The Price of Ease

| May 23, 2014

“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” –Henri Matisse

A month went by in a flurry of travel, workshops, exhibits and print orders, and it finally occurred to me that I had not posted anything in a while. The funny thing is, on the few occasions I did think about the blog it seemed as though I just posted my previous essay. It was strange, but also validating in a small way. A sense of lost time is one of the characteristics of what psychiatrists term Flow – an optimal experience, which I discuss more below.

Among the things that occupied me recently was the Moab Photography Symposium, where I presented and led three workshops. Each year, on the symposium, I take my groups to the same place – a little-visited canyon where beauty is abundant, but where no obvious compositions or iconic views exist. To make a successful image here, one has to do more than just mimic other people’s images or rely on compositional clichés. More specifically, it requires one to be mindful and attentive to elements that may be used in a composition; it requires deliberate effort in arranging these elements within the frame, and it requires creativity – the production of novel, personally expressive work. In other words, it requires an investment of time, work, attention and forethought. I like to bring the group to a particular spot in the canyon where many interesting elements converge. I then instruct them to remove their packs, leave the cameras behind and walk around in search of compositions. When a composition is found, they are to call me over and explain it to me verbally (what it is, why they responded to it, what technical considerations they plan to apply in capturing it, etc.) before setting up the camera. Each year I am again amazed at the variety of images that emerge out of this small area when photographers are challenged to think, rather than go for the easy and obvious.

If there is one consistent trend in photography, it may be the increasing ease of making technically good image. Our tools become smarter and better at making focusing, exposure and other decisions on our behalf; many software products offer preset processing effects to accomplish visual appeal with little effort; and a myriad sources offer location information replete with directions, times and GPS coordinates to make sure that images already made before can be copied successfully by almost anyone. And, those who can afford it also can pay for the privilege of having an experienced guide simply take them to the “right” places at the “right” times, reducing their participation in the making of the image to the simple operation of a camera.

Putting together a portfolio of beautiful derivative work has never been easier – work that looks wonderful, impresses the masses and requires little effort, creativity or emotional investment. It is why photography is sometimes considered the perfect way for busy professionals to deceive themselves into believing they found a “creative” outlet, ironically by sacrificing creativity and reaping none of the inner, personal rewards of engaging in creative work.

Certainly the abundance of portfolios featuring the same compositions of the same places speaks to the sad state of creativity in modern society, and arguments can be had about how artistic, important or meaningful such work may be in an objective sense, but less obvious is the fact that pursuing such shortcuts in fact is also detrimental to the person behind the camera. The photographer pursuing ease and shortcuts also unwittingly sacrifices what may be a far richer and deeper experience, as a person and as an artist, and may well undermine or stunt their own progress, success and happiness.

In particular, two areas of relatively recent psychological study highlight the true price of taking the easy path. These are: Flow and Grit. Both speak to the value of investing effort in difficult tasks.

Grit is simply the propensity to continue pursuing a goal despite hardship and failure. It also answers a question that troubled researchers for a long while: all other things being similar, what makes some people more likely than others to achieve their long term goals? Grit – the willingness to challenge the odds, to defy the naysayers, to dust yourself off and continue trying when experiencing a setback – appears to be significantly correlated with achieving such lofty goals.

Photographer David Bayles, perhaps without intending to, summed up grit, saying: “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.” Though I think it is worth qualifying the word “quit,” as it does not necessarily mean ceasing to produce art. Sometimes it means continuing to create art for external affirmations, rather than a potentially much greater inner reward.

Indeed, it may be fair to say that most photographs produced today, even those offered under the banner of “fine art” ultimately seek external rewards: favorable reviews, sales, fame, popularity, awards, etc. The folly of such thinking is not new. Arthur Schopenhauer observed: “Happiness belongs to those who are sufficient unto themselves. For all external sources of happiness and pleasure are, by their very nature, highly uncertain, precarious, ephemeral and subject to chance.” And Soren Kierkegaard stated: “The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself.”

The theme repeats in the writings of other philosophers and artists, but it was the work of psychiatrist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that ventured into the science underlying these notions. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi explores the essence of what he terms Flow, or “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Csikszentmihalyi states:

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (emphasis added)

Read it carefully: the best moments in our lives … THAT is what is at stake, and what may be sacrificed to the temptation of ease. Are you willing to give these moments up for yet another well-trodden composition, predictable sunrise or sunset, saving time processing your work, or some number of shares/likes/thumbs/pluses on social media?

Anyone seeking the fabled next level in their work will do well to consider the conditions described here. Does your work feel like it stretches your mind to its limits? Does it feel difficult and worthwhile? If not, you are likely not experiencing Flow, and missing out on one of the greatest rewards of living artfully, and a way to grow as a person and as an artist.

Csikszentmihalyi explains:

“When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.” (emphasis added)

Can you say that you are invested to the limits of your concentration when making images, both in the field and in the studio?

Ease may gain you a trophy, but it will also hinder you from accomplishing the Flow experience. Think for a moment whether “getting the shot” truly is worth the price of giving up nothing short of “the best moments” of your life.

Photography is easy. Flow is hard. Grit is hard. And that is exactly why you should not take shortcuts.

“If photography were difficult in the true sense – that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” –Ansel Adams

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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 (24)

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  1. TJ Thorne says:

    I love your writings. I can relate to most of them and especially this one. I am rarely someone who ‘gives up’. Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes I end up spinning my wheels to get nowhere.

    After working on the last shot I just put out today.. I can really relate to the grit thing.. because it took a lot of it from my end.

    Anyways.. I more wanted to appreciate your views and writings. So thanks. 🙂

    -TJ

  2. Richard Wong says:

    Beautiful insights, Guy. I’m personally bored with viewing landscape photography online. A lot of the shots are pretty but you can’t tell them apart these days. A few artists stand out however, like yourself, for all the reasons you state in this post.

  3. Beth Rice says:

    Well written. Thank you.

  4. John Evans says:

    Hello Guy,

    Your work (art & photography), are so beautiful. I cannot say I understand it all (especially your manner of articulating), but you sure do keep folks inspired. I am at least grateful for your soulful experiences and would like to learn in your foot prints but what I gather, it is all how we relate as individuals. Please keep sharing your work as it is truly inspiring.

  5. Eric Fredine says:

    Great post Guy. I don’t think I’d really thought through that people might be participating in photography without experiencing ‘flow’. Conversely, it seems likely that once someone is able to achieve flow their own voice will emerge.

    And I think its more than just visiting iconic locations. I see a lot of people gaining mastery of certain formulas (long exposure black and white photographs of man-made structures on the sea-shore for example). I wonder if people are able to achieve flow in these circumstances or if it is just a meticulous and conscious application of technique?

  6. There was not one thing in this post that I don’t practice. I don’t always succeed as you say but I keep trying nonetheless. Occasionally, I take the easy path and photograph a beautiful sky but only because it pleases me to do so.

    If more ‘photographers’, and I use the word loosely here, would take the time to really learn to ‘see’, then we would be seeing way more ART online than the paltry numbers that are evident.

    Always appreciate your words. You seem to hit the nail on the head time after time. Thank you Guy for what you do and who you are.

  7. You have said this all so beautifully, with such well chosen quotes. I feel this way whether I am working on a painting or photograph. I don’t have the equipment to be a proper photographer, but I have worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for 25 years, so I apply the same approach to every photo I take. I look for content that says something to me, textures, colours, design…I look for the art that might be overlooked. The grit and the flow are very real.

  8. Denny Herzog says:

    Great piece, Guy. Have been thinking I need to get up early to get to Deadhorse Point to get the iconic shot everyone has but I don’t. I think I’ll still go, but look for different images than what I was initially going for.

  9. Great article, Guy. I know there are iconic places that I refuse to visit, or shoot, now because everyone already has that iconic photo. I don’t want photographer X’s portfolio. If I did, I would just buy his, or her, work and hang it on my wall.

    Do you think the internet is to blame for robbing people of opportunities for grit and flow? Have we hurt our creativity by oversharing images?

  10. Beautiful piece, Guy. Letting go of what has become so prevalent in landscape photography, especially what of we can see online, is difficult to do. There are very popular photographers out there flogging iconic locales to seek their workshops and eBooks very successfully. This race to the bottom will never go away, unfortunately. On the flip side, I also think that people who truly do pursue creativity through photography recognize this sooner or later. Those people can gain so much from what you’ve written here.

  11. F Henexson says:

    Wonderful piece, well said! The commitment to go deeper, and the intimate connection between ‘flow’ and ‘grit’ – after all, if we want to make that deeper connection and get in the flow, we’d bloody well better have grit, because it takes plenty of hard work and patience. I also see the temptation posed by our natural desire to get approval, and social media can be dangerous in that regard. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Guy, Thank you for yet another gem of a post that helps me grow as a photographer.

  13. Patrick says:

    I don’t know why but this article is exactly what I’m living these days. I’m on a crossroad. Actually, all your articles I’ve read so far fit exactly the description of what I am living.

    Thanks a lot, Guy! It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. 😀

    Keep up the good work!

  14. John Wall says:

    Good stuff, Guy. I appreciate the descriptions of how you approach a subject. We photographers go into a landscape simultaneously to acquire something and to create something. It’s a balancing act. Too acquisitive and we go for the easy mark. Too creative and we become frustrated. But if we can find the right balance and let the landscape reveal itself to us, as in your workshop, we can experience fulfillment in the art of photography.

  15. Steve Dimock says:

    A wonderful post, as always. You have a great way of reminding a person of what life is about and what is important.

  16. Guy, my main thought while reading this was, ‘Thank goodness there are still some photographers like you who are true artists and have their values and priorities straight.’ Thanks for the insights into how you teach. Your exercise in your second paragraph is a perfect one to get people to stretch and grow.

  17. David Graham says:

    While I agree with the premise, I couldn’t help but bristle a bit at the assertion that technology makes it easy for “busy professionals” to “deceive themselves” (and others, presumably) by producing an impressive-looking, but ultimately derivative, portfolio. I proudly count myself as a busy professional, squeezing photography in wherever I can make it fit. I’ve produced plenty of work that’s painfully unoriginal, plenty that’s just plain bad, and I’ve produced a fair number of images I’d put up against any in the world. And as a voracious consumer of online portfolios, I can tell you that compositional copycatting is most certainly not limited to the amateur or hobbyist. How many “professional landscape photographers'” portfolios include the iconic views of Snake River or Yosemite Valley? Plenty, I assure you.

  18. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    David, I agree with you on all counts and did not mean to make a sweeping generalization. Certainly there are many creative people in all walks of life. Still, if you research the topic you will find that while CEOs claim to value creativity in employees, surveys suggest that less than 20% of employees actually feel they have time to practice creative thinking (see for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html).

    100% in agreement about the professional landscape photographers you mention. Like you, I’m proud to not be among them.

  19. David Graham says:

    GT, thanks for taking the time to respond. I work in a large corporate environment, and am all too familiar with the disconnect between the spoken, “We value creativity…” and the understood, “…as long as it happens on time, on budget, in the office, and meets the approval of 3 executive layers.” It’s a tough balancing act.

    Seriously, thanks again for responding…

    DG

  20. Greg Lessard says:

    Dear Guy,
    While I agree with you about the importance of being original and expressing your own ideas and feelings, I am going to suggest that making a beautiful image at an iconic location often takes grit and sometimes creates flow for a photographer. Of course this is not the jump out of the car for thirty seconds at the roadside pullout, click and on to the next destination photography that many people, myself included, are often guilty. Rather, spending a morning or an evening at one of the world’s beautiful locations, contemplating, observing, being actively engaged in making an image, often leads to flow. In fact, it is in many cases the very definition of flow. People spend great amounts of money to invest their precious two week vacation at a well-worn, yet beautiful iconic location. Many people get out of bed long before dawn to be present when the same old golden hour light shines on the landscape. These actions speak of great effort and voluntarily paying great costs for the sake of the experience.

    These locations are iconic for a reason. It is very difficult to create a profoundly new interpretation at these locations, but if you’re immersed in the glory of nature at these locations, flow can be achieved. The experience may not be new or profound for mankind, but it can be profound for the individual.

    The idea that to be a true artist, one should only photograph unknown locations is erroneous and highbrowed. Musicians still play Mozart and Beethoven. It is equally difficult to make a new interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as it is to create a new image of Half Dome. Should we as artists completely abandon the Ode to Joy, because it is two hundred years old and is no longer a new idea? Or should we celebrate its greatness and perform it when we are moved to do so?

    Furthermore, it is difficult and challenging to perform Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony just as it can be difficult to make a beautiful image of the Grand Canyon. The work and effort it requires to perform an instrument well or to use a camera at a high level of proficiency provides ample opportunity to find flow in our daily lives. If someone experiences flow in Yellowstone National Park, is it less valuable or worthwhile than if flow had been achieved in any other place? I would argue that flow is valuable and worthwhile, regardless of where it is achieved. Should we dampen someone’s joy and pride of being able to perform a Bach Cello Suite simply because it has been done before?

    Often times, visiting iconic locations opens our mind and spirit to flow. We become exhilarated at experiencing great beauty first hand. This allows us to become more receptive to experiencing flow. An iconic location can be a stimulant to transcending our ordinary 9-5 existence. Ideally, as humans, we should be able to experience flow anywhere. Many people are blessed to find flow in their workplace and their homes. Sadly, for many others, flow is only found at iconic locations during all too brief visits. If making a clichéd image enriches people’s lives and reinvigorates them, then they have achieved something of worth and value even if it is not original. Should a hike on Mt. Monadnock not be made simply because it has already been done by millions of other people? Would Emerson tell us to stay home, because he had already hiked Monadnock? Sometimes, experiencing nature at an iconic location and making another sunset image is exactly what people need to experience flow.
    Respectfully,
    Greg Lessard

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, Greg!

      As I mentioned above, I did not intend to make sweeping generalizations, only to highlight common cases. Certainly flow can be experienced any time a person finds an activity challenging and rewarding, no matter what it is. What is missing from the experiences of most people who visit such places, however, are two things that are conducive to flow: challenge and a sense of discovery, which according to Csikszentmihalyi’s research is the most closely associated with flow.

      “In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

      I’m sure SOME people do indeed have this experience, but a casual survey of how much truly challenging and new work originates from such places leads me to believe that MOST do not.

      And another important distinction: when a musician plays Mozart, they credit Mozart. They are fully cognizant that their contribution is in the performance and not the composition. Photographers don’t usually do that.

      Guy

  21. Peter Carey says:

    I disagree that work needs to be new (compositions) and changing to be rewarding for either the photographer or the viewer.

    Every time I drive to Tunnel View in Yosemite I am in awe. Pure, shut my mouth, awe. The light is different and the mood is different. I don’t need to take an image even to experience ‘flow’ as described here.

    Every time I drive to Tunnel View that sense of discovery is there. To lack that sense of discovery is the fault of only the viewer. I have flown by Mt Rainier in Washington over 300 times, at least. EVERY time I see it I am in childish awe.

    If someone is bored with a view it is because they chose to be and not because it is not challenging or hard to get there.

    You seem to be demanding challenging and new work from others and that is fine. Discounting other’s experiences based on the cliche-ness of their location of choice for a photo or two seems shallow, meaning you are not taking the person’s bod of work into account nor asking them about their experience.

    I have heard Richard’s comment above before and I usually agree with it but only because the subjects don’t excite me. If you kept showing my shots of Mt Rainier, I would drool all day long. Whereas bergy-bits on the black sand beach in Iceland just doesn’t do anything for me, no matter how many I see (a lot, lately) not how pretty. Maybe I just need to go there and experience it for myself before I really connect with those repeat images.

    I fully realize this, though. That my boredom with the images is more about me and what standards I set than about the photographer themselves.

    Thanks,
    Peter “I shoot in easy, awe-inspiring places and I shoot in very hard to get to places” Carey