What is creativity? It’s a term widely used in the photographic world but one that is open to a variety of interpretations & definitions. So before I can write an article on the topic I ought to clarify what I mean when I use the word.
A simple dictionary definition gives us “characterised by originality of thought; having or showing imagination” (taken from the Collins Concise English Dictionary). When I talk of creativity in the context of photography I have in mind the production of a photograph that moves beyond a pictorial record of a subject. In other words a photograph that is more than a simple representation of what the eye has seen and, most importantly, one that reflects the photographers unique vision of the world.
And I believe the essential element that lifts a photograph beyond the simplistic level of a snapshot to something more creative, artistic & personal is when it is founded upon a thought, idea, concept or emotion. Without this foundation an image is superficial, even meaningless.
Through the process of considering what underpins the creation of an image it is more likely that the photographer will show that ‘originality of thought’ referred to in the dictionary definition of ‘creativity’. The act of clarifying what we want to communicate via a photograph will draw upon our views, prejudices, life experiences, feelings etc – in other words the things that make us unique.
When photographers on my workshops tell me they aren’t creative people it’s not techniques that I need to show them, for the use of a technique without a purpose is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather my task is to help them find their voice; to assist them in teasing out what they want to say about the world around them.
Can Everyone Be Creative?
I frequently hear claims from photographers that they are not artistic or they are not creative. This implies that creativity is a gift that some people are blessed with and others are not.
The natural, logical extension of this is that creativity cannot be taught. If that’s true then why do I run workshops on creativity and why do people come on them?! In part of course the participants hope that by learning creative techniques their photography will then become more creative. But without the right mental approach as well this leads to what I call ‘creativity by numbers’.
For example, learning how to use a toy camera, a pinhole adaptor or soft focus filter doesn’t, on its own, make us into a creative photographer. I think that we can all achieve much more than that. In my view everyone one of us is capable of being creative.
And I’m not alone in that belief. William Neil, the American landscape photographer wrote in an article in Outdoor Photographer magazine: –
“Each one of us is unique and has a distinctive view of the world around us and, therefore has creative potential and often the need to define those differences artistically. Believing in one’s own creative potential is vital to making fresh images”.
We are born as creative beings. In my experience all children are creative – they see the world without constraint, without the glasses of familiarity and generally aren’t afraid to express their uniqueness.
Jeff Curto (Professor Emeritus of Photography at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois) produces podcasts, ‘The Camera Position‘ that I can highly recommend. In one of them he quotes the example of showing a black circle drawn on a white sheet of paper to two groups – one a group of young school children; the other a mature group of photographers – and asking ‘what is this?’. The photographers came up with accurate but not very imaginative answers – ‘a black circle’, ‘a black hole’ – whereas the children said things like ‘it’s a telegraph pole as seen by a bird’ and my favourite, ‘it’s the suns evil twin sister’!
There’s a dissertation to be written on why this might be the case but my view is that formal education, professional training and years of socialisation drain the creativity out of us – unless we make the conscious effort to resist. Ask yourself why some of the most creative people in the world are often branded as ‘eccentric’ or even ‘mad’ – maybe they are just different in that they don’t conform to what is expected of them.
For more on this watch the videos of Professor Ken Robinson where he accuses education systems of undermining rather than nurturing creativity.
So can we regain that creative spark we had as children or does it go forever? I believe that creativity is a habit – it’s a way of working, a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world. But developing our creativity does require us to take action – we can’t wake up one day, decide to be creative and for that to magically happen in an instant.
It requires hard work, practice and dedication. Great musicians, artists, writers, dancers & other creative people don’t succeed without constant practice of their art.
And photography is no different.
How can we develop our creativity?
So I’d like to propose ten inter-related activities or strategies that I believe can help us in this process.
1 Cultivate Curiosity, An Interest & A Willingness To Experiment
This requires us to revisit the child within us and try to see the world anew; to attempt to regain our sense of awe of the world around us so that we overcome the staleness of familiarity.
So we must re-examine objects we take for granted and try to see them through new eyes – looking for an approach that is fresh and different. The Austrian photographer Ernst Haas once said “I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new”.
Finding photographs in the everyday, even mundane objects helps us discover the photographic potential all around us. It encourages us to look beyond the obvious – to photograph what things could be (to unlock their visual potential) not what they actually are. Our subject could be tools in the garden shed or utensils in the kitchen – the content is almost irrelevant as long as we’re interested & inspired enough to make photographs that appeal to us.
To help us in seeing the world anew it’s a useful discipline to set some targets or goals. For example to:
– take one photograph a week for 3/6/12 months of an object or subject in our house or garden; or
– spend a day producing a set of artistic interpretations of a vase or ornament; or
– allocate a month or a year to explore & photograph the locality where we live and attempt to produce an interesting image of the things we see on a daily basis.
Experimentation and adaptation are essential elements in creative photography. I’m constantly asking myself the ‘what if …. ?’ question e.g. ‘what would happen if I took long exposures handheld?’, ‘what would this subject look like if I photographed it at night or in the rain?’
In our experiments we shouldn’t become too pre-occupied with perfection or technical considerations. Play, have fun, be free – these are more important if we are to find our lost child.
2 Stay Loose; Keep An Open Mind
The second strategy for developing creativity I want to refer to is staying loose, keeping an open mind and not always trying to control the subject. Now I have to admit that this advice comes from a self confessed photographic control freak!!
For my landscape photography I normally work in a very disciplined, precise and methodical fashion. So I’ll normally shoot in a planned way visiting pre-chosen locations with careful consideration given to the season of the year, weather forecasts, light direction and so on.
But I’ve taught myself to value spontaneity and unpredictability because
what I’ve discovered through experience is that sometimes the conscious search for a photograph can actually hinder it being found. By just going out, looking at the opportunities that present themselves and making the most of those in a reactive way I’ll find different types of images to those that I would take with a pre-planned approach.
There is a different mindset involved working like this. As photographer Ruth Bernhard once said – “I never look for a photograph. The photograph finds me and says ‘I am here’”. The great Henri Cartier Bresson echoed Bernhard’s sentiments when he said: –
“Photography is ………. intuition, a poetic experience. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.
When Cartier Bresson refers to ‘losing yourself’ I interpret that as meaning ‘being in the moment’ or ‘in the zone’ as sports people tend to call it. That time when you are not overly thinking the subject or the situation but are in tune with it, reacting instinctively to it like a professional dancer to the music. To use another quote from an unknown source – you’re aiming to create a situation where ‘you respond to your subject like a shadow to a shape or an echo to a sound’.
3 Work On The Edge
My third strategy for developing creativity is to constantly challenge myself – particularly to force myself to work out of my comfort zone.
For instance I don’t enjoy photographing people so awhile back I deliberately spent a whole day capturing images of strangers on the street.
But you’ll need to find your own challenges:
– If you normally work in a spontaneous, unplanned way it might be beneficial to experiment with a more methodical approach occasionally;
– If you usually take landscapes that are sharp from front to back then play with limiting depth of field;
– If your preference is for colour photography try working in B&W (or vice versa).
Just working & thinking in a different way can give a boost to our creative juices.
4 Experiment & Play With Different Equipment
Trying out new pieces of equipment can also be a stimulus to our creativity. I’m not advocating that our photography should be equipment led because cameras and lenses are simply tools to record our vision. But working with a new or different piece of gear can stimulate us to see & think in a fresh way about a familiar subject.
I love to play with a variety of lenses and adaptors that can be bought at a very reasonable price e.g. Holga & CCTV lenses adapted for my Olympus OMDs; pinhole & zone plate adaptors. These are all relatively cheap so playing with new ‘toys’ needn’t cost the earth.
If your natural preference is for shooting wide vistas fit a longer lens and look for small ‘vignettes’ in the landscape – sometimes these can say as much about a location as the wider view.
Just using a different camera or format for a while can be a positive experience. If you normally produce photographs in a rectangular format then try shooting panoramic or square images.
If you normally work with sophisticated DLRS or CSCs with interchangeable lenses try shooting film with a toy camera like the Holga or using a small digital compact with a fixed lens and minimal controls (the proverbial ‘point and shoot’).
The variety helps to maintain the momentum of our creative journey.
5 Break The Rules
Photography is full of so called rules and these can be the biggest barrier to the development of our creativity.
Take composition for example. There are so many rules that in theory should influence the design of our images – we are told that we should always compose using the rule of thirds, horizons should never be in the centre of the frame or we should never include even numbers of subjects in our compositions.
But if we blindly follow the rules we’ll get boring, formulaic photographs. My advice is treat rules as guidelines – but no more than that. We should abandon our (and other peoples pre-conceptions) of how things should be. For there are no ‘shoulds’ for the creative photographer.
If we learn to accept that there is no right way then it’ll become fun to explore as many different ways as we can to take photographs of any given subject. If we accept that there is no one way to do something we can remove the shackles & set our creativity free.
6 Don’t Concern Yourself With Popularity
Which brings me to my sixth strategy – we shouldn’t worry about how others will react to our photographs. Photography is not objective – a photograph says as much about the photographer as about the subject. Any image will always be a personal statement about the world and reflect a viewpoint that may or may not be shared by others.
In any event the viewer will make their own interpretation of our photographs and their judgement is something we have little if any control over. So why let it bother us?
To be constantly worrying about pleasing others prevents us from developing our own artistic voice with the danger that our photographs stay ‘safe’ and ‘acceptable’. Our images then end up as clones of photographs that the world has seen before.
Which is boring, boring, boring!!!
As creative photographers we should value our individuality and be true to ourselves and not worry about whether anyone else will like the photographs we are taking. In the world of artistic photography there is no correlation between creativity and popularity.
Sometimes, for our creative vision to flourish, we have to try and learn to love & enjoy uncertainty – the significance or value of an image may not be immediately apparent to us or anyone else.
We have to learn to trust our instincts. If our intuition is telling us that a particular subject is worth exploring then we should explore it and do so without thought or concern about whether it will be popular or where it might take us artistically.
This requires that we learn to value ambiguity – become comfortable with the vague, the unknown or the unanswered question.
7 Photograph Your Passions
I believe that it’s essential to concentrate on the subjects we feel passionately about. For if we feel strongly about a subject then we are more likely to devote the time, energy, patience and persistence required to photograph it successfully and creatively.
And in this context passion could mean love or hate – which one doesn’t matter – because either way, our photographs are more likely to reflect that emotion and therefore have more impact.
I firmly believe that creative photography comes as much from the heart as from the head. We have to feel intensely about our subject – we’ve got to react to it at a level beyond ‘oh that looks nice’!!
And photographing the things we love is always inspiring and motivating. When we are in the creative doldrums that we all experience from time to time then returning to the subjects, situations and locations that enthuse us is always a great way of getting back onto our creative path.
8 Create Time AND Mental Space For Photography
Any artistic endeavour requires time and dedication as well as a good helping of concerted effort. Photography (and no more so than landscape photography) can be an incredibly unsociable activity. It requires a commitment of time and sometimes a degree of isolation from other people to produce our best work.
And personally I find it almost impossible to produce great photographs when I’m out & about or on holiday with family & friends. I cannot make the creative process work for me when I’m trying to squeeze picture making in between other demands and priorities. Experience has taught me that it’s essential to set aside dedicated & protected time for photography.
Allocating dedicated time will also help to ensure that we are in the right frame of mind to access the sources of our creativity and to fully concentrate on our subject. I know that to be my most productive not only my body but importantly my head needs to be in the right place. My mind needs to be clear of other pressures & worries and fully focused on the task in hand.
Which is why I believe the key issue to be about finding time and mental energy for the creative process. For one without the other leads to frustration and disappointment.
9 Draw Inspiration From A Variety Of Sources
Creativity and inspiration rarely come from within – unprompted and unprovoked. Inspiration has to be drawn from a variety of sources. I draw on a well of material – sometimes sub-consciously – that have over the years informed, shaped and moulded my approach to photography and my way of responding to my environment.
The work of other photographers is an obvious source of material. I’d recommend looking at the images produced by photographers you admire and:
– analyse what it is about their work that appeals;
– imagine how they took some of their photographs and what thought processes they may have gone through;
– think about how you might tackle the same subject or scene to come up with a different interpretation.
But we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to just photographers – painters and other artists can be a valuable source of inspiration. Although I can’t paint to save my life I’ve drawn inspiration from artists such as Monet, Renoir and Mark Rothko considering how I can apply their approach (e.g. the style of work, the use of colour, shape and tone) to my photography.
Novels can be another source of ideas and reading them exercises the brain, forcing us to imagine worlds and scenes that we’ve never experienced personally.
Listening to music – particularly music that generates an emotional response from us – can transport us to other places and times. I frequently shut myself away to listen to music, close my eyes, reflect on what it makes me feel like and how I could capture that feeling in a photograph.
10 Work On Projects
And finally one of the best ways of developing our creativity in photography is to set ourselves a project ; a challenge that will help to give our work a focus and a purpose.
It could be to:
– fully explore a particular technique; or to
– photograph one subject in as many different ways as possible; or
– to produce a body of work on a topic or theme for an exhibition.
Working on a project forces us out of our armchair (when sometimes it’d be easier to stay in front of the TV) and it gives us an opportunity or excuse to explore a subject in depth. This can force us to push boundaries, to think tangentially & look harder at a subject.
Anything that motivates us to take photographs is valuable because practice is the most essential element in our creative journey. Eliot Porter said that in photography “you learn to see things by practice. The more you look around at things, the more you see”.
More of Steve Gosling’s images and details about his workshop programme can be found on his website www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk