I think most of us try to avoid the ordinary and instead seek the extraordinary when we look for subjects to shoot. It’s almost like we equate ordinary = bad; extraordinary = good. This may be a limiting approach. Changing our attitude may open important new creative experiences for us.
This is something I have believed for a long time. The travel restrictions from the Corona virus have made me re-examine this issue. I came back around to the attitude that the ordinary is potentially our richest source of inspiration.
Extraordinary can be great
Don’t get me wrong. When you encounter an extraordinary experience, live it, soak it up, revel in it. Those things happen rarely for most of us. Maybe it happens for you on a special trip to a “bucket list” location. Maybe it is an event you have planned for a long time.
Whatever it is, be there, be in the moment, enjoy it. You might even make some great images.
But don’t think an experience like that is a requirement for you to make great images.
Not all scenes need to be grand
Do you really need a grand scene to inspire you to your best work? Why? Are normal scenes not worthy of your effort? Is a scene in New Guinea inherently more worthy than one down the street from where you live?
There is a strong argument that the ordinary, everyday scenes you are familiar with are some of our best opportunities. Familiarity might breed contempt, as the old saying goes, but actually, familiarity more often leads to intimacy. Getting to know a subject, knowing its moods and looks, finding its real character can lead to images that have a special depth. Even love.
Some would even say that a steady diet of grand scenes is kind of like eating junk food. It might taste good at first, but it doesn’t have the substance you really need for a balanced life.
Beauty in the ordinary
The ordinary can be beautiful in ways that extraordinary scenes can’t compete with.
Almost all of life is lived in the ordinary. I wanted to honor what we see every day, our shared experiences. Rain. Street workmen. Coke bottles. The more I looked, the more I realized there are wonderful shapes and colors and beauty to be found everywhere.
Dianne Massey Dunbar, in Fine Art Today magazine
As Dianne says, there is wonder and beauty to be found everywhere. Monet did most of his work in a narrow slice of western France along the Seine River. Van Gogh did most of his best work in Provence. Ansel Adams worked mostly in California. Georgia O’Keeffe is strongly associated with New Mexico. Even though all of them occasionally lived or traveled other places and did great work, the point is that they thrived best “at home”. The “ordinary” everyday scenes they loved inspired them to greatness.
Their love of the place they lived gave them a special relationship to it. They were excellent enough artists to express that relationship in their work and help their viewers to see the world through their eyes.
Find what inspires you
We are each drawn to the world around us in different ways and for different reasons. Some are drawn to faces, others to grand landscapes, still others to intimate landscapes, while some relate mostly to wildlife. Others may reject looking for particular subjects and view the world as objects for abstract expression or black and white.
The point is that we usually become drawn to certain things or types of images. More often than not, these are things we know well and see often. Things that are ordinary for us because we live with them. Things that other artists may walk right by without noticing, because they are not inspired by it.
But when something inspires us it can produce magic. Like Monet with a Lilly pond. Or like Van Gogh with crows in a wheat field or with a night sky.
When we are drawn to something, it becomes extraordinary. The magic happens because or our relationship to the subject or scene. It is the artist’s subjective expression of that relationship that transforms it to art.
I encourage you to learn to be more open to the ordinary around you. Learn to really look at those common things you normally pass by. It can be the greatest source of inspiration you will find.
I believe a lot of it comes down to intimacy with your subject. A grand, once-in-a-lifetime scene may be fun, but it is a “one off” experience. It probably is exciting at the time, but there is no real intimacy or depth.
I have been married a very long time, and I can say with assurance that long term relationships are far more rewarding. It is similar with your subjects.
When an artist creates an image, he is revealing his subjective relationship with the subject. This is one thing that makes one of Monet’s lily pad pictures much better than anything I could do with a lily pad. He developed a special love for them over time. I do not have any strong feeling for them.
Intimacy is defined as familiarity, friendship, closeness. I believe that when we develop such feelings for our subjects, it comes through as deeper and more meaningful images. We are most likely to develop these feelings with the ordinary world around us than by waiting for a once-on-a-lifetime experience. Familiarity really does lead to intimacy.
Stop. Look. See. Really see. Look again. Think. Visit with these things. Learn about them.