Skills versus Creativity – One More Time

I have previously written about the seemingly inherent conflict between technical skills and creative expression. If you have read the posts, you know that I don’t really believe there is such a conflict, but think that craftsmanship only broadens the artist’s expressive abilities. Some time ago I read The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger. Feininger was a late staff photographer at Life when the magazine was at its heights. In the book he has a passage that goes straight to this duality I have focused on in my blog-posts, which makes for a very strong statement. Let me quote a few passages the book:

«Although, according to popular belief, photo-technical knowledge and skill are first among the qualifications of a good photographer, in my opinion they rank last. I say this because I have met too many photographers who literally knew all the answers in the book, were experts in photo-technical matters, owned the finest equipment, and never made a worthwhile photograph. On the other hand, I know for a fact that several of our most successful photojournalists have only the sketchiest ideas about photo technique – and that the laboratory technicians [remember this was written before the age of digital photography] assigned to do their work suffer whenever they have to print their films. But these photographers know how to make good pictures. They know how to see, they feel for and with their subjects, and they know how to express their feelings in photographic form. Any competent photo technician can make acceptable prints from technical poor negatives, but if feeling and sensitivity are lacking, then obviously, there is no remedy».

«This should not be interpreted to mean that I condone bad technique. I don’t. But if I had to choose between the two – a meaningful picture that is technically poor, and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable – I unhesitatingly would choose the first. However in this age of foolproof cameras, […] there is really no excuse for bad photo technique. Technique can be mastered by anyone who cares to make the effort. And once mastered, it should be taken for granted and not used as a measure of the value of a photograph – or a photographer».

The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger was first published in 1955. Since then photo technique has only become easier to get grip on and to master, thanks to digital imagery and cameras that are so much more advanced compared to back then. Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger – as his full name was – (1906-1999) was a German American photographer, and writer on photographic technique, noted for his dynamic black-and-white scenes of Manhattan and studies of the structure of natural objects (according to Wikipedia. The photograph to the left, «The Photojournalist», may be Feininger’s best-known photograph. The now-iconic image of photojournalist Dennis Stock was taken for Life Magazine. Picture also from Wikipedia).


54 thoughts on “Skills versus Creativity – One More Time

  1. Photos show exactly what is meant.. Ideally, I presume you know .( the brain in action) your camera so well, that the settings etc are automatic to you so you can concentrate of what you want to portray from the heart. Excellent article again, Otto.

  2. I love this post. I talk about this sort of thing all the time to convert people into accepting their creativity. It’s nice to have another perspective from another creative discipline

  3. It is very interesting that you choose these two wonderful pictures along with this post. I do like them a lot and I can see (I could be wrong here), the photographic eye (the expression) are intertwining with technicality. Both make these two pictures great!

  4. Thank you for the wonderfully informative text Otto. The photos you have used here are amazing, #1 astonishingly ethereal and the 2nd as real as a day in the park. Love them!

  5. What comes to mind is how I feel about painting. Often masterpieces in the world’s greatest art museums are admired for their technical skill, but don’t move me. In contrast, at times bold, abstract brush strokes come together and somehow touch me on an emotional level. I don’t know if this directly translates to what you’re saying, Otto, but I do understand what you’re saying. I think the technical abilities can be taught, but I think creative expression is so individual that it is a lot more difficult to identify, but I know it when I see it. I wonder what Andreas Feininger would think of today’s digital photography!

    1. I think you reference to painting and masterpieces very much translate to what I am writing about. As for learning to express oneself, I think it’s possible to be helped to open up to one’s creative abilities, but in the end, each of us have our own voice which is only ours, as you write, too.

  6. Your second photo is a perfect metaphor for the creative process. The string connecting kite and person functions much like technique. It allows the person to maintain control, even as the kite takes flight. The skill-string is invisible, but without it, the kite would fly off, and there would be nothing to see. 🙂

  7. Love the images you began your post with, especially the second one with the kites. Another interesting and informative post, Otto. Thank you. I have not been able to grasp all the technical terms and aspects, and have learned by using my camera and experimenting with the various settings under different lighting conditions. No matter how many times I read about aperture and shutter speeds, I can’t remember what I’ve read. I finally gave up on that aspect of things and just go out and have fun.

    1. The best way to learn technique is simply to go out and practice. Reading cam give you some understanding, but you need to keep shooting and practicing to get it in your fingers. 🙂

  8. I love the two images in this post – full of movement and feeling – a bit like March, too – the sense of going towards. That’s a strong statement by Feininger, and a good one – it’s good to be provocative sometimes. Maybe lots of times!
    I sent an email to you – hope you see it – it would be great to meet if you’re in the Seattle area.

  9. well…. i concur…. beautifully said. i love when somebody puts my thoughts into words, as i am getting worse and worse at doing that for myself 🙂

  10. Excellent thoughts as always. I’m going to seek out the Feininger book. And as so many others have already commented, I love the photos you began with. The first one especially speaks to me and sparks my imagination.

  11. The photos you chose to go with this post fit perfectly. I added the book into my Goodreads list, although it looks like I will have to keep an eye out for it as it is not currently available in the libraries I have access to.

  12. Oh how I love the photo with the kites! It just takes me away. I agree with you that the technical/creative conflict does not really exist. It does, however, exist in the minds of some people who think that either their technical expertise, or their creative instincts, make them better than the other person. These two do not have to be mutually exclusive, and the ideal would be someone who has developed their technical skills to a level that allows them to support creative instincts (rather than nickel and diming things to bits).

    Perhaps the over-weaning gift need be humility. For however skilled one is, there are times when the heavens open up for the unskilled and magic happens. And for every one of those unskilled magic events, there are moments when having the technical skill has allowed a person to produce astounding images.

  13. An excellent choice of quote from Feininger and the photos support the argument very well. They express the sense of place beautifully.

  14. An excellent post as ever Otto. I love the two images. Technique matters but as I’ve said before, what comes from the heart will always trump technical perfection but having the tools in one’s tool bag to create a technically competent image will hopefully mean we can achieve both. An image that is seen and felt and an image that is technically competent. Like you, I see no conflict.

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  16. “But if I had to choose between the two – a meaningful picture that is technically poor, and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable – I unhesitatingly would choose the first.” I might say that the difference would be the subjective/creative interjection of the photographer. Your topic reminded me a bit of a post I wrote about the topic of creativity and self-expression:

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