Okay, I get it, that’s a pretty bold statement, but hear me out. I’ve been working on this for nearly two decades.
My entire life focuses around creativity; writing, teaching and running workshops. I get to speak with hundreds of people every year face to face about their creative goals, frustrations, and anxieties. I believe I have a large enough sample size to get right to the heart of the issue, so let’s go.
As a prelude, consider this one simple example: What right do I have to tell you what to like? How affronted would you be if I told you what clothes to wear, or what music to listen to? Those things are as preposterous as me telling you that a composition is good or bad, right or wrong.
1. Noticing Instead of Looking
We hear it all the time: “I was looking for a good composition.” Or “I couldn’t find a good composition.” Think about it for a second: When you look, what will you find? The likelihood is that you will find what you recognize as being societally acceptable in terms of arrangements. You will find rules, or something you have seen someone else do. We can only look for things that we already know. It is probably impossible to look for something unique and in some way represents you as a creative person. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that by looking for compositions, we blinker ourselves from our true creative vision.
Exercise: Imagine a group at a beach. You are among a mixed group of friends and instead of cameras in hand, you each have a notebook. Spend an hour sitting, or walking around the area. Every time you notice something that catches your eye, or sparks your imagination, or makes you think of something funny, or sad; make a note in your notebook.
- An amazing red starfish in a rock pool
- The way the light catches the crests of the waves as they break
- Beams of sunlight behind a dark cloud
- Patterns of light and dark sand on the beach
- A jagged rock pinnacle being smashed by waves
Each note is something that you have become aware of, these are the moments of engagement in your life. Noticing is a precious act in its own right.
Now, you have some notes, they mean something to you. Gather your friends and put your notes all together on the table. Tell me, who has the best notes? Is it the experienced note taker, or the person who has been to that beach 300 times? Is it the person with the most expensive notepad and pen?
Each and every note is valid — we all have our lives and to us they are precious.
2. Every Decision Has Consequences
When I first started shooing landscapes I didn’t know any rules, literally none. I’d always been inquisitive and playful, and to me, having grown up in the countryside, I always felt very at home there. The first landscape photographs I made were instinctive. I saw something I thought was cool and pointed my camera at it. It truly was as simple as that.
Then I made the mistake of listening to critique and external opinion. I was often told I was wrong and I didn’t understand the language of photography. I’m a sensitive soul, and began a decade of study, reading all I could on composition. I then read the history of art and studied painting. Learning the rules.
I then made photographs that were popular, and were often really quite pretty. But, they left me cold! I had no connection with them, and I felt I was making images by numbers. Thankfully, I threw all that out the window and I now make images that resonate with me. I notice things and point my camera at them. But the next stage is to understand this:
Composition is not about rules, guidelines, and carved in stone. It is the articulation of your note: What did you notice, is that clear, or not? Composition is the manifestation of your thoughts, emotions and feelings, and every little thing you do with your arrangement or processing has a consequence. Once you understand the emotional consequence of moving the main subject of your photograph from one place in the frame to the other, then you are connected to your work.
3. Creativity Is Not Something You Find
You are no more likely to find creativity by seeking it, than you are of finding enlightenment or faith. Creativity is not something tangible, or finite. It is inside of us all, not outside. I spent a long time striving to find my creativity, reading, studying, walking in the footsteps of my peers and inspirations. It was not until I gave up one thing that I realized I had what I was looking for all along.
We live in societies, this is the human condition. We grew up in small groups, perhaps 40-50 strong, and being accepted by the tribe was essential to our very survival. Now, in 2020, with social media and networking, our tribes can be massive; thousands, if not millions in size. Making images and surrendering them to the “like culture” is poison for creativity.
I had a client last year on a workshop in Scotland, and one evening she asked my opinion of a couple of her black and white photographs. I started by asking a very important question. “Do you like them, and if so what do you like?” She told me she did and went on to articulate clearly the emotional resonance she had with her work. I told her that I could very much see what she was talking about, and that they resonated with me too. She then went on to tell me that a judge at her camera club had torn them apart and basically said they were rubbish.
Her confidence had been crushed because of an opinion. If she had played us all a piece of music she liked, she certainly would not have stopped liking the music because we did not. Understanding that we have a fragile relationship with our creativity is critical. We have to feed ourselves inside and insulate more against random external opinion.
Every week I will be writing articles about the creative process, separating the "how" from the "why" and trying to cut through the fog of misinformation to get to the core of what being a creative human can mean in this modern world.