Ten Things About ‘Creativity’

Canyon Floor, Zion National Park, UT. Winter is my favorite time for exploring the southwest.

Canyon Floor, Zion National Park, UT. Winter is my favorite time for exploring the southwest.

Occasionally we find ourselves in an argument of whether or not ‘creativity’ can be taught, or does it have to be born within us? We read all about creativity and how important it is. We award little statuettes to really “creative” people. Creativity is blessed, cursed, chased, obsessed over, ignored, beaten down and vindicated.

It is a word so over used that we mention Stravinsky and Lady GaGa in the same breathless discussion of creativity. Schools want to nurture it (which of coursd is pure bullshit). Companies seek it (also bull-bullshit). Poets have it in spades (bull… oh never mind).

But have you ever tried to simply define it? Being ‘creative’ can also be cruel, savage, inhumane and anarchistic. Creativity can mean simply doing something different… so what? If I take the garbage out with my left hand instead of my right hand, as I do every day, is that “creative”? A photographer takes pix of dog-doo on bright backgrounds – is that ‘creative’ just because no one else has done it?

I rarely think about creativity, as I long ago realized something about creativity that made me wary. Creativity claims to be your buddy, your pal… your roommate along the path to making cool shit. But creativity rarely keeps up his end of the bargain. He leaves the place a mess, hits on your girlfriend, steals your money and drinks your beer.

And then one day, ol ‘creativity’ waltzes out the door destined to befriend that kid down the street, or the woman downstairs. He hasn’t even paid for his half of the electricity. You are left with an empty feeling, a loss of ‘mojo’ that develops into a long, long despair.

Bastard.

So here are a few things I know about creativity. And believe me, after being in the ‘creative’ business for nearly my entire working life, I know this guy. Here’s the skinny…

Ten things I Know About Creativity:

1. Creativity is not something you bestow on yourself, but something that others bestow upon you. Creativity to the creative person is simply the way they work. Calling yourself ‘creative’ may not make it is so, and in fact, I find it runs pretty much the opposite. Every time I see the title “creative photographer” I want to mutter under my breath, “says who”?

2. Creativity is not a method or a system or a learned behavior. It is inherent in all of us, but few of us let it be what it is. Whether out of fear or laziness, self pity or arrogance, ignorance or infinite exploration, we eschew creativity and choose the safer, well worn paths. Ignorance of creativity is a very smart way to get along in some circles. Congress for instance.

3. Creativity cannot be taught. It doesn’t have to be. It only needs to be unleashed. Getting out of its way is the most difficult of challenges. We are not conditioned to allow creativity to go unchecked. From our earliest age we must walk in a straight line, color inside the lines, sit at our desks, study what some older person deems is important to us. Creativity and school is like a fish with a bicycle.

4. Why do we automatically consider creativity good? Over the years many madmen have done a pretty good job at creating some of the most heinous acts ever perpetrated on other humans. Murderous monsters are creative in the ways they trap their prey… while eluding capture. Creativity can be horrific when applied to horrific things. Creativity has no soul other than the one wielding it. Creativity is not good or bad, it is simply its own person, and he does what he wants. We allow him to run free or channel his wanderings and misadventures. Our call, not his.

5. Creativity can be within specific genres and may not necessarily spill across the entire spectrum of a persons life. One may be incredibly talented in music, but not very good at drawing. A sculptor may be able to see and reveal an incredible masterpiece, while a concert level pianist may not be able to see anything but a piece of rock. This is not good or bad creativity… it just is creativity in different spaces of humanity.

6. Creativity is shown simply and honestly… and not in a good or bad notion. One may be very very creative and turn out pure shit in the eyes of the world. A 3 year old with a canvas and 56 paints could have the time of their lives… being creative and exploding color across the field in ways NO ONE has ever seen.

So what?

Creativity does not necessarily create masterpieces. Sometimes creativity creates shit. And then he stands there smugly demanding that we LOVE what he did… it was so, you know, creative.

7. Work that is derivative can be creative, if the act of derivation ends with something that we think is worthy. It can also end on a bad note if we think it is not as good as the original. We see creativity usually on the backside, not the front. We see the results not the action, and we rarely see the prelude. Sure “Batman” was pretty creative back when Marvel was cranking them out and we were spending a quarter to keep up with the story. But these days, they are simply worn out ‘toons with two hundred million dollar budgets. Boring, predictable and lame.

8. Creativity is a tool. Creativity is an honorarium. Creativity is a joke. Creativity is divine. If Lady Gaga is creative, then what would we call Eliot Carter? Stravinsky? Coltrane? If P-Diddy is creative, what do we call the hordes of rappers that came before and after that sound the same… identical even, to his work? If Copland was creative, how do we explain it to someone who has never heard his music? How about explaining music to someone who has never heard music before… ever?

Now that would be creative.

9. Creativity is over rated. We have turned anything a bit different into “creativity at its finest”. If building the space shuttle and twitter are both creative, is there any difference given to the importance of the creation? Can “Cats” be considered as creative as “Othello?” Is a child like presentation of a Chopin Etude be considered as creative as a performance by a prodigy – or indeed the creator himself? If we consider creativity to be some mark on a ledger or tick on a measuring stick, then we have to be able to quantify it.

Go ahead… give it a go. Quantify creativity.

Good luck with that.

10. Creativity is not definable. Not in any way I can comprehend. And yet I know creativity when I see it, hear it, taste it. We all can agree that we know creative people, and yet we may be somewhat dismayed when we discover who each of us believe to be creative.

I rarely think of creativity as something I want to achieve. It is never how I discuss my own work. If my work is creative, others will note and if it is not, then it will be noted as well. To seek it wastes time, as it cannot be found. It only reveals itself when it is ready, and when the moment is right.

Our job is to make more opportunities for creativity to be revealed. We do that though practice, and study, and work, and effort, and critiques (good and bad) and friends who are not afraid to call you on the work, and enemies that make you defend, or retreat, or rethink. Creativity is a pain in the ass. It has no guarantee of being revealed. There is no magical criteria (10,000 hours my ass), no ‘aha’ moment, no grace to be bestowed. It can leave you waiting at the alter after promising you a thousand times that it loved you. It is heartless and loving, cruel and kind, manic and patient.

And often it is disguised as something else. Something more familiar than trendy, more ethereal than processed. Sometimes it is disguised as hard work.

Creativity means something to each of us, but it is rarely something that I think we should be chasing. Rather we should be chasing the near perfection that comes from working whatever we do to the heart of it. From shooting every day. From being relentless critics to stalwart defenders of our work. Creativity needs nothing from us, but we give our all to achieve it.

Sometimes we are awake to see creativity arrive, but we rarely know its name nor recognize its power. Most of the time we are working on our work so hard we never see it arrive, we couldn’t care less what we call it and we never remember to acknowledge it. We just keep working.

So creativity sits on our shoulders for a while.

Resting in his comfortable by-the-month apartment, putting his feet on the furniture and parking his car on our lawn

But you can be sure about one thing… creativity can be a mercurial and disloyal pal while he camps on your shoulders. He will come over for BBQ and Corona’s, flirt with your girl and hang around long enough to borrow your lawnmower and never return it when he leaves.

You see, creativity rarely moves in, buys a house and puts in a pool.

(BTW, creativity comes in all genders… mine happens to be an aging hippy who still loves film.)

 

Portraits Inspired by Jeanloup Sieff

One of the photographers we are studying in the 8 Week Portrait class is Jeanloup Sieff. This master photographer created images in almost every genre from portraits and nudes to landscape and commercial.

The idea is not to copy the work of each of the photographers we study, but to learn about what they did and find influences and inspiration. The photographers in the portrait workshop share with you their images:

Books by Jeanloup Sieff:

In Commercial Photography Some Things Change and Some Things Don’t

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

Some Things Change, and Some Things Stay the Same

The constant, and rapidly changing landscape of photography continues unabated. Some may think of this as a very scary time to be in this business. They may be right… for them.

For me it is nearly a miraculous time to be in the photography business. From amazing gear to incredible innovation, it surrounds us every day. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it when it is staring us in the face.

Change, baby. Everywhere.

I just read an article about some wedding guy going with Micro 4/3 and giving up his Nikons. Another article on what looks like a very cool 300WS studio flash with TTL for under $300. One photographer is shooting on a massive camera on handmade paper, while another is exploring Iceland with nothing but an iPhone. Both of them are getting images that are amazing.

The business part is changing as well. A recent study by web folk who study this sort of thing found that people respond more to big photographs on web pages than they do small. They also found that the cheap, crappy stock image is worse for the site than if there were no image at all.

What?

Photographs WORK? Photographs help sell stuff? Good photography matters?

Dang… who could have known?

Well, WE PHOTOGRAPHERS SURE AS HELL KNEW. Most competent ad agencies and graphic designers know. (Although there are a lot of graphic designers out there who have obviously bought into the free or dirt cheap RF stock junk. Too bad, losers.)

Now we are being backed up by non-photographers.

Our job now is to let our clients know how valuable a photograph is. Let them know that skimping on photography is a fast way to fewer sales and pointing them in the right direction is one of our purposes.

And we do that by doing the best work. Always the best work. No slacking, no hacking, no short cuts. We do the best work we can, and we do it over and over again.

We have to be able to show the client the difference between hack crap and good imagery. If we can’t, we may find that we are not making much headway.

I recently did a portfolio review with a photographer who was struggling a bit. He was having trouble connecting to his audience, and getting clients to say yes was becoming a very difficult endeavor. He was showing his book diligently, but getting no offers.

Problem was that while his book was that of an emerging photographer, the work ranged from ‘meh’ to good, and a few ‘greats’ thrown in almost as an afterthought.

When I remarked on is truly impressive images, he would say something like “yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.” And he was sure about the mundane boring stuff?

The reality is that he was nearly totally cut off from the world of commercial photography. He took his cue from Model Mayhem, 500PX and G+.

When I asked him about some commercial shooters in his town (Google is your friend), he didn’t know who they were or what they did. He didn’t look at magazines or online publications. He was in a vacuum, and nobody can hear you scream in space.

When you show your work, you will be judged on more than the individual images, you will be judged  by how well you understand the genre you are presenting. Is it within the genre of the client?

Wine bottles lit by umbrellas, ‘fashion models’ who are obviously 5’1”, car shots of last years models, food shots that look cold and stale, bad natural light still life work… all can lead to a single image bringing down the entire book.

The question becomes “why are they showing me this? Do they think this is cool? Can they not see it is horribly presented? How did they get all those other shots I wonder?”

Doubt. And doubt doesn’t close deals.

Free Selina Maitreya video series on becoming more than you ever thought possible.

Some truths about this highly competitive business:

  1. Showing 10 great shots is far better than showing those same ten great shots mixed in with 20 other turkeys.
  2. You cannot edit your own work (mostly). Find someone to help you. A mentor or good friend who you TRUST.
  3. Do not be defensive, but do be strong. If three people you trust say ‘take it out’ then I would consider that some strong indication that while you may love it, it doesn’t ‘fit’ in your portfolio. Perhaps you need more of that kind to give it some context
  4. Make no excuses. Yeah, it was a crazy day and the MUA was late and it rained and three rabid wolves chased off the stylist, but once the hail stopped you were able to get a few shots in before the lightning destroyed the set, they look pretty good, all things considered. Bucky… on one cares about the things considered. Your ‘masterpiece’ under fire is a dud.
  5. Always be shooting. You should be adding new work to your site weekly if you are emerging as a shooter. That’s the time you have to DO the shots you want. Once the ball gets rolling, it may be tougher to find the time to do them. And they are VITAL to the ‘warm fuzzies’ for art directors and designers who may be following along.

The business is changing rapidly, but there are some things that are not changing… and showing top notch work, developing a body of work and keeping your work in front of people who buy is still as important, if not more important, than it has ever been.

So enjoy your new “mirrorless” or MFT, and dig into that Medium Format with gusto. Grab those new strobes and tell us all about them on the various social media… but remember that the words won’t count as much as the images you create with them.

If your client is looking for a technical writer who knows everything about every lens ever made, you may get a shot at it. But if they are looking for a photographer, you better make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, full of new work, and ready to be shown

That much will stay the same for a while longer. I’m sure.
I would love to hear your comments on the ways you are working to keep your portfolio up. Add them in the comments.

 

“I think that its a society that has totally lost its bearings on the terms of what its values are, and so its put all its value into celebrity. There is such a lack of spiritual self confidence perhaps that the achievers seem to have to be the kind of holy cows that people worship.”

— Editor, Vanity Fair, ca 1993

Read more

“The great thing about the job was that in the evenings when we weren’t doing these ads, we photographed Anjelica Huston and Julie Driscoll. Polly Mellon, the fashion editor was there – it must have been for Vogue. Julie Driscoll was a pop singer with Brian Auger and Trinity. Musically they were a very hot band at the time. At the end of the shoot, Dick (Avedon) gave her a kiss and she, being very, very English, said in her slightly Cockney accent, “Oh, I bet they’ll be awful,” which is a totally English way to say “Thank you.” He just froze. He sort of straightened, and said, “When I take pictures, they’re good.””

— Neil Selkirk on Richard Avedon

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Two Articles on Printing at Nearly the Same Time

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Awesome coincidence? Or a convergence of some unknown force?

I do not know, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Last week Petapixel ran an article I had written titled “Prints. Remember Prints?”

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(Article Here)

Almost immediately afterwards they ran Lynne Cartia’s wonderful article on the importance of a printed photograph.

petapixel-1

(Article Here)

I think that is cool juxtaposition.

And I hope it makes people think a bit more about how important prints are to the lifeblood of photography.