When I was working as a scientist in a CSIRO I needed some structured creative time so I did evening courses at the ANU Open Art School. It was great – one evening a week with 3 hours of uninterrupted creative time drawing, painting, print-making, printing photographs: whatever the current course involved. One thing that was encouraged in all of these courses was the use of a sketchbook. Good advice if you are only coming once a week and you happen to have a great idea mid-week. Full-time artists also make use of sketchbooks to record things, try out ideas, make notes, practice.
So what about a photography sketchbook? A little difficult, don’t you think. Well, yes and no. In the film days we could make contact sheets or postcard-sized prints and doodle notes on them. This can still be done with digital files. Even low-quality prints from a standard printer can generate images good enough to act as a starting point for new ideas. Seeing a print of an image, thinking about how to process it and writing this down taps into different creative pathways from those employed when looking at images on a screen. How often have you written something on a computer and it seems error-free? Then you print it out and suddenly there are all these typos that you never saw before. It is the same with images. The brain processes paper content differently and doing things differently can spark ideas.
I often find I use my smart phone camera as a sketchbook. Like this morning when I was in the NGA for the first time in a while. I am so glad that they have (largely) lifted the ban on photography, because there is something about being immersed in a beautiful space surrounded by art that stimulates me to have ideas. Somehow I have to capture these ideas and the phone camera is ideal. I record the labels of art works so I know what or who to look up later. I might photograph an image; not so I can steal it and reproduce it, but to remind me of the emotion I felt when looking at the original. I photograph book and magazine covers so I can think about buying them later if their mood still grabs me. I also have a book that lives next to my computer where I write down ideas as they come to me. I have two actually: one for lists of things like “buy sugar” and “do my tax” and another for lists like “build on series of iceberg photos” or “try tin-type app on cyclamen photos”. It’s amazing how you can forget about all these good little ideas if you don’t write them down to jog your memory later. I also do annotated scribbles for image ideas and book layouts. Writing down a plan and a timeline for bigger projects is also helpful. I will never have the time to execute all the ideas I record, but then having the ideas and choosing the best one to pursue is half the fun.
So if you are finding it hard to decide what to photograph next I suggest just going out to where there is some good art and look at it. Spend a morning in the NGA, the Portrait Gallery or other cultural institution. Find some images that speak to you and record them. Think about how you would create some of those effects using a camera. Review the images later, remember and rethink. You may never actually follow up on those ideas, but there is a good chance that your creativity will be energised in the process and ideas will start to flow.