Architectural Photographer Trent Bell on the Ups and Downs of a Creative Career
From the importance of novel experiences to pushing outside of one’s comfort zone, Bell walks us through his creative process
“Most children can feel the wonder that comes from the novel experience, but as we mature that is often lost.”
MH+D ASKS BELL TO TELL US MORE.
Q. How do you maintain a creative mindset?
A. Glossy white cabinets are a window to my soul. About four years ago, we designed and built our home. The home is very practical with a straightforward design except for the kitchen/ dining/living area, which has floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s incredible to experience the feeling of being outside while being inside. The first time I entered the space was a very emotional experience for me. Three years later, I still know it’s beautiful, and I can appreciate it, but I don’t have the same emotional reaction to it that I once did. However, the glossy white cabinets help me understand this.
Last fall, I was standing in our kitchen in the late afternoon. The sun was coming in low through the windows and illuminating the space and the forest hill beyond. I knew it was beautiful standing there taking it in, but it did not elicit the same emotions it once had. After pondering this for a minute I turned around to get a snack from our glossy white cabinets. As I reached to pull the cabinet door open, I saw the mirrored reflection of my living room in the glossy white cabinet door. In that moment my brain was tricked: I saw the space anew, and emotions akin to the first time suddenly flooded through me. I turned back around to view the scene directly, but my brain already recognized this view and the emotions immediately left me.
I understand this about my personality and mind, and I seek novel experience as a means of increasing my perspective and maintaining emotional plasticity.
Q. How does experience influence the creative process?
A. A while back, I was listening to a science podcast, which explained how repetitive experiences utilize more information from our memory than from our senses.
Our brains have a practical thing they do during repetitive experiences. They graduate from the “fully present” childlike wonder we have during a novel experience to an “autopilot” experience. In the autopilot experience your brain references more from the memory centers of your brain than from the actual input from your senses. This is beneficial, as it allows us to allocate attention and energy elsewhere in these moments, but when we’re living in comparison to memories of the past rather than being present, we can lose the true joy in the creative process. As Teddy Rosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This has historically been my relationship to anything overly repetitive or concrete. Any church, school, or business with clearly defined boundaries, traditions, or regulations has always been uncomfortable for me.
Some are wired to respond negatively to overly repetitive experiences and feel a positive emotional response to novel experiences. These curious questioners are seen as “creatives” because they have a high degree of the psychological trait of being “open to experience.”
Because I am “open,” my psychological makeup tells me I am not meeting my full potential in overly languishing in the “known” or repetitive experiences. I begin to feel mentally and emotionally claustrophobic and anxious. I start to feel that the situation has no use for me, and I have nothing to gain from it. Conversely, when I experience the unfamiliar or novel, my bells and whistles start to go off and my brain releases dopamine. My brain sees potential and value in novelty and awards me as such.
Q. How do you find stability in a creative career?
A. Being creative is like a kamikaze mission, in that you are deeply entangled with the attempt of creativity. You don’t get to drop your creation and return to safety. For better or worse, you are one with your creation and you will be received as it is received. It is made of you, of your experience and how you see the world. You don’t get to outsource the reasons for your success or failure. You don’t get to blame a superior for giving you the wrong orders or a system that lead you astray.
When I considered what I would do for a living as a creative, I sensed the difficulty and risk involved and I felt cowardice respond within me. I had to address it somehow, as I knew I would be incredibly mediocre and miserable in a nine-to-five job. The shadows of comfortable acceptance beckoned to me, but I knew I would be comfortably miserable. So I compromised with slow, measured risk in my approach to monetizing my creativity.
First, I was clear with my soon-to-be-spouse that she might need to be a sugar mama for a bit. I set my focus on being an architect and failed, then property management and failed. Luckily my next attempt was architectural photography. When I shared my next act with her, all she said, with a pleasant smile, was, “Okay,” and she just walked away like we had agreed on a paint color.
Luckily for us, we now live a life paid for by pretty-picture taking. She was the risk mitigation that gave me the confidence to try and respond to the call of experience and creativity. I am willing to say any success I might have achieved has been mostly her fault.
Short answer: Monetizing creativity is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Intrinsically it will be a very unstable existence. Balance yourself everywhere possible.
MH+D IS PROUD TO PARTNER WITH ACCLAIMED ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHER TRENT BELL ON HIS ARCHITECTURE, DESIGN, AND PHOTOGRAPHY PODCAST. TO HEAR CREATIVE DIRECTOR JOEL KUSCHKE’S CONVERSATION WITH BELL, PLEASE VISIT TRENTBELL.COM/PODCAST