Longer Essays

Thoughts in a Box
By Rett Rossi

(previously published in ICM PhotoMagazine, March 2021)

Spring in the City

A strange thing happened to me last year. There was this world-wide pandemic that left me feeling trapped at home, yet also triggered the biggest boom in my creativity in at least a decade. You might not be surprised to hear I spent considerable time trying to figure out why, and what I realized was: this confined feeling bore a striking resemblance to working with creative constraints. Creative constraints are restrictions designed to make us use the resources we have in new ways.

I have worked with variations of creative constraints in different areas of my life for so long that I hadn’t really been thinking of them deliberately anymore. However, over the last year, fascinated by how this boxed-in feeling I associate with the pandemic was acting like a creative constraint, I began thinking about constraints as boxes and reflecting about how I am now using them in my photography.

As soon as I started thinking about them as boxes, I thought of how people are always extolling the virtues of ‘thinking outside the box’. In Western society, thinking outside the box is often made out to be superior to the negatively connotated “boxed-in thoughts”. It seemed to me though, that if I was right, and being boxed in by the COVID-19 restrictions was the driving force behind my creative spurt, then thoughts in a box were being greatly underestimated and it was my duty to stop them from getting a bad rap!

It is my hope that by documenting my experiences while working with boxes in my artistic practices, some of you might begin to see how boxes already subconsciously play a role in your own practice and how you might start to use them (and the restrictions we’re faced with due to the pandemic) more consciously.

Let me start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). In terms of my artistic practice, a box is something that prevents me from moving (or using the resources I have) in ways I am either habituated to or want to. Some boxes are given to me; others I create. With regards to photography, a given box might be a nature photographer whose rheumatoid arthritis starts to play havoc with their ability to hike up into the mountains. It is not something they have chosen, but it is a box that ‘life’ has given them and they now have to deal with it. A created box might be a student of photography who is instructed to only shoot with a 50mm lens on an analogue camera in black and white, so that they are pushed to study light more carefully. Regardless of whether they are given or created, there are a couple of ‘laws’ that come to mind when I am thinking about boxes as a creative force behind my art:

A box has to contain something, even if it is just a minuscule amount of air and me.
Not all boxes are equal. Boxes come in different sizes and strength – and to be frank, not all boxes come with six sides, sometimes one side is enough to box me in.

If you want to try working with boxes, you’ll have to figure out what size works for you and when, because if it is one thing I know, a box needs to be just right. For me, if it is too big and contains too much, I might end up sticking to the familiar, wandering around far too long before even realizing I am in a box. For best results, I need a relatively tiny box. One that has sturdy, clearly defined sides; one that initially feels a bit too dark, a bit too small. However, I have to be careful, too tiny and I’ll suffocate.

Not So Still Life in the Morning Light

When working with boxes, either those I design myself, or those given to me, I always need to get to know the box. I need to know the ways in which it restricts my movements. With COVID-19, some of those restrictions were immediately clear, for example, no travel. Some though, like the mental impact, took me a bit longer to grasp. I knew I felt boxed in, especially when we were being encouraged to stay indoors, but I had to work harder to define the walls, to feel their presence. To do so, I started taking note of how my movements were blocked. When I talk about movements here, I am referring to all of the physical, mental and emotional facets I feel are stunted due to the restrictions I’ve been given or have set for myself.

With the pandemic, I observed how conscious I became about distance between people – out on the street, I became aware of how I was pacing myself on narrow sidewalks in order to not crowd or be crowded by those around me. I noticed myself reacting to the spacing between people in the movies I was watching, shocked by their freedom and their lack of fear.

In the Distant Present

As an introvert who is usually happy to be at home in my own space but who loves to travel, it took me a while to notice I was feeling cagey. My skin began to crave the forcefulness of windswept coastal air. I wanted change and the lack of it was getting to me. The more I perceived these things, the more I felt the walls of this box closing in. They tightened around me, until suddenly, the magic of thoughts in a box happened. My creative instincts pushed back.

I am stuck inside – but I have a window.
I am stuck inside – but I have a camera.
I am stuck inside – but look at that light.
I am stuck inside – but feel that breeze.
I feel myself study my box intensely,
taking stock of everything,
seeing what’s inside,
the things I have to experiment with,
the things I want to explore.
I am stuck inside – but look at the curtain.
Look at how it moves in the breeze.
Look at how the light moves with and within.
Can I capture how it feels?

Outside Comes In

Before I knew it, I was working my technique over and over again. Feeling excited by what I am learning, looking forward to the next day when I can try something else, lying awake at night wondering how what I am doing now will impact the photos I take in the future, when I am finally able to move freely again.

Studies for Tulips without Tulips

Tulips without Tulips

Time passes. Months even.

There is a break in COVID restrictions, a window for us to run, we head to the sea.

I take what I have learned, add in our ‘new-found’ freedoms and let myself go. How has what I have learnt in my box, impacted the way I see the world now? What new questions do I have, when faced with familiar motifs? What happens when I vary the speed of my movements, the direction? How can I take my knowledge of my motif and combine it with the things I have learned to break down the wall of the bigger box I have unknowingly been in?

Kattegat 1

Sunset on the Kattegat

And then, heading back to the city, a lull comes. As if, maybe, I have used up all the creativity inside, or because I have pushed back so hard against the walls of my box, they have collapsed. It takes me a while to realize I have outgrown my box and I need to make a new one. I’ve come to think of this as “nesting boxes” i.e., creating a new box, either bigger or smaller than the one I am consciously in.

A bigger one might mean adding a resource to my tool kit. Maybe, it’s adding a neutral density filter to cut down on light and allow me to shoot under different conditions.
Or perhaps, I need a smaller box. Maybe, it is time to take away one or more of my resources – to make myself think even harder about how to use the ones I have.
As I write that, I feel my senses wake.

Ah-ha! I need a new challenge!
What will it be? 
What lens have I been ignoring?
My ultra-wide-angle prime…?
Feel that resistance…?
That my friend is a good thing!
I want to take the easy way and choose another lens. An easier lens.
But where will that bring me?
Is it okay with me if I ‘only’ go there?
Maybe it is, maybe that size of a box is enough, maybe I have enough stress elsewhere in life and I just want to have a little fun.

Or, maybe it is not okay.
Maybe, I want to push myself a little more.
Should I force myself to shoot only with analogue for a week, or just my old mobile?
What subjects have I become too comfortable shooting?
Which subjects do I consciously avoid?
Where are my comfort zones?
Bit by bit, I build my box. Adjusting it as I go.
Do I feel my creative energy flowing?
Then I’ve got it just right.
Time to explore!

New Places to Play

An Intro to the Blog - aka The Power of a Question

For me, every photograph involves a number of questions.

There are the simple technical questions like: Which lens? What combination of settings do I need to best capture my subject in this light? Will I need a neutral density filter to help cut down on some of that light?

Then there are the aesthetic ones, which might overlap with the technical ones, such as: Should I use a sharp focus or a soft focus? Black and white or colour? How do I want to frame it? What do I want to emphasise most?

Experimental Distractions

Then there are the questions that feel formative to me as an artist. These will often be the focus of the posts ahead. Questions of rhythm, of movement, of repetition and of relation. More often than not those questions go far beyond photography, interacting between mediums, between text and photographs, between photographs and paintings, between paintings and sculptures, but also between other areas of life. Between my work as an artist, a translator and a coach, as well as my relationship with the world around me.

Some of these questions began decades ago in high school and university art classes. Assignments that asked me to explore what a line could do, or how many ways an electric plug could be represented. Some of them spring from my own curiosity, and some of them take their inspiration in the work of those I see around me.

In grade 9, pursuing the question of how a line works and what “it can do”, resulted in drawings imitating those found in the Sunday comics section of the Detroit Free Press. But this question of how lines work to express things and how I can facilitate their doing so, can be found interwoven into my artistic practices to this day. It evolves as my understanding of what a line is, evolves.

Winter Tree Trunk

Light Dance

Autumn Tree Trunk

It’s a relational exploration that takes the form of a conversation. Sometimes it’ll be a conversation in my head, or a conversation with parts of the world around me, and sometimes it takes the form of a conversation with others. Along the way, it was influenced by Indigenous artists like Doris Cyrette, Norval Morrisseau, and Benjamin Chee Chee. They asked me to listen to the world around me and to consider what it is about it, that pulls me to express it.

And again, this search for the “pull”, is what led me to paint portraits of people, without ever painting their faces. It is also what took me away from “realism” on the whole. All of this, trickles down to the question of how a line works. 

From the Series: Rushing Waters

But that is just one question that feeds me and my creativity. Overtime I have come to see how questions arise, inspiring explorations and conversations that flow into one another. As the example above shows, there is no unique start or end to them. I’ll feel like my thoughts are pursuing one question, only to find they have come back to pick up the thread of another question.

This website is meant as a tool for reflecting on these questions and to (re)consider the relations and relationships that feed (my) creativity.  As such, the website is meant to grow and change, but over the course of existence (whether it be long or short lived), I hope it will provide a channel for some of these questions to continue to propagate. Should something you read or see here inspire you to join in the conversation, I’m also interested in having guest bloggers, so drop me a line.