Creativity: Photographer & Book Artist Bob Blesse

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

For more than thirty years, American Bob Blesse was the director of the Black Rock Press, an internationally recognized book arts program in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses in traditional and contemporary book arts—letterpress printing, bookbinding, and papermaking and lectured extensively on the history of printing and the book arts. He directed the publishing activities of the Black Rock Press, producing hand-printed, limited edition books and broadsides; he has also designed over fifty award-winning trade editions of contemporary literature. Recently, he has been focusing his artistic activity in the field landscape photography, traveling extensively in Europe and particularly Italy, where he and his wife, Victoria Davies, live in Florence.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I love the natural world and having the opportunity to connect with nature through landscape photography. I am constantly learning and am motivated by the challenges of making creative and insightful images, which show nature in all its diverse moods and emotions. If I am successful in creating an image that elicits a powerful emotional response then I’ve achieved some success. I am motivated by the sometimes long journey that leads to a rewarding image; preliminary planning and research, and the on-site search for essential light and a cohesive composition. Finally, I am motivated by the challenge of taking a raw image and giving it my artistic interpretation in the digital darkroom.

Whatever success I’ve had as a landscape photographer has come through hard work. I spend a great deal of time looking at the work of the most successful and creative photographers, from Ansel Adams to present day professionals. I read and study the techniques of photography through books and online resources. Most importantly, I learn by constantly evaluating and critiquing my work and seeking the opinion of others.

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When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

First of all, I try not to worry about it, because I know creativity will eventually return. Sometimes I get very frustrated when nothing seems to work, I can’t find the right composition, the light just isn’t good, or the bloody weather won’t cooperate. Sometimes part of the answer is to put my camera down, so I can intimately and quietly observe my surroundings. Often, as if by magic, a previously unnoticed composition appears. For a landscape photographer, it is also important to put oneself in a venue that will stimulate creativity. It is also helpful for me to go back and study the images of the great photographers. At other times, if I can’t seem to make a good photograph myself, I try to look at great photographs others have made to give me some inspiration.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I believe that my authentic self/voice is constantly changing, shifting, blending into different areas—that’s exciting. I’m always trying to think of new ways to approach photography, I’m not interested in producing pretty “postcards,” so my individual style is always developing.

The social media sites, e.g. Instagram and Facebook, are filled with beautiful and creative landscape images. The development of the digital camera over the past twenty years, along with processing resources such as Adobe Lightroom, has placed tools in the hands of the masses that enable a multitude of people to create images, some good, some bad. Every day I see dozens of images on FB and Instagram, which I view with a critical eye, seeing them as an opportunity to learn and grow in my own work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I have been involved with creative processes since I was in high school when I took many art classes. I have always been interested in photography and took my first photography course in 1978, learning to compose and process black and white film images. I will never forget the magic of my first image appearing in the developing tray. In the following years I always had a camera and was forever taking photos, though more snapshots than thoughtful images. I do remember in the mid-1990s standing on the valley floor in Yosemite capturing images of the sunset on El Capitan—a seminal moment? In 2006 I a fantastic 5-day landscape photography workshop at Lake Tahoe in California which really ignited my passions for the work I’m doing now. In the past few years I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to beautiful places in Europe to take landscape images. I enjoy new venues and also returning to places I’ve photographed many times.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

For me, it is very frustrating when everyday life gets in the way of creative practice. I feel a lack of fulfilment and accomplishment. For the most part, however, I’ve always had different creative outlets, so there seems to always be something imaginative to do.

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How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I believe that for all artists there are always more failures than successes. This is particularly true when learning a new craft. Fulfilment comes with study, persistence, and hard work. In any artistic craft, basic techniques must be learned and practiced diligently for them to develop. It is only when a certain level of proficiency is achieved that true individual creativity will occur. As someone who taught studio art for almost thirty-five years, I know first-hand how frustrated art students can get when they are starting out. Critique sessions can sometimes be particularly devastating when constructive comments seem more like criticism. I always advised them to take small steps, go slow, and don’t get frustrated. Small triumphs will begin to occur. In my own work I understand that the vast majority of the photographs I capture won’t make the cut. A few excellent images from a week-long workshop is an outstanding success when I’ve taken several hundred photos.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Landscape photography is rather individual, rather than collaborative work. In my other creative field of artist bookmaking, however, I’ve done a great deal of collaboration. The synergy of working with another artist can be fantastic as ideas are developed and shared.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Making a career as an artist and of supporting oneself with one’s art is admirable goal. Over the years I have counselled dozens of talented art students who wanted to do this. My advice has always been to find some means of support while you develop as an artist—you can’t make good art if you are starving. Get a decent job and create art; if you are a visual artist approach galleries; put your photography online; if a writer, submit your work to magazines and journals—establish yourself before you try to find an agent. Another approach is to follow an academic career path by working toward an MFA or other graduate degree with the ultimate goal of both teaching and creating art. I was fortunate that my career as a university professor enabled me to both teach and practice my own creative work.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

For me, photography and my work as a book artist and designer has been extremely fulfilling. To bring joy, thoughfulness, and emotion to others through my work is quite rewarding. Creating art gives my life focus and purpose, which motivates me to concentrate on producing art I believe is significant. It also gives me the opportunity to meet and interact with other like-minded artists to share work and experiences. I feel fortunate that over the years my work has enabled me to meet and develop friendships with so many talented artists and writers—such an enrichment to my life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I believe that art and artists make a hugely significant contribution to human growth and our society. Without art, music, theatre, creative and fictional writing, our society would be without a soul. Art gives natural beauty and emotion and to our world and fills it with inspiration and imagination. It fosters thoughtfulness along with social and political awareness. Art can be something we all relate to, but it can also challenge us and be a catalyst for change.

I believe that people look for art they can connect with, artwork that will touch or move them on an emotional level. If my work can make this emotional connection with someone, then I have succeeded. Given this, I believe it is my goal or “responsibility” to try to take my work to a deeper emotional level than just a “pretty picture.” I believe the emotional element of a photographic image is its most important aspect, so if I am staying true to the concept I want to convey in an image, I must create a composition that conveys this.

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