Creativity

Being creative is one of the most multidisciplinary things a person can do. When making a photograph, you don’t just wave the camera around, randomly pressing the shutter release. Admittedly, you could do that if your intent was making abstract images. But, that’s not the usual practice. For all the parts involved in making a photograph to come together, even a mediocre photograph (a “snapshot” in the opinion of some), the photographer consciously and unconsciously dips into their internal resource of knowledge and experience, pulling inspiration from education and practice, other interests, from family, culture, and from occupations. The photographer actively and purposefully selects the subject, elements, arrangement of those elements in a pleasing and/or meaningful composition, and sets an exposure to achieve the result visualized in their mind. From the relative chaos of our surroundings photographers create the appearance of a selective world, define a visual space with boundaries in which we decide what is relevant, what is worthy of our attention, and what we want to bring to the attention of others. We select the elements of the story we want to tell and the meaning important to our intent.

Around 2500 years ago, philosophers began trying to answer the question “what is creativity?” Well, they’re still at it. And in the last 60 years or so the philosophers have been joined by neuroscientists who are attempting to tease creativity out of the cells of our brain and the wiring of our body. In all that time, there is still no agreement as to where creativity comes from or how it’s generated or a single definition of creativity. There are even different aspects of creativity: general creativity (as defined several ways), the creative person (who is a maker and/or thinker), the creative process (the process/steps in being creative), creative thinking (solving intellectual puzzles), and the creative object (which can be creative in and of itself in addition to being a created thing). What is, though, the essence of creativity? In this article I’ll be describing a definition of creativity, characteristics of the creative person, and the creative process.

In my research and through a bit of thinking on this question, a common denominator seems to form the foundation of creativity, in both humans and other animals: curiosity. The act of curious investigation involves a recognition and comprehension of things inside and outside our mind and body. The simplest definition of curiosity is exploratory behavior, the recognition that knowledge about something is missing which creates a desire to know and understand that missing information. Curiosity is seeking the answer to the question, “why, how, what?” and answering that question often relies on non-standard ways of finding out the answer; relies on the making of devices or formulas or ways of thinking or processes that previously didn’t exist. And humans are not alone in their quest for the answers to curiosity.

It’s a fact that the once held belief humans were advanced above other animals because we used tools and communicated has been debunked. We have to choose another criteria because in the last century we’ve discovered that birds, other primates, marine mammals, fish, and even invertebrates use tools, and often in a creative and innovative way once reserved strictly for us. The male bower bird of Australia builds an elaborate performance arena from grass and sticks, clearing an open “dance floor” then decorates his construction with specifically-colored items to attract females. Crows, ravens, and jays have been shown to possess advanced puzzle-solving skills equivalent to that of a 5-yr-old human child and even invent tools on the spot to solve those puzzles. Herring gulls and some hawk species drop hard-shelled prey onto hard surfaces to crack them open. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas use tools to get food from hard to reach places, use stones and sharp sticks as weapons, and leaves to make noises to warn of predators. Octopus have been observed using coconuts as “armor” against predators and for camouflage and their skill in figuring out how to escape enclosures is well known. Humpback whales expel air while rising from the deep in a circle to create nets of bubbles trapping fish they scoop up at the surface. So, curiosity leads to novel solutions to discovered “problems”. I put problems in quotes to refer to the general idea of solving puzzles or finding solutions, like how to get a termite out of its home, to eat, without destroying it so more termites will be available later, to eat, in the same place.

I mentioned earlier how creativity is more than a single thing, that creativity applies to people, processes, things, and thoughts. The definition of creativity is somewhat separate from the creative person, the conditions for creativity, and somewhat separate from the creative process, but let’s see if we can narrow down a definition of creativity to start with. Almost every definition agrees that creativity is the ability to bring various elements together that previously were related, unrelated, or believed to be unrelated to form something new or innovative, involving an agent (person), a process, and a product. Newness and innovation are important criteria in all the definitions I’m aware of. “Original” pops in now and then, too, but there’s a different discussion about originality, and a person, thing, or process can be creative without being original. Another aspect of creativity is the product must be of some value. The thing has to have some utility, which I think is meant to differentiate actual innovative creativity from things that are made for no other purpose than simply to be weird or shocking, or otherwise generally useless.

The creative person can refer to a person who devises or makes innovative and new things, or a person who lives a life outside of convention, conformity, and habit. These two characteristics are not exclusive to creatives, though many creative people, as I’m sure you’re aware, live lives somewhat different from the “norm”. There are four or five components to the creative person, as determined by observation and psychological study:

1) Openness to experience, the ability to recognize novelty and to seek out novelty. It’s the way the creative person views the world and the various situations that make up a given experience. It’s an awareness of how things are in an open, nonjudgmental way that allows for connections, juxtapositions, and nontraditional associations to be examined and explored. This is called observational learning by some authors working on the theory of creativity. Novelty and seeking out novelty has a significant impact on the brain and how we feel, both releasing amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine into our system, which makes us feel good. Our brain and body, once it tastes the “high” of dopamine can, in some people, enforce what we might call risky behavior like rock climbing or BASE jumping or car racing. For most of us, we don’t directly notice a sudden flood of euphoria but, when we make or do something that makes us happy, dopamine is one of the primary motivators to “encourage” us to try again.

2) An internal source of evaluation. The creative person values the creation based on internal criteria; Is this creation satisfying to me? Does it accurately express a part of me – my emotion(s), thoughts, interpretation of my experience and knowledge? The value of the creation isn’t based on external praise, validation, and criticism by others, by acceptance or rejection to one show or another, by sales numbers or mentions in the news, and not by likes and numbers of followers on social media. There’s an old saying that the harshest critic is yourself (or should be, though I’m not 100% behind that part, because as the harshest critic you could also be the worst). Self-evaluation is important to your growth as an artist, and there is an external component to that evaluation, to be sure. The primary self evaluation is “have I created something I intended, that meets the standards I set for myself, that has meaning to me and my experience with the world?” rather than “have I created something of value others have requested or others have told me I should be doing?”

3) Innovative behavior. The ability to see beyond form and function, beyond labels and categorizations, to be able to play spontaneously with ideas, colors, shapes, relationships, combining elements into impossible or previously unconsidered juxtapositions, to shape wild hypotheses and express the ridiculous (Albert Einstein once said “If at first the idea us not absurd, then there is no hope for it”), and to translate from one form to another the wild, nonjudgmental exploration of what if? Creativity is, in many ways, problem solving. Creative, innovative, behavior is risky. But without pushing boundaries we never know where that boundary lies or what potential lies beyond. History is full of individuals, partnerships, and groups who thought to themselves, “that’s interesting, what if…?” or “there’s got to be more to it than that…” I’m sure you can name several off the top of your head right now.

4) Interest. This is a characteristic I haven’t seen in the literature I’ve read so far, but one I feel is as important as the others. A person might be extremely talented, but what if they don’t have any interest to pursue or apply that talent in any way? We read about talented individuals who “just had to do it” as if compelled by some unseen force or internal mission. How many piano concertos or computer systems or architectural designs or theories of everything have never been made because the individual had the capability, but was more interested in something else? A couple relevant examples that come to mind is Ansel Adams, who was an accomplished, trained, concert pianist, but chose photography instead, and Henri Cartier-Bresson was an accomplished painter before switching to photography. What if Elon Musk wasn’t fascinated by transportation?

5) Dexterity. This is another characteristic not addressed in the literature. Is dexterity a characteristic or requirement for creativity? Must we be a Michael Jordan or Alex Honnold or Picasso or Beethoven to be considered creative? Certainly, some creative endeavors do require some physical skill and coordination; dance, rock climbing, basketball, playing the piano. But there is mental dexterity and dexterity of leadership; Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln. Included in this group are those with savant syndrome, who can solve complex equations in their head or play impromptu original musical scores without training, but not tie their shoes or tell you how much to pay for a hamburger. These people are no less creative, in my mind.

6) Knowledge/Experience. What you know and what you’ve experienced play a big role in being creative. Sometimes, not knowing anything can produce innovative results by not being caught up in the rut of “we’ve always done it that way”. I’ve had a couple jobs that I wasn’t as experienced as someone else might have been in that position, but being able to see processes from an outside perspective allowed me to make suggestions and change procedures to make improvements. But, in general, the wider your experience and knowledge the more likely you’ll be able to make those unconventional associations between unrelated or related elements. Throughout history, many of the most creative individuals had interest, experience, knowledge, in a broad range of subjects. Called polymaths, these people were (and are) philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, chemists, mathematicians, all rolled into one, and through this broad range of exposure to different things were able to make connections that were unseen by specialists.

Being creative also involves some type of process, not just in the making or creation of the thing, but in the period of time leading up to and after. Nearly every study of the creative process concludes the same way: there are four stages to the creative process. They might use different terms to define the stages and slightly different descriptions of what happens in each stage, but they are essentially the same.

1) Inception/preparation/exploration. This is the stage where wild ideas are born. This is usually the point in the process that inspiration strikes you in the face, when you suddenly have an insight into associations you may never have consciously considered before. And, often, you’re not consciously aware of the mixing and thinking that goes on in your brain behind the scenes, putting things together like a puzzle with no picture to follow…..does this fit here? What about there? This process involves what has recently been discovered as the default mode network, the unconscious or subconscious brain processing that sometimes comes to our awareness when we’re not occupied thinking of other things or concentrating on an activity – like when we’re in the shower or taking a walk, watching television, or in the moments right before we wake up (or makes us sit up in bed in the middle of the night – better write it down or you’ll forget it!). We may also be inspired by a news report or movie or event we’ve witnessed, and this puts us on track to see where that inspiration leads. Sometimes we can visualize the end product, other times we’re heading down a blind alley. But there is always an initial idea or concept that propels us forward and keeps us moving.

2) Incubation/illumination/development/selection. This stage potentially incorporates separate, but related, processes. Each of the stages in the creative process are interactive in many ways, it’s seldom a linear path from beginning to end. Here is where we ask “will it work?” and “can I do it?” Do I have the skills to pull it off, can I learn these skills? do I have access to equipment needed? How much will it cost and where will I get the funds? It’s in this stage we sift through the various ideas and select the one we’d like to pursue. Maybe it’s the most interesting, or most challenging, the one we’re most prepared for and able to complete, or the one we’re finally at the stage of experience and knowledge to do it justice, to bring out the essence. It’s also the stage at which we’re most likely to quit. Answering our questions may reveal we’re not prepared, and self-doubt can creep in. We begin to feel isolated, anxious perhaps, about embarking on a new project. We tell ourselves, “nobody has done this before, maybe for good reason”, or “this has been done before, and much better”, “I’m foolish to pursue this, nobody will be interested”, “I’m not good enough to do it justice”, “I don’t have time.” These are strong thoughts and anxieties to overcome, but everyone has them, whether they admit to it or not. Most often what overcomes this anxiousness is the desire to communicate your idea or concept, especially to others who share your idea (even if the creator has to also create or imagine such a group).

3) Completion/verification. Completing the project depends on your personal evaluation: is it done? Has it answered the questions you intended to answer or asked the questions you wanted others to consider? Is it of the quality you envisioned? Will this be put out for others to see or is it only a stepping stone to something else and will be kept private? This is where external validation/feedback can come into play (also during the incubation stage), where you find out if your efforts translate to others the way you intended. While your creativity should primarily engage your own enjoyment (photographer Vivian Maier, is perhaps a recent example), there might be interest by others in your work that inspires you to keep expressing your creativity, and provide the funds to do so.

Creativity is complex. It can be argued that creativity is more highly developed in humans, yet other animal species exhibit profound creativity where it was once thought not to exist. There is in creative development a beginning, middle, and end, like any good story. We have to start somewhere on that journey, and each step forward adds something new, which may change the project entirely or improve it beyond previous imagination. That step forward always holds the potential for making things worse, too. And we either go back and try again, give up, or transform it into something else. The creative process, if I now include the creative person, the process, and the thing, is a contiguous process, each stage is connected to the previous and following stage. All along the way, elements are connected, discarded, discovered, often by their appearance, familiarity, placement, and perception of the element in space and time. Elements, like words in a poem, are associated by their similarity and by their structure – rhyme, rhythm – and other elements become contiguous because of common elements, like mathematical or chemical symbols. Anytime otherwise remotely related or unrelated ideas become related, a creative solution can be formed.

White Sands National Monument Photo Workshop & Giveaway

White Sands National Monument photography workshop, March 20-27, 2018

Join me March 20-27, 2018 to explore the beautiful, minimalist landscape of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, a dramatic environment of shifting contrasts, lighting, patterns and textures with a backdrop of the rugged San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Emphasis during this workshop will be your interpretation of the stark dune environment using your senses and perceptions to search for simple, elegant compositions using elements to give depth, graphical design, and abstract impressions from broad panoramics to up close macros. We’ll discuss in a group and individual one-on-one guidance about using light and shadow to create form, improving composition, setting exposure under difficult lighting conditions, abstract impressions, and sensing and perceiving the environment to help find subjects and make meaningful photographs. Each student will also receive a copy of my book The Ecology of Photography.

Also, I’m excited to share that this workshop has been chosen as an Unordinary Trip of the Month by Infohub.com, the #1 portal on the internet dedicated to out-of-the-ordinary, special interest vacations. If you book my White Sands National Monument photography workshop before January 5, 2018, you will be entered in a random drawing among those registered for my workshop to receive a one-year full membership to the GPSmyCity app for Apple and Android, from InfoHub’s sister company GPSmyCity. Since there is a maximum of 8 for this workshop, your odds are pretty good!

The GPSmyCity app features offline city maps, self-guided walking tours, and travel articles for 1,000 cities worldwide. Because the app works offline, there’s no worry about roaming charges when using the app abroad. One lucky person who has registered for my White Sands photography workshop will be randomly selected to receive a one-year full membership to the GPSmyCity app and the over 6,500 self-guided city walks, offline city maps, and travel articles, a value of over $8,000 (includes all in-app guide purchase options).

Don’t Hurry, Be Curious Podcast: Episode 2

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Episode 2: Photography as a Way
What does photography mean to you? What role does photography play in your life? This episode we delve into photography as a “Way of Life” and what that means.
A Way is a kind of path, a personal philosophy, a type of quest or journey of self-discovery to seek and address questions about ourselves and our world, to find our place in the world amongst our family, friends, community, society, and culture. It’s the manner in which we live our life in a a direction toward an idealized lifestyle we select for ourselves. Five characteristics of a Way are:

  • 1. Vision
  • 2. Values
  • 3. Passion
  • 4. Talent
  • 5. Goals

Two concepts of a Way are:

  • Wa: harmony, peace, or peacefulness
  • ensō: a hand-drawn circle symbolizing the interconnectedness of things

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Getting in the Zone

When I started my research, blogging, and posting about Creativity a few years ago, I jumped head first into a very deep and broad pool. We often think of creativity in terms of its definition; the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. But, the definition only describes what we think creativity is, not where it comes from, how it manifests itself in our daily activities, whether we can call it up at will, whether it actually exists, or what, if any, the related aspects of creativity are.

One aspect of creativity is what is commonly called The Zone. It’s the mental state we adopt when we’re fully immersed and engaged in an activity we’re passionate about. It’s a heightened state of consciousness and completely focused motivation where our emotions are channeled and positively aligned in the service of performing or learning. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this mental state, and I’ll use this term from now on. Other philosophies that could be related to or incorporate flow are Chi (China), Prana (India), Mana (Polynesian culture), rLung (Tibetan Buddhism), and Humors/Vital Energy (western culture).

Flow is more studied and researched in sports than in the arts, though flow transcends disciplines as well as cultures. Individuals from all walks of life have experienced instances of flow, described as being on autopilot, the outside world diminishes, the senses are focused, you know what to do and how to do it without thinking about it, there is a feeling of selflessness and timelessness, of being outside reality, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes expand, passing slowly.

But, what actually is flow? Csikszentmihalyi determined the human nervous system is only capable of processing information at about 110 bits/second. To hear and understand one person speaking requires about 60 bits/second. When there are three people speaking to you at once, you generally have a difficult time separating out who is talking about what because your brain is having trouble processing all that information (180 bits/second is 70 bits/second more than your brain can handle). So, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes when you’re fully engaged in creating something new, or immersed in working on a task or learning, you’re using all your attention bandwidth and don’t have enough left over to do well at that task and, at the same time, monitor how your body feels, or to address your issues at home, or even realize if you’re tired or hungry. Your brain stops recognizing these things – your body and everything non-essential to the task at hand disappears from your conscious thought processes – your existence in space and time is temporarily suspended.

It’s recognized that flow, similar to inspiration, can’t be called up at will. It simply happens when the conditions are right. Research has shown those conditions to be when a person is experienced in the skill being exercised, physically relaxed, mentally calm, experiencing low anxiety, is energized, optimistic, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. Flow is temporary, involuntary, and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome (winning, for example), although mastery of the basic skills necessary for the task seems to be a pre-condition for the occurrence of flow. Cskikszentmihalyi says a truism of creativity is you can’t create anything new with less than 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in a particular field; that it takes that long to begin to change something in a way that’s better than what existed before. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers also stated it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in any task (20-hours a week [3 hrs/day] for 10 years). Of course, if you spend more time practicing, you’ll shorten the 10-year estimate. Does it take 10 years of practice at something to be able to engage in flow? It helps, probably, but I think it’s not a requirement. However, the more skilled you are at what you do, the easier and more frequent flow occurs. I suspect individuals who have the ability to engage in deep concentration probably experience flow even when they are working on relatively unskilled tasks. So, I think the ability to focus your attention is a key component to flow. I experience flow, in various degrees, when I’m photographing, writing, teaching, listening to music, taking a walk, and I certainly did when I was actively rock climbing and skiing as well as back in the day competing in sports in high school.

Getting to a state of flow is a balance between skill and challenge, between the point when you’re excited about something but not over-challenged by it (stimulation), and when you feel comfortable but not really excited or challenged (control). If you are pushed beyond your comfort zone at the stimulation level you can move into flow with a small increase in skill level (i.e. learning something new). If you are comfortable but not excited, you can move into flow by increasing challenge in the control area (i.e. driving) – see chart below. The mean level of challenge and skill (the central point on the chart) is different for each individual and changes for each individual throughout their life. Csikszentmihalyi says, though, if the mean level is known, a person could accurately predict when they will be in flow.

Flow Diagram

The seven characteristics of being in flow:

1. Focused concentration – being completely involved in what you are doing, there are clear goals and feedback
2. A sense of ecstasy (ecstasy means to “stand beside” or to be in “a state beyond reason and self control”), a balance is reached between challenge and skill
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you are doing, action and awareness merge
4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task, we have control
5. A sense of serenity – there are no worries about oneself, there is a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego, a loss of self-consciousness
6. Timelessness – being thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes are expanded, passing slowly
7. Intrinsic motivation – flow is a self-rewarding experience

Flow is a fragile thing. It comes and goes only under certain conditions and can easily be interrupted if you become distracted. A sound, a touch, a thought not related to the task can put an end to your run of creativity. Your self-consciousness about your activity and how you look or are perceived by others is a barrier to flow; if you think you’ll look ridiculous to others or be judged negatively in any way, you won’t be able to get into flow. Flow is a fleeting thing, like inspiration. You have to take advantage of it while it’s there.

How can you encourage flow?

1. Choose an enjoyable, challenging activity. Do something you love that challenges your skill level
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, TV, email, social media. Find a location without distractions and where you are not likely to be interrupted
3. Think before you do. Do your research and preparation before you engage in the task. Stopping to do research or other unrelated tasks will knock you out of flow
4. Let go. Give up expectations about yourself and the results of the activity. You’ll be distracted by comparing what you’re doing to what you expect to achieve and risk narrowing your focus too much, removing any flexibility to change if your flow takes you down a different path. Don’t second guess what you’re doing. Go with the flow
5. Forget time. Placing a time limit sets expectations. Once you’re in flow, time will melt away, anyway. Once you think about how much time you’re spending on a task, other issues of the day will intrude and kick you out of flow
6. Control/ignore fear. Leave your ego at the door. Your self-consciousness will sabotage your flow.
7. Practice. The more practiced you are in your activity, the easier it will be to enter a flow state.

But, flow (being in The Zone) is not a magic bullet. It’s only a state of focused concentration. While being in flow can help your creativity and productivity, it is not necessarily a solution to a problem or will lead to the creation of great work. And, if you think about it too much, or try too hard to enter a flow state, it won’t likely happen. So, there’s the paradox; when you’re in flow you can’t think about it and when you’re not in flow you can’t think about it. Usually, you recognize flow once you’re on the other side of it. While you’re in flow, you experience that sense of being “in the moment”; it’s very pleasurable and you feel very productive. It is a good place to be. As more research is done on this elusive mental state, perhaps one day we’ll be able to harness it and use it in a more productive way. Until then, enjoy the ride.

References

Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Rowe, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Collins, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1997. Finding Flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books, NY.
Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers. Little, Brown & Company.
Loehr, J.E. 1986. Mental toughness training for sports: achieving athletic excellence. Plume, NY.
Maslow, A.H. 1962. Toward a psychology of being. Van Nostrand, Princeton, NJ.
Ravizza, K. 1977. A subjective study of the athlete’s greatest moment in sports. Proceedings of the Canadian Psychomotor Symposium, Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology Symposium: 399-401. Coaching Association of Canada, Toronto.
Ravizza, k. 1984. Qualities of the peak experience. In J.M. Silva and R.S. Weinberg (eds.) Psychological Foundations of Sport: 452-461. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
Young, J.A. 1999. Professional tennis players in flow: flow theory and reversal theory perspectives. Unpubl. PhD. Thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, AU.

Creativity

fertilityV.jpgCreativity: So, where does it come from? Is it inherent or learned? And, if it is learned, can it be taught or is it merely discovered and nurtured through guidance? I lean toward creativity being inherent, only most of us tend not to notice we have it. Creative inspiration comes from many sources though primarily from our own experiences, past, present and future (future experience being what we hope/dream/plan. How we perceive our future impacts how we feel and what we do in the present). We’re certainly influenced by what we see others do, adapting someone’s perception to our own, sometimes outright copying or “appropriating” (what a nice word that also means “plagiarize”). Mostly, creativity seems to be an internal force, maybe a 7th sense. It’s definitely a means of communication different from sound, sight, taste or touch, yet incorporating elements of each as well as something more.

When I first started getting serious about photography, my mode of thinking was like most everyone else in that same situation. I read several articles and books that differed in their response to the question “where do I get my inspiration from?”. Many of them recommended looking at what others were doing and either to emulate them or take their vision and modify it. Very few said “do what comes natural” which is what I really wanted to do. After more thought I decided that doing what came natural to me would be both more personally satisfying and open up more avenues to be truly creative rather than just mimicking what was already out there. I have to say that I’m not there yet, it’s possibly a longer road than emulation, and along the way I’ve probably copied several artist’s works without realizing it. mystery.jpg I used to not read art books or look at what others were doing, just so I wouldn’t be unduly influenced. By not looking at other stuff, I could be assured that what I was coming up with was not based on something I’d seen, but on my own creativity, my own vision. Eventually, though, I started looking at magazines, books, the internet, not so much to get ideas but now to compare what I was doing with what was out there. I saw, and still see, quite a bit of work that blows me away. Dedication has a lot to do with creativity. Time and effort spent experimenting, technical knowledge, life experiences, simple contemplation, all come together like a recipe made from scratch, sometimes appearing easily, other times being forced out or dragged out then hammered into shape. 6681.jpg

Creativity has everything to do with how we see, perceive, and experience the world around us. Our vision, a biological process involving photons of light energy refracted and focused onto nerve endings then decoded by our brain, is selective. Millennia of evolutionary change has not completely dulled our visual perceptions, but our lifestyle has. Our brain is more or less hardwired to respond to situations that might either pose a danger or benefit to ourselves.

Back in the day, our simple lives were centered around eating or being eaten. We tended to be more aware of our surroundings, paying attention to subtle clues and cues, always vigilant for predators, prey, or food. Our current lifestyle (at least in developed countries) does not necessarily require us to take advantage of any situation. We are not always looking for food or running away from being food. We have jobs, supermarkets, traffic lights, fences, policemen and military, government, tailors and seamstresses, butchers and bakers, auto repairmen, plumbers, pilots, and preachers all taking care of us, helping us cope, doing some of the work needed for our individual selves to survive. That leaves us to daydream, worry about relatively insignificant things, listen to music, get into a routine. That routine, traveling the same path day after day, passing the same buildings, driving the same streets, encountering the same people, becomes familiar. Familiarity leads to complacency. We stop noticing what’s going on. nevadayellow.jpg

In the present day, we tend to only notice (or be aware of) those things that are a holdover from the tundra, those events that effect us directly in terms of food or being food (or personal danger). Lights and sirens, smoke, loud bangs or shouts, bright colors, someone standing too close or staring, certain smells, certain types of touching, certain movements of things, like trains, cars, airplanes. The rest of the environment is ignored. Common things, cars, people, buildings, weather, all meld into the background noise of our routine. Our senses are dulled, our awareness is stifled. Consider the nightly news and other television entertainment. Shocking stories, outrageous acts get our attention. The Discovery Channel used to be about education and learning, now it’s about celebrity and extremism. Creativity can be stifled by too much information, too much going on. We are inundated by new technology, iPods, Tivo, cell phones, email, the internet, natural disasters, the economy, digital photography, Photoshop, instant gratification, short attention spans, terrorism, urban growth, the list goes on.

Sean Kernan, in the January/February 2006 issue [Vol. 47 No. 8] of Communication Arts says “Right now we are all like seasick passnegers on an ocean liner who just want the damned boat to stop rocking. There is too much that is new in our lives, and little of it is good. Stiil, instinctively, we know that the only way out is forward. And this stasis will end thanks to something new that stands out against the field of the familiar…the way to move forward is to be new ourselves, to free up our seeing and thinking so we will not miss the turn on a new road forward.” BPI201.jpg

Creativity can be learned, I believe. It’s the individual that needs to make the first move, to regain awareness of yourself as well as the environment around you, and how you fit into, relate to, and move around in it. Doing that requires some amount of work and effort. Look at the bottom of this post for a short list of good books. Take a workshop not on technical aspects of photography or art, but purely on creativity. Take a workshop for an artform you don’t currently do, like acting or painting or pottery. Expand your horizons. Read, fiction, non-fiction, trade magazines, popular magazines, comic books. Go to museums. Visit your state capitol and other historic buildings and actually look at the architecture. Listen to your family. Go to the mall and just sit and watch people interact with one another, watch their behaviors and gestures. Go to the woods, desert, ocean and just sit quietly alone, listening, opening up your senses to your surroundings. Imagine.

Photography (art in general) can be a limitation to awareness. When you’ve been looking at the world in snapshots (“That would make a great picture”, “That’s the painting I’ll do next”) we, like the camera, eliminate what is going on around us. Sometimes it’s helpful to put down the artist tools, put away the artist. And just be.

References:

Phillipe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro. 2001. The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing. Ten Speed Press

David Bayles and Ted Orland. 1993. Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking. Image Continuum Press

Andreas Feininger. 1973. Principles of Composition. Amphoto Press

Ansel Adams. 1983. Examples: The making of 40 photographs. Little, Brown & Company