer, I really did not shoot enough film to justify the expenditure of having my own darkroom. A little disappointing but it didn’t stop me from shooting with film. Luckily I have 2 good labs nearby! I want to get a film scanner though; at least that will enable me to have some creative control over my photography. Like you, I go wandering with a camera during a break at work but, after all these years it seems as if I have covered everything in the walking radius from my workplace. When I get moments of indecision about my photography, I remind myself that it’s just my hobby and it’s something I do because I love doing it. I have no one else to please but myself.

  2. Thanks for all the comments. I have read them all and hope to respond to each soon. I’m really glad others were able to identify with my predicament, and I hope writing about it has helped. As for me, I was lucky enough to have a week in Japan by myself not too long after this article was written. I shot 17 rolls of various film stocks and can happily report that the creative block has been cleared (for now, at least).

    The ensuing weeks have also forced me to give my scanning technique a real brush-up and I can now scan Portra 400 with somewhat more predictable results than previously.

  3. I think you could benefit from spending some time in the darkroom with the negatives you already have. This could take some of the pressure of having to come up with new images off your shoulders. At best get inspired what to do better/different, at worst have some nice prints of your work 🙂 Perhaps there are classes in your area, so you don’t have to set up your own darkroom?

  4. I’ve wondered – whether with photography or writing in my case – if this occurrence grows out of why we do it. For nearly all of us, it’s the process that we pursue; if we were bare-to-the-bone honest we’d admit that the image is one part. Some lean a bit more towards the mechanical part, some towards the creative manipulation, some towards the end image, but it’s the process. There are a very few individuals whose sole muse is the creation, which they sensed in their surrounding to start with, and the process is entirely secondary. Beethoven, Hemmingway, and Cartier-Bresson and Sudek all would have had their output regardless of the tools they found in their surroundings, and that freedom from the process is why we recognize their work as great. Try as we might, the rest of us are pikers. Once past that realization, the craft again becomes enjoyable. And as you note, like any process requires effort to engage. So pick up the favored device and walk through that same environment you think you’ve seen a zillion times, and work to see it anew.
    I fight this same struggle but find a great deal of enjoyment every time I go back to the source – that walk with my eyes open.

  5. Oh, so inspiring <3
    The "stop being so hard to myself" is a lesson that I am working on for the past year and keep going – it is hard and slow, but it is much better with time

  6. Yes, as I age (older than you, but with a similar background), one of the things I am learning is to be gentle with myself (Desiderata Poem). It has made a big difference, and having returned to photography both digital and film) I am enjoying things more. Macro has been a whole new world for me, and really charged my batteries. But all kinds of photos and formats are exciting once again because I have no expectations, deadlines, people to impress. Just me and my camera(s) and how they connect me to the world and creation around me. Cheers! Hope you qucikly find your joy again!

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