Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Start with the Box!

Munchow_Tour

I often state that as creatives or artists—in whatever medium you are working—we should more often break the rules, not feel confined to conformed understanding; or as it is often expressed: be thinking outside of the box. At the same time, I acknowledge that those rules or all that which comes with traditional craftsmanship is there to help us learn and develop. It can be seen as accumulated wisdom (collected over centuries or even millenniums by artists before us) functioning as guidelines more than rules. Only when it starts to limit our creativity is all that accumulated knowledge becoming a limitation.

What I am trying to say is this: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.

We need to learn the basics of our craft. If you understand the traditional craftsmanship, that is—when speaking about photography—the technical aspect of handling the camera, understanding composition, having thorough knowledge about light’s influence on a photo, and being familiar with the visual language of photography; only then do you achieve full freedom to express your intentions with a photograph.

Some believe learning the traditional craftsmanship will limit their artistic voice. However, I do not agree to that perception. As I see it, knowing will only make you freer—as long as you do not let those old rules confine your creativity. It can actually—and most likely will—become a resource for expressing your artistic intent.

Yet, the result may well be an unliberated or constricted photographer, if he or she in a mechanical fashion attempt to reproduce a rigid, pre-established vision and in so doing is averting the possibility of seeing the unexpected—which I have just written enthusiastically about in various posts last week. This kind of restricted awareness can indeed impoverish a photographer’s vision and art. As Philippe L. Gross writes in his book Tao of Photography; “Imprisoned by the discriminatory mind, the photographer with constricted awareness is unable to appreciate the boundless visual richness of the world that lies beyond the filters and projections imposed by mental constructs. Only when the photographer can become free of the discriminatory mind can creative, unconstructed seeing occur.”

It may seem at first that Gross believes the box—to use this expression—is actually constricting the photographer. However, that is not his conclusion. The point—and my point, too—is not to throw this box of traditional understanding away, but use it as well as thinking beyond what the box contains. Thinking outside the box only becomes possible when you have a box in the first place.

In his book, Gross does not use expressions such as a box and thinking outside of the box, but uses the term Little Understanding for the traditional craftsmanship and Great Understanding for being open to the world—both inside and outside—and having an unconstructed awareness. Philippe Gross makes a point that to develop our true artistic voice we need both.

He writes; “General speaking, Little Understanding in camerawork represents the frame of mind that concentrates on techniques, sets goals, applies photographic rules, arranges a scene to fit a desired outcome, and attempts to gain control over the subject. Great Understanding, on the other hand, corresponds to the photographer’s ability to respond holistically and spontaneously to a scene without overtly interfering with the subject. Ultimately, the liberated photographer is a companion of both forms of understanding: to develop one’s artistic ability demands first fully knowing and then transcending techniques—seeing, feeling, and responding holistically to a photographic scene.”

In other words, mastery of the craft’s skill does not mean rejecting the thinking outside of the box. It simple means freedom from the belief that traditional craftsmanship is a reliable, necessary, and, not the least, an exclusive guide to artistry. The creative and free artist can make use of the box without being entangled by it.

I will not conceal the fact that photographers are biased about this, particularly when it comes to compositional rules. In The Essence of Photography Bruce Barnbaum writes that in his book he does “not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginning or experienced, to avoid any instruction that claims there are—it’s bogus.”

Not surprisingly after what I have written so far, I do not agree with Barnbaum (still, I do recommend the book; it is a very personal and insightful book about his photographic approach. I only disagree with him on this point). Well, there are no rules as such—of course. Nevertheless, painters for centuries and photographers for almost two have built upon each other an understanding of what works and what normally does not work in order to create a balanced composition that is best read by the eyes’ movements. Of course, that may not be your intention—which is just fine. But these ageless compositional rules—which I would rather regard as guidelines, because no one has to follow them, indeed—can be very helpful for particular beginners who try to come to grasp with creating a photo that somehow works compositionally. And of course, any time those guidelines can be broken, as I have always been encouraging.

However, and here I am in total agreement with Bruce Barnbaum, he writes: “You have to be flexible at all times, and you have to work with the situation you’re in, even if it’s not the one you wanted.” Yes, and I would like to add; use all of yourself in the process, whatever you have in the box and whatever you can find outside of it.

Seeing Beyond

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                 Do you see the iguana?

The way we human beings have developed our seeing, that is to objectify and label everything around us, is unfortunately restricting us more than it is aiding us when we photograph. Because – as I wrote in my post Photographically Seeing a couple of weeks ago – the way our eyes see and the way the camera sees is quite different, we almost need to unlearn our regular way of seeing. Instead of for instance identifying a horse as a “HORSE”, that is a horse as an idea or a label, we need to pause our usual scanning with the eyes and rather discover the uniqueness of that particular horse. Objectifying is perfect for daily survival so that we can respond quickly to new situations occurring around us all the time, but not when you want to photograph beyond the obvious.

We will improve greatly as photographers if we can make ourselves see beyond the labels we have wired our brains to register. What instead of a dead, crooked and fallen trunk we can see an iguana climbing over it? Or see – and photograph – the most beautiful landscape in some clothes piled up on a drawer? What I am talking about is being imaginative and changing our usual perspective. When we were kids we had no problems seeing other realities in the world around us, seeing beyond the labels, we as grown-ups are so stuck with. We all delighted doing it when we were kids, pretending to see or seeing things invisible to others. Socialization, adaptation and communication, however, introduced a different agenda and began to mould perceptual conformity. Our reconstructing skills or imaginations – being able to see beyond the labels – were lost.

Open our minds beyond labels and beyond the obvious can open a whole new world for our photography. Derek Doeffinger, a photograph who has written a dozen books about photography, for instance, suggests that «instead of seeing the horseness of a horse, you might see it as a landscape – the prairie of its back rising into a mountainous neck. Or you may see it as a temple supported with four slender columns.»

Developing our receptiveness is a most effective way to avoid photographic clichés. When asked what he looks for in photographing, Michael Smith replied: «I am not looking for anything. I am just looking – trying to have a full an experience as possible. The point is to have a full experience –the photograph is just a bonus.»

In many ways I am talking about training the capacity to discover new ways of apprehending the world. Are you ready to see beyond seeing? Take a look at the photo beneath. How many different animals or other objects can you see in those rocks? .

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Ten Years of Blogging

The first photo I posted on my blog June 9th 2011.

Between the previous post and this one, I could celebrate ten years of blogging. It’s been ten years full of fun and unforgettable exchanges between me and the blogger community—between you and me.

Over the years I have developed an outlet for thoughts about photography and more specifically creativity, which has been of enormous value for me—and hopefully for those who have followed me over the years, you included. I have learned and read about creativity to be able to write more comprehensively about the subject. Thus, these ten years have been a personal travel into enlightenment for myself.

Nevertheless, what has given me the greatest pleasure is the contacts, connections and new friendships I have developed with people from all over the world. Of course, that is what social media is all about—or out to be about. It’s been eye-opening and delightful to meet with people with different backgrounds, cultures and thoughts compare to where I come from. With you. To debate, disagree, reflect or learn from or with each other has been vastly expanding, both on a personal and on a cognitive level. Moreover, I have even met with fellow bloggers in person and cultivated new, personal friendship with people I would never have met if not for the blogging community.

My blogging has definitely developed over the years. Starting out ten years ago, I had no idea what I embarked upon. The first blog posts were not necessarily very refined or cohesive, but slowly I have found my style and signature as I have gained a better understand of blogging and what I want to write about. I threw myself in it with great enthusiasm. However, as with all things in life, the energy somewhat and slowly changed. I the beginning it was all about likes and getting responses, almost for any price, nowadays I am more concerned with the dialogue and expressing my heart’s content.

Naturally, blogging flows like waves on the sea. Sometimes, the vigour is high and aflame, at other times mellower and maybe even somewhat indifferent. It’s simply not possible to keep the passion burning bright and intense at all times. Nevertheless and looking back, I have immensely enjoyed being part of the blogging community.

In my first blog post from June 9th 2011, I wrote: “It is easier than ever to take photographs—or make photographs—at least when we speak in terms of technical achievements. At the same time, more technical options and possibilities have opened up for new approaches to the photographic expression. But despite the technical revolution in photography, the bottom line hasn’t changed. As photographers we still need to speak to our viewers, we still have to engage them with our pictures; we still need to express our innermost self to make the photographs interesting for others and we still need to be able to tell our story by a visual language – as has always been the case.”

That hasn’t changed. And it’s also true for blogging. As a blogger, I hope to be able to speak to you and other followers and be able to engage you in a continuing dialogue. Maybe for another ten years… Thus, paraphrasing my first blog post, maybe we can walk the new road that has opened up together. I would very much enjoy that.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Photographically Seeing

Jenny Pastore i sitt hjem

For a photographer seeing is where it all starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you “only” see like you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

For many people—photographers and viewers alike—a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation, or the fact that the camera sees quite differently than human beings do. You want to capture a nice moments with you friends? You raise the camera or the cell phone, and capture a photo without much more thought to it. But for those of us who pursue photography as a creative, artistic and/or personal expressive endeavour, we learn to see like the camera, we learn to recognize what has a potential to become a captivating photo and we learn that the scene in front of the camera is only a starting point for the photographic journey.

It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you are looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you are not only seeing that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

Most of the time, that is not how we see. Our mind is simply not set up to spend a lot of time contemplating about things we see. To be able to survive—and this has been developed over the course of human existence—our eyes constantly scan the scenery and interpret on the fly whatever is. We want to detect anything dangerous as quickly as possible, we want to be able to get things done without having to process the smallest of visual clues. In this process of learning to see, already as babies we start to categorize things. When you see a book for the first time, you spend time figuring out what it is. You study it intently and in depth. But then when you see the book for the fifth, the tenth or the fiftieth time, you slowly start to recognize what it is without having to put you full attention to it. After a while your mind makes a mental picture, characterizes it and labels it “BOOK”. You no longer see a book when you encounter one although your unconscious mind has recorded it. Consciously you may vaguely register the book, or you may not at all. Our mind objectifies everything to make it easier for us to understand and evaluate what we see. If you do see a book, you don’t see it as a unique book, but as the object “BOOK”.

This is one reason why learning to see with the intention to photograph requires experience. By nature we are only geared to see objects, this is what we been trained to do since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy and other things of importance as he or she grows. Cameras on the other hand capture light. Of course the human eye registers light too, but when the baby grows up it doesn’t really see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. However, that’s exactly how the camera “sees”. Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonality, colours, dimensionality and all other aspects of a scene.

Seeing with the intention to take photographs comes with learning and experience. When I teach workshops a lot of attention goes to seeing and translate what you see with you eyes into something the camera can transform into a captivating photo. As with any other skill, in the end, the more you do it the better you become. Practise makes perfect. And when you learn to see as the camera you will also start to register interesting subjects to be photographed more often and more clearly. Remember my post Seeing before Seeing, in which I asked what triggers you to push the button? The fact is that the better you become in seeing as a photographer, the more clear you will become about what has a potential as a photograph, the more often something will trigger you to photograph, which again will lead you to take better and more captivating photos.

A Double Edged Sword

Selvportrett

Don’t we all have to admit it; that we as photographers or creative persons of some form—at least to some extent—all crave for recognition, one way or another, whether we are professionals or pure amateurs? But don’t we all also know that recognition is a double edged sword? On one hand, yes, it’s nice to get recognized for the work we do, for our effort, but the flip side of the coin is when recognition becomes the driving force for our creativity. Then we stand to lose it, the uniqueness of our vision and expression.

What one day may lead to recognition is ignoring what makes us crave it. That’s the only way we can create from our heart. Without heart and without ourselves invested in our creative work, it only becomes an act of deceit and thus has no artistic or creative value.

What do we actually take for recognition? Money? Fame? Both—when talking about creativity—are black holes that easily destroy us and the uniqueness that sets us apart as artists. Being true to our inner artist may, if we are lucky, result in work that sells or gain recognition—but often not. If money determinates what is good art, neither Paul Gaugain nor Vincent van Gogh were artists worth our attention. But despite lack of recognition, fame and money in their time, they kept doing what they felt they were meant to do. Their creativity flourished and had to be expressed, it wasn’t depending upon recognition.

Only by doing what comes from inside of us, without second thoughts to money or fame, may we be true artists, be true to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we are professionals or amateurs. Still the professional is often caught up in the money-game since after all he or she is making a living out of a creative field. Thus for them it’s even more important to protect their own integrity and their inner artist.

Often enough I may have to make my editors happy by doing what they want me to do, but still I try to bring my own vision into the equation. Sometimes it won’t work, but then I can always fall back on my own personal projects in which I only answer to myself. And even if amateurs don’t create for money, they can still fall into the trap of recognition and fame. We all want it—in one way or another, no?

As Julia Cameron writes in her book The Artist’s Way: «I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem—whether it will sell or not. I need to create what wants to be created.»

The same goes for photographers. Our vision needs to be expressed, whether the pictures sell or not, whether they will bring us fame or not. The joy is really to feel how our vision—our true creativity—becomes reality, becomes expressed. That is the biggest fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction. The creative process in itself is what makes it exciting. Let’s not confuse it with money or fame. Let’s not slip into the black whole of vanity.

May 17th

An unusual post from me. It’s the national day of Norway. May 17th 1814 the country was liberated from almost 300 years under Danish ruling. Well, the fact was that Denmark was on the wrong side of the Napoleonic Wars—and lost Norway to Sweden in 1814. Sweden was on the winning side of the wars. Despite celebrating the establishment of the Norwegian constitution in May 17th 1814, the country still wasn’t free. Only in June 1905 did Norway get its true independence.

I am not really much of a patriot—rather an internationalist—but I feel fortunate and privileged to live in a country with a functional democracy, or at least as much as possible in any country, and not the least in country with free healthcare and education, and even with social care mostly being accepted from all political parties, albeit at various levels. Norway has a high degree of equality although the distribution of wealth has gone more in favor of the rich over the last 50 years—as in the world generally.

Incubation Time

Last week I spoke with a photographer. She told me she had lost inspiration and hadn’t photographed for a long while—despite her love for photography. The frustration was radiating out of every word she spoke. She so wanted to find a way back to her muses.

Of course, I had no wonder cure for her ailment. I certainly couldn’t bring back the muses just like that. Nobody would, included herself. Nevertheless, I told her that any photographer, anyone doing creative work, experiences times of lapses when nothing seems to move forward, but rather the creative life comes to a standstill.

Creativity works in a flux. Sometimes we are on top of everything and creativity seems to ooze out of every pore. At other times, the head feels embalmed in cotton or some thick substance that keeps every creative thought out of reach.

It’s just the natural order of things.

The more we experience this lapse of creativity—and the regaining of it again after some time—the more we can accept the condition without panicking. In addition, what is just as important to realize, is that those dry spells are not only part of a natural flux, but in fact part of the creative process itself.

We may feel uninspired, but our subconscious is still working for us. It’s the natural way of replenishing our creative well. As photographers, and as any artist, we need to realize that we have to maintain a balance between what we take out of the well and the need to replenishing it. Sometimes we experience dry spells because we have drawn heavily on the creative well, even over-tapped it. It’s like overfishing a pond, it leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain, for the creative ideas we require. Our work dries up, we lose inspiration, and we wonder why, “just when it was going so well”.

Creativity needs replenishing. Sometimes because we have overfished the pond. Other times because we need the small fry to grow big before we want to catch it. The latter corresponds to a variation of replenishing: Creativity needs incubation time.

We do so by letting it all go, and letting the subconscious work its own mysterious ways. Suddenly it’s all back again, fresh and eager to express itself again. We can even help the process. By doing something totally different. Going for a walk. Visiting a gallery. Cooking. Go paragliding. You name it. Even sleep. Haven’t we all experienced, struggling with some Gordian knot, going to bed without having resolved the problem, only to wake up next morning—eureka—having found the solution.

It’s like on an overcast and raining day. It might feel disheartening and dark, but if you think about it, you know that the sun will eventually shine upon you again. It just needs some incubation time to burn the clouds away.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/