As a teacher of photography, I see many new pictures every day. I’m also a devotee of the medium; I am constantly looking at photos old and new, in search of those rare images that have the power to surprise me. Fewer still are those that have an uncanny ability to provide a fresh, rewarding experience no matter how many times I look at them. Creating photographs that endure in this way is an over-arching goal – and a formidable challenge.
As a voracious consumer of photography, I also see a lot of repetition. Landscape and nature photography is rooted in a long, beautiful tradition. Photography itself is also connected to the much longer history of painting and other forms of graphic art. As the technology of photography evolved, there were a few who ran with it and were the early champions of the medium. Thanks to them, photography enjoys its place today as an art form on part with any other.
While I am grateful for those whose work inspired me – among the earliest, Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Michael Kenna, and Art Wolfe – I feel that the point of being inspired by great artists is ultimately to develop your own iconic, personal approach. That may be very different from your sources of inspiration. Following too reverently, even in the footsteps of the greatest, deprives the world of your unique point of view. Yet I will be the first to say that finding your own style and approach is not easy. It is a lifelong process, and sometimes we find ourselves imitating others, or doing what we already do well instead of taking new risks.
So I’d like to share a series of simple creativity exercises that I often use with students, and which I’ve found to be very helpful catalysts to looking at the world afresh.
Human beings love puzzles. Our brains are pattern-seeking fiends. If you give your viewer aspects of an image that reveal themselves upon close scrutiny, you reward their attention with a sense of delight and discovery that goes straight to the pleasure center of the brain. So when you compose, look for visual motifs, repetition of shapes, gestures, colors, and visual ideas. Try to imply visual conversations or relationships between elements in your photo.
Here are a few examples: in the informal photo I snapped (with a cell phone camera) of my father with his dog Lucy on the beach, I was concious of the echo of Lucy’s spots with the rocks on the beach. The angle of his legs echoes hers as well, which is one of the reasons I took the photo at that moment. His back was to camera, and I had crept up quietly behind him to wait for something to happen. When Lucy came over to say hello, he happened to turn to the left to look at me, and the pieces fell together.
Note that these are subtle elements, deliberately so. If everything is immediately apparent, there is no discovery for the viewer. In fact, I’m going to detail a future tip ways of deliberately delaying visual perception in order to build an element of time into the viewer’s experience. Again, the reason for this is to reward the attentive viewer with the perception of the complete meaning or “gestalt” of the image. In the images I most admire, there is more than one possible interpretation, so the experience of “reading” the photo is unique every time. As the viewer changes, the image changes.
One of the aspects of photography that keeps me hooked on making pictures is the consistent phenomenon of discovering later that I “connected the dots” by including elements that I wasn’t consciously aware of in the moment. What usually happens is that I see some elements about to come together – the light, someone’s position, the weather – and I get a sensation of being pulled, that I must make the picture.
In the street photo of the car in the crosswalk, I remember looking very quickly at the driver, consciously connecting the horizontal painted stripes and the long shadows, and I literally shot just one image as I crossed the street. It wasn’t later until my friend, painter Lorrie McClanahan, who was walking next to me, pointed out that the man was wearing a shirt of similar broad stripes in the same colors.
In the image of the woman walking among standing stones on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, for me there is some connection between the age and upright angle of those stones, her age and the way she is leaning on her cane. This is not an image I exhibit; it was shot quite a few years ago, and there are weaknesses in it (the cars, the way she overlaps the tree trunks instead of fitting in the space just to the left of her head, the top crop line) that keep it in the “almost” pile. But it was an early experience for me of “connecting,” of finding motifs that could hint at larger meanings.
If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you might be inclined to chalk this up to pure chance. And while I’m not discounting the role of luck favoring the prepared photographer, this has happened to me so many times and so consistently that I’ve learned to just accept that my subconscious perception is much quicker and more attentive than my conscious awareness. I’m thankful for it, even as it doesn’t quite feel like “I” control it. It also reminds me of the way I’ve heard creatives in all mediums talk about the work creating itself, as if they were merely taking dictation. I think of my conscious awareness as the tiny bit of the iceberg that appears above the waterline, and the subconscious as the vast part that lays submerged below the surface of awareness. I find this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the craft.
I don’t believe that we start to do this by accident, however; I have very consciously practiced these techniques for the 30+ years that I’ve been making photographs. Any technique ultimately needs to become second nature to serve the photographer’s need to make a dozen split-second decisions in time to catch something happening. Conscious practice develops your ability to execute many things simultaneously at the speed of subconscious perception. (For more on the subject of the bandwidth of conscious perception, read Tor Norretranders’ astounding 1998 book The User Illusion.)
I love it when observant viewers discover these little “secrets” in a photo and express their delight in seeing more deeply into the image. They very often “see” things later that I never saw, and I can go back and see old work afresh, even as its life continues beyond the process of making it. Try looking for visual elements that you can “connect” the next time you’re out shooting.