Creativity and Solitude

Recently, two seemingly unrelated events occurred at about the same time. After a couple days of trying to figure out why my subconscious was connecting them, my conscious mind finally figured it out. It started when a friend sent me a great quote about creativity and solitude. I received it, and excitedly passed it on to friends and family. This all happened during the hectic few days of the Photo Plus Expo, the big New York City photography trade show/conference. You have probably already made the connection that it took me a few days to make. Let me tell you about my journey to better understanding.

As a blogger, sometimes I am sent something that is so profound (and to the point) that all I want to do is step back and post the information. Then I bow in humility to the author of that same pronouncement. This week is one of those weeks. After a while, as I was contemplating that bit of wisdom (and sharing it with others,) I realized I could write a blog entry that would be more than just passing on someone else’s wisdom.

First, the pearl of wisdom that started this process comes from the web site, zenhabits.net:

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May

I read that and then immediately passed it on to some friends. Then I sat down and thought about the place of solitude in my own life and creative pursuits.

As a photographer, I spend a lot of time alone. I usually like that time. I get a lot done when I am on my own. I can operate on my own particular schedule. I can focus on projects, ideas or problem solving and work on them until I am happy (or the projects are dead.) On the other hand, working alone means I often lack easy access to peers who can offer advice or feedback. Some of that isolation has been mitigated by the proliferation of on-line forums, where I regularly find new information and insight that really help me. So, I think I have a reasonably good understanding of solitude in my own creative process.

Then I started thinking about other photographers I know and the place of solitude in their creative processes. The nearest example is my wife who values her solitude immensely. Since she works as a university professor teaching photography, she spends much of her working life amidst crowds of students, faculty, etc. She values her solitude and the resulting creativity so much so that she regularly goes off to artist residencies in order to get that kind of solitude in larger doses.

The person who initially shared the insight with me followed up a few days later writing:

“Solitude is the one point that I can’t seem to get across to the Mrs. In all these years, when I say to her “I want to do nothing,” that means I don’t find a weekend of activity to be restful. To me rest (and re-energization) is the act of “not” doing things, or being quietly in solitude puttering away at my computer trying this or that or reading or essentially sitting around and “wasting time” (akin to sitting Otis Redding sitting on the dock of the bay…wasting time) which looks like “doing nothing,” when in fact the act of doing nothing results in process of thinking and creativity and re-energization. That is probably why the kind of photographic shooting I like best is walking around a locale, on my own, often in the solitude of night (e.g. the photographs from lower Manhattan at night) because its solitary and creative process. This applies even when surrounded by crowds of people, such as when I spent an evening from dusk to after midnight shooting bracketed shots for HDR on the strip in Las Vegas surrounded by crowds.”

Other photographers I know balance the amount of time they spend amidst solitude and crowds in different ways. For example, photographers who thrive on interacting with people (such as wedding photographers) usually thrive amidst crowds (duh.) Landscape photographers tend to work in solitude more often, so I would assume they have a higher need for solitude. I know this linking of photographic style and personalities is bit simplistic. But, I think it suggest a great question that every photographer should regularly ask themselves. There is no right or wrong answer by the way, no perfect balance.

Only after the Photo Plus Expo, the photography trade show/conference was over and I was back home, did I finally realize why I was so excited about that bit of wisdom about solitude and creativity. The trade show was a lot of fun and very productive professionally. I enjoyed meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends. But, between being in NYC and on the floor of an incredibly loud and chaotic trade show, it was hardly a week for contemplation, solitude and creativity.

Though I always knew it subconsciously, I only recently came to understand how my working life cycles between periods of solitude and times amidst crowds. The two feed off of each other and push me forward, creatively and professionally. I literally could not have one without the other. October, which was a typical month for me, had times of solitude and periods among crowds.

The older I get, the better I am at finding the right balance between the two. Striking that balance is what each of us needs to do, regardless of whatever our particular creative pursuit may be.

4 responses to “Creativity and Solitude”

  1. Of course, overcoming the fear of being alone is a lot easier said than done. Actually, photography can be a real therapy for that fear — the act of noticing the environment around you and composing it for a photo gives you control of your environment— making it more comfortable to be in.

  2. it helps to be an oldest child or only child. Often both grow up with, out of necessity, being comfortable with being alone.

    I’m the oldest child, with a now college age daughter who is an only child. Her room at home is her refuge and sanctuary. My desk at home is my “man cave” or perhaps that would be computer, photography, messy “man cave.”

  3. Beautifully written David. Upon my return from the Expo, I craved solitude. It has taken all of the weekends after ‘doing nothing’ to help me reenergize. It was great to see you.

  4. I’ve just attended a workshop in Northern California with Fr. Richard Rohr; he’s studied the rites and initiation rituals for men across the globe and essentially distilled them into an experience for modern men (there is a lot of cultural awareness involved that’s too much to go into here).

    One of the important things though is that men need to become comfortable in their inner self and come to terms with silence. Conversely, we need to learn to speak our emotions, our joys and pains.

    The question was asked at the workshop about who among us was more comfortable as an insider or an outsider in a given group. I am more comfortable as the outsider and wonder if this is not the case with most photographers? I am always more comfortable at a social event or gathering of any sort with a camera in hand. It gives me licence to avoid conversation or interaction…and I’m beginning to wonder if that is not especially healthy.

    It may be necessary to have that ‘solitude in the midst’ but I sometimes find myself disconnected in the same way even when I’m not photographing. I have to wonder, in extreme situations such as war photography, if photographers find themselves simultaneously hyper-aware and disconnected in ‘normal’ social situations. I know that I’ve been in, say the DR Congo and would have felt completely defenceless had I not had a camera (and there is also the psychological shield the camera offers, I found myself not wanting to face the exploitation in India and hiding behind my camera from it; yet, ironically, this was what I was there to document and bring back for the understanding of others).

    That may veer off a bit from what you are saying above; but I think it’s important to assess the role of solitude specifically from a photographer’s perspective as we have this tool in hand that is a device marking us apart from everyone else. We become both a presence in the room and the shadow. But I think we should dig deep into the territory that puts us in inside.

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