New Year New Possibilities

We have turned a page. A new and fresh year has been born. And with that change follows hope and new energy. The year we have left behind, will be one to forget in silence, one with too many disappointments and setbacks, a year that knocked the world over and brought it to a standstill—at best. For many people it turned out to be a disastrous year.

We are still not in safe heaven, far from. The virus that came upon us last year, is still making havoc, in fact in many countries, is creating more mayhem than it has so far. Nevertheless, we are facing the prospect of better times again. Hope is back. As new vaccines are put in production and more people are being vaccinated, although it will take time, we are on the track to some normalcy again. Slowly by slowly we will get there.

Personally, I am going to embrace the new year with aspiration and anticipation, both creatively and socially. I believe in changes and that any demise, even a worldwide pandemic, can be used for positive changes. As the saying goes, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. New possibilities will arise in 2021. I will be ready to grab them, and even instigate new opportunities as much as I can. The waiting is over.

I hope you reader is ready, too. To get going again, if only slowly, as the world gets back on its feet. One thing I hope to accomplish is to be of some sort of creative inspiration with this blog. The blog has always been about creativity, but this year I want to focus even more on the creative part of photography—after all my own craft.

As some of you have noticed, I slipped away from the blog sphere part of last autumn. I needed a break and also to find a new direction. Towards the end of the year, I was slowly getting back in to blogging again. However, I admit I didn’t reciprocate your visits. That is one of my goals for the new year, to visit your blogs again. It does take a lot of time to comment on other blogs, so I need to restrain myself a little, but I want to be more active again.

I wish you all the best for 2021. What plans do you have for the new year?

Therapy of Now

The raw material for photography is right now. You can’t take a photo tomorrow. Of course, you can wait until tomorrow, for that particular now when you press the shutter button. But you can’t capture the photo, neither before nor after, if you didn’t do it then. In the same way, you can’t capture a photo yesterday, if you didn’t do it then, in that now.

Photography forces you to be in the present. It’s all about finding the right now to press the shutter button. You can’t vast the moments if you want to photograph. Whatever you didn’t capture now, is forever lost. Photography forces you to pay attention and notice whatever is happening right in front of your eyes. Right now.

The camera is an instrument for presence. By default, photography facilitates mindfulness. No doubt, all creative activity, which allows us to enter flow, will have that affect, but in particular, photography is a forceful catalyst for mindfulness, exactly because it forces us to be so aware of the now.

You can’t worry about what has happened before or about the future, when you are fully aware of the present moment.

The photographic process pulls us into the moment, makes us seize this precious time we never get back. The ability to concentrate and be present is a prerequisite for taking good pictures. What more is, practicing being in the presence when photographing, makes it easier to be present even without a camera.

Whether you capture a photo at a fraction of a second or with a minutes’ long exposure, your mind will be focusing on what is happening right now. In our modern society we all too much think about and plan the future, get stressed by all the things we need to do, have regrets and are bothered by whatever we didn’t get a chance to do or did do but erroneously; there is so much to think about, that we forget to live. In this very now. No matter what, life happens here and now. Not tomorrow and not yesterday. Future plans have no value before they actually happen, or even worse, if they don’t ever come to be realized.

Thus, photography is a mental health catalyst. It gives us a feeling of mastery. Because the way to master the present moment, is also the way to master everything else. It all starts with the first, uncertain step, the first, terrible photo. Right now. Photography is therapy for the mind. It keeps the mind healthy.

Embrace Failure

Here the other night, I was visiting an artist friend of mine. He wanted to discuss early artwork he has created years ago and have rejected, to see if some of the paintings were worth keeping or make changes to in order for them to become complete.

My friend is a successful artist. His paintings have been bought by national galleries and museums, but are quite different from these early works.

We had a constructive and good discussion, talking about reframing, or cropping as we would say in the world of photography, or adding elements or do other changes to the paintings. A lot of the early work came out as really good, and those paintings that weren’t, could be worked into something that would make them great, too. However, quite a few there were no hope for.

All these paintings represent a time when my friend was experimenting a lot with materials, techniques, approaches and artistic expressions. Although they are very different from his later and much recognized work, it was clear, seen in retrospect, that they were necessary steps towards his maturity as an artist and the level that made him renowned and successful.

What stroke me, while it’s something I have often enough emphasized, is the necessity to be willing to experiment and take changes if you want to develop your artistic expression, be it as a painter, a photographer, or anything else creatively. If not, you won’t develop, you will languish as an artist.

However, by taking chance, you risk making something that might become a failure. That lies in whole idea of taking a risk or a chance. If not, there wouldn’t be any risk involved, you wouldn’t be taking any chances.

I think this is so fundamental to acknowledge for yourself if you want to develop as an artist. It means embracing the idea of failure, not as failure in fact, but as necessary steps towards higher artistry. Failures are only failures if you seen them as such. If you take them as possibilities to learn and expand, suddenly they are only part of the process to become ever better.

If you don’t fail, it means you are not developing. If you do fail, it indicates that you are trying to become better or more profound in your skills and artistry. A positive, rather than negative, adaptation.

It’s easy to feel miserable when you fail, whether you don’t achieve what you had set out to accomplish, artistically, or don’t get the recognition you think you deserve. I know, I have been there plenty enough.

The important point is to try to turn it around, so that what you see as failures do not stop you, but rather encourage you to keep on trying. Failures are not failures. But necessary steps in the learning process. No renown artist has gotten his or her recognition overnight, without any prior trying and failing, without labouring and taking chance. The only thing different between them and us is you don’t see all those mistakes and disappointments that they had to prevail.

So embrace failures. They are much more important for your artistic development than your successes. That has been confirmed as well in cognitive behavioural research.

New Energy

I have not been present on my blog for about a month and a half. The last post was the one on September 25th. Maybe you have noticed...

If I have been absent, the world still keeps moving forward in its crooked orbit, no matter what. The numbers of newly infected has skyrocketed all over the world during this time (with the slightly encouraging exception of the African continent—particularly south of Sahara). At the same time, a new president has been elected in the States, bringing some hope to these dark and gloomy times.

All while the world has spun further out of its trajectory, I have done some inventory on my own. The times, limiting most normal activities, almost encourage engaging in some reflective pursuit. Not much else to do these days, anyway. In addition, about to finish a three-month long mentor program I have been teaching, I suddenly find myself with even more time for self-development.

This blog is close to have existed for ten years. I wrote my first blog June 9th 2011. That turned into 790 posts over the next years—not counting this one. Maybe it’s time to do something else? If not, it’s definitely time for changing the framework of the blog. The question is; where do I want to go? Still don’t know, but ideas are emerging.

While still struggling with the future path, let me tell you about my latest photo project. As for people in general, my travelling has been severely limited after the outbreak of covid-19. In fact, I haven’t travelled at all. And I usually spend some hundred days travelling each year. Thus, I have decided to go through my archive of photos, looking for landscape photos from all over the world I could change into something different. I ended up with 37 images in which I have skewed the colours and changed the framing.

The photos are posted on my Instagram account, one each day up until Christmas. I have called the project Cross Colour Landscape, the first image posted here. If you want to follow the series, you’ll find my Instagram site here: www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow.

Let me finally take the liberty to draw your attention to the new eBook I launched this autumn. It goes into depth about seeing with the intention of photographing and how to develop the ability. “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” is 106 pages packed with useful information and practical exercise to make to see what is rather than what you believe is there. You’ll find more info and can order the book here: www.munchow.no/ebook2.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. 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.

Seeing before Seeing

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I often ponder about how we see a photograph before we actually push the button. How do we see in our mind what could potentially become a photo? What triggers us to take the photo before we even think in photographic terms? In some cases—well probably in most cases—we are obviously triggered by the desire to keep the moment as a memory without necessarily being too concerned about whether the subject is photogenic or not. We want to capture the big moments in our kids’ lives, our grandmother’s 90 birthday, holidays with our family, the big party with friends and acquaintances, and the day we bought a new house. These moments we will capture no matter how bad the light might be, how impossible it will be to compose the subject well, or how technically terrible the final result will be.

I am not saying we won’t use our photographic skills in these situations. Of course we will. We won’t drop the camera and let go of taking the photo even when we know it’s going to be far from a perfect snapshot. The question I raise is related to the more creative act of photographing, when we look for aesthetics or subjects or content that expresses a broader and more universal connection. How do our minds first see the image that could potentially turn into a captivating photograph?

Many times I have tried to formulate my own processes of seeing and discovering images—or the commencement of the process before I start to transform those first inner visions into photographs. But words come hard to describe the process and so far I have not found a way to translate it into a sound, written description. Of course, many other photographs have done so, and transformed their knowledge into valuable understanding of the photographic process. Some of these statements have become classical quotes for the photographic community. Still I feel there is some kind of detachment between my own reactive initiation and most of the rational explanations.

One thing I have become more and more certain about is that there are many ways which lead to that initial activation of our photographic vision. Take myself as an example: Many times I have captured a photo before I am even aware I did—while in other cases I am working around the subject until I find a way to capture it in a most compelling way. Right there I guess, I mentioned one element that may trigger the whole photographic vision: The subject itself. In these cases I don’t necessarily see a photo for my inner eye before I start shooting, but I work the subject and use my photographic skills to twist and turn something out of what is an interesting subject for me—interesting not necessarily as a photograph but more for political, social or cultural reasons. The before mentioned family snapshots are a variation of this approach. A lot of my journalistic work could be placed into this category, too. Often these photos are contrived and less fluid than images I have a more intuitive approach to. They don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in a photograph.

However, sometimes I manage to transcend this rational approach and instead I will enter a more unconscious flow. That happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. This I described in the post Tunnel Vision I posted some time ago. For me this is a much more interesting process. The question still remains: When I let go of the rational mind, what does it instead look for? How does it see the photo when I decide to press the shutter button?

I know from my own experience that I often don’t see whatever I photograph as the picture will appear finally processed. I still see in terms of pictures, but in a more abstract way, seeing relations, seeing light, seeing the potential more than in terms of a finished photo. The classical understanding is one that the renowned landscape photographer Ansell Adams described. He was very adamant about the necessity of pre-visualizing. As part of the so-called zone-system he developed for black and white photography, he thought it was required for a photographer to be able to see how the final photo would appear—and already during the capturing make adjustments for that final expression. If are able to see any of Ansell Adams’ photo as real photographic prints, you would be amazed about the richness and tonal depth of his photos. To obtain that technical superiority with the analogue process of those days I think it was indeed necessary to be able to pre-visualize.

Maybe I am not so concern about a technical perfect photo, but am more interested in capturing emotional content and connections in a photo. And maybe I process my photos in different ways depending on what my intentions are—even after the fact. I am definitely more trusting intuition than using pre-visualization as a tool. However I still think my brain has learned how to see in terms of pictures. After a lifetime of capturing and seeing pictures (I don’t know how many hundred thousands it will be by now) I have a certain understanding of what works and I think I see that in a glimpse of moment before I trigger the shutter. I clearly see a subject in terms of compositional placement—unconsciously—and move myself around without thinking in order to arrange the elements in an as strong as possible relationship. I think that accounts for one of my strengths as a photographer; to be able to capture compelling photos in situations when a lot goes on at the same time. And then I really see—and look for—the emotional or connecting moment.

How do you “see” a photo before taking it? What is your mind looking for? Do you recognize for your eye previous seen images? Do you approach the subject with an open mind? Do you use pre-visualization more than intuition—or the other way around? I would love to hear more about how your mind see the images you take—before you take them.

Workshops Postponed

© Sven Creutzmann

The corona pandemic isn’t something soon going away. It has affected us all in many different ways. And the outlook for the rest of the year isn’t exactly promising. Thus, my workshop partner and I have decided to cancel our photo tour to Nicaragua, originally planed to take place in the end of October and beginning of November.

It’s with a sad heart I announce this cancellation. Up until last week we had hoped for a change to the better, but as the situation stands right now, with a second wave hitting many countries, the only responsible thing to do is to cancel this and another workshop I have planned this autumn.

There is no help crying over spilt milk, instead we need to look ahead. First of all, we—and I—will come back with new photo workshops and tours as soon as the corona slows down and makes the world a less unsafe place. Hopefully, already by next year we will see us fit to announce workshops and tours again, although that still remains to see.

In addition we will explore other options. Like one of the participants to the Nicaragua tour suggested after she was made aware of the cancellation: What about creating an online workshop where the participants will get a street photography project for a week, each one in his/ her city or town? Then during the week, the participant will meet on Zoom (or some other online platform) for feedback and professional guidance.

Personally, I like the idea, and I will play with the thought a little over the next weeks. Right now, though, I am already teaching a big online mentor program/workshop that will take most of my time. So if I decide to go for the idea, it will have to wait till later in the autumn. But maybe I can ask for some feedback at this point? Would such a workshop be of any interest?

As I mentioned above, I have decided to cancel another workshop that I teach by myself. It was suppose to take place in September in northern Norway. Technically I could probably have pulled it off, since at least Norwegians can travel freely, still. However, I think I should not encourage any activity that could potentially speed up the second wave of the corona outbreak.

We can stay be creative and keep developing ourselves as photographers—or as any other artist—but we need to stay safe and do our best to suppress the spread of the pandemic.

It All Starts with Seeing

There is a saying that “some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world”. This is a reminder that for the most part we see only what we expect to see. That is why it’s so easy to hide something in plain view.

It’s quite obvious that being able to see is an indispensable quality for any photographer who wants to create engaging images and surprise the viewer with a fresh vision. Anybody can see, one might point out, but the fact is, it requires more than merely taking in the world through the eyes to see beyond the obvious, to become observant and consciously register what is going on in front of your eyes. Yes, most of us “see” equally well if you talk about the physiological process—more or less that is, of course. However, seeing with the intention of really seeing is not merely a physiological process and not something most people do, no matter how sharp their eyes might be. Seeing—in the finest and broadest sense—means using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you, even when it has become habitually mundane.

There is a whole process of internalized steps behind capturing a photograph. It all springs out of you as a person. You bring yourself, and whatever you are, into the visual world. Your whole previous life experience and personal development becomes part of the equation. Being who you are, you see the world differently than any other person, simply because you are who you are. Perception is shaped by values, upbringing, and culture. No two persons see the same way. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. However, most of what you see goes unnoticed by your conscious mind. Then suddenly something triggers you, visually and emotionally. There is what could be called a momentary encounter between you and the world. It might be anything from a strong colour splash or an odd object to extraordinarily beautiful light or some human interaction. This initial flash of perception sparks a desire to take a photograph and finally results in your camera registering a photo when you push the shutter button. Somewhat simplified the process can be described this way:

Personality → Perception → Picture

Who you are is nobody’s business but yours, and not something you necessarily need to work on or improve, not to become a photographer at least. I certainly have no say in who you are or ought to be, but let me just point out that it does ardently affect the way your photography will manifest itself. In the end, that is what makes your photographs different from any others.

Personality aside, for a photographer, seeing is where it all really 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, as indicated above, 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 as 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.

This is an excerpt from my soon to be released eBook “See Better, See Deeper”, a book about seeing with the intention to take photographs. It’s an in depth study into all aspects of seeing and learning to see better. I will get back with more information when it’s ready.

Thrilled to Feel Alive

I remember first time I tried white water rafting. It’s maybe the first time I felt totally and completely immersed in “now”. I let myself fall through the cascades of raging waters—or so it felt. There was something magic about being in control, or maybe not at all, of both my own anxiety and the run through the roaring river. Maybe it was in that first white water rafting attempt I experienced my life’s most ecstatic seconds.

Part of the seduction is the intensity and the thrill that chase away anything else. All thoughts of yourself, your life outside of what is happening on the raft, any worries—except those for the forces of the river, whom you are and what you need to do tomorrow; all that is blown out of your mind.

Out of the river I live many lives—as I think we all do. One life at home, another at work, yet another when I am creative, a fourth life out with friends and so on. It can be pretty arduous. All thoughts that go into this can be like a clamp on the head. Thoughts, desires, worries, demons and daydreams behave like hectic sparrows in the fall. In my daily being, I am faced with many demands, many of which I create myself.

Down the roaring river, it was different. There it was just this one. The river and me. The water that squeezed in from all sides. The body that through the paddle fought with the raging water. It’s a reminder that resistance is a sure way to feel that we are alive. Resistance prevents us, but it also provides presence. That is why we are quick to seek it out.

Creativity in many aspects resembles the experience down the river. It’s encompassing—when you enter flow. Then nothing else exists. Just like with white water rafting or any other exhilarating experience. But you need to expose yourself to resistance, get out of the safe zone, out of the box, take chances. Only then will flow come and take over you mind, like when bumping down a boisterous river.

And like any thrill, when you get used to it, the thrill of creativity fades when what was first encompassing, becomes routine. We have to keep raising the bar, keep pushing ourselves out of the box as it widens, keep taking new chances.

In the Heat of Flow

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As mentioned in my post Finding Flow last week flow—or being in the zone as it is often called—is that inspired freedom of creativity when you lose yourself completely in artistic activities. Time, stress and artist’s block melt away, resulting in a unique voice and fully realizing your creative potential. Being in that state of flow in many ways resembles a trancelike state of mind. As Susan K. Perry writes in her book «Writing in Flow»; «you feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. … [When] in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself—or of the universe—that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state».

«Writing in Flow»—as I mentioned in the post—is based on a scientific study that Susan K. Perry conducted of more than 75 best-selling and award-winning authors. In the book she describes how the writers experience the state of flow; she dwells into five key elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative process and finally she writes about specific techniques writers use to make flow happen.

Although the book is about writing in flow, the general concepts and mechanisms behind creative flow is very much adaptable to any creative activity. I certainly found her ideas and suggestion very useful for my photography. As I am writing, too, I know the feeling of being in flow is similar when I experience it as a writer and when I experience it as a photographer.

It’s not possible to go into depth of her book in a post like this, but I will try to at least give an idea of what Susan K. Perry has found out. First, the five master keys that have an effect on the creative flow are partly a part of whoever you are, your whole self and the way of relating to the world. Partly they are concurrent to the actual creative process itself and come into play very near the time you begin the process as well as throughout the whole process. Having a reason to write—or if taken in a broader view; having a reason to do whatever creative work you do—is Perry’s first master key. On its simplest level it means you need something that motivates you to do whatever it is you are doing. It can be both external and internal reasons, although the latter often works as a stronger incentive. For instance I photograph because I want to tell stories about how people live in various layers of the world and the societies. I want to show both the beauty and the cruelty of human existence, and in so doing maybe be able to change if not the world, hopefully one or two persons along the way.

The second master key is to think like a writer—or an artist in any vocation you are working in. As for me, in all my professional life I have tried to learn and read about other photographers and how they think. The point is it’s possible for you to strengthen and bring to the forefront of your personality those aspects that will contribute to making your creative life more gratifying. It may be opening up yourself to new experiences, it may be trying to take more risks, it may be trying to get yourself fully absorbed by your work and it certainly has a positive effect if you are able to build confidence in what you are doing.

The next three master keys are more directly related to the creative process itself and in some ways more self descriptive. Of course there is more to them than that; based on the study that Susan K. Perry did she offers a lot of insights to the hows, but let me just quickly mention the last master keys here. One is loosening up, another is focusing in and the last is balancing between opposites.

Let me end by saying that «Writing in Flow» is a book that inspires and explains. If you are interested in other creatives’ take—and certainly writers’ take—on working in flow, or would like to know how to enter this state more often, this is a must-read.