By Scott Lothes
Posted April 4, 2010
Growth in photography rarely follows a linear path. My own progression has been marked by an irregular series of steps, varying extremely in both size and frequency. Inspiration appears, or maybe I’m jarred by something that challenges me. That leads to a new idea for a photograph, or even a large photography project. Then comes the period of execution, the invigorating but trying time of creating photos to fulfill my vision. Eventually, the process leads to a higher plain of maturity, and what inspired or challenged me earlier becomes a part of me, another tool that I can always take out and use again whenever I need it. And then comes the most frustrating part, the sometimes long and always uncertain wait for the muse’s next visit.
Try as I may, I can never force that muse to return. Sometimes I keep photographing regularly, even frequently, hoping that the practice of the routine will lead to the next spark of creativity. Sometimes I do not photograph at all, focusing entirely on other pursuits for inspiration and growth. Neither approach seems to summon the muse with any regularity.
Yet one thing is clear. For me to grow as a photographer, I require exposure to new ideas, or at least to ideas that I haven’t thought of yet. Doing only the same thing that I’ve been doing just guarantees that I’ll keep doing it. And that doesn’t fit my definition of creativity, no matter whether I’m making roster portraits of AC4400s or capturing the glow of headlights on foggy nights.
Inspiration can come from myriad sources -- I’ve gotten ideas for photos from everything from a John Steinbeck novel, to a song by a local folk band, to poetry readings and theater performances. And of course by looking at the work of other photographers, both within the railroad community and far beyond it.
One of my most reliable sources of inspiration has been, and continues to be, the annual “Conversations about Photography” conference put on by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. “Conversations,” as its name implies, has the double benefit of presenting inspirational photography along with the opportunities to talk about it, often directly with the photographers themselves.
I attended my first “Conversations” right around the time that I was starting to think I had this railroad photography business completely figured out. Find a scenic location, preferably a slightly elevated view of a curve, go there when the sun is shining straight over your shoulder, and wait for a train. And then I met photographer Mel Patrick and then-editor of Trains Mark Hemphill at that year’s conference. Between Patrick’s relentless mantra of “Iknowwhatatrainlookslike-Iknowwhatatrainlookslike-Iknowwhatatrainlookslike” and Hemphill’s unabashed lambasting of traditional railfan photography, I left feeling a bit shaken. But with reflection I slowly began to see a much greater potential for railroad photography.
Now, even as I help to organize the conference, I turn to it for new ideas and direction. Lately, I’ve been sensing another turning point in my work. Feeling like I’ve run out of new ideas for photographing trains at twilight and night, I am trying to develop a more formalistic approach that relies less on dramatic lighting and more on the graphical elements of line, shape, and texture. “Conversations” already helped plant these seeds through past presentations by David Plowden, Stuart Klipper, and Jeff Brouws.
Plowden and Brouws both return to the line-up this year, along with Ted Benson and Tom Taylor, Linda Niemann and Joel Jensen, Jim Brown, Frank Barry, Alex Ramos, and Ian Kennedy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I’m already looking forward to the inspiration that each one of them is sure to provide, as well as the chance to catch up and exchange ideas with the many talented photographers in attendance. I hope I’ll see you among them.