Find Your Inspiration

Pull yourself out of the regular day-to-day grind to ignite your creative side

Morning Frost, Yosemite National Park, California.
You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
—Mark Twain

With inspiration comes excitement accompanied by a drive to produce photographs that fulfill your creativity and enrich your audience. What is artistic inspiration? The following text summarized from Wikipedia is helpful in defining this often elusive concept:

"Inspiration refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavor. Literally, the word means 'breathed upon,' and it has its origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. The Greeks believed that inspiration came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Similarly, in the Ancient Norse religions, inspiration derives from the gods, such as Odin. Inspiration is also a divine matter in Hebrew poetics. In the Book of Amos the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God's voice and compelled to speak. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

"In the 18th century John Locke proposed a model of the human mind in which ideas associate or resonate with one another in the mind. In the 19th century, Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley believed that inspiration came to a poet because the poet was attuned to the (divine or mystical) 'winds' and because the soul of the poet was able to receive such visions. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud located inspiration in the inner psyche of the artist. Carl Gustav Jung's theory of inspiration suggests that an artist is one who was attuned to racial memory, which encoded the archetypes of the human mind. ...In modern psychology inspiration is not frequently studied, but it is generally seen as an entirely internal process."

Based on most of these concepts, it would seem that inspiration is something externally bestowed upon someone and is out of control of the conscious self. I disagree with the notion that inspiration is out of our control. I believe that everyone can find, develop and nourish their own inspiration.

My earliest memories of being inspired by the beauty of nature were as a young child on hikes through the woods. Later in my teens, I remember looking at books depicting the beauty of the national parks and then collecting posters of wonderful wildflower photographs. Discovering Outdoor Photographer magazine in my 20s further nourished my love of nature's beauty and inspired me to pick up a camera to capture my own scenes. In college, and later in photography courses outside of college, I had teachers who didn't always encourage my source of inspiration. Instead, they discouraged the students who wanted to be nature photographers, as if that wasn't as worthy as the more avant-garde or abstract work they were doing. I think that the first rule of inspiration is doing what appeals to and excites you. There's no need to feel like you need to fit into a certain category of photographer or take the kinds of photographs the art critics want to see. This doesn't preclude experimenting with different types of photography. The most important thing is to listen to the inner impulse that made you pick up a camera in the first place and give that impulse some time to develop and grow.


I left photography behind to pursue a more traditional career in my 20s and 30s. When I had my daughter at age 35, I left the workplace and suddenly found myself with time to explore photography again. This was around the time that digital photography and digital printing were becoming available to consumers. I got a Nikon Coolpix 3-megapixel digicam, which was state of the art back then, an Epson printer and a dose of inspiration that I'm still following to this day. I don't think having a baby is required to kickstart your inspiration; however, it's important to give yourself the gift of time to allow exploration and skill development.

Once you've discovered what inspires you about photography, it's important to develop your vision through what I call "inner work." If you can't See (with a capital S to signify not just seeing with your eyes, but seeing with your heart) it, you can't photograph it. How do you See? Nourish your creative self. I find that reading poetry helps me. Readers of my books will know that I'm partial to Richard Wilbur and Octavio Paz, among others. Poetry helps develop a sense of metaphor that enhances your creative eye and opens the heart to inspiration. I also find inspiration in literature from some of the great nature writers such as Annie Dillard and teachers such as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way series. For some people, a more physical approach works better, such as the pursuit of yoga or distance running. Just about anything that jolts you out of your day-to-day thinking routines is worth exploring.

Immersing yourself in the natural world, either for a day or backpacking for a week, is a way to really start to See again. It's important to regularly remove ourselves from our cars, offices and iPhones to reconnect with the natural world. If you want to photograph the great iconic shots in our national parks while on vacation, by all means do. I take issue with some photography critics who call it cliché to produce yet another beautiful image of a great natural scene. The reason so many people flock to witness these locations is because they inspire us with their grandeur. Just because everyone takes a picture there doesn't minimize the effect these locations have on us. They make us feel part of a larger, more beautiful world. The key is to remove yourself from the viewpoint parking lot and explore so you can find different perspectives to share. Challenge yourself to find something wonderful and unique in these iconic places. My best-selling prints of Yosemite aren't those from Tunnel View. They're the ones taken off the beaten path that came as complete surprises to me.

The picture I've included with this column is an example of this. "Morning Frost" was taken one morning after watching sunrise at Valley View. The image incorporates what I call "gestures in the landscape," something that I can't quite consciously explain but that feels right, like a well-expressed metaphor. Finding and Seeing images like this is what nurturing inspiration is all about.

See more of Elizabeth Carmel's photography at elizabethcarmel.com and thecarmelgallery.com. Workshop information is available at elizabethcarmel.com.

4 Comments

    Softly your memory…

    Like a
    luminous flower
    your delicate
    sadness returns
    near a white
    dream….

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    Femmes souriantes.

    Comme le
    parfum d’une
    rose qui chante
    l’harmonie d’un
    r̻ve ̩ternel,
    comme le son
    de la neige
    qui d̩crit la
    lumi̬re….

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    My husband shared this wonderful article with me from his April 2012 issue of Outdoor Photography. As a curator of all things having to do with inspiration, happiness, and connection, I was fascinated by your perspective on the definition of “inspiration” and totally agree with your belief that inspiration can be nourished and cultivated.

    I also loved your comment that “immersing yourself in the natural world…is a way to really start to See again.” Since I write regularly about the importance of connecting with nature, I know this article will inspire a future blog post and link.

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