Inside or outside the box?

Recently I was invited to my first podcast with the very talented and nice Jon Wilkening to talk about photography. First I thought I would not actually listen to it (me talking ;-)) but when he published it (here a link) my curiosity won and I also wanted to find out what I should do differently if I ever did another one but that is a different story.

What I noticed when listening was how emotional I got at a very simple question when we were talking about my book – the question if books would now be my medium of choice for my projects. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that question and it was quite an obvious thing to ask considering how much I like book-making. But the question touched something deeper. It touched a fear that I have of being stuck inside a box. I know I am claustrophobic but this fear takes it one step further – some kind of extended virtual Claustrophobia.

It is not that I don’t like boxes…I actually love boxes….for objects that is. I could not live without boxes in our home and especially in my studio and darkroom because all things need to have a place and I want to find them easily.

I also understand that it gives people a feeling of security and maybe even a feeling of belonging.
After not believing in any form of personality tests for most of my life I had to admit that when I went through my burn-out some personality tests I made were actually really helpful like Myers-Briggs (I am one of those weird INFJs) or Enneagram (being a 5w4 – another rather difficult combination) despite putting myself into a box.

But – and this is a BIG BUT – I wonder if we don’t often take it too far. For me it started when I was just a kid. My parents quickly found out that I was quite good with numbers and so I was boxed as the mathematic daughter which would not have been that bad if it did not also mean that now by definition I was unsuitable for anything else. So while my mathematic skills were encouraged and supported my artistic efforts were at best ignored and I was told my skills with prose and poetry were basically non-existent…(knowing now that my way of writing was probably just different, more suggestive rather than descriptive). So what do you do as a kid…you start believing it yourself…and who knows without my burnout I might still believe it…

The boxes that feel most suffocating to me nowadays are the ones that try to limit myself as an artist.
Too often do I hear the question “So what kind of photographer are you – portrait, landscape, architecture, macro, wildlife, wedding, street…?” And if that box wasn’t already small enough then it is made smaller with the next limitation “So do you shoot film or digital?” and then even further reduced by “Which format do you work with?”.
By now the box is so tiny that I am suffocating… and there are even more ways to limit myself like technique (ICM, long exposure, double exposure…) or colour versus B&W.

But why should I do that? Yes, there are always things I prefer because they work really well with my (current) vision but that does not mean I have to exclude all other possibilities. Just because I currently love sepia toning does not mean that I cannot also experiment with colour slide film or B&W.
Now you could of course say…“you are just bad at making decisions” and “you need to decide if you want to fit into the “art world””. On the contrary, I am actually really good at making decisions, but these are simply decisions I don’t want to make even if that means that I won’t fit into the standards defined by the “art world”. Maybe I am a rebel and maybe I will have to learn the hard way that either you adapt or you will never be able to live from your art – but if I adapt I feel I will have given up on my dreams…and I am not willing to do that.

I just noticed that this blog post is already quite long and I still have so much I want to talk about but let’s do this another day. Right now I would like to ask you – what do you think about this? Do you feel better when “boxing” yourself? Do you think that artists who don’t decide are just “all over the place” and “cannot do anything right”? Please, let me know in the comments (click on the little speaking bubble at the top of the post) 🙂

Until next time here a little mix of pictures from my various boxes – judge for yourself if you feel they are “all over the place” or if there is still something that unites them…maybe just another box? 😉







  1. John on July 2, 2017 at 18:19

    I see you within each of your pics no matter what the subject or so called ‘style’ 🙂 Whether it be the light…in your picture of the modern building…which I know is not your usual kind of photography…or the dreaminess in your other works…the toning…to me they all say…Isabel in one way or another.Like different aspects of you but with the underlying you.
    So if you were to limit yourself to one type of photography I / we would only then see just a fraction of you which would be sad because you have so much to express and share with us through your beautiful photography.
    I feel it is right to experiment and explore and continue to do so all our lives!…why not?….I know some artists settle on one type of style…but many other of the World famous artists changed and developed and experimented with their art right to the end.
    If we did not experiment we would miss out on the joy of discovering something new.
    Your creative explorations are wonderfully exciting and one of the things that I have always liked about your work is that I never really know what to expect next 😀 !

    • Isabel on July 3, 2017 at 08:24

      That is so kind…thank you so much! There is always something of us in our work and when we limit ourselves to a certain box there is also a reason for that – we just need to ask ourselves why…
      I am glad that I can still surprise you with my work and I hope that will continue.

  2. Ian on July 3, 2017 at 08:13

    A wonderful thought provoking blog Isabel, and one I think we can all relate to one way or another. You’re right our lives are dominated by boxes, being pigeon holed is a good expression. This suggests you excel at one thing but are not allowed to develop in other areas. I think as photographers we all get this way even if it is for a short while, (i.e. projects), perhaps we should remember the time when we first tried photography, that experimental phase where you didn’t understand nor abided by the rules, didn’t run with themes, projects, but you were content with trying different things, becoming a ‘Jack of all trades’ and certainly a ‘….master of none’.
    For me I like to think of my photography in terms of personalities and they’re definitely split lol 😉 I love using my dslr and being in the landscape composing with vistas with technical precision, but I don’t always crave that perfection – especially since my day job requires that. I can go in a completely different direction with subject and tool of choice, as you know I love pinhole photography. I find it an antidote to my usual fare of landscape imagery, that loss of control and is sometimes what is need to clear your mind and rely on instinct rather than data.

    We may all be in a box, but not everyone’s lid is on 😉

    • Isabel on July 3, 2017 at 08:21

      That is so very well put and “split personalities” make our work so much more interesting – especially for ourselves.
      I often wonder if people are just afraid to try new things because they fear to fail…especially when you are successfully mastering one “box”. That is what I enjoy about the kid in me…it is not afraid of failure…that just happens and then it moves on…the adult sees it a bit different ;-).
      I am glad that the lid to your box is off and you know I so enjoy your pinhole work.

  3. Dev Samaddar on July 8, 2017 at 08:29

    I saw this the other day and didn’t get to read it right away… but now I have.
    First thing off the bat, no you shouldn’t be in a box, not of anyone else’s construction, not of your own. That’s my opinion and I feel very strongly about it. Now I have 37 reasons (or many, if you don’t think it’s actually 37) why, but if I go into all of them it might become an entire book. So I’ll go into a couple to elaborate my opinion.

    The box idea, the specialization, silo-ization is a product of the industrial revolution. When factories first emerged, and large scale production became the standard, these factories needed workers who could do one thing, and one thing only, quite well. The factory owners didn’t need thinkers, just workers. The entire western education system is based on this, the economic structure is based on this. People have now forgotten where it came from, but the school system was set up to create workers with specific skills to fill specific roles. It’s like an assembly line itself and each student was a specific part being manufactured for a specific job. Although, after a couple centuries now the specialization has spread from manual factory work to white collar, thinking jobs, yet the structure remains. You have specialized workers in finance, software, engineering.. what not. Now, if you compare this structure with the economic upper crust of society you’ll find that the people who owned these factories, (and now own other kind of companies too), are not specialists! The people who start companies, start organizations… the organizers and entrepreneurs of the world are generalists. They don’t fit into any box. Boxes were made for the people below them. I have seen this in real life. Later when I went to business school for my masters degree and I looked at entrepreneurship at great detail I found this to be true. If you went back in time, you’d see this was true not only of the business owners, but also of the ruling class: the princes and monarchs. They were generalists, well rounded people… how else would someone be Prince Charming? Silo-ed people are boring people. Specialists are good workers (no matter how “educated” that work is), but they are not “charmers”. But anyway, over the decades the idea of specialization percolated into many spheres, which brings us to the next point.

    When you look at the world of photography… photography is an art form, but it can also be an “industry”. There are obviously people manufacturing the tools we use in photography (thus those people are in boxes) and photography as a profession has boxes of its own: photojournalism, wedding/portrait, &etc. Nowadays, companies like Magnum, Stocksy and others, to whom photography is a business, obviously see in the same box-y pattern and help to create and perpetuate the idea of boxes. It is because there are people at the top who own these businesses. They want their workers to be specialized. But when you look at art: art isn’t an industry. Centuries ago, patrons used to support artists (though generally musicians and performance artists). That patron-patronee relationship allowed the artist to pursue their art without being boxed in. Although the artist was employed by the patron, the patron spent money and wasn’t looking to make money off of the artist. Nowadays, people who employ or in other ways engage artists want to make money out of art. They WANT it to be an industry, thus they want their artists to be specialized. But artists themselves by definition tend to be outside of box people. It is precisely the task of an artist to not have a specialization, to explore all possibilities. If it can be pinned down, it becomes algorithmic. If it is algorithmic, it is not art. The people who are most responsible for corrupting the art in photography are these businesses who sell photography, followed by commercial photographers (of various persuasions) who add “art” to their profession: for example “fine art wedding photography”. Art is the expression of something inside yourself, it *absolutely* has to be free from any persuasion from outside: money, fame, glory… those can be the byproducts of art, but never the deciding factors. But commerce is dictated by money, so clearly there is an antithesis. No matter how “artistic” a commercial shoot is, it is not *art* as it didn’t originate from the inner whisperings of the artist’s mind. What happens downstream from this is that these commercial photographers are celebrated for their commercial success: bookings, clients… they accumulate money, following and then they release a book or something, the purpose of which is still to enhance their commercial success… but people mistake those for art. And according to western capitalist thinking, if a person is “successful” in a material sense, he or she must be good!!

    The other thought is that of “style”. Too many people are caught up in having an identifiable style. Famous photolabs tout their color profiles to make your photos look identifiably uniform… some people make digital presets to make your photos look uniform. Internet famous photographers promote these style makeovers. But what is this “style”? This is the kind of consistency that you expect from an industrial product. For commercial photos (wedding/portrait/architecture/whatever) this makes sense. But why should an artist give in to this? Or any “style” for that matter? That’s a box! And again this box is created by the industrial wing of photography.

    However, all these being said, there is some value in a different kind of box. By limiting the kind of tools you use (camera/film) you make yourself familiar with those tools. Thus they become extensions of your mind and allow you to focus on what you are making instead of what you are making it with. So changing a lot of lenses, changing a lot of formats, a lot of films while can bring you fresh perspective, can also take up valuable time for learning. Once learned, it is best to stick to a known set of tools for at least a while before adopting new tools.

    Well, that’s an enormous comment. Sorry! But hope you find it thought provoking.

    • Isabel on July 8, 2017 at 14:12

      I had never thought about it from that perspective – but you are right, that is where the specialisation/boxing comes from in the past and seen as business today. Maybe that makes my fear of “boxing” even stronger and it might even explain why I waited so long to try and sell anything and now attempt it rather via my own webshop than any gallery. Thank you, Dev – definitely lots to think about and I might come back to a few of your thoughts in another blog post (if I may) 🙂

      • Dev Samaddar on July 8, 2017 at 18:17

        Feel free to explore any facet of my comment… I’ll take royalties in US$ bank draft.
        Don’t feel shy to sell your books/photos. I don’t think it is wrong to sell what you make, as long as you made it without thinking of sales. That maintains purity of the creative process. It gets corrupt when the thought of sales comes first and acts upon your creativity, thus forcing you to make what sells. It’s the order in which these happen that is important.
        I have no qualms about selling and earning money. But I do have a bit of contempt for those who measure their success through that. After all, if making money is the goal, there are other, more efficient, ways. But that’s not why you make art, right?

        • Isabel on July 8, 2017 at 18:59

          Very true, if it was about making money then I definitely would have stayed in my old job. 😉

  4. Roger on July 14, 2017 at 13:01

    Thanks so much for your lovely and thought-provoking blog, and website. The photos you’ve posted with this blog suggest to me a real see-ing rather than look-ing.

    I reckon that boxes are good places to play in, a bit like children & cats do, but not to live in.

    • Isabel on July 15, 2017 at 07:58

      Thank you so much for visiting and for your really nice comment, Roger.
      I agree about playing in boxes…I loved that 🙂
      I follow the quote from one of my favourite authors Sir Terry Pratchett “Open your eyes and then open your eyes again” 😉
      Have a wonderful day!

  5. Lea on July 18, 2017 at 11:39

    In my creative work I like limitations but I like them because they set me free. I feel claustrophobic with too many options. There are too many possibilities, too many different outcomes and it terrifies me.
    But one of my favourite artists is William Morris who worked with printing, bookmaking, writing, furniture and print design. I don’t think it made him indecisive, it meant he chose to include all his passions and insisted they had a place in his life. So as much as I like limitations or guidelines for specific projects, I choose to not have to choose between writing, photographing and printing, between shooting digital or analog. I think everything can influence and inspire everything and some of my most creative and enjoyable work comes from hybrid processes.

    • Isabel on August 1, 2017 at 06:27

      I very much agree about too much choice – it can overwhelm you and take your focus from the truly important things. This is the reason why I only take one camera and maximum two lenses when I got out to create pictures. It is helpful to set yourself some limitations – you can still break them when you feel that it is necessary. ;-).

  6. Robert on July 20, 2017 at 19:05

    Box’s or no box’s I find your work distinctive, you have got a style, which I find great. I am sure this will evolve but as evolution takes time your work will stay distinctive. ( but this is only my opinion )

    • Isabel on July 20, 2017 at 19:29

      Thank you so much, Robert 🙂 It would be horrible if there was no evolution and I am looking forward to all the boxes I am going to try but hopefully I will never close the lid above me 😉

  7. Sally Landberger on July 24, 2017 at 09:10

    I love your work & I hate boxes!

    • Isabel on July 24, 2017 at 10:57

      Guess what, me too 😀
      Thank you for your kind comment and we just stay out of boxes or at least keep the lid open 😉
      Have a great day! Isabel

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