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

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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.

Finding Flow

For all artists the ultimate creative experience is when you lose yourself in your work, when you immerse yourself so much in some creative activity during which time cease to matter, when you forget yourself and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when you are in flow. I have compared this experience with the feeling of being in a tunnel (se my post Tunnel Vision some time ago), while others call it «being in the zone» or just «in flow». As a matter of fact flow is a term used in psychological studies, of which University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to examine. I briefly mentioned him in the blog post last week.

According to the science, flow happens because we make it happen when our mind or body is voluntary stretched to its limits, in an effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. The question is—especially for those who have yet to experience flow—how do we make it happen. In workshops I teach, I often talk about this feeling of flow, but I always find it hard to give concrete advice how to make it happen. My recommendation has been to work hard; that flow will eventually happen if you do the work. I think that is true, but it’s not necessarily a very satisfying answer. And just doing the work isn’t always enough for everybody who is seeking flow, neither. Last time the question came up for me was in a comment to my post Diving into Unconsciousness. I wanted to answer with more than a mere description of experience itself. I really wanted to come up with some thoughts about how to get there.

Imagine my excitement when just afterwards I came across a book investigating in depth what being in flow means. The book «Writing in Flow» by Susan K. Perry is based on a comprehensive study she did on 75 best-selling and award-winning authors for her doctoral dissertation. As indicated by the title of the book, it deals with being in flow while writing, but a lot of what Perry points to is valid for any kind of flow-experience. I certainly recognise her thoughts and recommendations for my own work as a photographer.

«Writing in Flow» is a book that gives an exciting glimpse into the creative process. Even more so it gives concrete input and ideas about how to get into flow. Her and now I just want to mention six requirements she believes is necessary to be able to be in flow.

First your activity must have clear goals and give you some sort of feedback. You need to want to do whatever you do for some reason which can be as simple as wanting to show the beauty of nature if you for instance are a nature-lover. In addition it needs to give you some satisfaction of some form, it could be nothing more than just being able to accomplish the task or being praised by the work afterwards. Secondly for flow to happen sensing that your personal skills are well suited for the challenge is necessary, giving you a sense of potential control. Thirdly you need to be intensely focused on what you are doing. Fourthly when in flow your sense of time is altered, with time seeming to slow, stop or become irrelevant. Lastly the experience needs to become self-rewarding.

I can recommend «Writing in Flow» – even if you are not a writer.

Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity

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Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

In these days of social distancing and less work—for many of us—we ought to have more time than ever to be creative and put energy into our artistic work. However, at the same time and for the same reasons, we are more online connected than ever. We are on our phones all the time and constantly hooked up on internet. Good for keeping some kind of social life when regular social life is almost nonexistent but less so for giving our mind liberty to be creative.

I have had to have a discussion with self. Consciously step down. Despite more time than ever, it’s been hard to concentrate and getting into a good flow of creativity. My prescription has been: Put my phone away when I want to do creative work.

The beeps and boops of our electronic lives keep us unnecessary busy. We live in a world of time management apps, hacks and tips. Anywhere you go, you might hear a cacophony of alerts sounding, tweets twittering, and the frenetic tip-tap of fingers typing off one more email or text in order to check that one last thing off the to-do list. Or being social. We are so busy—our devices tell us so. Best not to let a single step or typed word go uncounted or not answer the social call.

Even in these times of more time available, we are increasingly becoming micromanagers of our days, dividing our time into increasingly tiny chunks all in the name of progress and productivity. The result is less time to be creative, less freedom to settle our mind into the flow of creative work. Flow requires time uninterrupted.

Many of you I bet have heard of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow states as most conducive to deep creative work. He describes flow as a state in which people become so absorbed in their work that “nothing else seems to matter.” It’s in such states that we are most creative, when innovative problem-solving takes place and great ideas are hatched. What we have taken less seriously as a tech-obsessed culture, however, is the degree to which the electronic productivity tools, the frantic pace of work activity, and being constantly social on social media might be eroding our ability to engage in this most productive work. Particularly now when we are more online than ever.

Business school professors Forbes and Domm noted in an article published in 2004 that it can often seem as though creative flow and task-oriented efficiency are at odds: “Curiosity is open and playful, while drive is serious, competitive, and achievement-oriented,” the authors write. The apps in our lives tend to emphasize the latter (achievement) at the expense of the former (creativity). After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original? How can a step counter track whether the stroll was one during which the walker had a brilliant insight?

Now that we are more online—and paradoxically have more time than ever—it might be important to create strategies for protecting those flow states in which we lose track of those seconds and minutes that our apps are so happy to report on. Here are three such small tweaks to decrease tech disruption and recapture flow.

1. Release your inner child
Work one day or afternoon a week with some creative production and away from any time-keeping device. Even better if you can work in nature or solitude. Be childlike and sprawl out on the floor—or on the ground. Give yourself the opportunity to have your work be an immersive sensory experience, with the tactile experience of doing something physically, spreading your ideas out in physical space to look at them. Get into it.

2. Lose time
If giving a whole day over this way seems scary, set out a specific chunk of time you can “lose.” Use a timer and decide that whatever happens within the hour or two you set for your creative task will be fine. Do not look at the timekeeper while working. Stop worrying about tracking your time in the security of knowing that the ding will let you know when you’re done.

3. Box out technology
Put your phone physically away, whether in a drawer or zipped into your purse or backpack. Turn off sound notifications on your computer. Use an internet-limiting tool such as Freedom, Self-Control or Focus. As the names of these apps indicate, these products limit the user’s access to distracting and disruptive sites creative workers so often go to when ideas are hard to push through, rather than staying in the moment of creative problem-solving.

At the end of the day, being in the flow is where we do our best work and are happiest. It might not always look like productivity, but in a world where everyone else is obsessively measuring and counting, maybe losing track of time is just the right kind of different.

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.

A Little Magic

Photographically, the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a demise. Not being able to move close to people due to restrictions to limit spread of the corona infection, has pretty much put an end to people photography—and my work as a photographer, since I am a photo reporter and photograph people.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t really written any new posts about photography and creativity over the last weeks. Now you know why. It’s been hard to sit down and write about something I don’t practice daily.

All the more I was inspired by a post on the blog The World According to Dina published this week. Hanne Siebers, photographer and one of two behind the blog, showed a new Photoshop technique she hard learned through The North Norfolk Photographic Society, the local camera club she is a member of. In Swirls and Twirls she shows how to make photographs exactly as the title indicates.

I won’t get into details about the technical aspects here, but, if you are interested, refer you to Hanne’s post where she describe her approach and link to a YouTube videoe that shows in practical steps how do create the swirls and twirls. I just want to say, it looked like a lot of fun—and sure enough I had more than plenty of fun when I sat down and played with the technique.

The important part was exactly to play and enjoy myself, let myself loose of any restrictions. I think too many of us—included myself—take our photography to serious. Let’s play more. Let’s have more fun. And that’s what this technique offer.

Sure enough, the result can easily turn kitschy and contrived. So what? We don’t always have to create Art with a capital A. And, yes, there is a limited amount of pure swirls and twirls images you can keep producing, but as soon as you start to mix a swirls and twirls layer with the original layer, as Hanne shows, you start to create something much more profound. The result can end up in some stunning images.

However, the technique needs to be used with care. Not every photo is suitable and certainly too many with the technique applied will quickly become dreary and mind-numbing. But used with care and consideration, every so often you can create something out of the ordinary. A little bit of magic.

Mind you, don’t hold back when you play. Play and have fun to all your heart’s delight. It’s not particularly difficult to play with the technique, but you might want to know some about layers and blending modes in Photoshop.