Like Roots to a Plant

Some time ago I wrote about a photograph that I first had dismissed as nothing, only later to find a way to bring out its inherent artistic quality (Blessing in Disguise). Back then the post was about not getting blinded by what might look like a mistake in the first place. The post resulted in many inspiring thoughts as well as interesting feedbacks. Particularly one comment made me want to expand on the thought process behind in principal any creative art form, and more specifically the apparent conflict between craftsmanship or technique on one hand and creativity on the other.

For me technique in relationship to creativity is like roots to a plant. In most cases a plant won’t survive without some kind of a root system, even though the roots themselves aren’t «showing up» like the rest of the plant – thus don’t seem to be important – and don’t need to. Still some plants somehow manage to blossom without much of any root at all and draw nutrition in some other way. So it is with artists. Some are able to work inspiringly without much technical knowledge at all but for must it surely will help and boost their creative process.

I have often been asked: «Why should photography be locked in that golden cage of sharpness and so called perfect exposure? Or why is the technical aspect so important? Shouldn’t it be the emotional expression, what makes a pictures that tick, that should be most important?». And of course that is completely right. In the end it is indeed pictures that hit us in one way or another that stand out and make a difference. If the creative process becomes limited by technique, then the outcome is fenced in.

Nevertheless, I still think technical knowledge is an asset, not a limitation. When you know what possibilities you have, you have more keys to play with, and you don’t need to depend solely on luck or some divine inspiration. Again if you don’t let it limit yourself. I have many times written about the necessity to let go, to lose control, take chances or just experiment in the creative process, but I don’t see this as a contradiction to learning the craft.

It’s still a paradox of the creative process. We wish to be spontaneous; we wish to be free and even joyful in our creative expression. Yet, the greatest freedom comes through discipline, a rigorous approach to one’s work and craftsmanship. Only after learning the mechanics of the craft and fully engaging the process of our work with our bodies, hearts and minds, can we hope to be truly creative.

Examining the difference between the artwork of children and adults perfectly illustrates this point. Children are marvellously creative and imaginative, approaching their projects with an effusive, innocent and highly spontaneous energy. However, their work lacks rigor, technical mastery and conceptual strength – without indicating their work is less for that reason. Experienced adults, on the other hand, cultivate critical discernment and a mastery of their medium, learning to appreciate the benefits of sustained efforts of the long term. Unfortunately most adults also lose the child’s spontaneity and innocence in the process of growing up. Ideally, when an adult can integrate the spontaneity and unselfconscious expression of the child’s mind with discipline, wisdom and depth of the adult personality, a true fullness of expression may be achieved.

In Greek mythology, Eros and Logos represents the two poles of experience, both vital to the creative act. For the argument here, we may view Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion, and Logos as the craftsmanship, the necessary structure and form, the rigor and discipline of the artists. We need both. As artists we stand between these two opposing forces which we much negotiate in the process of our creative work.

55 thoughts on “Like Roots to a Plant

  1. Another great article Otto! I felt greatly empowered when I came back to photography in the digital age having learned my craft as a teenager in the analogue age. I had access to the creative opportunities that digital photography allows, the freedom to shoot without the inhibition of having to make every frame count because of the cost of film and processing etc. But, having worked with the need to make every frame count, spending time learning to focus correctly, to expose correctly I have so much more creative freedom. I could shoot more frames, experiment, but all those frames will stand up from a technical standpoint. Shutter speed, f number, ISO, it’s all second nature. I spent hours as a boy with my Dad learning this craft.
    I have a very sophisticated camera but I always shoot on manual and have from day one as that’s what I know. What the sophisticated camera gives me is not automation, just superb quality prints.
    I certainly don’t see a conflict between technique and creativity. I recognise that a technically perfect photograph can be a very boring one and a less than technically perfect print can be a great one but a good grounding in basic technique can only be good for one’s photography. A hit and miss approach, shooting multiple frames in the hope that one exposure might be the right one is OK but time spent learning ones craft can save an awful lot of time in the long run, working in the lightroom, searching though dozens of pictures, finding one that might work but will take a lot of work in Photoshop to get right or even having to go and try again as you didn’t get what you needed.
    Always a pleasure to read your thoughts Otto!

    1. And likewise, Adrian. Thanks for sharing your photographic development. Which in many ways looks similar to my own, as I started out with film, manual exposure and manual focus. And now enjoy digital capturing immensely. The major difference between you and me today, as it seems, is that I usually use automatic exposure, simply to always be ready when something happens. I know when to compensate or not. When I have time and exposure is more challenging I go into manual mode. Great comment. 🙂

  2. Another great post, Otto.

    I think we all, at some time or other, fall victim to getting the ‘right’ exposure or ‘perfect’ sharp focus, or something we feel should be classified as being A Great Shot. The reality is that our own upbringing or behaviour patterns, or even circle of creative friends, can influence the way we see our Photography results. Because I have bad eyesight and Astigmatism that prescription spectacles can fix 100%, I’ll always paranoid that my images aren’t sharp in focus. I totally rely on setting the lens on AF (instead of manually focusing), and a steady hand when outdoors.

    I was interested to read Chillbrook’s (Adrian?) last paragraph about a good grounding in basic technique, but some of us (aka me) can’t necessarily gain that grounding so we have more of a hit or miss approach (which actually does work sometimes in my case). But with a short-term memory problem, I’ve given up reading tutorials and trying to learn the technical side.

    I just make lots of photos and hope that some of them turn out ok to be honest. I understand light and exposure, but personally, still prefer dark, low-light images that speak to me on an emotional level in black & white. On my nature blog, I tend to share bright colourful images as that is what followers seem to like and follow. I don’t like most of what I share online at all 🙂 I’d rather make and share dark & moody Monochrome images 🙂

    1. Most of us have some limitations in how we approach our art. But of course, having some restrictions on the perceptive ability is a tough one for photographers. But I think you do very well. And I bet even if you don’t read tutorials you have learned quite a bit through practice. There isn’t only one way to acquiring skills. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your approach, Vicki.

  3. Otto, you’ve brought the strength of the creative process and the technical side of artistic expression into balance. Nicely done. I also believe that instinct and intuition are very much part of the ability to be completely immersed in this journey.

  4. So many thoughts come to mind, Otto, at your “spot on” focus to both honing the muscle memory of technique whilst keeping the creative flow alive, fresh and I would say, unencumbered with over thought. You always give me something to think about…inspiring. Thank you. Raye

  5. We had a conversation very similar to this last night. My thoughts are that all art that is innovative in any way, comes from imperfection, or the letting go of the need for perfection. Precise and exact paintings, were the norm hundreds of years ago. Then Picasso, and others like him, came and blew all that away. Art needs to progress, and that progression comes from artists letting go.

    1. I think imperfection is one place innovative art starts from. Another is intuition and also letting go of rational thought. There is still no contradiction between eros and logos or free creativity and also knowing the craft. In my opinion. 🙂

  6. The third and fourth paragraphs sum it up perfectly from my perspective. There ARE quite a few technical aspects to photography, and it helps to learn them. My formative years artistically were spent in a conceptual and minimalist art environment (NYC in the late sixties – early seventies). The Eros side was strong. I used a camera sporadically, to record transient pieces I did outdoors or places I went that were appealing. I have no darkroom experience and it’s taken me a while to catch up, learning a little more with each new camera, lens or processing software I use. I’ve noticed that when I concentrate more on a technical point, the image often suffers, but it’s a necessary process to work through. When I let go and experiment with little attention to exposure, etc., there can be many “deletes.” It can be challenging to find the sweet spot that balances inspiration and technique in the field. At the computer however, it’s much easier to adjust an image more towards an impression, or more towards a rendition – but even there, it helps to remind myself to experiment more, and it helps to pick up technical tips.
    Now that I finally have more time for photography and it’s not something tightly squeezed into an over-busy work week, I need to hone in on both ends of the spectrum – the Eros and Logos – and I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride for a while!

    1. You make some very valid points here. Yes, it is often a difficult balanse between concentrating on the technical aspects and let go and be creatively free. But, as you, say one needs to find that sweet spot. Practice will of course make it easier; with time you will more easily let technique become handled automatically and more subconsciously. I hope you will enjoy the roller coaster of creativity. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, Lynn.

  7. Re children’s artwork vs adults–yup yup yup, that is at the core of creativity. You must have the childish enthusiasm/playfulness coupled with the rigor, technical mastery and conceptual strength of the adult. Once you forget how to play you lose the basic font of your creative self.

  8. I am grateful for the children that I taught in daycare-they certainly gave me lessons in creativity as well as techniques to use in my own work. This topic fits in so well with what I have been experiencing lately, the season, roots and well as seeing things in a new way to express creatively..

    1. We can always learn but watching children and how free they are from pretensions and rules about how things are suppose to be. I am happy to hear that the post resonates with you. Thank you, Jane.

  9. What a great insight into the two major components of creativity – the unreleased mind of a child’s mind and the mastery of craftsmanship. We need to seek both of these, that answers the question about why and when we need image quality. I really like the last paragraph. It summarizes the whole concept very well.

  10. Thank you for these extremely valuable insights, Otto. Technique and creativity are the two opposite poles on which our art must rest. One obvious problem can happen when creativity is completely unfettered by any technical knowledge/discipline. But another problem, perhaps more often overlooked, is when technique is used for its own sake; when the result is a soulless work in which the technique seems to say, “Look at me, how good I am!”

    1. Technique for its own sake, is unfortunately very often the case when it comes to photographic explorations. Of course, it doesn’t make for any interesting art. You are very right about this, Nancy.

  11. Otto, you did a marvelous job of looking at the creative tension between technique and innovation. One way to bypass the lure of perfection and stasis is to see “rules” as partially agreed upon guidelines that can be broken and technique as a structural underpinning that can support work rather than define it. I love the fact that you referred to the mythological underpinnings of this creative tension – archetypes let us stand back and see the larger issues underlying our personal struggles. Great post – your words always set my own thinking in motion and make me reconsider my own assumptions. Thank you!

    1. I never like rules. So, yes, guidelines are a much better word, which indicates, as you write, that one stands much more free to do whatever one desires. Thank you for the lovely feedback, Lynn.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this entry, Otto, because I think it gets to the heart of the Creative Process. Something I’ve thought about a lot recently. The link between our Eye and our Creative Heart (or Well) is a concept that I believe we cultivate rather than learn – it’s a personal nurturing process – and I’ve read a lot about it through many of your Posts. But camera techniques, compositional skills are things that we can learn. I like the idea of these skills being like a root system – I also call them Facilitators or Foundation Stones. As you say they are as important as the creative side. Without essential skills we will fail to record the images that ‘Opportunity’ presents to us.
    I was interested in what Adrian said earlier too. He is a patient observer and is richly rewarded. I am an impulsive ‘in flow’ photographer who will shoot instantly when I see an opportunity – for me it’s a heightened state of visual awareness coupled to a camera always ‘ready to go’.
    The fascinating aspect of Creativity and the Art of Seeing is that it is so difficult for us to explain it in words, because it comes from within, as you have written elsewhere. I think we all develop our own language and thinking about it, and the more we read of other people’s experience the more we un-fathom this critical concept.

    1. The way you describe your process when in flow with a more instant and maybe intuitive approach, is very like my own. The technique is in my backbones, and I hardly think a lot about it when I shoot. But, yes, technical skill opens up a whole realm of possibilities for me, which I quickly make an assessment of, mostly quite unconsciously. Thank you for adding much to this discussions, Andy. You have come with a very poignant input.

  13. “Like Roots to a Plant”

    “You must remeber it is a training for life”

    Its how my teacher refered to what learning technique was for. As it was movement based rather wordless in terms of learning, it was one of his most insistant lines.

  14. After I began my blog, I often saw the issue posed as emotion versus structure in writing. I came out of an academic environment where structure was all-important. As I began trying to do more creative work, I was surrounded by people who wanted to get rid of structure, and “just let the emotion flow.”

    Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the structure has to be there: just as it must be for a good house. If your structure is sturdy, and well designed, it will support what you want to put into it. If it is weak and poorly built, it will collapse. The trick, of course, is to master the tasks of structure and technique: to design and build so competently that the first impression is not of technique, but of beauty. I think this will be a life-long task.

    1. You are so right. Just ask any writer with some success and she or he will say that you need both structure and emotional content. Thank you for this much valid comment, adding to the discussion here, Linda.

  15. yay!!! BLUR!!! *all proud* lol I sorta feel like blur is my baby, since it was so hard to give birth to 🙂

    i like it when craftsmanship becomes second nature, and you can JUST play 🙂

  16. Wonderful article and advice Otto. An amateur, I feel you need to learn the science of Photography to turn it into an art. Thank you so much.

  17. Well articulated, Otto. It seems that the technique + passion, Logos + Eros ingredients can be found across the full spectrum of creative endeavors. Be it for computer coders or for jazz pianists – I share the view that creativity is enchanced when passion combines with technique. I would even say that this is like a two stage rocket! As the “booster”, the more robust the technique is, the further the second stage – passion – can take this creative process.


  18. I have heard many photographers talk about having a “passion” for the art. I would submit that passion is only a part of the equation. Dedication and determination as well as enjoyment are also in the mix. Oh, but you said that already, didn’t you? 🙂

    Great article, Otto. I always find an “Ah, yes!” moment in your writing. Best wishes.

  19. You have described the dichotomy well Otto.The acquisition of technical skills is rather like the development of a vocabulary. A weak vocabulary reduces ones ability to express clearly and effectively. But it is important at the same time to have something worth saying. Sophisticated technical equipment and the ability to use it cannot compensate for creative flare.

  20. A great post Otto. It is all to easy to get hung up on techniques and having to have the latest, greatest kit to get a decent image whereas in truth we need to understand ourselves, feel free to express ourselves – and do that on a secure foundation of some technical ability. It all comes through practice, trial and error and experimentation.

  21. Mastering the technique let you be free when working, you have not to worry about these aspects. They are spontaneous. As example you have not think “how do I blurr the background?”.You just know how to do it and it comes as you desire, more or less. But you must know the principles.

    Picasso made some very spontaneous drawing, very simple, but he could make a portrait by pencil or charcoal without much effort. So, he knew the technique and the rules first, than he broke them.

    As usual interesting post Otto, thanks


    1. Yes, this is exactly the point. When mastering the skills, we don’t have to think about how to accomplish whatever it is we want to. We can concentrate on the creation itself.

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