On the question of creativity

I had an e-mail exchange recently with student on the question of creativity. He was not asking about software or lens choices, though those are perfectly valid questions at different points. He was asking the biggest, toughest question of all. I was impressed that he was able to articulate the question. He seemed impressed with my answer. That was when I realized that our exchange was worthy of a blog piece.

He wrote me:

Here is your friend who spends more time thinking than taking photos!!!! This is what I feel would be my goal… I don’t have a word to explain it, so I will use some examples…

When I see these videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byoehhyu1eA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnRqYMTpXHc

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoID=1337842775

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Us-TVg40ExM

Or when I see the movie “Cinema Paradiso”.

Or when I read “Beer”: http://bukowski.org.ua/bukowski-beer.html

Or when I see: http://www.davidhwells.com/lightIndia/photos/image7.jpg

Or when I see: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3011/2861747655_56f358038a.jpg?v=0

Or this Ralph Clevenger photo:

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_KNtYDULWG8I/SMGdpfCfAdI/AAAAAAAAEFs/lLtNsEZXmSU/s1600-h/19_05_2008_0054935001211214870_ralph_clevenger.jpg

I feel a connection with something that I cannot describe with words. Well, my goal would be to transmit that effect in my photos.

I replied:

I have been viewing and re-viewing the various pieces found in the links you sent so I could give you a useful answer. First, be aware that you asked a GREAT question, so you should be happy that you understand the question, even if we need to work to get you to an answer.

From my perspective, all the work you showed or mentioned had a few things in common:

1) All of them use the various media to both tell an intellectual and also provoke an emotional reaction. The movie, Cinema Paradisio, is built around telling of a fairly linear narrative, an intellectual story, but it succeeds because it also creates an emotional experience for the viewer.

2) Those pieces are generally made in medias that are simultaneously commercial and artistic, such as pop music, film, photography, etc. This is important because each artist has been able to solve the “day job” dilemma of how to make art and also get paid. Though they may have had to work hard to make their art, they generally were NOT suffering for their art, doing their art on the side while working in another field.

3) All of the pieces you enjoyed were made by artists who had completely mastered their crafts. So much so, that they probably could not even explain how they knew to make that piece of work evoke the particular reaction in the viewer. They knew their media so intuitively and worked so fluently that they rarely if ever thought about the tools they used.

The last one I can speak to myself. Assuming you were not flattering me by including my image at: http://www.davidhwells.com/lightIndia/photos/image7.jpg, let me talk about that because I think my experience making that photograph it applies to all your examples.

Over the years I have learned that when it comes to photographing, there are many things I am good but not great at such as doing assignments. What I am very good at is just two things:

1) I am completely in control of my craft and I work intuitive with my gear. I literally do not think when I am out photographing, I just “do it” (to steal a line from Nike.) I am very slow to change gear because it takes me a long time to get to the point where I am intuitive with a given camera.

2) When I am out photographing and see something, as I react to what I see I try to really let myself feel that reaction. Then I take that feeling as the starting point in making the image so the viewer can later experience that same feeling through my image. In the case of the “blue image” you selected, I remember seeing that and saying to myself, “cool.” Then I set about making a picture that conveyed that same emotion to the viewers.

Please read this over a couple times. I am happy to move forward but I think these points need to sink in a bit. Future projects (which I will happily edit/review) should be built on these points.

The key is learning how to express an internal emotional experience in an external piece of art.

When I wrote that last sentence, I realized I was articulating something of importance beyond that of merely completing this exchange with a student. On one level, my thought is not that new or brilliant. On the other hand, for photographers struggling with the toughest question of all, creativity, it is a good starting point.

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