What Van Gogh can teach us about photography

Our last selfie in Spain (until the next selfie in Spain :))

Hey folks,

I am back in London! And what a welcome the city has given me. We landed to sunny, heady warmth.

It’s been a great week here so far. On the personal front – our son became a teenager. Pretty epic occasion. We’ve seen family and friends we haven’t seen for 9 months; it’s been a beautiful homecoming.

We arrived back from Spain via Amsterdam. What an amazing city that is. Aside from wandering the streets and absorbing the ambience, one of my favourite things was our visit to the Van Gogh Museum.

I particularly loved seeing his painting of almond blossom. It mesmerised me. The colours and feeling of blue sky and delicate flowers are incredibly evocative of that smell and freshness of spring.

(Here is my photo of spring blossoms taken several years ago.)

It seems my life has connected to Van Gogh’s a lot recently. I visit Arles (where Van Gogh painted many of his famous paintings) every summer for the photography festival and to run a workshop.

We are also staying around the corner from a house he lived in 1876 when he was in England.

Connections with Van Gogh abound! (Plus Vincent’s main supporter and champion, his brother Theo, shares a name with my son.)

(This is a cool website we’ve been exploring, Van Gogh Route – which traces where he lived and worked.)

I also feel that he is an artist I deeply relate to.

Not only do I love his paintings, but I love how he talks about being an artist. I feel he expresses that desire to see the world in a new way so uniquely.

I love too how he wrote very simply of the life-giving qualities of being creative.

So let’s today indulge in his brilliance and see what we can draw from his life to help us with our photography.

  1. Kill self-doubt with action

This connects to my last post about how we all need creative pursuits in our lives. I love this quote of Van Gogh’s:

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Self-doubt is the enemy of creativity, and it’s one we all face. But self-doubt only controls us if we let it. If we plow on regardless, self-doubt is eradicated by taking action.

2. The night is rich with photographic possibility

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Van Gogh

I love to photograph dawn, as you know. But many of my photographs are taking before dawn, in the magical blue hour, when the world is emerging from the deep darkness.

My explorations in Spain have taken me further into the night and I have been waking at odd times at night to photograph full moons over the ocean, the stars in the night sky and rich colours of the night sky – blacks, greys, blues, silvery light – many surprising colours.

Night and the edges of the day are fascinating. Of course, it requires some technical skill to capture interesting photographs at night, but once you have basic skills it’s fascinating to explore the colours, textures, and ambience you can find at night.

3. The strange magic of creation

“What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.” Van Gogh

I love this quote. It shows some of that strange magic that is involved in the act of creativity, but also the grind of just doing the work.

Sometimes I don’t know where my images come from. I just know my role is to show up, push through discomfort when it arises and keep going.

4. Achievement of any kind is just a lot small tasks

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”  Vincent van Gogh

This says to me – don’t let yourself be intimidated! Let us not think of the big things we need to do or want to achieve. But gently and quietly work on little things, that eventually make up the vast whole of our work, our days and our lives.

5. Paying attention to your subject changes what it is

“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.” Van Gogh

When you look deeply at a subject it starts to transform into other things.

Perhaps it becomes intertwined with your imagination, your memories, and thoughts. Your imagination transforming it from one thing to another.

Perhaps it changes because as you look, really look at something, you notice its many facets, its individual details, its many elements. It becomes less a part of a whole, and more a whole world in itself.

6. We all need to be courageous

“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? Van Gogh

I need this stapled to my forehead sometimes. I feel that my life requires a lot of courage, often. I’ve chosen a different path to others, so I see what this would be. When I overcome fear and feel courageous, wow, it’s an amazing feeling. When I succumb to fear and am not courageous, then, yes, it doesn’t feel great. But the mere act of attempting courageous acts induces a lot of creative energy within me.

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore” Van Gogh

7. Taking photos is the most important thing I can do

I wonder if it’s my age, but my desire to create photographs feels in some ways more urgent than when I was younger. Maybe urgent is the wrong word. It feels more essential than it ever has.

When I was younger taking photos was a deep pleasure, it was fun, it was adventurous! I have loved all of my work and projects and learning. But there is something about getting older when you see with starker and starker clarity what is essential to your life and what is unnecessary filler.

I want to only fill my life now with things that are essential to my being. That makes me proud, that push me to be a better person, that help me grow and learn and help me experience the world in beautiful new dimensions.

8. It doesn’t matter what is on the outside, we are all deeply creative on the inside

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Van Gogh

I have met too many people who say they aren’t creative types or arty types. And yet they have a huge desire to create, to be people who make things.

That desire is enough. That fire within is enough to take you to where you need to go with your photography.

9. Photography and my family are all I need

“…and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?” Van Gogh

I often think I want lots of things – a big flashy house, vast wealth – but really what I want is the freedom to be myself, to enjoy what makes me happy and to live without restriction.

But if I were to choose what is essential to my happiness, it is this –  nature and photography, family and sunshine – that for me is more than enough to keep me fulfilled.

10. When we are seeking to do what we love, life is complete

“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.” Van Gogh

This is the true test for me of a good life – are we in it with all of our hearts? I like to think I am in mine, and like family, photography is a natural conduit to living in a wholehearted, connected way.

So I hope these are some nice thoughts for you, giving you some inspiration for your photo practice.

I would love to know what you think of these ideas, please comment below.

I’d like to leave with one last quote from the great man, one I have quoted several times before on my blog, but is always a good reminder for me:

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” Van Gogh

So there is no reason not to do things. The time to do things is now, regardless of where you are and what you don’t know (yet.)

I have a bunch of exciting photo articles that I’ll be posting over the summer here in London.

But for now, have a good day and

Happy photographing!

Anthony and my beautiful word-smith-wife Diana

PS: This is an extraordinary film, Loving Vincent, an animated film painted in his style

“If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” Van Gogh

A typical family portrait – where the kids are refusing to pose.