The idea that an artist is inspired to create because of a muse is well documented. And by almost all accounts, the embodiment of that muse is in the form of another person. But what if an artist’s muse happens to be not another person—but an object?
I wasn’t on the market for a comb when first I came across Model No. 1. I was, however, nonetheless immediately taken in by the prominence of its circular design accent that served as a handle, and I thought to myself, well, now that I’m looking online at one very fine comb, I could use a really good one. Out I whipped my credit card.
My sole intention for buying Model No. 1 is basically the same as anyone else who wants to buy a comb—to use it. I wasn’t thinking of taking pictures of it.
Truth be told, when I decided to become a photographer years ago, I never aspired to photograph a comb, at least not with artful intent. I have no aversion to photographing a comb, of course, perhaps as a catalog-type product shot on a commercial assignment, but not once did I imagine becoming so inspired photographing one over and over again with a deliberate measure of creative merit.
Seriously, what is there in a comb to artistically or creatively photograph about? A comb is a simple, utilitarian object with prosaic use. As has been said of a rose, a comb is a comb is a comb. And admittedly, unlike a rose, a comb is not a particularly interesting enough to photograph.
Well, not so fast—not this one particular comb. I happen to think that Model No. 1 is pretty special. And so, here I am, taking a comb for a muse, a little too obsessed with photographing it.
Allow me to describe to you Model No. 1.
Model No. 1 is the first metal comb designed and made by the Chicago Comb Company. It is 5.5 inches long and has a total of 51 medium-size tines. The design of Model No. 1 is distinctive for the cleverness of its patented circular handle accent, giving it its iconic look.
According to the company’s product description, the Model No. 1 comb with matte finish is made out of high-quality stainless steel, hand-finished through a dozen separate steps. It’s unadorned, and when not in use, it can be hung on its circular handle. Carried around, it can be stored in Ashland Leather's custom Horween leather sheath. (By the way, both comb and leather cover can be personalized with engraving!)
When I held up Model No. 1 for the first time, looking at it very closely, turning it around and around, inspecting and admiring it, I felt an unexpected, transcendent inspiration—a “visceral, intuitive, complex” regard for an object, so says Dinitia Smith in her New York Times article about how an artist might feel towards a muse.
To me, as a photographer, I see Model No. 1’s design as beautifully inspired. For all intents and purposes, it is awe-inspiring, much like some of the objects that are in the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, such as the Fisher Space Pen and Apple’s iPod. The beauty and elegance of Model No. 1’s design, the material it is made out of, the construction and its finish—all these inspired me to photograph it. When photographers are not actually taking pictures, photographers are thinking about taking pictures. So, a moment of scrutinizing a comb turned into a kind of imaginative exploration that led to the first picture I took of Model No. 1.
The first time I’ve photographed Model No. 1 was in January of 2017. I set it up on a black work desk, dangled it with a thin black thread over a single strip of overhead desk LED lamp that also served as the main light source, then snapped a shot at bird’s eye view and post-processed it all on the iPhone.
I posted the photo on my @dominiquejames Instagram account and tagged the Chicago Comb Company. A few minutes later, it earned a “Like” and a thumbs up emoji from the @chicagocomb Instagram account with a note that said, “Beautiful shot of Model No. 1!”
At that time, I thought I was going to put out only one picture of the Model No. 1. But as muses are wont to do, other interesting photographic ideas started coming to mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Of course, I was encouraged by the many “Likes” from the first picture, and also by the direct, positive feedback from Chicago Comb Company. It was then that I realized it was to be the beginning of my photographic “relationship” with Model No. 1, that it was destined to serve as my muse. The idea that a comb can be my photographic muse seemed to me to be at first somewhat silly and hilarious, but I couldn’t help coming back to it as it posed a bald challenge (pun intended) to be photographed again and again in all sorts of ways.
Seriously, what’s the point in taking a picture of a comb over and over again? Well, there’s one simple answer—it is an exercise in the exploration of creativity.
I can say with certainty that I’m not the first person (and also certainly not the last) who has been inspired to take pictures of one particular subject over and over again. For example, photographer and educator Katrin Eismann has been photographing NYC’s grand Manhattan skyline from across the Hudson River through different times of the day (and night), through different weather, and through different seasons. She’s also been photographing Lake Huron. And then there’s Peter McKinnon who has photographed playing cards in so many different ways for over 7 years. The obsessive nature of taking pictures of the same subject again and again, over a period of time, a little or a lot different from other times, is a trait that is certainly inherent among photographers. In a sense, it’s an attempt to photograph perfection.
As it happened, while I began spending more and more time staring blankly into space dreaming up of crazy ideas on ways to photograph Model No. 1, I also started getting more and more visually adventurous with all of my other photo projects. My excitement about photographing Model No. 1 was so infectious that I began challenging myself to take more technical or more creative photographs of whatever other subjects I happen to be photographing. In other words, my muse, the comb, sparked in me once again a new kind of energy, a renewed love and passion for the art and craft of photography, reminding me each day, why, in this digital day and age, where and when everyone in a photographer, I still wanted to be a working professional photographer.
In my photography work, whether commercial or fine art, I get inspired, intrigued, challenged, and yes, even obsessed, with my photo subjects. Whether people, places or things, I get very deeply invested in every single thing that I photograph. For me, photography is a deep and abiding ongoing personal obsession. It is sometimes difficult to explain this to others—the raw essence of what the love of photography means to me, on why exactly I do what I do.
When I do what I do, when I spend obscene amounts of time and energy to create and produce images, when I am engaged and invested, when I photograph something over and over again, the value proposition here is that I am experiencing something different, something new. The act of creating, therefore, becomes an exercise in exploration and in continually honing one’s craft and art towards the goal of never-ending perfection. Each photo project, each photo session, each photograph, serves to refine the process and attain a higher level of creative and technical mastery so that the next one and the next and the next may result in something far more beautiful and far more perfect than what came before it.
Above and beyond the production of photographs, my personal approach to photography is as a creative process not only for ongoing personal development and growth but perhaps, more importantly, in fulfilling the longing of the soul. There is something about the photographic process of creation, the photographic method, that makes me, as a person, more whole. In a way, I count myself lucky to be afforded this kind of experience with what I do for a living. All I can say is that it is amazing indeed!
Can you imagine a comb making me come to such a realization? I can, with photographs.
Will this lead to another object of photographic obsession for a muse? Who knows, maybe next time, it will be a person. Or, a mortar-and-pestle. Who knows, really.