Alain Briot has been writing a really commendable series here recently, but I feel like there’s a missing element. That element is the specifics of how to go about “being creative.” This part is often left out, because it’s not easy to get your arms around. Ansel Adams wrote, frequently, that a photograph needs to represent the photographer’s genuine emotional reaction to the scene. He also spent a lot of time talking about pre-visualization of the photograph. On the subject of getting from one to the other, from that honest emotion to that picture in the mind’s eye, however, he is silent. This is essentially the same problem, the problem of how to be creative.
In general, what you have in hand is a subject, something you’re going to take a picture of. The next thing you’re likely to come up with is a concept. Don’t panic, I’m not going to get all “arty” on you. The concept could be something abstruse, dense, and arty, like “Gender Dynamics in Modern Culture” or it could simply be “This Flower Makes Me Happy” or anything else. Whatever it is, I think that this is the emotional response that Adams talked about so frequently. If you’re doing commercial work, the concept might be given to you by the client, “The pictures need to project simplicity and security” perhaps. So now you have a subject and a concept.
The visualization problem, the essential problem of creativity for the photographer, is how to turn the subject+concept into an actual picture in the mind’s eye. This is very hard, and not much talked about. Solve that, though, once the picture is visualized, we’re back to simply solving technical problems. (Not to pooh-pooh solving technical problems, but that’s not the subject of these current remarks.)
I recently came across a taut little volume by Philippe Halsman, halsman on the creation of photographic ideas, which admirably summarizes a great deal of the various research I’ve read over the years. The book seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and may be difficult or expensive to obtain. In brief, it offers up a set of rules and then stimulations. The specifics of his rules don’t matter, really, it’s just a sort of shopping list of specific ideas to consider. His stimulations are really just specific ways to prod the imagination. Put these two together, and you’ve got an actual process for being creative.
There is firm brain science to support the following process, which is really Halsman’s process re-arranged slightly.
- fill your mind with knowledge and ideas relevant to the problem at hand
- think hard about how to solve the problem at hand
- stop thinking about it and take a break, have a shower or a nap, or go on vacation
- return to step 1 (or, really, to step 2 if you prefer)
Roughly speaking, it appears to the Brain Science people that you give your subconscious a lot of raw material to chew on (look at a lot of photographs, do your own experiments) and a problem statement (how shall I render this concept of this subject?) and then when you’re taking a break your unconscious tries out lots of lots of ideas in some sort of very efficient fashion that we don’t understand. I imagine it as a sort of massive parallel computer, but I could be all wrong.
At its best, the process produces eureka moments. All of a sudden, in the shower, you see your visualization clearly. The solution presents itself, largely complete, apparently out of nowhere. It doesn’t always work that way, though. Sometimes the solution sort of oozes in to your mind, a bit at a time. Accreting like a reef, perhaps.
I decided to illustrate this process as best I could by actually doing it with the most mundane object that happened to be lying around. In this case, I had a beer bottle, recently emptied. That exercise produced some pictures, but I wasn’t happy with them. While the photos illustrated the idea, I realized that I had no particular love for the empty bottle. Back to square one. What’s lying around, that I really have some affection for? There is a tiny porcelain cup in my home, a gift from my sister to my 6 year old daughter. It’s a beautiful cup, it means something to me. I like the cup, and it’s handy. Let’s see what I can make of it.
My first thought was simply a joke, make it look big, because it is tiny. Forced perspective, get in close, and so on. Obvious stuff, but a starting point. But what else? I mulled on it, the cup has a delicate beauty. I mulled, and I did other things, and I mulled some more, and eventually in the early morning, waking up one day, I thought to myself feminine, make it feminine, shoot it like a beautiful woman. And then I had something more to chew on. Perhaps not to shoot it precisely as a woman, but that set a visual theme. Lightness, color, beauty, perhaps a bit of shyness, a demure peeking-out, a sensuality. Now that, that I can work with.
So there was the spadework up front, some basic ideas (make it look big). Then the eureka moment (make it feminine) and then more spadework, selecting methods and visuals that will accentuate the feminine.
Now all there is left is to shoot it.
Interestingly, the forced perspective shots, while a good joke of that sort, didn’t make the cut. Not where the project ended up at all.
Is this a success? Yes. I have accomplished what I set out to do, which was make some sort of creative thing out of a mundane thing, a little cup. I like the sequence. It’s pretty, it looks the way I wanted it to look.
Will I make a book out of it? Would it become my MFA thesis (if I ever entered an MFA program)? Nope. It was an exercise, and I finished it.