Creative Destruction

Sometimes we who do creative work come to a standstill. It’s like we don’t see a road that could take us any further in our creative endeavours. We have maybe reached a certain level, both when it comes to craftsmanship and creativity. Maybe it’s just as far as we get. Or, so we think.

We might feel tired or indifferent. We might be frustrated or bored with what we do; we might not even know why we do what we do any longer. Moreover—the result, our photos, paintings, writings or whatever we do creatively—might seem boring and uninspiring. Mind you, I am not talking about a creative block, but rather a deeper and more fundamental fatigue.

Don’t despair. It’s just a sign that it’s time to move on. It’s time to expand and let go of your control. Take chances, let the unknown take you by surprise and lead you on to a road you didn’t even know existed. Make the decision to move on. But before doing so, remember that some projects and some creative endeavours take time and patience to complete. Don’t use moving on as an excuse for lack of patience.

But when it’s time to move on it’s time. Of course, that raises the question how do you move on? When moving on sounds right maybe you don’t know exactly what to do next, and that’s part of the fatigue. The American photographer Harold Davis suggests that we can play with what he calls creative destruction. He points out that many of the world’s great innovations and works of art have been born out of creative destruction.

Creative destruction is perhaps most familiar in a business context: A company innovates a new product because its old business is slowly diminishing, and with the new product line further cannibalizes the old business. The scenario is extremely fruitful as a model for artistic creation. You cannot create anything unique while stuck in a rut, but getting out of the ruts often involves change, destruction, and effort.

You can often witness creative destruction in children’s play, where, for example, a train track is decimated by an outer space alien invasion amid cries of glee, leading to more involved and intricate subsequent play space and structure once building starts again. For a photographer—as in any creative arts—creative destruction is a very useful technique with many possibilities. For example, shining a harsh light from behind a glass straight at the camera destroys any chance of delicately rendering the glass. But harsh light directed this way creates new possibilities in the spirit of creative destruction.

In the field, you can stop and decide to “destroy” the image you are working on by moving on. A simple technique for encouraging creative destruction is to rotate, and photograph whatever is behind you, whether or not it seems like a valid subject for a photo.

Closely related to creative destruction is the concept of allowing yourself to fail. I have written about this before. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. If you make a mistake, it shows that you are human and that you are trying to do something new. When I see the imagines of a participant on one of my workshops that are without mistakes, I see someone who isn’t willing to take risks and get out of the comfort zon.

In other words, always be willing to get messy, take chances and make mistakes. Truly inspirational work comes from the creative destruction that this kind of thinking out of the box implies. If you are willing to try something different and to risk failure, you may be amazed at what you accomplish and succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

Above, I have come with two examples of creative destruction. Do you want to suggest how you could apply this principle in a practical way? Maybe we can create a list of concrete ideas to creative destruction? Put your thoughts and ideas in a comment beneath.

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77 thoughts on “Creative Destruction

  1. As far as I’m concerned, Otto, these wise words could not be more timely. Two things occur to me. I was recently listening to the audio-diary (BBC radio 4extra) of Cornish playwright Nick Darke as he monitored his verbal progress after suffering a stroke. At the time he took ill he’d been blocked on 3 projects. During his recovery he observed his brainworkings closely and came to the conclusion that the brain is lazy, as he put it. It does not like to do thinking. It just likes to flow. He then saw that his best work had always been created when he stopped forcing his brain to work, and simply let things happen. So yes, letting go the need to be in control. My other thought is that creative people can live too much in their heads, which often means one’s physical self can become locked, scrunched up – none of which helps creative processes either. So we need to get physical – in whatever way appeals – dancing, singing, yoga, romping through woods and fields, swimming, making mud pies…

    1. The story of Nick Darke, his recovery and thoughts are inspiring. I think he is right. Our brains are indeed lazy, and we need to stop overthinking things. And getting physical is definitely one way to losen up the brain-works. Thank you for sharing this, Tish.

  2. I’ve started taking what I think is a pretty good photo and dissecting it on purpose, subtracting pieces (cropping) and sometimes finding something altogether different and revealing. And sometimes it kills me to maybe show the “lesser” photo, but I’m finding a different perspective of my current rut. Thanks, Otto, for this post.

    1. It’s an interesting exercise to start cropping an image trying to find something completely new. It does give a different perspective. Thanks for adding to the lest of ways to perform creative destruction.

  3. My first thought when I read “creative destruction” was to erase the stack of SD cards full of photos I haven’t even looked at yet. Does this ever happen to you, Otto, when the backlog of old work becomes so overwhelming that you don’t even feel like shooting anymore? Perhaps I should follow Tish’s advice and forget about it, an just go for a walk instead. Great food for thought!

    1. I will have to stop you erasing those SD cards. That’s destructive destruction! Rather go for Tish’s adviser, or just upload the photos to a harddisk and keep them there for a while before you return to them. Maybe a year or even more. But delete is not allowed. 🙂

      1. Well … if you say delete is not allowed, I will obey you, Otto! But I will also obey Tish and go for a long walk. With my camera, of course. 😉

  4. I feel like this is what I’ve been doing the past several months. In an effort to create something unique, and different I am in an essence destroying the original photo to create my new art. This past weekend was the first unveiling so to speak, at the art show we did. I got positive reaction, and a lot of…I’ve never seen anything like this.

  5. Once again your post has hit a nerve and seems particularly timely for me Otto. Lots to think about here in my own personal and writing endeavours.

  6. Much to think about in this post as well…I often “destroy” photos in the post processing. I love to change them completely into styles/colours/shapes I never use in my photography. Often I am very happy with the results, but I almost never let those works go into my blog posts. I really should, because they develop into another me, another way of looking at the world.
    Thank you for making us think – and think again, Otto.

  7. This is such timely advice Otto, and apparently I’m not the only one.who feels that way. I imagine there are many feeling fatigued with what we are working at creatively ( and for those burning out in their business/work life unrelated to art as well). Freeing ourselves of the fear of failing is the only way to step out of familiarity and take risks, breaking the cycle of boredom. Excellent advice and wonderful article. Thank you Otto!

  8. At first, I didn’t see that the bucket was hung from a broken limb. Instead, I saw a figure (a troll? an elf? an unknown woods-creature?) with its arms upraised, in the process of tossing the bucket away. It’s a perfect image for your post. Too often, we tote around a bucketful of old routines, old beliefs, and old assumptions. If we just toss them out, and empty the bucket, that’s when we can fill it up with something new.

  9. Only now, I realise that I am at a point in my creative endeavours that leaves me feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. So many times I have tried to stop myself from walking away and yet I am held on the spot. My creativity is like tangled vines that hold onto me. I feel stuck. I ask myself why. Why do I do what I do without any purpose at all except for the sake of creating. Then I read this and realised that I have been in the creative destruction phase for so long that I have lost a part of myself. The irony is that everything I did up until this point was depressing and looking back on my work, I don’t like it because I am back in the moment that I felt down for whatever reason. I thought to myself, people don’t want to see this. They want happy. Then I realised that it was me who wants happy. Perhaps I can allow myself more freedom to take risks and be free to enjoy it whether I make mistakes or not? I think you have just given me the key. Thank you for posting such a great article ❤

    1. Don’t we all get stuck in this place from time to time. It is important to take risks, and not the least to allow yourself to make mistakes. If happy is what you really want, then go for happy in your creative endeavours. Thank you for sharing your experience, Suzi. And good luck finding the joy of being creative again.

  10. I dislike destroying anything, but sometimes things can be like a Rubik’s cube, you have to undo things in order to move forward to the next step. Thanks for giving me thoughts to think about.

    1. I think there is a difference between destroying and destroying. You certainly don’t want to tear down one of the pyramids, but you definitely could apply some creative destruction in the way you render it in one of your paintings.

  11. I find that one way of ‘destroying’ an image is through the use of the zoom, whether on the camera or during processing. For several years now my vision has been affected by macular degeneration. The application of the zoom has given my photography a new lease of life!

  12. How do you do that Otto? You often seem to be able to read my mind … what I am thinking and feeling about my photography. Yes, I’m feeling like I’m in a slump … bored with everything I’m shooting and downloading these last few weeks. Maybe it’s that I worked so hard during fall. I’m telling myself, maybe I just need a break. Not to worry though. I’ve experienced these slumps before and always come out of them, when I have my next success or find something to be excited about again.

    1. That’s good thing about having experienced these periodes slumps before; you know you will eventually get out of them again. A break is often good, and then maybe some creative destruction?

  13. Great advice, Otto, for shaking things up. I love the description of childern’s creative destruction, and your examples of what photographers can do, too. These are good ideas even if you’re not at a standstill.

  14. I’ve not previously heard the term “creative destruction,” Otto, but I really appreciate the concept. I also think that a willingness to fail and begin again in a new direction is a helpful perspective. Being stuck in the fear of making a mistake–whatever that may look like–is paralyzing. You provide a very positive shift in perspective that is helpful!

  15. The term was new to me, too, Otto, but I think it helps remind us that there is no such thing as perfection on a first try (at least for most of us, most of the time). When I handwrite an essay, which I often do on a first draft, the sheet of paper looks very messy-crossed out words, arrows linking different sentences with one another, alternatives written above the original word choice. I am destroying what I am writing while I am writing. It is to be hoped that something creative will come out of the process. 🙂

  16. Great blog Otto – really made me think. I do get really “brain dead” with my photography and art. About the only thing that draws me out is to look at what has been done in the past or even very recently. I tend to save down anything I like into a screensaver and it amazes me how often something pops up and takes me in a different direction. I guess that is not exactly creative destruction, but it often points me in another direction. That seems to challenge the brain into trying something different.

  17. I am currently in the down cycle in the ‘creative destruction’ process. I was laid off from a well paying job in July and have found few opportunities to replace the work and income in the industry where I have spent the last 27 years. I have been laid off twice in the past three years and no longer want my fate to be in the hands of executives who do not have my best interests at heart.

    I am now switching gears and pursuing a long dormant passion to write. My original plan was to begin writing so to create an income stream for my retirement years. It appears fate is accelerating my timeline to get started sooner.

    Take courage, take risk, pursue your creative passion and resist the temptation to remain in the comfort zone of complacency.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your job situation. At the same time it might become a possibility to do something you are passionate about. I think your attitude is admirable and one to look up to. Changing course is never easy, but I hope you will both succeed and enjoy the change.

  18. Your musings on creativity are always interesting reading! This one is not an exception. I have to mull over the concept of creative destruction some more…

  19. The suggestion to rotate and focus on what’s behind is a great one, and it made me smile! Last week at a dance recital, I noted that the stage lights in ‘red’ mode were the most difficult for getting good photos. The reds flared – as they would say here in Spanish – ore-REEEEEL-blee! I thought of you and knew that you’d be able to show immediately what to do… though my camera is in dire need of a good lens cleaning – molds growing on the back side of the lens from the wet climate, ahem, being out in the weather to photo/identify birds! After the earthquake, i’ve not been able to find the man who took apart and cleaned digital cameras – eventually we’ll connect again.

    As for your most-recent post, yes, we all reach crossroads, sometimes they are challenges, but always looking back we see that we were right where we needed to be…

    Enjoy your holiday time, your incubation, and whatever direction you feel is the best for Otto!

    1. Red stage light is difficult, because it removes contrast and makes everything look flat. One reason is red light often gets over-saturated when capture as a photo. One way to deal with the problem is in post-processing, by desaturating red and making it somewhat darker. You problem with molds growing on your lens, is quite a special problem that most people would never have to deal with. I hope you will find someone who can take care of the problem.

      Thank you for the lovely comment, Lisa. I wish you a wonderful holiday season.

      1. good morning otto!
        it’s comforting to see your suggestion for red-light issues, a problem that probably many of your readers might have. more than half-way through the recital, i started taking short videos, then used screen shots, which captured some of the moments better than the still images did.
        whenever i find that amazing ‘camera fixer man,’ i will rejoice. before the earthquake, he charged 20 dollars to take apart the camera, clean and repair it, then present it back in much-better shape! the guayaquil panasanic/lummix dealer wanted 100 dollars just to look at it!

        whatever you choose to do in 2019, you will continue to make positive and lasting differences in people’s lives.

  20. I print out several pages of my work and cut them into squares. I put the squares into a bag, shake the bag and write while pulling words and phrases from the bag. I don’t know if this qualifies as creative destruction but it gets me going. 🙂

  21. What an interesting idea, Otto – creative destruction…. I’ve never tried that before. As a child, I always had a lot of fun building sandcastles at the seashore, and then, as the tide started to come in, jumping all over my carefully constructed sandcastle, getting sandy and wet! 🙂 I think it’s much easier to do this as children! Building puzzles – and taking them apart again, is also both creation and destruction. 🙂 But how to apply the idea to photography… I love how you always make us think, Otto!

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