Chaos, Individualism, and Art

| March 1, 2012

Much had been said, good and bad, about individualism. As a moral philosophy, it may lead to the best or the worst that a person can become: from hedonism to humanism and any number of other “ism”s in between. With few exceptions, though, creative artists are consummate individualists, interpreting their world and practicing their work to the beat of their own drum.

In a word, what defines an individual is uniqueness – the thing or combination of things that make them unlike anyone else. By extension, artists must measure themselves not only by the aesthetics or popularity of their work, but also by the degree to which it represents them as unique individuals, setting it apart from the commonplace and the mainstream.

The need for individuality further compounds the challenges of photography as a form of expressive art. Relying to a great degree on objective qualities inherent in our subject matter places limitations on the degree to which we are able to express our own sensibilities in our work. It stands to reason, then, that technical proficiency and fortuitous circumstances, by themselves, may not be sufficient ingredients for personal expression.

The inevitable question is: how can a photographic artist express their unique temperament, not just using, but also in spite of their subjects? Certainly, there is no limit to what may be added or altered when processing a photographic image; though such techniques are often self-defeating in that the artist may achieve their expressive goal, but lose their audience in the process. For better or worse, a choice of medium comes with both benefits and constraints. The most severe constraint facing photography is the degree to which it is expected to remain faithful to the objective representation of real elements.

What remains at the discretion of the photographic artist can be defined as awareness (the ability to intuitively perceive – or see – things that others do not,) and composition (the ability to uniquely arrange visual elements – founded in an understanding of visual perception – to create a unique order that suggests ulterior meaning beyond the literal visual elements).

Indeed, I believe that when a budding photographer had mastered the trivial technicalities of operating their equipment, and the tools to process and present their work; they should dedicate themselves wholly to the lifelong study and refinement of their awareness and composition skills.

Not to gloss over another obvious question, some may wonder why individuality is important, and why unique and original works should be considered in higher regard than those that merely satisfy common notions of beauty. Is it not enough that a work is beautiful and evokes a favorable response in the viewer?

Albert Einstein’s greatest mission, and greatest failure, was the pursuit of an elegant theory – an orderly and predictable framework – that explains everything we know about the nature of the universe. What we know today is that such order does not exist to the elimination of randomness and chaos, but rather that order is the result of chaos and unpredictability. If it were not for flaws in the uniformity of the universe, we would not have stars, galaxies, and planets. We ourselves would not exist were it not for random mutations and aberrations that allowed for natural selection and evolution. It is the elements of chaos in any order that give rise to the next order. The same is true in the evolution of art. Chaos and uniqueness are needed for growth and to propel new, more complex, and ever-grander orders.

Individualists are those who live outside the order, making the deliberate choice to be different and, in doing so, contributing to the betterment and advancement of those who are part of the order.

Ask a nuclear physicist and they will confirm that some particles bind together to make more complex structures, while others maintain an independent existence. Ask a biologist and they will confirm that some cells come together to form complex organisms, while others prefer to strike out on their own. Ask a sociologist and they will confirm that some people come together to form societies and organizations, while others choose to chart an independent course, challenging social convention and planting the seeds of change.

While any of us may choose the comfort of conformity and going with the flow, and the benefits that come with it in acceptance, safety, and recognition; there will always be those who are never satisfied leaving well enough alone. It’s a matter of temperament, more than anything. Happiness to some is in being part of something; to others – the desire (indeed, the duty) to affect change, to bring about the next order, to promote new knowledge and enlightenment by defying and disrupting the collective. It would be naive to think of it merely as a choice. Those who become individualists often do so at risk and loss. To them it is a calling – a moral imperative – and by attempting to be anything else, they may suffer even more profoundly.

If you are bound to be different – be different. If it were not for the different, the unique, the individual; we would never have the ordinary, the collaborative, the social. All that we know and accept as real is, ultimately, the result of a small difference perpetrated by a unique event that made the previous order obsolete.

In the end, it’s not the things you contribute to the order that define who you are, but the things you contribute to the chaos.

You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.

–Friedrich Nietzsche



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Category: All Posts, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (13)

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  1. Very interesting article, Guy.

    Finding the right “recipe” for your work is such a tough thing and can’t be forced.
    The progress in photography is like walking along a path. With everything you learn or master along your way, you find something that makes the walk easier. Then sometimes you come to a crossing and take a little side-road – sometimes it’s a dead end, sometimes it leads you back on the main path. Like in real life you just have to enjoy the walk.


  2. Jim Bullard says:

    Good thoughts. I would add that while individuality may create things beyond the current order, simply being different is no guarantee of value. Most things which are “different” are dead ends. Unless the new direction leads to growth and subsequent change it is of no lasting value just as most mutations in nature do not result in new species. Nor is it a goal to be deliberately pursued. Being different, like style, is something that needs to arise naturally as a result of deeply exploring one’s own creative path without conscious attempts to “be different”, an evolution that is neither to be forced or feared.

  3. Navin Sarma says:

    I appreciate this read, Guy.

    For me personally, I can identify with the path of discover, learn, and create. I “discovered” my passion to create images a few years ago, and have spent years since “learning” the technical skill of producing quality images. As I become more “learned” in the techniques, I find myself searching for thoughts of “creation” of new types of imagery. A work in progress, but I feel like I am now more of an artist than I ever thought I would be when I first started in photography.

    Thanks again for the words of wisdom.

  4. The challenge of expressing an individual point of view, style, aesthetic, etc. through photography is not all that different from doing so in other arts. It so happens that I know a bit about this in another area, music. As in photography, there are certain subjects, approaches, techniques, sounds, ideas that are commonly understood and which can evoke predictable and even successful responses.

    A challenge to the musical artist is finding a personal balance that most certainly does use and reference the familiar and well-known, expresses a powerful and compelling personal quality on top of this familiar base, and avoids the trap of simply being different for the sake of being different.

    It is tricky stuff. As in photography, in a lot of music the things that are the same constitute a much greater percentage of what is in a piece than the things that are different. You cannot really (at least not often) invent a new chord or a new and compelling way of organizing notes or a new way of counting or a new form – but what you can do is adapt and use these things in such a way that places a unique and individual stamp and perspective on the familiar, and which occasionally might be different enough to change the trajectory of an art.


  5. Florian says:


    I very much like this text and your thoughts.

    In my opinion, the individuality and uniqueness also depends on how well I know something or somebody. Many people may not appear as very individualistic, but the more you know about them the more unique and individual they become. I think sometimes a person may not appear as outstanding if only photography or any other kind of personal expression is considered. However, such a person may be incredibly admirable if additional facets are considered.
    On the other hand, many people that appear very unique in some specialized aspect loose a lot of their uniqueness if you know more about them. Some may even become disappointing.


  6. What a beautiful set of thoughts, Guy. I am inspired this morning by your eloquent words. I am up and at ‘em today with this post. What a great gift. Many thanks.

  7. Interesting read, and thought provoking. Not sure I agree with 100% of it, but still enjoyable as always.

  8. Inspirational. Pearls of wisdom as always.

  9. Dan Baumbach says:

    Stunning photo.

    When I think of individualism in art, I think of following ones own muse no matter where it takes you and no matter what the consequences for your artistic career. An artist I truly respect for this is Joni Mitchell. At the peak of success, she tired of the folk/rock format and veered into Jazz. Her career never recovered, but she never turned back and I’ve never heard of her regretting it. She’s in her mid 60s and not doing revival shows for money, but still doing what’s exciting for her.

  10. anonnyomous says:

    Some art, for lack of a better term here, should not see light of day given the too chaotic, too extreme, perverse nature of the artist, such as a $9500 painting depicting cartoon characters resembling Disney’s seven dwarfs playing baseball against the Chicago Cubs… done by a serial rapist and murderer

  11. Excellent article Guy. In the nascent stages of my photography career my idea was to hike further and visit more unique and less photographed locations, while allowing my natural ability to do the rest. I thought that I already had the composition thing down and now all I need to do is focus on my digital darkroom techniques.

    Not only was this approach not practical, but it was not prudent in a business sense either. I realized that it doesn’t matter how good I get at Photoshop, where I travel, or how many 50 plus mile backpacking trips that I do – there will always be someone that can do it better.

    Now my time in the field is mostly spent on honing my personal style and trying to step outside my creative comfort zone. I realize that ultimately that is what is going to define me as an artist.

    When I am not out taking pictures, I enjoy studying the works of other artists. I find your website very helpful, because it seems your images are more intrinsic and thought provoking than many artists who are merely trying to replicate a wow factor grand scenic shot. And your writing is also inspirational too ; )

    Thanks so much,


  12. Wonderfully written! The fantastic words in the article apply to many other art forms other than photography as well. Loved the idea of ‘contributing to the chaos’ that has been put forth.

  13. Tif Holmes says:

    “What remains at the discretion of the photographic artist can be defined as awareness (the ability to intuitively perceive – or see – things that others do not,) and composition (the ability to uniquely arrange visual elements – founded in an understanding of visual perception – to create a unique order that suggests ulterior meaning beyond the literal visual elements).”

    Well said, Guy.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful words.