There is a saying in writing about getting a project done. The first and foremost thing that you have to do as a writer is show up at the page. It is required. It is your responsibility to the art of writing.
The same is true for photography. I have a friend who always says "Shoot every day." I think that is a valid premise, but I prefer to take it a bit further. To me, Show Up at the Shutter is a little more involved than just creating an image every day. There is some sort of obligatory feeling associated with shooting every day that doesn't carry with it the weight of being present.
I've been writing a lot more recently and I have come to a new understanding that showing up at the page isn't just about putting gibberish down on paper (or, clicking it into the screen) but rather about coming to the page and earnestly trying to get something pertinent down. Even if you end up staring at the screen and doing nothing else for hours, if you are searching that whole time for the right thing to write, you are bringing your entire being to the page, not just writing every day.
When it comes to photography for me, merely taking out my iPhone and taking a picture of my cat doesn't count as Showing Up at the Shutter. Partially because I really do feel obliged to take a daily picture and partly because I am suffering a photographic block right now. Picking up my iPhone doesn't cut it right now, though I have a very good friend who has recently been creating a body of work shot entirely on his iPhone that Robert Frank would approve of. I need to start Showing Up to the Shutter. It is an imperative element of my future as an artist. Either I will produce art or I won't.
That is a terrifying concept. There is something liberating about being in school and shooting. You have assignments, you have structure, you have constraints. All of these things allow you to think that your creativity is being stifled, therefore oddly allowing your creativity to flow. Someone is demanding something of you - a final portfolio, a flawless image, an attempt at a new technique - and in the process you have something to work for that is defined with an accompanying deadline.
Being constraint free and without a deadline is the truly stifling part.
I want to shoot. The goal was always to be a fine art photographer and an instructor. Now that I have started down the road of instructing, which has already been a great deal of fun, I need to kick the artistic side into gear. But I have no project. I have no idea for a new direction. Once I have that, as with American Narcissism, the ideas for additional images come quickly and easily. I can explore, expand, and grow within a project of that nature without the crushing weight of what if's and what now's.
I realize that I need to follow my own advice, and I realize how difficult that advice is to follow. I am no more immune to the pressures and woes of creating a new body of work than any other artist. And of course there is the inherent worry that your best body of work is already behind me.
But I keep remembering something that one of my favorite MFA graduate instructors told the class one day. "Your MFA culminating project should be the best work you have done to date, and in five years you should look back at it and realize that it was the work of a student and merely your beginning."
I have the beginning set. American Narcissism was a solid body of work and I am proud of it. Now I need the first idea that starts to leave that project in the dust. The only way to do that is to start to Show Up at the Shutter.