Many of the thoughts in this essay were inspired by a talk I recently gave at the Moab Photo Symposium. The presentation will be made available online in the next few weeks, for anyone interested.
“… even if a person is lucky enough to experience a useful epiphany, that new idea is rarely the end of the creative process. The sobering reality is that the grandest revelations often still need work. The new idea … has to be refined, the rough draft of the right hemisphere transformed into a finished piece of work. Such labor is rarely fun, but it’s essential. A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter.” –Jonah Lehrer
The process of learning has fascinated me for a couple of decades now, both from the student’s perspective and from the teacher’s. I didn’t quite grasp the value of a good teacher until my first semester as a university student when I entered, with great trepidation, my first calculus class. Up to that point, math had been a necessary and unpleasant evil presence in my studies, requiring monumental effort just to get by with a passing grade. I always saw it as a dry, formulaic pursuit, devoid of creativity and insight. It did not fit with the way my brain worked, which tended to thrive on finding correlations and commonalities among seemingly unrelated things. Math seemed to stand alone, having little to do with the beauty of the natural world, the mystery of a good book or the sense of awe and wonder that characterized my time outdoors. And then came a good teacher.
This teacher didn’t necessarily know the material better than any other, but he did know me. More broadly, he understood what it took to make math interesting and meaningful for someone like me. He did not teach material out of a book in a linear fashion but kept introducing small anecdotes and links to other disciplines. A formula was no longer just something requiring analytical thinking to solve; it was something derived from a desire to understand greater truths about the workings of the world. Each subject tied into life sciences, social trends, mysterious workings of nature, and a myriad other stories that made it not only interesting but meaningful and important. I scored a perfect 100 in that class – the only one that semester. My second perfect score came the next semester … in Linear Algebra. Two perfect scores. In math.
That was more than twenty years ago. I have since taught many classes of my own and have been a student in many more. With experience, patterns began to emerge about what makes for a good learning experience. In particular, I noticed two areas that differentiate good teachers from lesser ones. The first is a desire to teach – deriving pleasure from seeing students engaged and interested. The second is the ability to recognize that different people learn and are inspired in different ways.
In my workshops I seek to teach more than just the technicalities of operating a camera – things students are not likely to learn from books or the abundant “get rich quick” type of advice so prevalent in our industry (be especially suspicious of anything claiming to teach you “the secret to” or “10 tips for”). In fact, conveying such nebulous concepts as creativity, inspiration and personal expression is a double-edged sword. Not only is it impossible to offer formulas for such things, but ultimately they are different for every one of us. The solution is not, and cannot be, an X-step recipe.
Two of the more common questions I hear from workshop participants are: “How do I find a good composition?” and “How do I take my photography to the next level?” Though seemingly abstract and unrelated, they are actually two dimensions of the same theme and, in reality, are not directly related to photography at all. Finding good compositions is about effectively communicating something you like to your audience; reaching the “next level” is about increasing your understanding of how to better communicate the things you like in images. Both point right back at the person behind the camera wanting to become a more effective, interesting and inspired communicator. And, by extension, a more effective, interesting and inspired person.
In essence, we are looking for the same proverbial needle in the haystack: the revelation that will make you a better photographer today than you were yesterday. And, like all great truths, there are many paths that can lead you there. The more analytically-minded may spend their time researching the best metal detector to help pinpoint the location of the needle; others may find a comfortable shaded spot and begin pulling strands of hay out of the pile. Any such approach will give you at least a chance of finding your needle. The one strategy guaranteed to fail, though, is to search anywhere other than the haystack. And the haystack is not something outside yourself – it’s your own imagination.
There are two ways to obtain a trophy. One is to perform a notable act worthy of reward; and the other is to go to the trophy store. The increased popularity of photography, and especially photography of natural subjects, has indeed given rise to a thriving industry of “trophy stores;” that is, products and services specializing in making sure you go home with a great image, guaranteed to impress, requiring some investment of time, money and effort, but not necessarily imagination or emotion or originality.
Though much is said about objective qualities of images (being “good,” “bad,” “stunning,” or any other adjective) experienced by its viewers, precious little is written about the things that make an image rewarding to the photographer, beyond merely impressing others – the things that elevate the very act of making images into something that has the power to transform and enhance one’s outlook, satisfaction and life experience.
In Part II of this small train of thoughts, I share some of the approaches, suggestions and methods I use to find meaning in my own work, and that I teach on my classes.
About the Author (Author Profile)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.
Sites That Link to this Post
- “Finding the Needle (Part I) | Guy Tal Photography Journal” You MUST read this… | Wizwow's World | May 14, 2012
- - Landscape.Lu | May 16, 2012
- Guy Tal on the Creative Life and Happiness | Robert Rodriguez Jr Photography | May 23, 2012