Not Really a Blog

Enhancing One's Creativity - the Exercise

A simple exercise in creativity (produce 12 images of a single subject, while being confined to certain constraints and parameters) proves to be not so simple, but becomes a source of plenty of thought.
Here's what the exercise said:

Photograph an object, person, animal or pet in a series of 12 evolving or changing images. This can be done by changing the colour, perspective, angle, mood, size, dimension or anything you imagine.  These images must be taken from today on and be staged physically rather than digitally. This does not need to represent a body of finished work nor be masterpieces as they are a study in working on a series as a way to stretch the imagination in the creative process.
You may choose to submit your images if you wish, but I am also interested in hearing you share your experience about working on this project.

The exercise was "assigned" by a local artist - one of the most creatively gifted artists I know, and one whom I admire a great deal, for her life and energy and whimsy, as well as her raw ability to produce images. When I think of creativity in visual art, I think of her. I was therefore very pleased to learn that she would be presenting a talk on "Enhancing One's Creativity", to the local (Gabriola Island) photography club.

For several days, I had no images to present, but I developed many thoughts to share from my experience of working on that project.

I had the good fortune of attending a week-long workshop in St Martins, New Brunswick with Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant. Much of the content of that workshop, was an appreciation of creativity, and the place of creativity in photography. That workshop gave me a somewhat better understanding of what creativity is, without providing any definitive answers. Some of my current understanding is derived from what Freeman and Andre said at that workshop, and some is from my own musing on their comments, and my own interpretation and development of their teachings. My understanding of Freeman's view of creativity is that creativity is our own gift to others (and perhaps to ourselves), with the raw materials of that gift (or creation) being what we see around us. The creative act in that sense is partly a gift-back to the universe, and partly a gift-forward to others.

Those musings don't yet give me a clear idea of what creativity is, but they at least make it clear that photographers (and other artists) can be a conduit for developing something beyond the raw materials. For us photographers, the raw materials are light, shape, texture, design, colour, and the like, all used in a context of depth of field, light, time, season, shutter speed, and other parameters of the image we create from the image we see. In crass marketing terms, creativity is a kind of "value added". My own interpretation of that phrase, though, puts a different definition onto "value": it's not monetary value that gets added onto the image (although that's often what sells a print); rather, it is a synthesis of my own values with the subject matter of the image. I see something; I appreciate it for what it is; I appreciate it for what it means to me; I find its significance in my own history and wisdom; I add some of that significance to the initial image, so it eventually changes from "the image" to "my image", and in the long run to "your image".

Eventually - more as a matter of "get the damned thing done" than "what a creative idea" - I found a project. One suggestion I received while searching for a project, was to take photographs of something I liked, or something that was important. My first choice was to do a series of self-portraits, but that idea yielded to a plan to take photos of my banjo.

That is what I did.

I took a photograph of my banjo. Then, I took another photograph of my banjo. And another, and another, and another, until there were several dozen banjo photographs on my camera's memory card. Based on my reading of the instructions for the exercise, that was supposed to be the creative aspect of being a photographer. Click. Click. Click, click, click, click. The process was, of course, a bit more complex than that. There were considerations of light, and depth of field, and perspective, and shutter speed, and selection of part of the subject. Should I have the bridge in focus, but not the strings? If I focus on the strings, how small an aperture do I need, to get all the strings in focus? Where do I place the neck of the banjo, to achieve a pleasant composition? How do I eliminate a distracting background?

I'm pleased that those questions arise easily when I take photographs, but I don't see them as necessarily amounting to creativity.

The process of taking photographs (the "clicking" part) can be a creative process, in that it involves a selection of a subject, and an array of choices for presentation of subject. Sometimes it includes the placement of light sources, and it usually includes an awareness of the source of ambient light. On the other hand, all those questions and selections could be written down on a checklist, and the majority of intelligent people could use that list as a guide. I was (and am) still left with the bigger question of how can the process move from simple intelligence, to a creativity that transcends that intelligence. I have to admit that I was able to add parts of my experience and wisdom into the "clicking" stage of creating an image. At the end of all that, though, I have to equate the "clicking" stage to a painter's selection of a canvas and paints: that selection by the painter might involve some knowledge of the medium, and it might rely on experience gained through past work; it might also take into account the emotions of the painter and the painter's desire to portray a certain message (some paints can be more conducive to somber moods, and some brushes can be sharper and clearer than others, some canvases seem more suitable to an individual artist's own senses and sensibilities).

While processing the images (and remaining mindful of the constraint to have the images "staged physically rather than digitally", I realized that a large part of the "creative process" for me is a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion. While taking those photographs, I chose what to include and what to exclude. While doing a minimum amount of post-processing (trying to adhere to the limitation of not "staging" through software), I was careful to crop the images in a way that I found appropriate (excluding parts that were distracting, or that didn't add to the image I was trying to convey). Even when selecting the twelve photos for submission in this exercise, I found myself immersed in the question of which ones to exclude. The "creative process" became an exercise in comparing and culling. The exercise again seemed to me to be contrary to my belief that creativity required the addition of part of my history and personality to an image.

By the end of the comparing and culling, I had a selection of images that excluded a variety of components that were not expressions of myself. I had not, though, done much to add anything that represented me. While doing the minimal amount of post-processing (mainly cropping), I felt frustrated in not going beyond those actions: I wanted to change colour balance, modify curves of dark and light, saturate or desaturate parts of the images, increase the clarity of parts of the image, and so on. In short, I wanted to make the image closer to what I saw, or at least, closer to what I wanted an observer of the image to see. The frustration was exacerbated, by further desires to put the image in context: not just the context of my own experience, but also the context of framing, and adding other subjects, and presenting it with other images, and relating it to other concepts and ideas. Those are all grand ideas and aspirations that I might not achieve, but I can at least thank the assignment for its genesis of those thoughts of grandeur.

Another way to describe that goal, is to say I wanted to imprint my own aesthetic onto the image: I'll admit that I wanted it to look nice (or emotional, or whimsical, or clever, or dark) with reference to my own sentiments. Is that creativity? I still believe creativity is something beyond that. My own sentiments or experiences or wisdom might help to generate a creative work, but it seems crass and conceited to claim that a work will become creative simply because it reflects aspects of myself.

Having pondered the question to that point, though, I feel close to an answer (whatever the question is). I believe creativity is a process of using raw materials (paints and canvas for a painter, or light and colour for a photographer) in a way that produces a work that goes beyond the raw materials, and that includes an offering from the person creating the work. Creativity thus does not equate to "pretty" or "emotional" or "new" or "tidy" or "marketable" or "lasting". Instead, it is a synthesis of what was perceived, with what has been experienced and learned, resulting in a gift to the recipient. To put that another way (still struggling for ideas and words and concepts): when I create, I give you (the recipient or viewer or purchaser) something of me, as an enhancement of the experiences and raw materials that have been given to me.