The creative gift of boredom

'Landscape' created from oilspill in ditch

‘Landscape’ created from oilspill in ditch

“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them.  Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree.  The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief.  What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”

Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light

It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use.  This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.

But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter.  It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things.  The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience.  There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.

One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph.  They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.

Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence.  You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.

In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example).  At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one.  I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then.  If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.

It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful.  The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different.  If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing.  You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography.  I get it, I really do.  But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at.  Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary.  The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.

‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’   Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’  Robert M Pirsig

Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary.  Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind.  It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:

Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring.  But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.

Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that.  But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges.  The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place.  I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been.  I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.

My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond.  A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.

Carrier bag floating in pond

A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’  It still fills me with questions – what made it so red?  why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it?  I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….

A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye.  The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.

Rope, Rye harbour

And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:

Feather with red leaf

Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:

SONY DSC

Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.

Red buses reflected

Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:

Grass

And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:

Autumn tree through rainy windscreen

More on boredom and creativity:

The science behind how boredom benefits creative thought

How being bored and tired can improve your creativity