Poetry and Photography: How Rainer Maria Rilke Is Relevant To Being A Photographer

Maarten Rots / Turnhout, 2015

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

A.G. DeMesa: We have another guest post from photographer and self publisher, Maarten Rots. He previously wrote about Printing Your Work. Here is at again with how poetry can affect your photography:

Maarten: Next to all the technical aspects that come along with photography, creativity is the force that makes you use the tools at hand to make a photograph your photograph and display your view at the world, to share with others how you experience life. Sometimes those technical aspects tend to take over and you forget that what makes a photo special is you. It’s good to be reminded that creativity is not a constant stream, but more like a river: sometimes it’s overflowing and at other moments it’s hardly there.

In 1902 Austrian Franz Xaver Kappus wrote a letter to poet Rainer Maria Rilke, hoping to get criticism on his own poetry. Instead Rilke declined his request saying:

“No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way: Go within”

What followed was a six year long exchange of letters, full of insights into Rilke’s creative process. About twenty years later, a couple of years after Rilke’s death, mr. Kappus realized how these letters can be of help to other creatives as well and decided to compile ten of the letters he received, and published them as a book titled Letters to a Young Poet.

A friend introduced me to the book years ago and I soon bought a copy for myself – it’s been instrumental to pull myself out of periods of creative low. The book is a great read for anyone active in the creative field. It’s nice to go back to the book every now and then to just read a single letter. The book offers many interesting points of views and definitely gets you to think about your own creative process. It can be found online in its entirety, but I recommend buying a copy of your own (it’s cheap) to carry around (it’s small), to make notes in and to lend to a friend.

I have taken seven quotes from the book that really hit home for me. They are just as much applicable to photography as they are to poetry and I would love to share them with you.

Turnhout, September 2015

“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You’re looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way: Go within”

It’s hard not to fall into the trap of outside confirmation. After all, when you’re taking pictures there’s more often than not the wish to share them with others. Hard as it may be sometimes, try not to rely on outside approval, both online and in real life. Photography, and street photography in particular, is a tool to share your view on the world. Do you need someone else to approve of your view on things, or do you want to challenge others by showing how you see and experience life? If you do want to compare your work, compare your recent shots to the ones you took a year ago, or even longer ago. That way you can see your own progress and shifts in interest. The goal should be to be fulfilled doing what you are doing, not to be doing what you think others expect from you.

When it comes to advice on a technical and practical level I believe it can be very fruitful to your development to have others shine a light and help you understand. But when it comes to finding your own style, understanding why you are making the kinds of photographs you make, you are all by yourself and have to learn to rely on your own judgment.

Amsterdam, October 2015

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

We all go through harder and darker periods in our lives and it often does not add to our motivation to continue our photography. Although it may be tough to start again, try to use misery and uneasiness as a tool; the way you feel reflects on your work and may result in meaningful thought provoking images. Pick up the camera again and shoot away the misery.

Turnhout, September 2015

People have, with the help of so many conventions, resolved everything the easy way, on the easiest side of easy. But it is clear that we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all costs, against all resistance.”

I guess it’s safe to say we’re all guilty of developing certain ‘tricks’ that we apply to make it easier to capture the perfect picture, both while shooting and in post process. And although we always strife to make life easier, choosing the hard way forces you to really think about what you are doing. It makes you switch off your inner auto-pilot and helps you find your own path. This helps you become better at what you do and sharpen your identity, your own style.

Amsterdam, October 2015

“If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

It happens so easily, you blame anything but yourself for not getting the shots you want, I catch myself doing it as well. Fact of the matter is though that almost always you can turn it around by looking at yourself. I often realize that when I change my outlook and try to see how I can work around these obstacles I created, I discover new opportunities. These obstacles may very well be the restrictions that will lead you to a photograph in different circumstances in new ways and be the starting point of a new direction in your work. There’s always a workaround, use the shortcomings that you feel stop you from shooting to your advantage or change the situation you are in. Every so often when I’m in a creative low I have to remind myself again to stop complaining and do the work!


Amsterdam, October 2015

“And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it (…) instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

We all doubt our abilities from time to time, it’s perfectly normal and it means we care about what we do. It’s tricky though; doubt can easily transform into self-confirmed failure. Don’t let your doubt be the decisive factor on the quality of your work, instead use your doubt as a starting point to ask yourself questions: questions about your work, not questions about yourself. By analysing your work – realizing what works and what is lacking in the image – you become better at seeing what it is you are looking for and how you can capture it. Be critical. Criticism (when done right) is one of the most powerful tools towards improvement. Where doubt leaves you wandering and often takes away from your confidence, constructive criticism makes you articulate and clarify the different qualities in your photography and gives you a better understanding of what it is you should work on. So, next time you feel doubt comes creeping in, switch over to rational thinking and instead of sinking into an unproductive swamp of self-loathing become better at what you love to do!

Amsterdam, October 2015
Amsterdam, October 2015

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

Wonder and beauty is all around you, you can find it in the most unexpected places. Be alert to the small and simple things in your daily surroundings, you can use them in a poetic way and transform the mundane into the magical. It’s one of the powers a photographer has: to make visible the beauty in things that are sometimes too close to recognize it. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but by using the camera you are able to emphasize and share that beauty with the world. Small gestures can become great metaphors.

Amsterdam, September 2015

“I would finally just like to advise you to grow through your development quietly and seriously; you can interrupt it in no more violent manner than by looking outwards, and expecting answer from outside to questions which perhaps only your innermost feeling in your most silent hour can answer.”

I return to what was mentioned in the first quote already: try not to rely on outside approval. Take yourself serious and take your time, that should cover everything to make you become the best you you can be.

Amstelveen, October 2015

I reproduced this final quote on the back of the latest issue of my self-published photography magazine March & Rock:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

It happens to me time and time again: I become unsure of where I’m headed and I get confused and uncomfortable and want to escape that feeling. It has often resulted in frantic discussions with myself in which I turn out to be running around in circles, not getting any further. Eventually when I let go of my need to have control I get back into the flow by just doing and the ‘answers’ slowly unfold. Not like literal answers, but I recognize opportunities more easily for example.

Try to feel at ease with the discomfort of not knowing – the answers will become clear when you are ready, it’s something you can’t force.



I am giving away one copy of the third issue of my self-published magazine March & Rock, titled Lost in Transition. Sign up for my newsletter for a chance at getting a free copy!

About Maarten

Maarten Rots is an artist working with photography based out of Amsterdam. In his photographs you can see a sense of abstraction and surrealism, found in everyday situations and captured by the camera. He loves printed photography and one of the ways he shares his work is through his self-published quarterly photography magazine March & Rock.

Follow Maarten on Instagram: @maartenrots


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