Many years ago, I owned and ran a UK guitar shop, which my family and I had purchased as a going concern. It was a very successful and happy business which provided years of satisfaction. In many ways it was much more than just a vehicle for an income; it allowed for artistic expression and involvement with gear and instruments on a daily basis. I can genuinely say that it was never the case that I dreaded going to work.
I was extremely aware of how much I enjoyed this occupation, but also realized that one day I might very likely be required to perform some other function in life for my gainful employment that I didn’t like as much. There were days I took working in the music store for granted, but the majority of the time, I was conscious of both sides of the coin: the current reality of a job I loved and the awareness of its potential impermanence.
As it transpired, after more than a decade of retailing electric guitars, bass rigs, amplifier setups and everything related, we decided as a family that we would sell the business. Initially I had been a Saturday boy who became assistant to the manager from 1997 to 2000, at which point we had the opportunity to buy the business.
By 2010 our contracted lease would be due for renewal, but by then it was becoming more and more evident that in order to compete on an international stage, it would be more time-consuming and demanding than was practical for us. The forces of globalization, cheaper products being made more readily available to more people with greater ease than ever before, shrinking profit margins on increasingly and consistently higher-quality products, and a general decrease in the sales of electric guitars indicated to me that it would be prudent to “jump ship.” And, so, we did.
We sold the business to an expanding online-only retailer who was looking to broaden their exposure and add dealerships, which required a brick-and-mortar premises to promote. They took on the lease and continued to do very well for a subsequent decade. I was pleased to see them fly a new flag on the old flagpole. For the next decade I was comforted by the reassuring knowledge that our city of Plymouth still had a knockout guitar store!
They were great days. I genuinely loved them. During this time in musical instrument retail I had noticed a gap in the market. There was no dedicated UK magazine title for acoustic guitars. I had scoured our local newsagents for several months and it became glaringly apparent to me that there was enough passion and love for all things of an acoustic guitar nature, and that the UK should indeed produce a dedicated title to cater to this massive readership potential spanning all ages and demographics.
To that end, I suggested this idea to a publisher friend who was already producing a suite of specialist magazines, and, lo and behold! About six months later I received the very first issue of Acoustic through our guitar shop door. I was blown away by how good it looked and read. It was to be the first of a bi-monthly dedicated publication entailing CD reviews, interviews with famous musicians, product reviews including luthiers from around the country and manufacturers from around the world, and little did I know, this would eventually spawn a dedicated national London Acoustic Guitar Show on an annual basis.
After writing up and submitting a review of a gig by Tony MacAlpine, Billy Sheehan and Virgil Donati, who had played in a local (ish) venue, I was subsequently invited to become editor of Acoustic, which afforded me my photojournalistic capacity and took me to many parts of the world covering live events and doing manufacturer interviews (large and small), factory tours and more. I then went on to take Acoustic to become a monthly publication instead of its initial bi-monthly schedule.
Rewinding back to the transition period of selling the guitar business, one of the potential buyers of our music store asked me an interesting question. He is an excellent guitar player, very technical and concise, clean, musical and fluid in his style. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his question mirrored my own thoughts about how much I enjoyed my work: “How do you stay so positive and upbeat dealing with customers when running the same business every day?”
For me the answer was obvious, and in retrospect I am particularly grateful for being able to identify one of the major sources of my retail “sticking power.” It was something that made even the most challenging days pleasurable and rewarding. What was it? It was the passion for music. And the awareness that there is no fire without fuel. Input equals output.
My love of music has been a constant source of fuel and a motivational source of energy since I was old enough to listen. Every day in the shop I had on my favorite tapes and CDs (which probably should not have been played quite so loudly). I blew out the first three sets of speakers in my first car (a Signal Green Ford Escort Mark II which in itself was a loud color), until I realized how useful it was to be able to hear the sound of the engine as it revs at different speeds, and in fact to identify that I had a blown exhaust pipe, just to add more sonic (honestly unintended) disturbance of the peace.
For me, any artistic endeavor and creative process, whether music, photography, writing or anything else, requires a certain amount of energy to be expended to produce the end result. I guess that’s kind of obvious. What may not be quite so obvious is that consistent and dependable creative output requires input. Food for the machine, fuel on the fire. So, perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves is: “What am I feeding the fires of inspiration with?”
Inspiration or Insipid?
Part of my time as a music photojournalist and magazine editor required interviewing celebrities and artists, and so one of the main, albeit clichéd, questions to ask was, “who are your influences?” We like to know and perhaps more importantly understand the sparks that light the fires of imagination and productivity in the musicians we love to listen to. But perhaps, because of this question being so commonplace, coupled with our musically-saturated world, there is a danger that the question has been diluted in its essence down to an interpretation of, “who do you like to listen to?” or in photography, “whose work do you like to look at?”
As photographers, the pitfall with such reductive thinking may be that it results in missing the critical differences between what actively inspires our work. There is a distinct value in identifying and remembering whose work lights the fires of our creative imaginations and gets us motivated, and from a practical point of view, productive, rather than becoming ever more passive observers.
Passive or Active?
With music, it’s a little bit like the difference between casually hearing and really listening to a piece of music. Hearing is passive and listening requiring a more studious disposition, particularly if you’re a musician and want to learn to play a piece of music. In photography, how you observe the world around you can be passive or active. When making images and storytelling through photography, I need both passive and activating observational visual cues.
The “passive” consistent low-level background visual stimulation is like a solid foundation that in some ways contributes to who you are, your personality and your perspective on things. which then influences your “active” picture-taking thought process. It may come from observing day-to-day life, whether people in the street as people flying past busy road intersections against a backdrop of geometric manmade objects, or in a rural environment looking at a backdrop of clouds bisecting the treeline on a hill.
Knowing yourself well enough to identify how you naturally and passively see things can allow you to put yourself in the role of an impartial “third person” outside observer when it comes to critiquing your own work.
Then, there is what I call “phuel.” Phuel is the combined thought of what may fuel a creative project such as photography or music. To create some forethought around a produced image or music requires me to be consuming images or music that inspire me to action. Without fuel on the fire of self-ignition, the flames of creativity dwindle. Phuel may take the form of images of evocative power that are transportive and potent in their motivational contribution toward your desire to produce better work. These works are the ones I enjoy “listening to” with my eyes, in the same manner as deeply listening to or rehearsing a piece of music. “Listening with your eyes” to observe the story being told by master photographers really is a special type of emotional inspiration. We’re not burning twigs and tinder any more. Now we have a roaring fire going that is generating heat that others can share in and also be inspired by.
However, with all that said, for me, the secret of not burning the fire out completely is to not over-analyze my favourite sources of inspiration. Sometimes I don’t want to dig too deeply into a piece of music or photograph or work of art. It keeps them from becoming a burden that I feel obligated to unpick and unravel, and thereby demystify the magic that makes them unique. Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised by the magic trick and maintain its wonder rather than have it revealed to you. In this way it can serve as a touchstone to come back to time and again, to reignite your sense of wonder and creative initiative for exploration into expressing your artistic drive.
Header image: “Wembury Organic” by Russ Welton. The photo is a long exposure of the Great Mewstone, taken at Wembury Beach an hour after sunset. For more images by Russ, please visit fineartamerica.com/profiles/russell-welton.