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? 😉






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16 Comments on "Inside or outside the box?"

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Sally Landberger

I love your work & I hate boxes!


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 )

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… Read more »

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.

Dev Samaddar
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »