Are you creative? Of course, you are, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise! The better question is “do you allow yourself to discover and use your creativity?” There are many facets of creativity, creative thinking, lateral thinking, and many seemingly academic concepts, but this post will focus on the subject in the domain of photography. Some may look at the photograph on the left half of the opening pair and find it not creative enough. By applying a filter I used to call craptalius the work magically becomes creative in the minds of some. This has nothing to do with creativity, yet many photographers continue to use this or similar approaches to distinguish their work. I say “you are better than that,” and I mean that.
In many institutions of higher learning, you will find some form of “Center for Teaching Excellence” or the annual recognition of excellent teaching. I believed, however, that education was about learning and creativity and emphasized that in my practice. In my last spring semester, I challenged my capstone course students to raise the level of awareness of this idea in any way they saw fit and we all had a great semester. They learned a great deal of marketing strategy and I learned a lot about the students’ ability to learn on their own when properly challenged and supported. I am going to share a video of a TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., a world-class expert on this subject. But before getting to the video I would like to say a few words about creativity, more specifically in the context of photography.
Creativity is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts. People think that some people are creative and lament that they have none of that. As you will find out from one of the leading scholars, this is a misplaced conclusion. Robinson and another thinking and creativity scholar Edward De Bono define creativity in similar terms. It has a few simple components:
- It is an imaginative activity
- That produces original work
- Which has value
Now, this is not to be confused with doing something different for the sake of doing differently; the result needs to have “value.” In this sense, “value” should not be construed as monetary but something that creates benefits. De Bono uses the example of making a triangular door because all doors are rectangular. This is not creative unless using triangular doors offers benefits to at least some users under some circumstances.
Developing skills to replicate what others have done before is mere proficiency. For some reason, many photographers visit the locations that they have seen in other photographs to produce the same, even to the lighting and the time of the day. Eventually, they may produce technically proficient photographs of the same subject, be it a lighthouse or a sunflower field, that looks like thousands of others. This, they do, not because they are not creative in their own right, but the system in which they work emphasizes conformity. I say this is wasted energy and unfulfilled creative potential for the reason of not looking for it in the right places, in one’s heart and mind!
Photographers also attach the word “creative” to any work that applies textures, effects, filters, different backgrounds, simulated brushstrokes, and other distortions as if their photographs alone are not creative works. This, to a great extent, stems from what I called on various occasions “brush envy,” an admiration of painting over and above photography. Different mediums bring their own inherent boundaries and we need to learn those limits and how to create our work within them. Like any creative activity, photography needs to start with imagination, not replication; produce original work, not imitation (no matter how flattering;) and produce results that have value and move people in a different way, rather than same old, same old …
I propose a few simple ideas that you may consider to find your creative self. Give yourself a little time and a little chance to experiment with these, you may surprise yourself, and others around you:
- Get out of your photographic groove, use your imagination
- Try new things, new ideas
- Don’t worry about producing a “winning image” whatever that may mean
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, look at children and learn from them
- Mistakes are creative attempts that have not produced benefits, (maybe not yet?)
- Learn the skill of self-criticism, honest evaluation of your own work and learning from your mistakes (see how helpful mistakes can be)
- Don’t confuse being different with being creative, remember the components of creativity
- Gimmicks will not endure, your creativity will feed itself and get better
- Your vision, metaphorically and in the real sense, will help you create original works
- Seeing is the most important photographic tool, the rest have supporting roles including the camera
- You photograph with your mind, your camera is a recording device. My singing will not get better if I use a better recording device; yet we expect our photography to get better with new cameras, software, filters, … Silly?
- Your tools will help make your vision a reality
I plan to explore this subject with more posts, along with what I consider to be the most important photographic tool you have: your eyes. In the meantime, you may find the following posts of interest if you have not seen them already:
- Painterly? No, thanks!
- Artistic Need Not Mean Smeared Colors Only
- Rules, Learning, and Experts
- Fine Art Photography (one of the most read posts)
In the following video, Sir Ken focuses on learning and creativity in schools. But careful viewers will see the parallels in how we learn and practice photography. Now, enjoy a program that has been viewed more than 40 million times.