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.
“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” –Sir Ken Robinson
In my earlier post I highlighted those qualities I find admirable in good teachers and that I strive to live up to when I myself am in front of an audience. I am privileged in that I get to teach those things that are truly meaningful and important to me, not about photography, but through photography.
I wish to instill an appreciation not so much for the medium, but for creativity and the ways in which it can enrich lives far beyond the mere making of images. When it comes to practicing photography as a creative pursuit and as a means of finding fulfillment, despite what you may have heard from Marshall McLuhan, the medium is only part of the message, and not even the most important part.
When workshop participants ask about improving their compositions and the response is limited to such things as leading lines or the rule of thirds, at best they’ll receive an expensive alternative to a Google search. And, when someone seeks insight into ways of taking their photography to the fabled “next level,” only to be provided with technical tips, they likely will end up producing somewhat better versions of the same concepts they already know how to express.
Anyone can parrot the usual “follow your bliss,” “the answer is within you,” “be yourself,” “listen to your inner voice,” and similar platitudes. Rest assured I am as jaded of such simplistic advice as anyone. I have yet to meet a student who had not heard those before in some form or another. They are all true. And yet, recite them to anyone and you will see the cynicism and puzzlement building up. The question each and every one of them really wants answered but may be embarrassed to ask is: How?
The fact that practically everyone knows about such high ideals yet still struggles with finding their way to actually applying them points to the true crux of the issue: it is not easy and it is not simple and it is not obvious. And precisely because it is not easy, teachers are needed who are more than just technically proficient, but who are invested in the answers to the same degree as their students, yet may be farther along their own journeys and able to offer concrete advice.
There are ways to help someone better tap into their creativity and imagination; there are means of expression through visual composition that go far beyond the rule of thirds, and that can be taught; and there are concrete and applicable methods to help someone better articulate their thoughts and feelings through images (or prose, or wood carvings, or dance, or any other creative pursuit).
It always helps to start by explicitly acknowledging that creativity involves the act of creation – bringing something new into existence; that self expression is about expressing things that are inherently subjective; and that anything requiring the degree of work and dedication needed to find lifelong fulfillment in such endeavors must be rooted in passion and yield meaningful experiences to make the efforts worthwhile. Such admissions clear the path to seeing the value of originality, honesty, humility and the reward for hard work, which may not be pleasant at any given time, yet which pay ample dividends when the work is done.
For those seeking to advance beyond tools and techniques, the answers are not as simple as “use a better tripod.” When obvious compositions are exhausted, advancement is not about seeking yet more obvious compositions in different places. And, when self expression is the goal, the approach to the next image can’t be with the mindset “I’ll see your Delicate Arch and raise you star trails.”
The next level is not about images or how to make them; it is about being more effective in conceiving and in telling stories through your art.
Train the Brain
Oftentimes, the best way to overcome a challenge is to adopt a new way of thinking about it. In the case of creative pursuits, it is worthwhile to consider not only the short-lived spike of satisfaction when accomplishing a successful image, but also the persistent and ongoing joy of merely engaging in the creative process. This is important not only in the sense that it creates a sustained positive thread through all that you do, independent of anecdotal achievements, but it also trains the mind to be constantly attentive and aware and to contemplate enjoyable things.
Happiness, as it turns out, is also the linchpin to a wide array of other desirable traits, from physical health to cognitive abilities. The shift in thinking is, therefore, to stop compartmentalizing and to make art not just a hobby but a lifestyle. Photography – or art in general – should not be something you practice only with your camera, only on weekends or holidays, or as a distraction from other things. Instead, make it part of who you are. Think creatively, whether you intend to make an image or not. Catch yourself at random times throughout the day and think about interesting visual elements in your surrounding, challenge yourself to compose them in the most favorable way, whether they make a “good” image or not, and regardless of whether you’ll ever actually point a camera at them. The goal is to increase awareness to the raw materials in your environment, no matter where you are.
Create lists – visual inventories – in your mind: “graceful curve in tree,” “distracting power lines,” “interesting pattern in the bark,” “wintry feeling,” etc. Think of entering a scene in search of a story as if you are entering a kitchen in search of food. There may be an obvious loaf of bread on the counter, or a bowl of fruit on the table, but you may never know what you’re missing if you don’t take the time to open the cabinets and drawers, peek at the spice rack, and see what’s in the refrigerator. Rather than going for the obvious, develop the habit of noticing and acknowledging the raw materials you have to work with before deciding what to do with them.
In time, intention becomes intuition. Rather than consciously thinking about what’s around you and what you may be able to do with it, with repeated practice your brain will know to instinctively scan the scene for potential ingredients. It’s a good habit to have, but habits are formed over time and require incessant repetition to become instinctive.
When you train yourself to be aware of the raw ingredients, move on to developing and fine-tuning your recipes. Start with a cookbook to gain a sense for processes and methods, then move on to create your own.
Embrace the Concept, Visualize Constantly
In my books and classes, I describe the concept as the starting point to a creative expression. In a previous post I describe it as nebulous and amorphous. It’s the thing that catches your attention and makes you feel like there’s an image to be made or a story to be told, before you even know what it is or how to realize it. The concept is always a great start, but the challenge is in successfully transforming it into a tangible expression that can be shared with your audience.
When experiencing a concept, the first thing to do is this: Stop and think about it. Make it the primary focus of your attention. Distraction, while a fine state of mind for conceiving ideas and revelations, is also the bane of productivity. Once a concept – an idea, a thought or a feeling – materializes and whispers in your ear, “there’s something here,” it’s time to shift gears and focus on the work. Give it the attention it deserves.
As artists, we tell stories in our work and when we realize there’s a story to be told, it becomes incumbent upon us to learn enough about it so we can be effective in telling it to others. Begin by articulating the story – reflect on how you feel and try to derive what makes you feel this way. Not everything is inherent in visual elements alone, so be conscious of the experience in all its dimensions, from the temperature and scents in the air to your own mood. These are the things you will need to translate for your viewers in images, by using the visual language.
The process of transforming an abstract concept into a tangible representation is called visualization – a mental process aimed at imagining the different ways in which the concept can be realized and picking the most effective one. It is in the process of visualization that we consider things such as composition, technicalities of equipment, exposure, and possible processing methods. It is not a momentary decision point but an ongoing process of mental experimentation and refinement that carries from the moment of inspiration and until the final product – be it a print or a digital image, a single frame or a portfolio, or anything else – takes shape.
Learn the Language
Not everything about art is intuitive and insightful. Some amount of book learning can save you a lot of trial and error and provide you with wisdom accumulated since the dawn of art. We are fortunate to live in a time when science can offer us glimpses into the mysteries of the brain, from the way creativity works to the way visual signals are interpreted by the brain and transformed into meaningful interpretations reaching far beyond aesthetics. Take the time to research, study and practice the visual language.
Artists of the past relied on the experience of their predecessors. Many studied and apprenticed with accomplished peers and mentors, sometimes for years or decades. Revelations about visual perception discovered by artists of Ancient Greece, for example, were handed down to the artists of the Renaissance and beyond, through lore and theory and study and word of mouth. Though things like the Golden Ratio and other compositional tools were known, they were not always rooted in understanding and sometimes were attributed to divine origins. Today, we have more answers than ever, but the tradition of apprenticeship is largely lost. Still, the knowledge is there, in books and in teachers and on the Internet. Find it. Learn It. Use it.
Learning a visual language is no different from learning any other and one must enter the process with the blank slate of an infant. No matter how old you are or how many years of self-taught experience you have, have the humility to start at the beginning. Learn the emotional effect of framing, the secrets inherent in the direction of lines, the power of placement, the significance of tone and hue. Learn about such concepts as visual weight, directionality, and visual forces. The more you practice, the more fluent you will become and the more effective your stories will be.
Sadly, the absence of visual fluency is rampant. Many venture no further than the expressive skills of a toddler: relying on a limited vocabulary of simple nouns (tree, arch, sunset) and adjectives (pretty, colorful, extreme) and commanding attention by turning up the volume rather than telling a compelling story. So often missing are nuance, subtlety, metaphor, insight and mystery.
Create Tension and Meaning
Intrigue is the spice of any good story, whether written or visual. In a visual work, you will often hear about the value of tension. For all its importance, though, it is not an easy quality to define. It is what prompts the brain to spend time resolving an image and deciding how to feel about it, rather than dismissing it outright.
When an image is too obvious or static (i.e., its visual elements all appear at rest) the brain will instantly make up its (actually, your) mind about it and move on to other things. This can happen with overly-simple images or ones that are just plain uninteresting. Like a good spice, though, using tension in just the right amount is critical. Too much of it, and the viewer may decide it’s not worth their while to spend the time figuring it out.
Obtaining optimal tension requires an understanding of the visual forces at work within your frame. An object placed in one spot may appear at rest, while the same object in another spot will appear to be in motion. When the brain is not certain where something is going or why it is where it is, tension is created, additional processing is required to unfold the story, and interest ensues.
And, in order for the story to be of interest, it must evoke a response. It should have meaning, whether obvious or implied, real or manufactured, decisive or left open to viewer interpretation. By virtue of art being subjective, the more interesting stories we tell are not the ones already inherent in our subjects, but the ones of our own making and imagination.
Strive to use the visual language to tell effective stories. Don’t stop at simplistic utterances. Weave plots, suggest interpretations, hide clues to guide and challenge the minds of viewers. And remember, being a good storyteller will not get you far without also having an interesting story to tell.
The Next Level
The much sought-after “next level” for a complete beginner may be better command of their tools, but those already proficient in the technical aspects of their craft will remain stuck unless they manage to re-prioritize their goals. When a budding author achieves sufficient command of language and masters the use of a writing instrument, the next level is not in learning more menu functions in their word processor, or memorizing the word of the day; it is in becoming an effective story teller. Composition is the language of the visual arts, and the camera is the word processor of the photographer. Telling your stories more effectively in images is the next level, and the one beyond it, and all the ones beyond that.
Creative endeavors, if they are to truly enhance your life experience, must be an integral part of those life experiences. There are always new stories to be told and new ways to tell them. The lifelong pursuit of conceiving new stories and becoming a better storyteller will amount to greater personal reward – for you and for your audience – than any trophy image you may ever make.
Live a Creative Life
The practice of art is a symbiotic relationship between the artist and their audience. Both the production and the consumption of creative work are among the more satisfying of life experiences; and the value for both the artist and the audience increases through the ongoing exchange of insight, gratitude, beauty and, yes, livelihood. It is why artists are invested in the growth and success of other artists, and in raising appreciation for their art.
And yet, the greatest reward for a creative life is not in what you create, but in how you live. It is in how you train yourself to view and respond to the world and internalize the many experiences and meanings and mysteries that come your way. It is about finding peace and satisfaction in a world rife with cynicism, violence, competition and greed.
Life is bigger than any of us. So, allow yourself to be humble. You will never see it all or do it all or fix it all, and if you don’t take the time to live, you will have wasted the greatest gift you will ever be given.
It doesn’t matter how rich you are or how talented you are or what you do for a living. We all come into this world the same way, and we all leave it the same way. The only thing that matters is right now, and the only thing to fear is that last moment of clarity when you look back upon your life and count your blessings and regrets and wonder if you had truly lived.
For good or bad, life is a journey. You never know where the next turn will take you. From all your experiences you will most vividly retain the best and the worst of times, and this is where you have to make the choice – you can embrace the worst of it and become bitter and cynical and morose; or you can choose to be grateful for the gift of life and the immense beauty you are fortunate to have available to you, and choose happiness.
In the end, finding happiness as a photographer or an artist or a human being is not about the camera you use or even the images you create. It’s about living a life that is meaningful and rewarding. It’s about experiencing things that elevate your soul and telling your stories in your work.
So, never take for granted what others say or think about how you should live and work and practice your art. Trust your instincts, and listen to that inner voice and don’t let fear be the reason for giving up on life’s greatest rewards. Be humble and grateful for the things available to you, for the things you know and feel, and for the secrets and mysteries still waiting for you in the most unexpected places.
Find your creative life. Find your needle. Find your happiness.
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
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- Things You’ll Find Interesting May 20, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author | May 20, 2012