Sunday, January 26, 2014

On Creativity

Yet another dumb thing we see given as advice is to simply shoot. I've talked a little about that here, quite some time ago. There's a variant in which one is given or invents little assignments. These are supposed to inspire you or something. Sometimes they're pitched as a way to break through a creative block. Go outside now and shoot every red object you see!

This is all well and good, and it even works as far as it goes. It is closely allied to the advice given to the blocked writer: just write, jam words into the page, any words at all. This works, and it works very very well. The difference is that the writer is going somewhere. The writer may have something in mind, perhaps 2500 words on the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel. Even if not at the beginning, the writer does not aim to simply have a bunch of words on the page. The end goal is something coherent, an essay, a short story, an article, a novel.

The corresponding advice to the photographer essentially leaves that hapless soul with a bunch of words. Yes, you took a bunch of pictures out the window of a moving car, and now you feel ever so inspired. What now? That feeling of inspiration will only take you so far, eventually you will realize that you still don't have any ideas, except perhaps to take pictures out the car window.

Inspiration is not a stand alone concept. An inspiration, a eureka moment, contains the solution to a problem. It is not some bullshit state of mind in which suddenly everything you do is awesome.

This is not to say that you must start with a clearly stated question or problem. Inspiration is no more an oracle than it is a state of mind. The point is that, eventually, a problem of some sort is solved. The inspiration might contain the problem and the solution all in one, or like Archimedes in his bath, it might contain only the solution to a precisely stated question, or any number of other variants.

If no problem is solved beyond "how shall I make myself feel better about owning this expensive camera" then we're not really talking about inspiration.

These little projects like take ten pictures in ten minutes within ten feet usually do nothing but increase the shutter count on the camera. Ditto P365 and so on. You cannot reasonably approach the problem of getting inspired from a blank state of mind, a state of generic enthusiasm, or just because you bought an expensive camera. You've got to be going somewhere, you've got to have some reason for wanting inspiration. Without a target to aim for, your unconscious mind can't actually do any of that inspirational magic for you.

What are you trying to work out? Is it simply that you don't know what you like? That's a pretty common one. If you haven't got a direction to go then perhaps you should approach the problem as one of finding a direction. If the inspiration you seek is a blinding flash of light which reveals to you what you like, then perhaps you should work on that. You don't need a camera at all for this. Indeed, a camera will probably get in the way, producing endless reams of crap that you don't like. Instead, look at pictures. Look at pictures, think about them, think about whether/why/how you like them. Then take a break, take a nap, take a shower. Repeat.

Eventually you will discover what you like. Now you have at least some chance of applying the same methods to discovering what kinds of pictures you want to make. They're probably some of the pictures that you like, but not every kind of picture that you like. Work at that for a while. After a bit, with luck, you'll have a short list of kinds of pictures you might like to make. Ideas you might like to express. Feelings you might like to invoke. "Looks" you might like to emulate. Now you have you have a direction, of sorts.

Once you have a direction the problems refine themselves into problems of how to proceed in that direction, problems of whether the direction should be modified, and so on. Eventually you drill down to very specific problems of how to make a very specific picture, how to express a specific idea, how to distill a particular feeling into a picture.

Great work is a synthesis of inspiration and hard work. Inspiration provides ideas, hard work refines them, sharpens them, breaks them into multiple ideas. Ongoing episodes of inspiration, ideally, driven by the work and by your ongoing process of looking at pictures (you're still looking at other people's pictures, right?) and struggling, direct and focus the labor.

And around and around it goes, inspiration begets perspiration begets inspiration.

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