Easter Ponderings

Easter is a special time for many Norwegians. Not so much for its religious significance, not at all in fact. Easter is when we seek up in the mountains, to go skiing and enjoy the last spell of winter. It’s one of our major holidays, and as such I think Norwegians are almost alone in the world to have institutionalized the whole week between the weekend of Palm Sunday and the Easter Weekend, included Easter Monday, as days off. That is 10 days of holidays in March or April—depending on when Easter falls in any given year.

For many Norwegians having a cabin in the mountains it what means to be Norwegian. Almost as their birthright. And part of that legacy is the pilgrimage up in the mountain during Eastern.

Certainly, plenty of Norwegian don’t own a cabin in the mountains. Some prefer one along the extensive coastline. And some don’t have a cabin at all. Me being one. I have never wanted the bonds and the limitations owning a cabin impose on you. I want the freedom to roam wherever I desire. Of course, it’s an economical question as well.

Even without my own cabin, I have sought out the high mountains during Easter, but then rather backpacking; sleeping in a tent, snow caves or public cabins or lodges spread out in the mountains. That is another special feature of Norway. An outdoor organization runs a network of cabins or huts all over the country. Some are run like lodges—with full board and lodging—but some are unattended, with only food you may use, stored in the cabins. The system is based on trust; that you leave payment for the lodging and the food that you use.

The alpine region of winter mountains can be quite weather prone. I remember one Easter, many, many years ago. A friend and I was captured by a full storm with heavy snowfall and strong winds. It lasted for almost a week. We dug a snow cave, and spent the next many days inside the cave. Safe, but pretty bored by the time the storm dwindled.

Despite both the danger and the nuisance of possibly bad weather during winter in the mountains, I have learned that waiting for good weather, will only make sure you never get going. In fact, I have discovered that defying foul weather often gives the strongest, most exquisite and most memorable experiences (at least as long as you play it safe). Not the least for a photographer. It’s in the moments of transitions between bad and good—or good and bad—that the mountain show off its best. Besides, I live in the part of the world where, if you wait for nice weather, you may wait for a long time.

And here comes what this is all leading up to: It’s exactly how inspiration and creativity works. You cannot wait for it to show up. You will have to go after it with a club, as the writer Jack London once said. Or as the American painter, artist and photographer put it: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work”.

Inspiration isn’t prone to show up when you need it—just like nice weather in the mountains isn’t. If you wait for it, you might wait a long time. Instead, get yourself properly dressed, to use the outdoor metaphor¸ and get going. Set yourself down in front of the computer or the drawing pad, or grab your camera and get outside. It might be hard work and rather unpleasant in the beginning, but suddenly everything changes. Suddenly, you find yourself in a magical moment, the light of inspiration spiriting you away, the flow of creative taking you to unknown places.

Enjoy Easter, whether you celebrate it or not. And enjoy being creative.

The photos in this post have been captured over several Easters.

Capture Unique Photos

In the first months of 2021, we have been blessed with some lovely winter here in Bergen, Norway, where I have been grounded for the last year. Blessed for those of us who like winter, that is. Right now and for the recent weeks, winter is receding, though, but it might still show up again for an occasionally appearance.

Of course, when winter showed up in its full splendour, I had to take advantage—photographically—of the snow, which suddenly adorned the city (contrary to what one should expect, we only irregularly have winter come for a visit).

While walking the snow-covered streets and photographing Bergen in winter garb, I came across another like-minded fellow photographer, who was out on the same errand. I noticed he was both capturing stills and shooting videos. Naturally, we ended up talking with each other.

It turned out he had only been photographing for little less than a year, but already had a Youtube channel up and running. About photography. He told me he was adamant about wanting to capture images that weren’t like anybody else’s. If he had already seen another photo of a scenery, he would go out of way’s length to find a different angle, something distinct. He wanted to capture unique images.

That is a worthy approach, something most of us aspire to. However, in retrospect I thought a little more about the desire to create original photos. You see, there is a danger. In wanting to be original, we might just end up been possessed by what is different, and instead of capturing something unique we end up with a result that is rather contrived. Maybe different, but most likely uninspiring.

We risk losing ourselves in the search for the different.

All good photos emerge from a personal engagement; they materialize through our hearts. In fact, that is all it takes. Yes, you still need to know you craft, understand the visual language, be able to use your camera, but to create captivating and compelling images; you need to become emotionally engaged with your subject. If you do, you don’t have to “look” for the different.

You are unique. Your person is exceptional. No one is like you. That’s where the creative uniqueness surface from. Be yourself, involve yourself, lose yourself in the process, and your photos will be yours, different from anyone else’s. The point is; everything has already been done, been photographed. However, nothing has been done with your eyes and through your emotional filter.

That is the secret to captivating, compelling—and unique photos.

Are We Making Things Better?

A couple of years ago, I came across a post written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. He was telling about an episode when eating in restaurant in London, during which he happened to eavesdrop on a dialogue next to him. The conversation was between two tech guys. At some point, the discussion turned into whether their technology is helping people make better things, or make things better.

The distinction has philosophical, ethical as well as practical implications, as duChemin continues to elaborate on in his post.

Ever since I read his post, I have wanted to pick up on duChemnin’s pondering. Not the least, because this goes to the core of what I do as a photojournalist.

Of course, in my line of work, I want to capture better and more compelling images, but in the end, I also hope and wish that my stories may have a positive impact, one way or another. In fact, at least judging purely journalistically, without the latter, journalism becomes meaningless. The whole point is to inform in order for members of a society to be able to make informed decisions for necessary changes. That said, I have been in the business long enough to know that any single story of mine will not change the world in any direction. However, I believe—or at least hope—that every piece will add to better our combined knowledge so that over time it all together will lead to positive advancements.

Right now, for instance, I am working on a story about the impact of isolation. How do we cope with being isolated and how does seclusion affect us? The story will have a broad focus on various aspect of isolation. Of course, the idea springs out of the corona pandemic, which holds the world in its grip. Everywhere we are all affected and forced into various degrees of isolation. I will meet with students who have lost their social arenas because universities have been closed down, I will meet with elderly, who will not receive visits in order to protect them, but I will also meet with inmates, who are isolated independently of the pandemic. To the latter, I originally had set up to go to prison tomorrow, but this week newer and more severe restrictions have been imposed here where I live. In fact, my city has been completely locked down due to the new mutated strains of the virus, so I have become secluded myself.

Anyway, the point is, yes, I want to capture strong and compelling images, whether showing students, elderly or prisoners, but when push comes to shove, I hope the story will have some sort if impact, if only educationally.

And isn’t that the case for anyone photographing, or anyone involved in creative activities, no matter at what level? Of course, we want to improve and develop our skills so that we can make better photos (or things), but don’t we all hope that our images will have some positive impact? You want your image of a magnificent winter landscape to produce some kind of awe in the viewer, you want your photo of a newborn to touch others, and you want you art, whatever you create, to bring joy or enlightenment or amazement—at some level.

One doesn’t exclude the other. However, maybe we sometimes forget the question about making things better. Or at least becomes less aware of that side of the creative coin. As duChemin writes: “Does making this thing, whatever it is, make the world a better place? Does it add a little more light? Does it bring me joy as I make it? Does it help me ask (or answer) bigger questions? Does it contribute to the experience of being more fully human and alive?”

Let’s not be oblivious about that part of the equation. In fact, being aware of how to make things better, will help us make better things. Creativity is at the very core of what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the equation is reciprocal by nature. Pushing myself to make better things will most likely result in making things better.

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

Munchow_1129-L_1

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.