From the Heart

One factor that more than anything transpires to imagery that will capture an audience is photographing (or making any art for that matter) out of passion. If you photograph what you love, what you hate, what you enjoy, what you believe in, you will inevitably create images that others will be able to connect to, too.

You may be a technical wizard. You may be an expert of composition and light. You may master your craft. But if you photograph from, let me call it, an intellectual or rational stance and nothing else—looking for lines, modulating light and impeccable timing—your photos will never be able to move an audience. No matter how good you are. The reverse is true, though.

“If you do the work you do from a loving heart, then you will always be able to make something beautiful.” – Zen proverb.

When I started photographing decades ago, what I did was bring a camera along with me into what I loved the most: Being out in Mother Nature; backpacking, skiing, glacier climbing, paddling, hiking. Later on as my passion for photography of and for itself developed, my eye turned to other subjects. In the end, that’s where my photographic pursuit evolved around. For me human connections and relationships generate the most fascinating photographs.

I still love being out in Mother Nature—and do it plenty enough—and I still bring my camera along. However, the photographs I take don’t trigger me the way my humanitarian work does. It’s not because the photos are bad, but my soul is not in those photos. I have often pondered about why. In the end, I think it’s the pure and exalted experience being out in nature, that I don’t find in my photos of nature. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to capture that experience within a frame. The photos I take in nature are more for my memory than for creating photos of their own raison d’être.

Thus, I have come to the conclusion that I need to work on this. I need to find a way to transpire what I feel when I am out in Mother Nature into strong and expressive work. I need to find a personal photographic approach to my love to nature. And not just excuse myself for being another kind of photographer. What I need to do, is bring my heart into the photographing of my encounter with nature.

“’And now here is my secret,’ says The Little Prince, ‘it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

Last weekend I spent four days out on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA. We had a fantastic time—and of course, I took photos, plenty of photos. These are but a few from the trip.

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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.

The Mental State during Shooting

In the moment of capturing a photo lots of brain processing takes place. Depending on the subject and what goes on, I believe in letting the unconscious mind take control, trusting intuition and instincts. Particularly when you play with many balls in the air and when there is plenty of action going on, such as when you photograph on the street, the more you let go of conscious control, the more likely you are to be able to capture something special and out of the ordinary.

In the same newsletter by David duChemin that I referred to last week when I wrote about composition and what is the most important building block for a photograph, he also talks about trusting intuition during the shooting process—or rather not depend on it. DuChemin keenly support the necessity of being intentional when photographing. According to him, it’s the intentional photograph that will grab viewers’ attention, and not the result of the lazy approach of trusting our instinct.

I don’t disagree with him about the need for intention and always asking the question why we want to capture a certain photo. In fact, we may not disagree at all. However, I do trust—and strongly so—instinct and intuition in my photographic approach. Particularly in fast-moving situations, it’s impossible to depend on the slow reaction of the conscious mind.

One of my favourite quotes is by the renowned and ceased Henri Cartier–Bresson. He has stated that thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.

I live by that imperative. Before doing an assignment for instance, I will reflect upon what it is I want to convey in my photographs and how I can put the story I am working on visually together. Those reflections I will bring along when I start shooting, but only in the back of my head. During the actual shooting, I go on automatic mode or rather let my intuition take control. I stop thinking and open my mind to what may come. It’s a state of sensing and reacting. Then afterwards, when I am back from the assignment, I redeploy my conscious mind in the editing process as well as in learning what worked and what didn’t work in the shoot.

I don’t always manage to leave all conscious thinking behind. The result, then, is rather apt to be contrived and less fluid than images I capture with a more intuitive approach. These photos don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in any imagery. The danger when the conscious mind is in control during photographing is stagnation and replication. When you use what you already know, you will not be able to break out of the known framework of the conscious mind and thus only photograph what you already have done successfully before. Or most likely.

When I manage to transcend the rational approach and instead enter an unconscious flow it clearly reflects in the final result. It happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. I often compare that to tunnel vision as I lose sight of anything else and my mind is completely locked in on whatever I am photographing. I become what I photograph and nothing else exists. For me this is a much more fulfilling process than a fully controlled approach.

For David duChemin, according to what he writes in his latest newsletter, nothing about photography is instinctive. For him it will be the photographer who masters the tools, the craft and all the building blocks that goes into photography—and use them in service of creating something that is the best expression of the wonder we see before us—that will succeed.

Maybe it comes down to how we define and understand the words intuition and instinct. Are they some kind of a seventh sense that we cannot explain? Or are they results of learning processes and ingrained understanding that we use in processing sensory inputs unconsciously? I don’t know. Maybe both. Or maybe not. What I know is that I use the craft, the visual language, the tools and everything that goes into photography, unconsciously in the moment of shooting. After years of photographing and practicing, it’s all ingrained in my memory muscles. The knowledge and the use of it has moved from my explicit to my implicit part of the brain, which is a known fact about how we learn and get better at things. I use this knowledge, but unconsciously. And I let my intuition—whatever it is—decide how to put it all together in the moment of shooting.

I the end I don’t think duChemin and I necessarily disagree. He states, “An intentional approach to photography is not the opposite of the intuitive approach. It’s the prerequisite.” To that I can only agree.

As I mentioned last week David duChemin has a inspiring and thoughtprovocative blog in which he writes about creativity and the photographic process. You find it on his website David du Chemin.

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.

Content Trumps All

Is composition overrated? Whether that is the case or not; what is it that makes for a captivating photo—composition, something else or a combination of building blocks? The reason I am asking is a newsletter I received the other day written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin in which he asks how much composition really matters.

DuChemin himself was triggered by a photographer who accused him of paying too much attention to composition, arguing that moment is everything. DuChemin’s short answer was, that it’s too easy to put it all down to the moment. To that effect, I agree with duChemin. There is more to a captivating photo that just capturing the “right” moment.

But does it all come down to composition, then? I think many photographers do think so, maybe including light in the equation, too. However, in my world, composition, as well as light and moment, are only means to a goal, not the purpose itself. These are building blocks for as best as possible expressing what a photograph is about.

Yes, you can create a photo that is all about light. Or it’s all about some compelling composition of visually interesting objects. Or even a combination of the two. And the result can be captivating simply by surprising viewers with something they never saw themselves. But will those images stand the test of time?

Composition and light were in fact my stepping-stones to photography. In the beginning, that was what I was looking for. I read everything I could about composition and about light and how to put it all together for compelling images. And I went out looking for strong compositions and/or enchanting light.

None of those images have survived my later critical sense. I did after some time, learn to include and look for the heightened moments in my photography, too. Still, something was lacking. At the time, I was happy with result, but as I look back today, my attempts were rather bleak and boring.

Are there more building blocks you need be able to handle in order to create strong images, and maybe even more important than moment, light or composition? First of all, I don’t believe duChemin means that composition is everything. Nevertheless, in the aforementioned newsletter he writes; “Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour”. This is of course a tabloid argument, nevertheless in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on composition.

I have come to realize that the most important building block in photography is content—or subject if you will. In fact, it’s more than just a building block, it’s what a photograph is about, or ought to be about. It can be a story, it can be an emotion, it can be a statement, but a photograph has to be about something more than just visual appealing elements. The equivalent goes for writing, for instance. You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.

If you want to improve your photography, my best advice is to look for stronger content. You may ask what, then, is stronger content? Unfortunately, there is not a magical answer to that question. Strong content is everywhere, but you will have to see it. The best way to find an answer is to look to yourself. What triggers you? What makes you happy or even furious? That’s where you—not me and not anybody else—will find strong content and consequently be able to create strong photos. When you have found strong content, you then use your knowledge about the other building blocks, such as composition, light and moment, to express the content in the most captivating way.

Fact is content trumps the other building blocks. If you capture strong enough content, you may still be able to create something extraordinary, even if you screw up the composition, the light sucks and there is no moment at all.

You don’t believe me? Look at photographs at least 50 years or older that have survived in our collective memory. What is the common denominator? Strong content. Yes, most of these classical photos are beautifully composed, lit brilliantly and may have captured either heightened or subtle moments, but you will also find examples of the opposite. The photographs taken by Robert Capa during D-day are a grand case in point. Technically, they got completely screwed up, nevertheless still stand strong to this day.

There is one more point I would like to add. It goes back to how to find strong content. In addition to content, composition, light and moment, there is a fifth building block. That’s you and your personality. In order to create strong images, you need to find a way to express yourself, your emotions and your passions through the other building blocks. You can’t necessarily do much about or change your personality, like you can change the other building blocks, but by learning more about yourself and becoming more self-aware, you can use this fifth building block as much as the others.

In this post, I have referred to David duCheming a couple of times. If you are interested in topics about creating strong photographic imagery, I recommend following duChemin’s blog.

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.

Completion

Vårløsning i elven ned fra Tarlebø, innerst i Isdalen

Too often I don’t reach completion with my photo projects: That last step that makes photos shine. Why? Well, laziness maybe, it’s just so much easier not to make that final stage—and anyway, the photos look beautiful on my screen. I know most photographers are prone to the same shortcoming.

What am I talking about? Printing, of course—or at least showing your work to an audience. In the idea of a print lies the concept of the whole process from the very first moment of conceiving an idea of what will one day become a finalized artistic work or expression, to exactly that day, when the work is completed and ready to be displayed and shown to the audience. That is, a print, either hanging on a wall, printed in a magazine, smaller, glossy prints given to friends or relatives or even shared on social media and platforms. Or should I said ought to be. Because in reality with today’s digital world most photos never get out of the computer, we check them when we download them, and process some of them—if we even do that, I know for a fact that too many pictures are kept on the memory cards and never leave the camera—and then we mostly forget about them.

Our photos really deserve better. What is the use of all those images if nobody ever gets to see them? I am guilty of this myself too often, too, although since photography is my profession my work is often printed in magazine. And I think most of you are probably guilty too, even though, like me, you at least have an outlet through your blogs. But I think anyone creating or taking photographs should think more consciously of the completion of one’s work—as should any artist.

Completion is not only about displaying or showing our work, it’s also marking the end of one creative process in order to open up for new ideas and a new flow of work. It’s a mental transition between old and new, which makes us ready to embark on new creative tasks. Photographer Minor White likened the process of the artistic production to the phases of the moon. In the waxing phase, we are building, creating, forming and shaping the world towards its completion. The full moon represents the completion phase. And the waning moon symbolizes a new phase of the cycle: The need for release, to cut the umbilical cord and give the work its own life. For some, until they send their offspring into the world, they are not ready for a new phase of work.

In order to reach this completion and mental readiness for a new cycle, we must pay attention to the finalizing stage of the creative process. For photographers it means we need to get our work printed and displayed. It doesn’t necessarily mean a hard print on the wall, just as duChemin notes in his book The Print and the Process: «I use the word “print” here in the broadest sense, in the sense that Adobe Lightroom, for example, allows us to print to JPG or PDF». As he points out, the important thing is to get our work out there, whether it’s presented on a wall or on our website. He continues: «Ansel Adams called the print the final symphony, though he was referring to actual prints. How we get that symphony is a process and we all have to have our own ways of getting there».

The completion is also strongly connected to detachment, which I have written about before (Engaged and Detached at the Same Time). With completion we are more easily able to detach from our work, and leave it to itself. Thus we should do the best work we can do in the creative phase up until completion, and then let the rest take care of itself. Or as David Ulrich says in The Widening Stream: «When your works, founded on inner necessity, are completed, release them. Take responsibility for their passage into the world. Put them out there in whatever manner is possible, reasonable and realistic. This stage is important to move on. We must prepare the ground for new actions and fresh insights».

Candy to the Creative Child

Et nysgjerrig esel på den karibiske øyen Bonaire.

Some days I am flowing over with creative energy. There is no end to my cornucopia; it’s like an endless stream of ideas flowing through me combined with an unstoppable desire to create. I can go on and on and on. Other days my mind is completely empty, I feel drained and I don’t even want to think about creative work, let alone attempting to do such futilities. I just want to shut myself down, crawl up in good chair and read a completely unchallenging book.

How do I go about those days? Well, sometimes I do exactly that, shut down and do something utterly mindless. But in the long run that is no solution at all. I risk never getting up of that chair, figuratively speaking, because most times I feel creatively drained not because I am really creatively exhausted, but because being creative is scary as hell. It’s not for no reason that the American existential psychologist Rollo May talks about the courage to create—because it does take courage. It’s a daring path to choose. Or as George Bernard Shaw once stated in a letter to the violinist Jascha Heifetz; it’s an active battle with the gods—and with oneself I would like to add for my part. The courage to create is something I have already written about in a previous post, so I won’t dwell far and wide about it now.

The question is what do we do when we get into that stage of inertia and creative apathy? As far as I see it, there are four ways around it. We can do nothing, find that brainless book and hide from ourselves. I have already made my point about that solution.

A second solution—which is not a bad solution at all—is to rest your creative mind, not by withdrawing, but by filling it with inputs and new impressions. It’s what I called replenishing the creative well in one of my other, previous posts. Replenishing the creative well (by the way an expression I have taken from Julia Cameron) could be visiting an exhibition, it could be gathering some creative friends and discussing each other’s work, it could be as simple as going to a coffee shop and have a nice espresso or a long walk in Mother Nature.

Another way out of the misery is simply to force ourselves into a creative mood. Is that possible you might ask? Yes, and no. I think it depends on the situation. Sometimes the creative work you are pursuing will not come alive with pure force of mind. Other times it’s all it takes. I know for sure when it comes to myself, that for instance when I have been travelling and shooting on the streets for some time, at some point I run into a wall. Suddenly I feel drained, I can’t face the street again with a camera in my hand, and I just want to spend the day in a nice hotel room or even better in a nice bar somewhere. But then I know if I just make that first step into the street again, with camera in hand and start shooting, albeit it will be lousy pictures in the beginning, at some point the energy comes back again, and I am suddenly back on my creative path again.

The last way out of the creative inertia is by luring. My creative self is in many ways like a child. And just like a child it needs nurturing. So what do you do when a child has decided to put both feet on the ground? You promise it something nice and alluring, something it cannot say no to—if it only starts moving again. It’s simple psychology. If it takes a candy to get the child over the hill, then give the child a candy! So it is with my creative child. If I am only willing to walk down one more street and take scores of photos along the way, I promise my creative child a new camera! That is something that can get me going. Well, I guess I would quickly become a poor photographer if I really did that. But I think you get my point. The point being, you need to find something that you can give yourself to keep going down that creative path you don’t really feel like walking. It’s about motivating ourselves. If not a new camera, maybe I will buy myself that photo book I have long been drooling for. Or maybe that nice bar—but at the end of the day. Give it as a present to myself when I have done my dead, instead of sneaking in with a bad conscious before I have accomplished anything all. Again it comes down to motivation and luring that child to keep going. Just give that creative child a candy!—Or a carrot to the donkey…

Downtime

Retreat and withdrawal is a necessary part of the creative process. Very few of us who work creatively are able to stay on top, creatively speaking, producing day in and day out. We need to let our minds rest and seek inspiration or new energy away from our usual creative field. The creative mind is indeed unlimited, but every so often we need to let it have a bit of rest. It doesn’t have to be more than just a walk in the park or enjoying a bit of social life in a café or listening to some beautiful music. Being social is fine, but in most cases it’s more beneficial if you allocate time to spend all by yourself. And even if you have to let go of a project you are in the middle of completing, it’s not wasting time to leave the work behind for a while. Instead it will become a time of incubation where new ideas suddenly will appear or new inspiration will trickle down upon you.

All artists need downtime – that is time to do nothing. There is nothing wrong with that. But we might even have to defend our right to this downtime towards family, friends or even colleagues if you work in a creative field. It might not always be easy; it may take courage, conviction and resiliency. Such time for ourselves – resting – will strike our family and friends as withdrawal. And it is. But for an artist withdrawal is necessary. Without it, the artist in us feels vexed, angry, out of sorts. Without this period of recharging, our artist becomes depleted. Downtime as in retreat and withdrawal is important for incubating new inspiration in us. If we let ourselves have some downtime on a regular basis, we will be able to stay more creative when we do creative work.

When was the last time you took some downtime alone – walking in the park, resting in the sunshine or did a longer hike or spend a day on the beach?

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.