Punctuated Creativity

| July 19, 2013

It’s interesting, sometimes, to draw parallels among multiple disciplines. Today’s revelation came from thinking about a biological theory known as Punctuated Equilibrium, and how it relates to creative endeavors. In a nutshell, Punctuated Equilibrium is the theory that evolutionary change does not occur gradually and evenly over time, but, instead, happens in significant leaps at random times. For most of their existence, species remain in a state called “stasis,” marked by homogenization and  little change; until something happens to shift their course in a profound way. I realized that the same model applies to creativity. The history of art is not short on examples – for prolonged periods, most art follows the same styles, patterns, subject matter and purpose, until suddenly something changes. Classical art gives way to Medieval art; Medieval art is transformed by the Renaissance (reviving much of the classics); Renaissance art is supplanted by Modern art, and so on. Technology shows similar patterns, often called “disruptive.” Think of electricity or the telephone or the Internet as examples.

Narrowing the discussion to photography, consider that for many decades the prevailing style was Pictorialism – images manipulated and embellished for painterly effect. The proliferation of small and easy to use cameras introduced a tidal wave of “snapshots” and “straight” photographs, later adopted and hailed as more “pure” than Pictorialism by photographic artists. Narrowing the scope even more to treatment of landscape and nature in photography, again we see periods of stasis in appearance and subject matter, compositional style, purpose, etc. Visit any forum where images are posted regularly and the patterns are easy to distinguish: same places, same compositions, same styles and same visual effects dominate for a period, then shift in new directions, like a murmuration of starlings. How many pictures of the Milky Way have you seen today? How many long exposures of city lights? How many identical compositions of the same Icelandic mountain and waterfalls? Roll the clock back a couple of months or years, plug in “sunset on Delicate Arch,” “Japanese maple in Portland,” “sunrise on Fitz Roy,” “sunset on a beach,” etc. and again you find stasis.

This in itself is not too revealing. Much as we all like to believe we are individualists, most humans follow the herd instinct in search of approval, social acceptance, praise and reward, no matter how hollow; and these often trump originality. Originality is not just about declaring yourself a creative individualist, it’s also about having the courage to express it – to punctuate the creative equilibrium.

Perhaps more revealing are some of the theories about what causes punctuated change. One of the prevailing theories, proposed by Ernst Mayr, is that profound change requires isolation. Large populations in a state of equilibrium are far more resistant to change, and “smooth out the bumps,” sometimes forcefully. On the other hand, isolated populations and reduced peer pressure enable change, if it is beneficial, to fix itself and supplants the old state. Mayr supported his theory using evidence from the fossil record. In my own (admittedly, unscientific) research, I find remarkable similarities between the Web and the fossil record, with the advantage of the Web being a much more complete account. Looking for original work? You’ll find much more of it on personal sites of individual photographers or in exclusive galleries than in online communities or camera clubs, where homogenization is a norm driven by the social dynamics of the community. Any originality in such fora almost always emanates from those held as leaders; the followers usually remain followers year in and year out.

Online communities have built-in mechanisms to suppress these punctuations. When you hang the value of a work on the number of comments, “Like”s, stars or picks you are always aiming for a low common denominator. Failing to receive social praise usually means that a concept is abandoned and not developed further. Remind yourself, sometimes, why there’s no Nobel prize for conformity. If you want to be exceptional, you must first be an exception.

“What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” –Eugene Delacroix


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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an 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 (11)

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  1. David Taylor says:

    “Remind yourself, sometimes, why there’s no Nobel prize for conformity.” Good reminder.
    I’ve always liked what Chase Jarvis says, “Don’t try to be better. Try to be different.”

  2. Jim Bullard says:

    Good thoughts Guy. Too many photographers spend too much time recreating images they’ve seen and not enough seeing the world through their own eyes.

  3. An enlightening and thought provoking piece, Guy. The second I saw your photograph, I was reminded of Galen’s porter image:

  4. Marylynne says:

    Well said,, Guy. I’ve been thinking about punctuated equilibrium too, hoping that we are socially ready for a major transformation, you know, involving love, respect, cooperation, conservation. I had never applied the theory to creativity (on a cultural or individual level), but you have articulated in convincingly.

  5. Thanks so much for this insightful article. If I try to look as objectively as one can, I see that as an emerging artist my own work certainly followed a template of sorts. Its quite ‘safe’.

    And though by no means exceptional, I’d like to think that my most recent work has broken away from the heard, somewhat.

    So yes, I quite agree w your thesis! Well done 🙂

  6. Greg Russell says:

    Great post, Guy, and a wonderful analogy something that dominated evolutionary thought for many years. While I read your post, I was reminded of a classic Stephen Jay Gould article (Gould first proposed punctuated equilibrium), “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.” In the paper, Gould and his coauthor debunk the myth that every evolutionary change is necessarily adaptive–in other words, that evolution “optimizes” animals. Of course, anyone who understands evolution knows that it does nothing of the sort, but this wasn’t always the case.

    Anyway, to draw your analogy further, I suppose one could argue that these “fads” you speak of could be viewed by the masses as “adaptationist.” In other words, for example, if you learn to photograph the milky way, it will necessarily make your photography better, etc.

    By the way, my own experience with photo critique forums are exactly as you describe here, which is partly why (time is also a factor) I don’t really participate in them as much as I used to.


  7. Greg Russell says:

    Oh, and I forgot to add one of my all-time favorite bumper sticker sightings: “Honk if you understand punctuated equilibrium.” 🙂

  8. I found this via Greg Russell (thanks Greg!). An excellent, thoughtful read. I participate in a number of photo groups and moderate one. There is undoubtedly a way in which people feed off one another. “Oooh! I like that. I must try it.” In some ways it may add another skill or string to the bow but it also perpetuates uniformity and probably mediocrity. As a moderator I try to find images that are not generic. I have lost count of how many “puffin with sand-eel in beak” shots I have seen. It may be hard to articulate but when you see something creative and innovative you know it. I find my own work goes in fits and starts. I go through a good phase (by my standards), plateau, get disillusioned with my own lack of progress and then withdraw until suddenly I find I can kick on again. Now I have a new ambition at least – to find a vehicle with the bumper sticker “Honk if you understand punctuated equilibrium.” Thanks Guy (and Greg).

  9. Sarah Marino says:

    I have really enjoyed reading all of your recent essays, Guy. I appreciate the ideas and insights you share, as they always encourage me to think differently about photography and my own work.

    This particular essay resonated a great deal with me, as I find the pull to find my own way and the pull to be liked one of the greatest personal challenges in my photography. If I am honest with myself, both bring different sorts of satisfaction and I do still find it to be somewhat fulfilling when one of my photos seems to resonate with a lot of people on an online forum or photo website. In most of those cases, I am following the formula of what attracts attention, choosing to process the photo that will grab attention over the others on my hard drive that I personally like more. There is an addictive quality to being popular online and it is a difficult cycle to break – I know because I have been trying to do it for months with mixed success. I appreciate this post as encouragement to keep striving in a better direction with my work, so thank you.

  10. Robert Park says:


    Thought provoking on a level that I have not seen probed as of yet.
    I hear of “Punctuated Equilibrium” often in my circles and relate to the external influences that cause change that you mention. There is a counter point to that premise that should be considered which is a matter of balance between being cloistered and a magic bullet technology chaser.

    With regards to creative photographic endeavors, the concept of immersing yourself in the environment you want to connect with is somewhat lost in today’s rapid society. The sequestered artist will be the one who stops to smell the flowers and have a deeper understanding of each ones particular aroma. There has to be a balance with modern advancements though as one will not benefit from the newest creative tools. In the end everyone has to find a path that they can truly call their own.

    Unfortunately some places are simply so iconic and bounding with sheer beauty that one can’t help but be moved to photograph it.

  11. Jack Larson says:

    You made me squirm a bit. The Delacroix quote hit the nail right on the head. Personally, I don’t think that it is the iconic subject matter that is the problem. They just make our task more clear and more difficult.