The Simple Habit Artistic Geniuses Share That You Need to Start Copying Today

The Simple Habit Artistic Geniuses Share That You Need to Start Copying Today

Hendrix used it. As did Hemingway. Slash still does, and so too does George Saunders. It's simple, relatable, and easy to implement. Best of all, it really does help take your creative work to the next level. Learn how you can use it, too.

"His stories are hilarious, imaginative, thrilling on the language level, moving and absurd. To read them is to feel awed by the author’s dual capacity for silliness and darkness. It’s hard to be funny in fiction — it requires precision but also looseness, a perfect calibration of control — and Saunders is very funny."

This is how The Nation describes the writer, George Saunders. If you don’t know who Saunders is, he’s won The Booker Prize, The World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and is a four-time winner of The National Magazine Award for Fiction. In short, he’s a modern-day giant of the literary world.  

In his 2021 book, "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain", in which he breaks down the craft of storytelling, Saunders wrote something that immediately resonated with me and impacted the way I looked at photography and took photos.  

He said:

A work of art has to...surprise its audience, which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator.

Saunders was referring to the notion that you cannot pre-plan a work of art from start to finish and simply go through the motions mechanically, step-by-step, if you want to create something that truly goes beyond expectations: both your own and your audience’s. As soon as I read those words, there was a paradigm shift in the way I approached every creative outlet I’m involved in. It’s so simple, yet so transformative when you apply it.

In looking deeper into this idea that every creative process must be iterative, spontaneous, and flexible, I soon saw that many great artists approached their craft in the same way.  

Jimi Hendrix and Slash, for example, are both on record as saying that every great guitar lick they ever created came from a few basic chords, which then grew organically over time. Hemingway and Chekhov, likewise, have said they never went into a story knowing exactly how the plot would unfold.  

So how does this apply to photography? Let me give you an example of a recent photographic trip I took here in the far south of Japan where I endeavored to implement this idea of surprising myself with ideas on the run that I hadn’t necessarily planned for, or previously considered.  

Go Where the Wind Blows

We recently had two typhoons pass off the coast, which is perfectly natural for this time of year. When they hit, various surfing locations south of where I live really fire up and provide spectacular opportunities for photos. Knowing this, I loaded my car with all my gear and started driving, not exactly sure where I’d end up.  

About 30 minutes into my journey, I spied a break beneath the freeway with surfers bobbing up and down in the water. I was stunned. I hadn’t seen this place break so cleanly in my 15 years of living here, so I immediately pulled in.  

My first thought was to put the camera in my water housing and get some water shots looking back at the mountains and, perhaps, a train going over the bridge. However, as soon as I got in the water it was clear that conditions weren't ideal for that type of shooting. Plan A scrapped.  

Plan B was to get my drone out. I’ve shot this place before with my drone, but that was without waves breaking. A decent shot, but nothing spectacular.  

You can see evidence of that below.  

In this first shot, you can see the bay, but without the train, it isn’t a shot worth pursuing.  

In the second shot, above, the train adds an element of interest in the foreground, but there’s far too much unused space in the water. That’s because there aren’t any waves breaking, which is normal for this protected bay. If I really wanted to make something of this shot, I’d have to crop in more tightly to the train, but then I’d lose the rocks and the shoreline in the distance.  

It’s one of those photos that’s nice without being anything special.  

When the recent typhoons came through, that all changed.  

I had no real plans when I first started, but I did have three options: 

  1. Shoot in the water with my camera in a housing 

  2. Shoot from the beach using a tripod (or handheld) 

  3. Shoot with my drone 

After trying all three, I opted for the drone, but again, I wasn’t really sure what the best angle would be. As I demonstrated with the photos above, shooting the train from above while looking out across the bay wasn’t overly spectacular the first time I’d tried, different light notwithstanding.  

With that in mind, at first, I thought hovering the drone out over the surfers would be optimal. That way, I could capture them riding waves and get the mountains in the background. Unfortunately, with the way the sun was positioned, it was causing far too much glare on the water. As well as that, when you shoot surfers riding waves from behind, you can’t get a sense of the wave’s shape, which is very important in surfing photography.  

You can see what I mean in the image below.

Go Back and Try Again 

By this stage, I was getting somewhat frustrated. We’ve all been there: we can see a great image but we just don’t know how to execute it.  

With the light as it was, I decided to put my drone over the trainline again, looking out over the bay. It was spectacular, as I’d never seen waves in this bay before, and the empty space in the water that I’d had to contend with before was now filled with gorgeous, peeling waves and surfers. 

But there was still one thing missing: the train.  

In these parts, landslides are a huge problem and during the typhoons, trains are often canceled. They had been until this day, as well. But as I checked the Japan train app on my phone, I noticed that they’d started up again only a few hours earlier. And one was due to pass in about twenty minutes. I couldn’t believe my luck.  

With that in mind, I positioned the drone where I wanted it, took a few test shots, then just let it hover until the train crossed the bridge. When it came, I got the shot I’d been waiting for. I was thrilled.  

Summing Up: Surprise Yourself 

Let’s go back to the George Saunders quote: “A work of art has to...surprise its audience, which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator.” 

I’ve shown this image to many of my friends who live in these parts and every one of them has been awed. Not because of the colors or anything technical, it’s because they’ve never seen this shot before. Nor have I.  

In 15 years here, I’ve never seen waves of this size and quality breaking in this bay. It’s almost always completely flat, or if waves are breaking, they are horribly windswept and out of control.  

When I headed south on this day to shoot typhoon waves, I never once had this location in mind. And when I got there, I didn’t have this shot in mind. But I adapted, changed, and let conditions dictate what I did.  

The end shot surprised me, and it surprised my audience. It might not be a classic, but to me, it was a hugely fulfilling experience to get a shot I’d never even envisaged as well as implement a method of practice utilized and recommended by so many artists I look up to.  

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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As a creative writing and photography teacher, this is fantastic advice but I would add one caveat - Saunders was indubitably a genius and an experienced one at that. For the rest of us mere mortals, it pays to have a basic idea of the overall structure of your work before you start, though it is also worth keeping this as a guideline rather than an inviolable rule. For example, in writing a novel, it definitely helps to understand that one needs peaks and troughs and to have an awareness at least of the 3 or 5 act structure and perhaps the Hero's Journey. Similarly with photography, an idea of what format the work is going to take (photobook, photo essay etc) and whom your audience might be can help.
But, as Saunders inimates, if your work does not surprise you, it sure as hell will not surprise your audince.

All true, but you have to give the readers some respect and believe they have a basic concept of what they're going out to do. I mean, on this day, I knew I was going to shoot some surfing related shots - I certainly knew I wasn't coming home with portrait shots of my daughter in a princess dress.

“Saunders was referring to the notion that you cannot pre-plan a work of art from start to finish….”

I bet Michelangelo had a plan when he painted the Sistine Chapel's ceiling…. While I do subscribe to the IOWA (I’m Out Wandering Around) method of photography, a certain level of pre-planning will occur even if you stumble upon a scene or subject that intrigues you as a photographer. It’s what Alfred Stieglitz referred to as the “mind’s eye” and what Ansel Adams later codified as the concept of visualization. It’s seeing something and then in your mind being able to see your final image and knowing what steps to take before you even release the shutter.