Confined to Freedom

Et gateband spiller tradisjonelle sanger midt på natten på torget

As strange as it may sound, if you really want to free your creative mind, you better set limitations for it. It’s like musicians in a band; the rhythm and the beat is limiting each member of the band, but it also creates space for each of them to improvise. By stating this, I want to continue where I left in my post Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow. In the end of the post I quoted LensWork editor Brooks Jensen saying: «It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework.» As for myself I have certainly more and more come to the conclusion that restrains are good for the creative process. Instead of limiting our creativity as one would think in the first place, it actually forces our imagination to become even more playful, to be more inventive, and in a way burst through those constraints we set for ourselves.

That is why for instance working on a personal photo project is so fulfilling. By the pure act of defining your project, you set limits for yourself and your creativity. By that you are able to focus on a theme and then work the theme from all directions and angels of approach. It will set your creativity free in a way that is almost astonishing. The secret is to set a structure or framework for the project you are working on, and then let go.

Last year I went to Lisbon to cover a conference for a magazine. The conference itself was pretty boring, but still why I went to this beautiful capital of Portugal. But in addition to the days I had to spend doing my assignment, I took an additional two days off on my own, just to shoot and capture some impressions of this hilly and very picturesque city. But instead of chasing around randomly or even planning in details what I wanted to see and shoot, I decide to use the old tramlines of Lisbon as my vehicle – literally and figuratively – for the photographic process. I followed them around not always knowing where they would take me or what kind of pictures I would get. I walk along the tracks, I rode the trams and I spend time in the various neighbourhoods I ended up in, trying to capture a photo essay about those old wooden trams. In the end it didn’t only become about the trams, though, it turned into a lovely essay about Lisbon, from a very specific angle. You will find some Instagrams from this project in my post Railing through the Streets of Lisbon

By setting the framework of this street project beforehand, I had unconsciously set in motion a sequence of events that contained its own sense of momentum. My photography in the field was loose and reactive, but purposeful within the framework. Back at home, because the framework defined a specific product and deadline, it helped motivate me to do the creative work quickly and to finish it without delay. The structure didn’t squelch my creativity anymore than the beat or melody does in jazz. Just as the beat and melody provide a framework for the musician to explore, so the framework of my little project encouraged creative exploration. The two go hand in hand. The confines of the structure encourage and enhance the freedom of the creative process within it.

For that same reason, I want participants in my photographic workshops to work on a personal project during a workshop. Instead of chasing aimlessly around, they are able to focus their vision – and eventually sharpening their observation skills. They see more and better pictures so to speak. The framework of a project sets them free to work within the confinement of their own limitations. Structure really sets the creative mind free.

Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow

En ungt par og deres hun nyter en øl ved Peddler Brewing Company

When I started out photographing more seriously (many, many years ago…) I used my camera quite methodical, even orderly, making sure the composition was «right», the exposure was equally so and that everything was in order and «perfect». It was a very rational process. Today I would say that I was thinking too much. I wasn’t able – or letting myself be able – to be loose and reactive to an environment. «Going with the flow» was not my photographic style.

Back then it was all landscape and nature photography – and I could take my time to make everything «right». It all rapidly changed, though, when I started to work more in a documentary kind of style. Suddenly the subject became unpredictable, moving fast one way or another, not giving me time to approach it the previous rational way. Instead I had to adapt to a more spontaneous work flow, reacting to whatever happened in front of me quickly, without thinking. At first it was quite frustrating, but as I got into this for me new approach, pictures started to become different than before, become more interesting, become less predictable and I started to capturing pictures that not everybody else was taking.

I was slowly finding my own way, my own photographic voice. Whereas pictures before had been beautiful lit and with well balanced compositions – albeit being quite boring when I look back on them today, suddenly everything was much messier. But a messy result that was intriguing and over time I was able to handle better and better. The pictures started to be not only beautiful graphical images, but had emotional content and showed moments that could engage the viewers.

Today I solely trust my intuition during the actual shooting situation. Because I know if I let go of my rational self, something impulsive and intriguing may happen, I may be able to capturing something my rational mind would never have been able to. In my workshops I try to emphasize this approach, and make the students let go of their rational mind. For many it’s hard, even difficult to grasp the concept of not thinking during the shooting. Because of course you don’t stop thinking completely. You still need to be aware of exposure time and depth of field, but all this is pushed to into the back of the head, becoming more of an instinctive act. Usually there is also a fair amount of thinking and planning before a shooting session, not to say afterwards in the editing process. But at the moment the shutter is pushed I try to let go of myself self and let the flow take me wherever it does.

True enough it’s a complicated matter to explain, I’ve never really been able to find a good way to fully clarify and resolve the apparent conflict between goals, plans and rational thinking, on one hand, and «going with the flow» on the other. For many these seem like structural opposites. But they are not really. Remember what the great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.»

Photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Wright Morris, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand have all demonstrated that work done quickly does not necessarily mean done with inferiority.

Now during a shooting I abandon myself to the project, photographing quickly, loosely, intuitively – photographing every composition my eye can see. I try as best I can to avoid analyzing or judging the images – I just photograph. I set aside my years of training in pre-visualization and control and instead photograph by going with the flow, trying to be responsive to what was in front of me instead of manipulating what was in front of me.

In his book The Creative Life in Photography, LensWork editor Brooks Jensen says: «[…] I learned […] that spontaneity and improvisation are not what I originally thought. They are not mere willy-nilly freewheeling, despite the fact that it might sound like that in the hands of a great improviser like Miles Davis. Improvisation is more like a tension between structure and total abandon. Spontaneity is not structurelessness; indeed it is best comprehended when seen in contrast to regularity – beat and measure against riff and phrase. In music, it is choosing a song, a beat, and then letting go within that framework. In photography – or at least in the photographing process – it is allowing yourself to play while holding to the definitions and limits of the project. It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework. It seems obvious to me now, but when I think of all those years wandering around the countryside looking for photographs, I realize my lack of framework worked against my creativity. Who’d have thought?»

The Impediment of Art

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I have a couple of times on this blog been pondering about the relationship between craftsmanship and creative inducements behind an artistic expression – and what promotes a visual strong and compelling image (as you may know, unsurprisingly enough, I believe in the combination). A sidetrack to this debate is the never-ending discussion going on between believers in established craftsmanship and those who wholeheartedly embrace new technologies. The former resist the new possibilities because they believe it makes the process of creation so much easier – too easy in fact. Whatever results from the use of these new technologies no longer have the right to be called art – they think. Likewise; those who embrace new technologies defend themselves by saying that it takes a lot of skills, knowledge and experience to be able to master the new tools. They claim it is not as easy as it looks.

I recall my post Instagram my Backyard some time ago where I wrote about how wonderfully stimulating it is to play around with Instagram and the likes. I think using apps like Instagram makes it fun to photograph and is even able to create stunning images. In a comment, though, another photographer asked why I would exploit apps that any amateur would be able to handle, instead of trusting my craftsmanship (in not quite those words).

I have to admit I have had my own reservations, but nevertheless I believe one doesn’t exclude the other. To take it a little further; just think about how photography was conceived when it came about some 190 years ago. The painters – the old school – criticised the new media for being mechanically reproducing images, and thus had absolutely no artistic value. I think we know better today… But the debate proceeds with new topics – and still the same. It often seems like the fronts are butting heads. I can’t help but think that both camps are missing the far more important point. The hard part of photography has never been technology. Why is it that technical master such as Edward Weston or Michelangelo don’t make masterpieces every time they create a new piece? Or look at you favourite pictures made by whatever masters; how often is the technique the critical factor for your appreciation?

For me this discussion is obsolete and will always be – even when I become the old school (I am already…). To use the words of Brooks Jensen; «the hard part of photography has never been technology, but rather the more difficult process of artmaking – a process that is stubbornly unsolvable through technological means and remains the sole province of the human heart, the human mind, and human soul.» Jensen is editor of the publication LensWork and has gathered some of his essays in the book The Creative Life in Photography – Photography and the Creative Process. It’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend.

One of the subjects Jensen addresses in his book is this general trust in craftsmanship that permeates most of the photography crowd and always has. His answer to what it is that creates masterpieces if not craftsmanship is: «In short, great photographs are never about photography but seem to be about life, and not, generally, the small things in life. The best photographers appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life — the dialog that is usually the field-of-play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists. The great photographers don’t seem to be asking questions about f/ stops or shutter speeds, developers or enlarging papers, but are asking the same kinds of questions that were asked by philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Freud — the same questions asked by the poets Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain. What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist? These are the questions of art because these are the questions of humankind.»

I think it’s hard to state it any better than this. But how can these somewhat lofty thoughts become guidelines for our own work – us normal people, not the great masters of the world? By photographing whatever we photograph with intention and with our hearts. By engaging in the subject, by asking ourselves why it is important to us to photograph whatever it is we are photographing; and by finding a visual answer to the question. Our work of art becomes important when we search for answers that are important to us. We make self-portraits because we want to understand ourselves and to assert our existence. We make photographs of others so we can understand the community in which we live. We photograph the grand landscape so we can know the context and the planetary stage on which our dramas unfold. We photograph nostalgia so that we can remember; abstracts so we can play with the patterns in our visual mind; flowers so we can marvel at the wonders of creation. These are worthy, soaring pursuits, even if our results remain grounded and somewhat pedestrian.