Just Outside Our Door

For some time now, I’ve understood that writers need to read quality works and photographers should study great images in order to improve their craft.

The impact of this activity might not be obvious at first. But over time these positive influences will seep into the deeper recesses of creative consciousness.

Writers, for example, will hear the meter of the language they read. They might not realize it, but their brain will remember the patterns that make one sentence effortlessly flow into another. And at some point, these melodies will mingle with their own written expression.

This works for photographers as well. They can examine a print and dissect how the composition is constructed, then emulate it in their own creations. And beyond that, they may also feel how the image touches their emotions. Realizing that a picture can have this power is an important moment for a photographer. I’ve experienced this myself.

But what I didn’t realize was that these encounters don’t need to be limited to the confines of our own craft. Photographers can step out of the frame into other forms of expression. That’s because an artist is an artist regardless of the particular medium that he or she chooses. Photographers who explore creativity outside of their specialty will see the world from different angles. And I believe that this will help them make better images.

I decided to test this theory with a series of interviews that I’m sharing on a podcast called The Nimble Photographer. I wanted to find out if I could improve my pictures by learning from musicians, illustrators, filmmakers, street artists, and yes, other photographers.

After just a few months, I can say that I’m blown away by what I’ve heard. Here are just two of the lessons that have emerged from these conversations.

George Shaw, Musician, “Say Yes”

At a young age, George learned that his ticket out of the rural South was through education. He was both studying and playing music along the way. What he didn’t realize at first was that his formal education would intersect with his creative expression. And that’s what propelled his success.

I learned a couple of things from George. First, the importance of developing your awareness to recognize opportunity, then knowing when to seize it.

He doubled-down on this skill by leaning toward saying “yes” when presented with something new, even if he wasn’t totally comfortable with the challenge. This approach led him from one adventure to another, helping him develop as an artist along the way.

When I asked him for advice for upcoming musicians, he responded with, “Know your craft.” It’s one thing to be in the right place at the right time, but it’s another to take full advantage of that situation. You have to be excellent at what you do, or opportunity will be wasted.

In his case, musical skills were vital. But his advice also applies to my work as a writer and photographer. Job one for me is to know my craft. George reminded me of that important lesson.

Tom Rodrigues, Illustrator, Nobody Bats a Thousand

One of the questions that I ask every artist is how they define success. You would think that recognition and financial reward would be at the top of every list.

The reality is that it’s more complicated than becoming rich and famous. Every artist that I’ve talked to acknowledges that business has to be part of the equation if they are going to continue their creative pursuits.

But what I learned from Tom Rodrigues, an illustrator, is that financial reward is bigger than any single project. Creative people fail all of the time. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move forward. The value of our efforts are more than revenue and praise. Projects that don’t succeed financially are just as important as those that do because of the lessons gained from the experience.

Tom achieved financial success through his innovative designs of wine labels. But he also lost money endeavoring big projects that he loved. They just didn’t work out. His definition of success is becoming a better artist. Creatively figuring out how to pay the bills along the way is part of the art.

Facets of the Same Diamond

Bringing all of this back to the world of photography, I realize that if I open myself up to other artists, I can learn from them and energize my own craft.

This is advice that I’m also sharing with photographers who complain about falling into a non-creative rut. Instead of trying to solve the problem by grasping at new cameras or running off to exotic destinations, why not investigate the world of music, painting, theater, and other art forms as well?

A simple start is to visit a museum and study the paintings housed inside - really looking at the use of color, line, and composition.

Then go beyond that. Listen to how Mozart constructed a symphony, or see how the lighting helped create the mood for a theatrical performance. And what about the challenges those artists overcame to achieve their success? I bet that’s interesting.

Maybe go so far as, when presented with a creative roadblock, ask, “What would Meryl Streep or Andy Warhol do?”

I find it comforting to realize that I am part of a larger creative community that spans well beyond photographers. Many of the things that energize me also fuel musicians and actors.

My quest is to learn as much from them as possible, and bring that knowledge and inspiration to my own craft - and hopefully to yours as well. I realize that every lesson might not be a perfect fit. I will pick and choose accordingly.

The important thing is to realize that there’s an endless supply of inspiration in the world. We just have to look for it. Why settle for a microwave dinner when there’s an entire feast just outside our door?