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The nature of creativity – Part One

In the first part of this article I am going to talk about creativity – what it is and who can be creative. I will then outline 10 strategies that can be employed to develop one’s own creativity (the first three are set out below and the remaining seven will feature in my next article).

Defining Creativity

What is creativity? It’s a term widely used in the photographic world but one that is open to a variety of interpretations & definitions. So before I can write an article on the topic I ought to clarify what I mean when I use the word.

A simple dictionary definition gives us “characterised by originality of thought; having or showing imagination” (taken from the Collins Concise English Dictionary). When I talk of creativity in the context of photography I have in mind the production of a photograph that moves beyond a pictorial record of a subject. In other words a photograph that is more than a simple representation of what the eye has seen and, most importantly, one that reflects the photographers unique vision of the world.

And I believe the essential element that lifts a photograph beyond the simplistic level of a snapshot to something more creative, artistic & personal is when it is founded upon a thought, idea, concept or emotion. Without this foundation an image is superficial, even meaningless.

Through the process of considering what underpins the creation of an image it is more likely that the photographer will show that ‘originality of thought’ referred to in the dictionary definition of ‘creativity’. The act of clarifying what we want to communicate via a photograph will draw upon our views, prejudices, life experiences, feelings etc – in other words the things that make us unique.

When photographers on my workshops tell me they aren’t creative people it’s not techniques that I need to show them, for the use of a technique without a purpose is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather my task is to help them find their voice; to assist them in teasing out what they want to say about the world around them.

Can Everyone Be Creative?

I frequently hear claims from photographers that they are not artistic or they are not creative. This implies that creativity is a gift that some people are blessed with and others are not.

The natural, logical extension of this is that creativity cannot be taught. If that’s true then why do I run workshops on creativity and why do people come on them?! In part of course the participants hope that by learning creative techniques their photography will then become more creative. But without the right mental approach as well this leads to what I call ‘creativity by numbers’.

For example, learning how to use a toy camera, a pinhole adaptor or soft focus filter doesn’t, on its own, make us into a creative photographer.

I think that we can all achieve much more than that. In my view everyone one of us is capable of being creative.

And I’m not alone in that belief. William Neil, the American landscape photographer wrote in an article in Outdoor Photographer magazine: –

“Each one of us is unique and has a distinctive view of the world around us and, therefore has creative potential and often the need to define those differences artistically. Believing in one’s own creative potential is   vital to making fresh images”

We are born as creative beings. In my experience all children are creative – they see the world without constraint, without the glasses of familiarity and generally aren’t afraid to express their uniqueness.

Jeff Curto (Professor Emeritus of Photography at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois) produces podcasts, ‘The Camera Position‘ that I can highly recommend. In one of them he quotes the example of showing a black circle drawn on a white sheet of paper to two groups – one a group of young school children; the other a mature group of photographers – and asking ‘what is this?’. The photographers came up with accurate but not very imaginative answers – ‘a black circle’, ‘a black hole’ – whereas the children said things like ‘it’s a telegraph pole as seen by a bird’ and my favourite, ‘it’s the suns evil twin sister’!

There’s a dissertation to be written on why this might be the case but my view is that formal education, professional training and years of socialisation drain the creativity out of us – unless we make the conscious effort to resist. Ask yourself why some of the most creative people in the world are often branded as ‘eccentric’ or even ‘mad’ – maybe they are just different in that they don’t conform to what is expected of them.

For more on this watch the videos of Professor Ken Robinson where he accuses education systems of undermining rather than nurturing creativity – Here there’s his TED talk.

So can we regain that creative spark we had as children or does it go forever? I believe that creativity is a habit – it’s a way of working, a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world. But developing our creativity does require us to take action – we can’t wake up one day, decide to be creative and for that to magically happen in an instant.

It requires hard work, practice and dedication. Great musicians, artists, writers, dancers & other creative people don’t succeed without constant practice of their art.

And photography is no different.

How can we develop our creativity?

So I’d like to propose ten inter-related activities or strategies that I believe can help us in this process.

1 – Cultivate Curiosity, An Interest & A Willingness To Experiment

This requires us to revisit the child within us and try to see the world anew; to attempt to regain our sense of awe of the world around us so that we overcome the staleness of familiarity.

So we must re-examine objects we take for granted and try to see them through new eyes – looking for an approach that is fresh and different. The Austrian photographer Ernst Haas once said “I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new”.

Finding photographs in the everyday, even mundane objects helps us discover the photographic potential all around us. It encourages us to look beyond the obvious – to photograph what things could be (to unlock their visual potential) not what they actually are. Our subject could be tools in the garden shed or utensils in the kitchen – the content is almost irrelevant as long as we’re interested & inspired enough to make photographs that appeal to us.

 

To help us in seeing the world anew it’s a useful discipline to set some targets or goals. For example to:

  • Take one photograph a week for 3/6/12 months of an object or subject in our house or garden; or
  • Spend a day producing a set of artistic interpretations of a vase or ornament; or
  • Allocate a month or a year to explore & photograph the locality where we live and attempt to produce an interesting image of the things we see on a daily basis

Experimentation and adaptation are essential elements in creative photography. I’m constantly asking myself the ‘what if …. ?’ question e.g. ‘what would happen if I took long exposures handheld?’, ‘what would this subject look like if I photographed it at night or in the rain?’

In our experiments we shouldn’t become too pre-occupied with perfection or technical considerations. Play, have fun, be free – these are more important if we are to find our lost child.

2 – Stay Loose; Keep An Open Mind

The second strategy for developing creativity I want to refer to is staying loose, keeping an open mind and not always trying to control the subject. Now I have to admit that this advice comes from a self confessed photographic control freak!!

For my landscape photography I normally work in a very disciplined, precise and methodical fashion. So I’ll normally shoot in a planned way visiting pre-chosen locations with careful consideration given to the season of the year, weather forecasts, light direction and so on.

But I’ve taught myself to value spontaneity and unpredictability because what I’ve discovered through experience is that sometimes the conscious search for a photograph can actually hinder it being found. By just going out, looking at the opportunities that present themselves and making the most of those in a reactive way I’ll find different types of images to those that I would take with a pre-planned approach.

There is a different mindset involved working like this. As photographer Ruth Bernhard once said – “I never look for a photograph. The photograph finds me and says ‘I am here’”. The great Henri Cartier Bresson echoed Bernhard’s sentiments when he said: –

“Photography is ………. intuition, a poetic experience. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.

When Cartier Bresson refers to ‘losing yourself’ I interpret that as meaning ‘being in the moment’ or ‘in the zone’ as sports people tend to call it. That time when you are not overly thinking the subject or the situation but are in tune with it, reacting instinctively to it like a professional dancer to the music. To use another quote from an unknown source – you’re aiming to create a situation where ‘you respond to your subject like a shadow to a shape or an echo to a sound’.

3 – Work On The Edge

My third strategy for developing creativity is to constantly challenge myself – particularly to force myself to work out of my comfort zone. For instance I don’t enjoy photographing people so awhile back I deliberately spent a whole day capturing images of strangers on the street.

But you’ll need to find your own challenges:

  •  If you normally work in a spontaneous, unplanned way it might be beneficial to experiment with a more methodical approach occasionally;
  • If you usually take landscapes that are sharp from front to back then play with limiting depth of field;
  • if your preference is for colour photography try working in B&W (or vice versa).

Just working & thinking in a different way can give a boost to our creative juices.

In Part 2 of this article I will describe the remaining 7 strategies for developing creativity.

 

Steve GoslingOther articles by author

Steve is a professional photographer who specialises in producing creative & contemporary landscape and travel images. His photographs have been published internationally illustrating posters, cards, books, magazines, newspapers & calendars. His fine art prints have been widely exhibited and have also appeared on sets for both theatre & film productions.

His work has also won many awards - for example, his landscape images have been successful in the UK’s ‘Black & White Photographer of the Year’ competition and for the last 3 years he has had images shortlisted in the prestigious international 'B&W Spider Awards', achieving an Honourable Mention in 2016.

He enjoys writing & teaching about photography and frequently gives talks on landscape photography to photographic groups in the UK and abroad. He is also a regular contributor to many of the major photography magazines in the UK as well as a growing number of overseas titles. He has run a successful workshop programme for several years in locations across the world from Iceland to Antarctica, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels.

As well as working closely with Phase One (for whom he is a Fieldwork Professor) and Lee Filters Steve is an Ambassador for Olympus, Manfrotto/Gitzo tripods & Permajet inkjet papers.