Understanding the Creative Process

July 7, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

The preparation stage is when we identify a problem (something to photograph) and collect ideas about how we might solve that problem. These problems require a divergent rather than convergent approach. Convergent thought processes are used to solve problems that have single solutions, like mathematical formulae, where we home in on the solution. In contrast, divergent thought is needed to find a solution to a problem that has many possible solutions - whenever we make a photograph there are a host of alternative ways of photographing the same subject. We need to come up with as many different ways of solving the problem as we possibly can in order to guarantee an original solution. Typically for landscape photographers this stage would be spent in the field, though not necessarily so as we may already have thought of a subject but be struggling with how to tackle it. At the preparation stage we need to be fluent and flexible in our generation of ideas and resist the temptation for closure – to keep our fingers off the shutter release as long as possible. Artists from different media have described this frame of mind as a strange mixture of insight and naiveté – a need always to look at our surroundings, no matter how familiar they may be, as if for the first time. The British photographer Bill Brandt said that, "Most of us look at a thing and believe we have seen it, yet what we see is often only what our prejudices tell us to expect to see, or what our past experience tells us should be seen, or what our desire wants to see. Very rarely are we able to free our minds of thoughts and emotions, and just see for the simple pleasure of seeing. And so long as we fail to do this, so long will the essence of things be hidden from us”. And Vincent Van Gogh wrote that, 'A feeling for things in themselves is much more important than a sense of the pictorial.'

Understanding the Creative Process

How might we achieve this state of mind? Firstly we need to be receptive and open to possibilities but this alone is not enough. We need to shut out the everyday babble of thoughts unrelated to the task at hand; we need, in short, to concentrate - almost to meditate. When I’m lost in picture making I’m often unaware of physical discomforts, my mind is focused only on making the image; irrelevances like wet clothing or cuts or utility bills or when I’m next going to eat are banished from my mind. As I wrote n my last blog, it is vital not to deny ourselves opportunities by blindly following a plan to make a predetermined image and remember that whilst experience teaches us what does not work it doesn’t teach us what will work until we’ve tried it. This requires us to have confidence in our own abilities, something we gain through practice and experimentation. Every time we press the shutter we need to make a leap of faith as well as a leap of the imagination.

The next stage in the creative process is incubation. When problems arise in our everyday lives we often follow the age-old advice of ‘putting it on the backburner’ for a while or even ‘sleeping on it’ until the solution occurs to us. This is a way of letting our subconscious work at a synthesis of the different elements of the problem and so arrive at a conclusion. We’ve probably all had the experience of going out to make images but being unable to find any satisfactory compositions, yet we might return to the same location in similar light and see pictures all around us. In the intervening time we will have incubated ideas about how to approach the subject from our original visit. This is why we often find it difficult to make images in a new environment; we have to spend time assimilating many different complex factors and ideas before we are ready to progress to making images. If you are stuck for a solution leave the problem to stew rather than worrying at it like a terrier with a bone. When you return to it ideas will flow more freely.

Understanding the Creative Process

The third stage is illumination. This is the sudden realisation of a solution to the problem, how to make the photograph in our case. History is littered with anecdotes about such moments from other arenas of creative thought; from Archimedes jumping out of his bath and crying ‘Eureka!’; to the moment when Isaac Newton watched an apple fall and understood the notion of gravity; to Darwin extrapolating the theory of evolution from his study of finches in the Galapagos Islands. It is this seemingly unexpected insight that bolsters the myth of a kind of divine genius granted to only a few individuals. But this is just part of a process; neither Archimedes nor Newton nor Darwin arrived at their particular moment of insight out of the blue. They all worked on the problems for a considerable length of time, from months to decades. In fact in the case of the last two revelations there is strong evidence to suggest that these particular moments are retrospectively applied myths which never actually happened. We all have little eureka moments every day; we use this process when doing mundane tasks like trying to remember somebody’s name or solve a crossword. “Aha!” we say to ourselves, often not realising that we have emulated such august individuals in deed, if not in scale. It is critical that we delay closure in the first stage if we are to reach a new or deep insight. The smaller formats in photography sometimes seem to encourage premature closure. It is easy with 35mm to ‘snap away’ rather than stand back and analyse how to tackle a particular subject, though this matters little if the photographer persists with a subject rather than making an image or two and then walking away. Persistence can equate to the preparation and incubation stages, like a painters working sketches it becomes part of the problem solving process. Working, as Adams’ and Weston did, on large format forces the photographer to slow down. The physical processes for setting up the camera are a little cumbersome but the ensuing ritual allows time to analyze the problem, to look at many different solutions and provides an opportunity for incubation before illumination. Indeed the slowness and cost of film positively discourage premature closure.

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