Betty’s Last Days Part 1: Creative Blocks, Gruesome Murders & Why I Will Never Listen to a Millennial About My Work Ever Again

Creative blocks are terrifying. They come on like a bad flu; first, your throat starts tickling, you ignore it, blame it on an allergic reaction to something but deep down you know it could be the beginning of a bad cold. Then your head feels hot, you feel like you need to lie down, your energy is gone, your muscles are starting to ache. And the overwhelming desire to go to bed and be left alone sinks in deep and you realize, in your dark, cold room, you’re truly fucking sick and there’s no way out of this except to ride it out and go through it. A bad flu can last 3 to 7 days, sometimes two weeks to fully recover but never months and months on end, like a real creative block.

Last January 2016 I made the decision to not shoot. Like, for how long, I didn’t know. I just became achingly aware that I was not enjoying being on set anymore. My work looked boring to me, un-compelling, drab and meaningless. Sometime in the summer before this, in the Summer of 2015, I was on a fashion shoot for an editorial and halfway through the shoot I said to myself, “I hate this. I want to go home. I can’t wait for this shoot to be over and get away from these people.” I knew then that the long dark cold creative block was coming and there was just no avoiding it. 6 months later, sure enough, I started turning down work. I literally turned down jobs, I ignored inquiry emails, I deleted emails from talent to collaborate. The thought of producing and shooting yet another boring fucking fashion editorial for some yet another boring fashion magazine made me literally nauseous. This wasn’t the first time I felt an extreme vertigo for my chosen profession, for my passion, for the very thing that I devoted my entire life to. It’s happened once before. Let me break this down for you: there have been blocks that have lasted a few days, or even a few months but it wasn’t debilitating. I knew that I was just hitting a zone where I couldn’t finish a thought process or a story line but it wasn’t going to cripple my workflow. Usually, a good week long vacation to a destination like a beach resort did the trick. By the time the vacation was over, I was filled with a renewed sense of inspiration and couldn’t wait to get back to work. However, this hasn’t been the case with this last one for me. This one took me down to the bowels of dark depression and I shut myself off from everyone around me.

But I’ve never been one to completely quit, so I told the world “I’m taking a break” and I secluded myself and examined the WHY behind the block. My work was starting to suck: WHY? I didn’t love shooting anymore: WHY?

The long answer could be summarized to something like this: my industry has changed, it’s become a shit show, magazines don’t pay, hell, no one pays, every day I wake up to emails from vendors wanting me to spend money on shit like photo contests and photo gear and photography websites and photography apps and retouching services in India and social media companies that grow my social media and printing services and marketing services and the fucking list is so long but the only email I’ll get for work is a “job” to shoot one of the Kardashians for free, oops, sorry, I mean, a job to shoot one of the Kardashians for Instagram tags. Because my landlord totally accepts hashtags for the rent.

These are good reasons for someone like myself who’s been shooting since the ‘80’s to feel somewhat defeated or thwarted. But fuck it, I’ve been watching my industry changed since 2001 when digital started taking over. It’s not like I woke up to this shit show. No, the long answer isn’t the answer. Here’s the short answer:

 

I STARTED LISTENING AND TAKING ADVICE FROM YOUNG PEOPLE.

 

It took 9 months, a health scare and finally confiding in my best friend of 40 years that I was thinking of quitting photography, even leaving Breed.  She looked at me as if I had lost my mind. She’s been there from the beginning, since high school, she was actually one of my first models, she was there when I picked up a camera for the first time to shoot a fashion photograph. She helped me through Art Center. She and I talked it out and she pointed out that I have been listening to far too much bullshit from people who haven’t even been alive as long as I’ve been shooting. And she was right: For some odd and curious reason, I found myself surrounded with people who were 20 to 25 years younger than me, who held influential positions in my world like, oh you know a business partner or a creative director position in my magazine or you know, like my ex-husband who I owned the Blog with. Kids in their twenties started saying things like, “Your generation is dying, time to move over” or the classic, “Your day in the sun has passed, it’s time to let us shine now” ( yes someone actually said that to me, it’s laughable, I know). The thing is, I didn’t hear these negative comments like a handful of times, I heard it over and over again for the past 5 years.

Psychologists have said that one of the worse forms of abuse is intermittent reinforcement wherein the person giving the abuse is someone you trust or even love but they have this sadistic way of getting you down so they can feel in power or control or because they’re so fucking insecure that they have to beat you down in order to feel good about themselves. I wasn’t hearing this shit from strangers. Or Facebook followers. I was hearing opinions from people I trusted and worked with, from people that I loved or was partnered with. I was literally being elbowed out of my own capabilities.

 

WHY DO WE LISTEN TO ASSHOLES?

 

Well, we’re artists after all, or I should hope so if you’re on Breed and reading this anyway. Artists are sensitive and susceptible to criticism on a good day. We rely on the feedback of others to grade our workmanship, in a way. Healthy criticism is crucial to our creative growth and we need it like we need food. Unless you want to hole yourself up in a dark studio and never show your work or try to earn a living from it or exhibit it, we need input from our peers. But when you take years of negative feedback coming from a malevolent agenda,  it’s bound to have a severe effect. Years of negative feedback from people you love and respect, well, the results are crippling.

Thank God for my tenacity. Really. Thank GOD I’m not a quitter. And I have no room for depression in my life. After I realized WHY the block was happening I took my power back and stood up and said “No more of this shit, get the fuck out of my life”. I remember seeing all the posts on Instagram and Facebook about the number of deaths happening in 2016. Well, for me I experienced a number of deaths myself because I kicked a number of people to the curb last year. It hurt and it was scary, because I had loved them at one point and had entrusted them with my vision in one way or another. But they needed to go if I was going to get back on my feet. And it is, in the end, all about me.

The good news is that I have become inspired again and the creative block has been lifted. I have to be honest and tell you that this last block was so dark I didn’t think it would. But alas, it has and in a wonderful way. My first time shooting for myself again since June 2015 (yes you read that right) was brought about by my morbid curiosity of one of the most gruesome murders in the 20th century, The Black Dahlia.

Part 2 of this post will explore how I became enthralled with The Black Dahlia, how my family history is intertwined with the murder, how I thoroughly researched  for the project, my absolute adoration for Man Ray and my finding myself in his studio he had in the ’40’s during the time of the Betty Short murder and some haunting findings behind Man Ray, Dr. Hodel, Surrealism and the murder. I’ll show you how I pulled the specialized team together and spent weeks putting together every small detail that went into this shoot.

I’m sharing the story of my crippling creative block to show you that it happens to all of us; those new to this medium and those of us who have built a career on photography. I’m also sharing this because our words to one another make an impact. People can say devastating words to one another based on their own insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. I urge all of you to be careful who you listen to and who you surround yourself with creatively. We are the company we keep and if that company is a bunch of entitled morons who think you should give up the gig and go work in a department store, maybe before you sell your camera, look at who’s giving you that input. I’ll leave a quote that I read right around the time my best friend and I had our heart to heart:

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.” – William Gibson

Melissa Rodwell