Tag Archives: creativity

Zero Sum Game

The Church at Black Mesa (No. 1). Near San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, 2016.

Well, here it is at the end of May, and I haven’t even picked up my camera once in 2021.  This time of year usually is my busy season for photography. The weather is warm, the days are long, and generally I’m excited to get out and do some fieldwork after being mostly inside for the winter.

But there’s no particular excitement right now.  I wonder why?  Maybe I’m just in a dry spell.  I hear it happens to people, but I’ve been petty consistently motivated to produce work during most of my photography career so far.

Maybe it’s something else.  I’ve been playing a lot of guitar this past year, probably in part as a result of social distancing due to Covid (music has been an interest of mine for a long time, long before I ever picked up a camera, in fact).  I’ve been fairly motivated about it and am finding it pretty exciting.  Exciting in a way that, until recently, I got from photography.

Could it be that creativity is a zero-sum game?  That is, do we have a limited wellspring of creativity to draw upon, and if you spend it on one thing, it runs out before you get to the next thing?

I think of the past few years, when I’ve really been into photography.  I wasn’t doing much with music during that time, is that just a coincidence?

I’d like to think creativity expands to fill the space of creative endeavors that occupy one’s interest.  But given the current state of my affairs, I wonder.

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The Power of Ordinary

Windmill and Railroad Grade. Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2020.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’ve been listening to the “F-Stop, Collaborate and Listen” podcast put out by Matt Payne.  It’s a great podcast, I highly recommend it.  Since I’m not really plugged in to the photography community at large, it’s been interesting to listen to in part because it discusses attitudes and trends in the landscape photography community that I otherwise would not really be aware of.

One trend that is discussed a lot is that of landscape photographers, whose photography largely consists of identifying popular images of popular locations and then seeking out those locations to make more or less copycat images.  It is, apparently, kind of a widespread activity, and as a practice is rightly criticized on many levels, not the least of which is that this kind of photography is, for obvious reasons, not particularly creative.

I think this criticism can go even deeper.  The practice seems to presuppose that extraordinary photography relies on an extraordinary subject.  Photography done in this way results in exceptional photographs only because the photographer has placed his camera in front of something exceptional to look at.  The practice of copying other’s images in this manner probably makes photography a lot easier, because the original photographer already has accomplished half (or more) of the task – finding a subject that is exceptional.

But this approach also seems to me to be incredibly limiting.  Imagine how restrictive photography must be, when you have to plan a trip to some extraordinary place just to make a photograph.  What does your camera do in the meantime?  Sit on a shelf, waiting for its day in the sun?  How much easier would it be, if you didn’t have to go out of your way to make a good photograph?  How freeing would it be, if good photographs were to be available everywhere outside your door, near or far, any day, any season, under any conditions?  That’s the power of the ordinary.  When you can find photographs in ordinary things, truly the world of creativity is at your doorstep.

There’s more.  When you can make compelling photographs of ordinary things, you begin to see that everything is (or maybe, more accurately, has the potential to be seen as) extraordinary.  Even the gesture of a windmill, the line of a railroad grade, and the movement of a cloud.  It’s all subjective, of course, but I would not have photographed these things if I didn’t find in them at least a hint of the extraordinary.

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Wax and Wane

Moonrise Under Tangled Branches. Fort Collins, Colorado, 2015.

I haven’t been terribly active with photography over the last few months, but I don’t think I’m too worried about it. I think there’s a natural wax and wane that comes part and parcel with creative endeavors.

I’m comforted in part by my experience as a musician.  I’ve been active in music for a long time, much longer in fact than I’ve been active in photography.  Over the many years that I’ve played music, there have been many stretches lasting months or even years where I was not very active with music at all.  During those times, I never once doubted that playing music remained a strong part of me, and indeed all of those stretches came around full circle back to being active in music, including being so even today.

I’m pretty sure photography is in my bones now.  I don’t think I could not be a photographer even if I wanted to.  The wax and wane just is part of living a creative life.

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Feels Like EDM

On the Low Road to Taos, No. 2 Near Taos, New Mexico, 2016

On the Low Road to Taos, No. 2
Near Taos, New Mexico, 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM lately (that’s Electronic Dance Music – check out Deadmau5!).  It fascinated me to realize how much that kind of music makes me think of photography.  The way the music works there feels to me like the way light works in photographs.  The steady beats feel like the visual rhythms in the composition of an image, like the earthy, shadowy areas in a landscape.  The rises and falls of the crescendos and drops feel like the way light spills from one corner of the frame to another, like a dramatic backlit sky on a stormy day.  The way the bass kicks after a quiet break feels like the abrupt transition of a dark tree rising above the bright line of a distant horizon.

Maybe it seems like an odd connection to make, but to me it’s perfectly logical.  I think creativity is something that resides within you.  You bring it to bear on all of the things you do in your life.  Creativity doesn’t seep into you from the outside, it’s something from within that colors the way you perceive the world.  It’s an internal logic all of its own, personal to you, that allows you to see connections where others don’t.  That’s one thing about it that makes it so wonderful.

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The Expectations Game

White Tree No. 4 (Know Your Heart)I don’t know about you, but every time I begin to work on a new image – or write a new blog post, or post something on social media, or generally do anything that requires a degree of effort and creativity – I play the expectations game.  The image in this post, “Know Your Heart (White Tree No. 4),” was no exception.  What is the expectations game?  It’s having an expectation for an end result, and being intimidated by that expectation as you begin to work on the task.

The expectations game can take many forms.  Sometimes it’s internal:  my last image was good, will this one be?  The capture was perfect, are my editing skills sufficient to realize that potential?  Sometimes it’s external:  my last image was well received, will this one be?  I usually work in this kind of subject matter, will people abandon me if I try something new?

The intimidation created by the expectations game can be a real problem.  Sometimes it hinders creativity, such as wherein you use the same, safe methods and practices over and over again, because they’ve worked for you in the past.  Other times it closes you off to potential avenues for growth and learning, such as wherein you don’t share your work with other people for fear of rejection.  In its worst form, it can stop you from working at all.

How do you win the expectations game?  Don’t play.

Easier said than done!  In fact, I doubt that I personally ever will be able to eliminate the expectations game entirely.  But, expectations can be managed.  One way I manage expectations is to realize that not every image I make will be the best image I’ve ever made.  Not every new image needs to be better than the previous one.  If you pause to consider for a moment, hopefully you will conclude (as I have) it’s unlikely this could ever be the case for anyone, and it’s unreasonable to expect it to be so.  Instead, if an image I make meets a minimum threshold of quality – a threshold set by me, designed to reflect both my own objective and subjective considerations of what satisfies me – then I consider it a success.  I find this approach has worked well for me, allowing me both to keep my expectations in check for any individual image I’m working on, and to produce a body of work that, if it pleases no one else, at least has pleased me.

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