On Muses: Relationships Could Be Your Most Important Photographic Work

Here’s something I wanted to write about for the consideration of my artistic friends and followers. Do any of you have a muse? Is there someone in your life you identify as being a source of constant inspiration?

In the context of this article, a ‘muse’ serves as a source of inspiration for creative pursuits. Now, a muse could be a person, but it could be also be a pet, or even a small plastic robot from Japan. It is a something that you draw inspiration (and indeed motivation) from and use to exhale your artistic breaths.

For me, I’ve always wanted a person to be my muse. I remember when I was a steadfast member of the Flickr community and I would see photographers sharing portraits of their significant others, often intimate and peaceful, shot in moments of honest vulnerability, (often with window light; glory be to ambient window light).

I would think to myself, ‘Wow, that looks amazing’, referring to both the images themselves and the context in which they were taken; however, it wasn’t until my current relationship that I was able to identify with having someone I could call my muse.

*Now let’s bring it to attention now and clarify that calling someone your muse in 2017 is a bit lame, and it’s not something I’m going to bring up in polite conversation because it also sounds a bit clingy and pretentious. But at the same time there’s a reality to what I’m saying and you can associate with what I mean when I mention a muse.*

As a portrait photographer, I’m drawn towards taking pictures of people—the individual nuance of a person’s face and the expressions they make. I delight in exploring emotions both candid and conscious.

For a lot of people they themselves become their muse. They take self-portraits and sit in awareness with how they look; their best angles, the colour schemes that work with their skin and hair. Photographers like Rosie Hardy and Lara Jade have created incredibly strong portfolios and followings through their self-portraiture work. I can confidently say, without prior knowledge, they’ve probably learnt a lot about themselves because of the time spent looking inwards in this way.

For what constitutes a muse to me, as an individual subject, is someone you can explore in multiple dimensions.

For instance, I could sit with a person for an hour and take their portrait and present you one image of them, an image that tells one story. But if I spent a year with that person, constantly shooting them in various states of emotion and activity, you’re getting a much more complex and telling narrative. You’re undoubtedly seeing more of the person, as well as my relationship with them.

So when it comes to me speaking of the benefits of having a muse, this is not so much a ‘thing’ I can suggest to photographers to just do.

“After you’ve got a nice prime lens, be sure to get yourself a muse.”

Because having a husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner who allows you take their picture isn’t the same as having someone who inspires your photography in the way a muse does.

For me, I didn’t like taking a picture of people I was romantically involved with for a long time. In some relationships it never felt appropriate, in others it was almost expected. Because taking intimate photographs of people that you’re emotionally involved with extends that bond you have. When that bond stops existing though, you become painfully aware of that historical evidence you own that it had once been real and you existed within it.

Photographs hold emotions, and not all emotions are fun to be reminded of.For some, it’s not a big deal, but for others it can be a sharp memory to dwell on. It’s not nice seeing pictures of an ex on Facebook, let alone pictures you’ve taken, let alone really tasteful professional photos you used to be so proud of; at least, not in the immediate aftermath.

I’ve matured a lot as a person since a prior relationship that taught me about these feelings, and developed more from others since, so I find myself in a position now where I can connect with my current partner through photography and not be apprehensive of what could become of those images if, for whatever reason, things don’t work out. But like a lot of areas in life you need to weigh up the pros vs the cons of any undertaking you become involved in.

To me, this is where the muse title enters the fray.

When I began taking photographs of my girlfriend, Liana, there was a clear spark between us, not just as girlfriend and boyfriend spending time together, but also as a photographer and model creating something personal.

In this sense, the images I was making spoke more to me than simply documenting a romantic relationship, but something deeper than that. Before long I had hundreds of photographs of her, from posed images whilst we were out walking, to candid, sleepy afternoon portraits curled up in bed.

The more time I spent photographing Liana, the more time I spent looking at her, looking at who she really was. I became more aware of her being aware of me, of how this dance between us flowed. You become conscious of when to shoot, and when not to. When the camera can create an intimate connection, but also when it could serve to distance you.

There’s no better way of understanding it than acknowledging it as a type of voyeurism (like all photography), which is why it’s important to understand consent and the limits you’re afforded as both a photographer and a romantic partner.

You cannot take without giving; saying, ‘don’t worry, you’ll like the image’, isn’t the same as putting down the camera and talking about why you want to take the image in the first place. You can’t force someone to be your muse, though of course inspiration is drawn from where ever inspiration exists. Just understand that taking someone’s portrait within intimate situations is very personal and disarming, so don’t take pictures (let alone upload them) without your partner being on the same page as you.

Note: I made sure Liana OK’d this article before I sent it off, as well as help me pick the most appropriate images to illustrate.

In a practical sense, having someone who inspires you creatively allows you to flex your creative muscles without having to worry about deadlines or client satisfaction.

I take my camera with me as a force of habit now, because different locations and weather mean varied portraits and styles. I think to myself, how often do I take portraits of people in the rain? Not often, because no one wants to be outside when it’s raining, least of all having to stand still in it. But you can create some incredible images when you involve the elements. It’ll become a skill to use weather like that to your advantage, a skill you will develop faster by having someone who understands what you’re trying to do and will facilitate playing in the rain despite getting wet.

Understanding that you will try and fail within photography countless times, but when you fail whilst having fun it’s not really failing in the severity of that word. Practice makes perfect, and experiences shared create lasting connections—worst-case scenario, you’ve got a funny story of a dorky moment together.

Having someone to share in your creative process also allows you to look on yourself as well, to understand a fresh perspective.

So many times I’ve taken a picture of Liana to be met with a response of, ‘Oh no! I look horrible!’ Those moments serve for me to explain to her (as well as for myself) how the photograph on the back of the camera is not the finished image, and often it allows me to explain what it is I’m seeing in the image that perhaps she isn’t.

Those imperfections we’re so quick to associate with being ‘bad’ become signs of mature affection. The shapes and lines on a person that make them unique are the things that create attraction and bringing them into awareness can serve to strengthen bonds.

When Liana went to Thailand for Christmas and New Years a few weeks back, I found myself bored and creatively lacking back in Jersey.

Now, this is a circumstantial time of year because people retreat inwards to their homes and families past 5pm—it gets dark early, and it’s bitterly cold, so the prospect of shooting portraits of friends for the fun of it becomes more difficult to attain. But it gave me chance give pause on what I had been thinking about with regards to this relationship and my photography. Namely: that portraiture with Liana had become effortless, it had become a part of our reality and day-to-day life, but it had also become an important means for me to keep my creative output up.

It should be said that relying on an outside source for you to be creative isn’t a healthy or desirable way to be as an artist, because that inspiration should come naturally from within you. But you can only draw inspiration from what is around you, what you are conscious to. Accepting that a muse is a means of drawing one type of inspiration is what allows it be healthy for you as an artist and an individual.

For me, and I believe many reading this, whether it is happening now or will happen later, you will find photographic inspiration from your family, friends and relationships. Those connections don’t last forever, and it is not that you should capitalize on these relationships for your own gain, but that it presents a great way to connect more with the people closest to you.

I have known many photographer friends to create stronger bonds with grandparents and elderly relatives by introducing their camera into the equation. Saying you’re going to make a ‘project’ of your relationship with someone sounds cold, and in one sense that rings true; however, in another it can mean you putting more effort into a relationship that needed stronger ties.

There’s nothing wrong with using photography as a medium to create closeness with you and someone else, because those relationships, at least in a physical sense, won’t last forever. Having images to look back upon decades in the future will be important when memories begin to fade. This is why wedding photographers are justified in providing expensive albums to clients that will last for generations.

I love portraits, and though I have taken many self-portraits I do not find creative energy from making them. I am not in the literal business of taking intimate portraits, that’s an area of my photography that exists within my personal work. But through this relationship I have been able to explore a genre of portraiture I have always been fascinated by and always held with a reverence.

Now, at the golden hour, I do not need to wistfully think about how beautiful this light would be if it had some skin to fall gently upon. I get to make the most of that gorgeous time of day and create something personal to me. I get to share my passion for light. Every image I take with that type of consideration and meaning empowers my relationship with the still image and the person who makes it an image worth taking.

My overlying point in this article is that I found creative inspiration from a new relationship in 2016 and it has taken my personal work in a direction I’ve always wanted it to go for years before. The images I have now, I cherish, because I know that they will gain more significance as the years go by.

But it’s not just that. From a photographer’s perspective, having a consistent subject allows me to explore photography with a greater freedom and increased enjoyment. From professionals to hobbyists, I believe in the benefits of a ‘muse’ to be both emotionally important and fulfilling, as well as serving to technically improve both your photography and interpersonal skills.

It is likely 80% of the photographs I have taken of Liana will never been seen by anyone besides us, and that is also crucial. It’s our story and our ‘project’. In an age of sharing every ‘good’ image, take time to create your best work and show it to no one.

“All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life’s next adventure.” 
― Rob Brezsny

Disclaimer: A relationship is not something a photographer should find for the sole purposes of increasing their photographic practice. Romantic or otherwise, a relationship is a precious thing that is unique to all and forcing it to become anything that it isn’t already could have adverse effects.

My intention with this writing is to allow for consideration on an individual level that your most fulfilling work may come from the people closest to you, and not always from that dream location thousands of miles away.

For examples of great photographers and their muses check out:

Sian Davey and her daughters, Alice and Martha
Petter Hegre (NSFW) and his wife, Luba Shumeyko
Theron Humphrey and his dog, Maggie

About the author: John Liot is an award-winning Channel Islands-based photographer who mainly shoots portraits. To see more of John’s work, head over to his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.

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