Play is Not Only for Kids

You may never have heard about the Brownie, the first easy to use camera introduced by Kodak. It was a huge success—it was the GoPro of 1901. Despite the fact that the latter is infinitely more advanced than the Brownie, both have one thing in common. Their introductions encouraged a more playful photographic approach. Without all the serious features that photographers have come to expect today, the Brownie seemed less like tools and more like toys. Even back then, the elitists scoffed, but amateurs picked up these magic boxes and started to have fun. The secret to the wild success of both the Brownies and GoPros was and are the features they don’t have.

Fun and simple cameras have a broad appeal. Consider the iPhone or any other smart phone, the most popular cameras in the world. Even kids know how to take photographs and scroll through the frames. And without the worry of making costly mistakes, the camera becomes an extension of who we are. Without the burden and expectation that comes with heavy and expensive gear, the photographer stops being concerned. And without the pressure of performing, we become more relaxed. When we let go of our self-critical bent, we take more risks.

Picasso famously said, “the chief enemy of creativity is common sense.” Common sense is a con artist that steals growth and joy. With age we become more and more conform, more practical, yes even cynical. We stop playing as we used to when we were kids.

If we want to grow as photographers, we need to let go, not think too much in terms of final result. Play more. Artists of all kinds know this. They allow themselves to doodle, sketch, play, iterate and test out new ideas. The musician practices a riff. The writer goes through rough drafts. The painter sketches her ideas. The poet jots down a few lines. The most productive practice happens when we can block the critical voices in our heads, when we can let our guard.

When we play more, we worry less and the creative juices flow without any effort at all. Play diminishes stress and helps us relax. Play and work is similar; it’s just that play is more fun. But don’t make the mistake that play isn’t profound. The neuroscientist Dr. Stuart Brown says, “Nothing lights up the brain like play. Play isn’t just for kids. It necessitates a mental shift that changes how we approach our work. In fact, we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. According to Dr. Brown, “When we stop playing, we start dying”. Which means, play isn’t just a game; it keeps us creative, flexible, and young.

Kids are creative without knowing what they have done. They make up games with toy cars and without self-awareness or a self-critical voice in their head; they let their creativity freely go where it may.

So why not try something you have never done? Why not take the risk to iterate and test out new ideas? Look deep within and you will see a creative force bubbling up inside. The force wants to be free. It wants to roam wild. Let it off leash and give it some space. Maybe it could even involve playing with a “simple” camera, such as a GroPro or just your cell phone.

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Backyard Abstraction

I have been back in my backyard. You know shooting for my backyard project. If you have followed my blog for a while, you don’t need any introduction to this project. But for new readers, here is a short and quick outline: Every so often—since 2011 in fact—I have used my backyard experimenting with my photography, shooting in ways I would normally not.

Now that autumn is about to fade out into the next season, the colours are maybe less intense than a month ago, but still plentiful. However, instead of focusing on the autumn colours in a traditional way, this time I went for a more abstract approach.

Moving the camera while using a longer shutter speed is nothing new. But playing around with direction and different ways of moving the camera, I discovered that shooting up against the sky created some beautiful, mixed shapes in the boundaries between highlights and the much darker leaves. I experimented with the shutter time, and shot with anything from a ¼ of a second to a couple of seconds. The images captured were extremely low contrasting, though, so in postproduction I had to amp up the contrast significantly. Usually increasing the contrast will also increase the saturation, so I chose to de-saturate the colours drastically.

If you haven’t seen my previous photos, here is the links to post about my backyard project: Shooting Sideways, Backyard Bliss, Experimental Backyard, My Photographic Retreat, My Backyard Project, My Personal Challenge, The World from the Backyard, Instagram my Backyard, Out of Comfort Zone and Challenge and Expand.

Training the imagination


It is the imagination that makes an artist capable of going beyond anything he or she has learned about the craft and from others in the field. It’s the imagination that makes the artist create something new in his or her own work; a new idea, a new approach, a new point of view, a new effect, a personal style. A person may read all the right books on the craft, attend lectures, go to school, and yet still not be able to do anything but copy from what he or she has learn. But we all have imagination and creativity latent in ourselves and it’s possible for all to bring out and develop that potential.

A good way to train one’s imaginative faculties is through mental exercises: try to imagine different ways of doing the same thing, different ways of rendering the same subject, different applications of means and technique. When confronted with an artistic problem we may try to visualize how the subject would appear from a different point of view – for instance in photography from higher up, from lower down, from the side, from the rear. Or how would it appear if the subject would be taken farther away with a telephoto lens? What would happen if a wide-angel lens were used? What about a different type of illumination?

By investigating systematically every controllable factor which contributes to the appearance of the work of art, by patiently searching for other ways than the obvious one for solving a specific problem, by critically analyzing the result of these investigations, by making clever use of the possibilities inherent in the subject, the inventive artist creates the kind of work that makes less patient or less creative artists exclaim: Why didn’t I think of that? How could I overlook such possibilities! Haven’t we all experienced this feeling at some point? But don’t worry, though, don’t get discourage by other’s creative work, it’s all about training your imagination.

Another way to do so is exactly to study and analyse the work of other imaginative artists, much as the student artist learns by studying the work of the masters. I believe there is no artist who, in one way or another, has not been influenced by the thought and work by others. Such influences are necessary catalysts to the artistic growth and development of any creative personality. We are not talking about imitation, but influence.

How do you train your imagination? And keep it sharp every day?

Photo Workshops in Planning

Two of the participants during the Bolivia workshop in 2013
The participants of the 2010 Bolivia workshop

Sitting at my desk here in Seattle, looking out at the cold mist cramping down on the urban scenery outside my window, I can all the more enjoy spending time planning next year’s photo workshops. Honestly, it’s always fun to plan upcoming workshops. I love teaching and planning is part of the built-up.

If everything goes according to plan, next year I will teach four workshops on three different continents. Some of them will be very adventurous while others while be more laidback. They will vary from weekend long workshops to a tour stretching almost a fortnight. There should be a workshop for most aspiration. Maybe I’ll see you in one of them?

Once again, I will teach a photo workshop in Cuba in May. This is my most popular workshop, which I teach together with my friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann. We have done this since 2007, almost every year. Here on my blog I have written many a post about Cuba, and if you follow me, I don’t need to introduce you to this fascinating country. It’s certainly a country that it’s a dream place for most photographers, colourful with openhearted people and photo opportunities around every corner.

Next year’s photo workshop will take place from May 4th to 11th. If you may be interested, you’ll find more information on Blue Hour Photo Workshops, «Street Photography in Cuba».

For Sven and me it’s extra exciting to re-launch a photo workshop in Bolivia. This will be a truly adventurous workshop, in which we follow the footsteps of Che Guevara, up until he was captured and killed by the Bolivian army. We will travel through small mountain towns and off the beaten tracks in a lush and beautiful landscape. We will meet local people and we will talk with some of those who took care of Che Guevara after he was captured. In all modesty, this is quite an extraordinary photo workshop.

The Bolivia workshop will take place from September 15th to 24th. For more information, once again look up Blue Hour Photo Workshops, «On the Tracks of Che Guevara».

In addition to the Cuba and Bolivia workshop, I will teach yet another weekend workshop in Bergen, Norway in the beginning of June. Next year I also plan a complete new photo workshop in Seattle, USA. The date is yet not settled, but it will take place in the autumn of 2019. These two workshops I will get back to with more info.

Find Your Own Way

Do you confine yourself doing what you know your peers like or what is considered “good” photography? Do you show work to get positive feedback instead of giving the rest of the world your take on whatever it is you have photographed—or painted or written about or…? At least talking for myself, I know that is so easy to fall back on conformities and too easy to take the well-trodden path.

Some time ago, I came across a blog post by David duChemin, the Canadian photographer based out of Vancouver. He writes about a village in China called Dafen where thousands of painters make a living by making replicas of world famous paintings. They do this year in and year out, being very accomplished at it. If you can’t pay the millions it cost to get hold of a Picasso, you may get a copy by one of these very skilled painters in Dafen for a just a few dollars.

His point is that however good the paintings from Dafen may be, they are not art. They do not offer anything to the world except cheep copies of something that once did and still do create aw and admiration in the art world. The copies themselves do not. As skilful as these painters in Dafen are, nobody will ever become inspired by them, or boosted by them, or stimulated by them. Crafts in itself is not enough, an artists needs to put some of her or his soul into the creation to touch anyone else.

I know art is lofty and pretentious word, and if you are like me, you probably hesitate a little to call yourself an artists. But it still doesn’t change the point and it still doesn’t change fact that both you and I most likely are photographing—or painting, sculpturing, writing, making music or whatever you do—out of a desire to fulfil a creative desire.

In so doing we want to creating something that at best may touch others or at least be or some inspiration or maybe just result in a smile in another’s face. That is pretty close to art, in my opinion. However, according to duChemin, “if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own.”

We need to leave Dafen—figuratively speaking. We need to break out of conformity and what is considered the “right way”. Because there is no right way. There are no rules, and if you believe there are, then break those damn rules. Jump out of the stereotype and become yourself in the creative process. As duChemin says; you don’t want to spend your life imitating others, do you?

It takes one thing, though, and that is courage. It takes courage to be yourself. It takes courage to create on your own terms. In takes courage to stand out from the crowd and not be like everybody else. It takes courage to accept your own quirks and oddities. However, it’s from this place you will find your true, artistic expression. You art will grow deeper and become more authentic if you draw the artistic expression from your real self, the one that you sometimes, or most of the time, try to hide—as I wrote in my post Embrace Your Oddities some time ago.

As David duChemin writes in this post: “We’re all trying so damn hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not to be different, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.”

Skills and craft are good and necessary to be able to express ourselves, just like you need to learn your mother tongue to be able to express yourself with words. But take it to the next level. When talking about photographing, don’t just show us where you have been or what something looks like. Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it.

If you haven’t visited David dChemin’s blog, I strongly recommend to do so. He is full of inspiration, encouragement and a well of poignant thoughts about photography and art. Start here then: Leaving Dafen (From Craft to Art).

Don’t Ever Give Up

It takes grit to pursue creativity. Being creative means fighting against all odds—most of all ourselves. However, the creative fight is less a battle for glory than a pursuit of personal spirit and finding a way to express it without fear. It’s not a gladiator’s brawl, but rather a solitary struggle with ourselves.

In previous post over the years I have used our playful relationship with water (at least before we grow too old) as a metaphor for creativity. Extending this metaphor, the creative fight is not Michael Phelps competing for Olympic gold but more like swimming to an inviting island off the coast somewhere. The Olympic Games are hyped up, and they are loud. When we swim to go somewhere, it’s discreet. We use ingenuity, agility and guts to accomplish our goal. Phelps swim against others, but swimming to reach that island is a fight within.

I think that we create with such a drive in mind. At least for me, I create for the sheer joy of making something for myself. Yes, I would like to get recognition, but that is not what is driving me. As when I have swum out to that island, there is great gratification to be had when I can enjoy the view from the island that I have earned.

The creative fight doesn’t gloat and it doesn’t crush. Yet the creative person isn’t some pushover that’s afraid of a difficult task.

One characteristic that makes someone a good swimmer is grit. Grit can be defined different ways. It can be thought of as tiny particles of crushed rock. Taking this perspective a bit further, the oyster reminds us that without grit, there is no pearl. Grit is a character that is a mixture of courage, resolve and strength. Like small granite rocks, grit is strength that won’t give up. Those who are gritty have a passion to pursue a goal over an extended amount of time. No one is born with grit. It’s grown into us through difficulties of life.

Earlier this year, I ran my head into a wall. Not literally, but in pursuit of a creative job. I was shooting an assignment for a magazine here in Norway. It was about a couple who had moved to an island to live off the grid, to support themselves as sheep farmers and of fisheries. They had been looking for a harmony missing in contemporary life—and had found their private Eden on the island. It was a fun assignment, offering plenty of creative possibilities. I didn’t have to swim to their island, but it still took some organizing to get there since there was only one regular boat transport a week. The shooting was really fun and I felt it went very well. However, when I got back and prepared to upload the photos, I discovered that the memory card was corrupted. It was a first for me, but nevertheless devastating.

I could have given up. Called the magazine and explained that I wasn’t able to deliver on time, knowing I would have to wait a week for the next regular boat to take me back to the island. Instead, I refused to give up. That evening I called all friends I knew had boats nearby the island and asked if anyone would be willing to take me back. One of the last on my list, agreed to do it. Early next morning I was back with the couple.

I don’t know if you have had to do a reshoot of something you thought went pretty good the first time. Mentally, it feels like having to clean up your own mess. Not fun and definitely not the best starting point for a creative quest. I pushed my worries and frustrations away, forcing myself to be present in the moment and not thinking at all about what I did the first time I visited the couple. It worked. In the end I think I returned with even better photos than the first time. The editor surely was pleased.

Grit isn’t easy to learn—there aren’t any classes offered in schools. Long time ago I asked a friend of mine who is a triathlon athlete if grit can be taught. He said: “The only way to learn grit is to get out there and get your ass kicked. You have to suffer and you have to fail.” My friend does Ironman triathlons. That is biking 181 km, running a full marathon of 42.2 km on top on swimming 3.9 km. He knows what he is talking about.

Grit isn’t something that you will find on an online course. It’s gained while in pursuit of something big. Grit requires belief that it can be done. It means don’t give up when the going gets tough.

The Curse of Good

Technology has helped us improve our creative output dramatically. It’s probably more obvious in photography than in any other creative endeavour. As a result, there are a lot more good photographers in the world. Good isn’t the big deal. Simply point and click. Yet, a few of the good photographers become truly great. Why is that?

Good is easy, but greatness is always hard. When I started out as a photographer, I wasn’t even good. Of course, that’s always how it is in the beginning. Back then, with manual and analogue film cameras, it was even harder to get started than today. Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long to become a pretty decent photographer, at least technically speaking. Getting beyond that level, though, is a much tougher travel—and still is today. Even these days with cameras that do all the thinking.

We all know it. It’s not the camera and it’s not their built-in ability to handle all the technical challenges that makes great photography. It’s still the photographer and his or her willingness to go beyond the obvious. The pursuit for great photography is a quest for hidden things. That’s why the best photographers are such a quirky bunch—like oddly equipped treasure hunters who get out into the world look for the magnificent. Leaving no rock unturned, they search high and low for the perfect shot. The result may still look like an easy accomplishment, but the truth is that effortless and deep photographs take decades of commitment to the craft.

When I teach photography, I am often asked for tricks that can make a student’s photographs better. The truth is, there aren’t any easy tricks that will quickly result in great photography. The curse of today’s technology is that it is fairly quickly to get good at it. That is literally the problem. It’s like inheriting money before you have learned the value of hard work.

Too much good too fast can distract us from a higher goal. When life is good, we stop trying so hard. That’s why so many of the great artists often started out starving. They weren’t only hungry for survival, their hunger infected their art. And, yes, I know it’s a cliché, but not completely. The American author Jim Collins distilled the curse of good in this way: “Good is the enemy of great”. He explained; “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life”.

When we become good, we might not see it this way. We think to ourselves, how can this be a curse? Good feels nice. But good is not a stable spot. We might soon becoming dissatisfactory with the result, particularly when we see others climbing higher than us and thus demoting us. When good is good enough, it stops the creative flow. Not good enough is what drives growth. It’s when we feel that we can still become better that we pursue that next level. And then do it again. And again.

Creative Magic

You may have noticed that this blog of mine has been titled Creativity Is within Us All. It’s not only something I have put there (look to the right), I truly have faith in it. I do believe we are all creative beings—as long as we are willing to uncover our creative abilities, which lies within us. It takes courage. It takes faith. But it’s there. This is how I see it metaphorically: the universe hides gems deep within us, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

Sometimes these gems reveal themselves without any effort from us. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to uncover one. When it happens, however it does, when a sudden idea out of the air appears for our inner eyes, it feels like magic.

Elizabeth Gilbert—the bestselling author of Eat Pray Live—does think it’s magic. Literally. In her book Big Magic about creative living, she writes: “I believe the creative process is both magical and magic.” She believes our planet is inhabited with ideas, as disembodied, energetic life form. These are ideas can only be made manifest through collaboration with a human partner.

“When an idea thinks it has found somebody—say, you—who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re are consumed by your own drama, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration. […] But sometimes—rarely, but magnificently—there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something.”

Personally, I don’t quite believe as literally in ideas as real life forms, but I think, as a metaphor, Gilbert’s description gives a way of understanding how creativity works. It’s the way it feels when we are struck by ideas. As something, that just comes out of nowhere to be grabbed.

It’s up to us what we want to do with ideas that come our way. We can ignore them, we can think it’s too hard to follow through or we can say yes to the idea and make something out of is, however hard it’s going to be. For Gilbert the point is really how you embrace the ideas. She suggests to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with the inspiration. You may not achieve success or make a living in your creative pursuit, but if you welcome creativity into life as such, enjoying being creative for itself, you will thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting , passionate existence.

Another quote from Big Magic: “I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you—but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and search for a different human collaborator. This happens to a lot of people actually. This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open the newspaper and discover somebody else has written your book, or directed your play, or released your record, or […]”

Whether or not you believe in ideas literally as life form is not important. What is important is to act on inspiration when it arrives. Not wait until better times. Not postpone until the idea is fully developed. Not put off until a better idea comes around. Not delay because you don’t feel ready.

Are you ready to act on inspiration when it strikes?

Set Sail


The wind is catching up. After days of no wind at all, suddenly a strong breeze is coming in from behind. It’s time to go. Time to set the mainsail, the jib and the spinnaker. Set all sails you may have onboard, because it’s time to fly. But only those who are ready will get going, and only those who set sail will catch the wind.

Creativity is like sailing the winds. There will almost always be winds – metaphorically speaking a well of creative possibilities. But we must set sail to catch them. Sometimes creativity hits us like a storm and we don’t need to do much to get going. At other times it’s only a small breeze and we need to set all sails to catch whatever wind there is. When we feel creativity has left us, it’s really time to work the sails and catch any small amount of wind that comes in our direction. If on the other hand we sit down and give up, we might be in for a long wait. Nothing happens if we don’t set sail. Or even worse if your boat is not even on the waters.

Setting sail to catch the creative winds means different for different people. For some all it takes is to sit down and start doodling. For others it takes a lot more work. They might have to push though walls of inhibition and creative stillness before being able to catch some wind at all. As I have stated many times before it comes down to doing the work. Keep being creative even when we feel none is coming our way. Or as I wrote last month, doing something different may break the creative block and make you catch the wind again (Break the Block). So set sail and wait for some wind to catch them, because the wind will always come.

Have you set your sails?

Break the Block

We all experience it; the drought, not having ideas, the feeling of being detached from our creative source, the lack of inspiration. Those down times are part of being creative. You just can’t keep flying high and be in constant flow. Sometimes you will have to land and just accept that you need some time to ground yourself again.

Yes, it is frustrating when you hit a creative block. Particularly if it lasts a long time. However, the more you experience it—and the more you create the more you will experience it—the more likely you will know that it’s a temporary state of mind. It seems like the muses have left you, but they will be back again. Maybe not today or maybe not even in a couple of months, but they will. So don’t lose faith. Don’t give up when it happens.

What you definitely should not do, is stop doing something. Just because whatever you do isn’t worth the energy you put into it—in your eyes, at least—it still important to trick the muses to show up again, and you do that with keep working, even if the result is pure rubbish. That’s how you get them back again. I promise.

If you can’t find anything you want to do in your usual endeavour, do something different. Just find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. I write a lot; articles, chronicles, blog posts as you see here and even novels, and every so often I do get stopped by a writer’s block. Then I leave my computer, and start doing something else. I might draw something, even if I am not good at it, I might start to construct a new part of a deck or repair something on the house—I will do something, whatever it is. For me, I find practical work to be a good block breaker. Eventually with enough energy put into this other whatever it is the writing starts to flow again.

Albert Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.

Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes. The Australian writer, poet and critic Clive James lost his flow and stopped writing. But after a long spell of this funk he managed to trick himself back to work—or more correctly, his daughter did. He lost it all after a play he wrote became an enormous failure. After that he thought he would never be able to write again. He almost ruined his family financially, lost friends and fell into a deep depression. It was only when his daughter much later more or less pushed him into painting her bicycle that things started to change. Not immediately—in the beginning he was rather reluctant even to start the painting—but after some time he found pleasure in colouring the daughter’s bicycle in new and imaginative ways. Finally he began to add hundreds of silver and gold stars all over the bicycle. Although his daughter first was a little embarrassed by the artwork, it didn’t take long before a friend of her asked Clive James to do her bicycle as well. Soon he had painted the whole neighbourhood’s bikes. Painting thousands and thousands of stars was a healing process for him. Finally he realized that one day he would write about this. He had found a way back to writing.

In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else. Or, to phrase the famous Stephen Stills song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”.

Go walk the dog, go pick every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, buy a colouring book and colour, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with bright colours and put them in a pile. You may think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t, it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave you arms. Make something. Do something. Do anything.