Diving into Unconsciousness

Andektig morgenstemning på toppen av Green Lotus Hill

The first time I discovered the beauty—yes the beauty, despite the doubt and ambiguity being part of the process—of surrendering to the unconscious mind in the creative moment, was 30 years ago. I was photographing a Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, New York, during a time when I was struggling with my photographic vision.

Suddenly during the shooting process, I felt like I was swept away and lost completely to the intoxicating and exhilarating activities taking place all around me. The New Year celebration and I became one. I stopped thinking consciously and became absorbed with the energy and power of what was going on in front of my camera lens. It felt like being thrown into a deep tunnel with no exits or alternatives, but to move forward as part of the chaos and madness.

Three or four hours later I was spat out of this tunnel, completely wasted and exhausted. I couldn’t recall my doings or what kind of pictures I had captured through these hours. But I felt extremely good, content and animated. And I knew I had photographed something both strong and personal.

The creative process depends on surrender by the artist on many levels and in different ways throughout the whole process. First and foremost, the artist has to give up the idea that the art he or she is creating is actually his or hers and instead understand that it is simply being channelled through him or her. It’s like a baby; you give birth to it, help it mature and then let it loose on its own as a grownup human being. You don’t own your child.

For me, this concept of giving up ownership in the creative process is closely related to trusting the unconsciousness. As artists, whether we are photographers—like I am—or painters, musicians, performers, writers, filmmakers or express ourselves through any other art form; to be able to create something new, we need to surrender ourselves to our unconscious mind.

According to Rollo May—the American existential psychologist whose work includes “The Courage to Create”—creative courage involves the discovery of new forms, new symbols and new patterns.

Only by connecting to our unconscious mind are we able to bring something new into being. If merely the rational mind is involved in the creative process we will find nothing but what is already known, albeit at first sight it may look new. Two plus two is always four no matter how we turn it around with our rational mind. If we look at the equation without rationalizing though, we might find something completely different and beautiful even in such a simple calculation. The fact is that even math can turn into art—and does do so on a higher level.

Our creative expression is channelled through our unconsciousness. Some call it the work of God, some think it’s a spiritual connection, some see it as an encounter with an unlimited creative well, while others call it inspiration and yet others believe it to be something less tangible. No matter how we see the process, it’s all about bringing something new into being; something most of us don’t even understand exactly where it comes from, but certainly has to be outside of our rational thinking. That’s why I so strongly believe we need to engage our unconscious mind in the creative process.

How we engage is expressed in different ways, too. We talk about getting out of our comfort zone, taking chances with our art, letting go or trusting our intuition—all of these expressions indicates that we need to force the rational mind to step back. As the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said about the photographic process—which I believe to also be true for any art form: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.”

Trusting our unconscious mind isn’t always easy. On the contrary, engaging the unconscious mind in the creative process causes lots of doubt among those of us who think of ourselves as artists. I believe that any artist at some point will doubt his or her artwork. Again and again we see this. Paul Cézanne, for example, strongly believed that he was discovering and painting a new form of space which would radically influence the future of art, yet he was filled with painful and ever-present doubt. The reality is that creative commitment is healthiest not when it’s without doubt, but in spite of doubt. In other words, we need to accept our own doubts about what we are doing, and still keep doing it. It’s simply another layer of surrendering.

I always try to recall that special feeling from the Chinese New Year celebration in New York when I am shooting. I try to let myself become absorbed in whatever it is that I am photographing and try to throw myself back into that same tunnel of unconscious awareness.

Book of Wisdom

The award winning wildlife, nature and travel photographer Rick Sammon has written 40 books on photography. His latest book—the 40th— was released last autumn. To date, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is the most interesting book by his hand—if you ask me.

I have read more than my shares of photo books by Sammon. While all are just fine books, none of them really stands out from the kaleidoscope of good photo books available in the market. However, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is different. It rises above the crowd.

This is probably the least technical photo book by Sammon. It is all about motivation and inspiration, as the title indicates. For me, that is one of the reasons “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” stands out. In addition, he writes from his heart and in a very personal style. It feels like the reader sits next to Sammon in a workshop or in his studio and can take in his encompassing wisdom.

That is exactly what Sammon offers. He pours of his life wisdom, wisdom he has gained by spending almost an entire lifetime, since the late 50’s, in the service of photography. Rick Sammon gives us profound insights into how to become a better photographer, not by the camera settings, but by the philosophy of photography. His energy and enthusiasm for life and photography—evident on every page in the book—is contagious.

Despite being a relative small book, and as such an easy read, there is a lot to take in from the book. It requires time to read, mark and inwardly digest—and then go out and practise.

Strangely enough—as a first thought—there is not a single photo in “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom”, with the exception of the cover image. The book has been criticised for the lack of photos, but the more I read the book, the more I think it’s a valid choice. As he writes himself, he’d like the reader to imagine his or her own photos—and potential photos—while Sammon describes a situation, process, technique, feeling or emotion. It makes the book accessible even for those who don’t necessarily like Sammon’s imagery. I know this by heart. One of my favourite photo book writers creates images I mostly find boring. It can be somewhat annoying when reading one of his otherwise excellent books.

“Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is designed to guide you in the internal aspects of photography. Each chapter speaks to an element of the umbrella of mindfulness, which includes health, healthy relationships and emotions, creative visualization, meditation, and connecting with something that brings the reader pure joy.

Not everything in Sammon’s latest book is perfect. I find that Sammon is a little bit all over the place. He sets a tone by the title of a chapter and then digresses and throws in all kinds of thoughts. The book could have been a stronger read if he had approached each theme of a chapter more stringent and focused.

I also find there is a lack of a red thread through the book, from one chapter to the next. What is his overarching goal? Where does Sammon wants to takes us? Yes, to become better photographers, but I miss something that can wrap it all up. It’s like a music play that doesn’t build up to a final crescendo. “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” feels more like a blog, with each chapter an independent blog post, rather than a cohesive book. Which of course is fine, if you accept it as a premise for the book.

I do not agree with every statement or thought he brings to the table. Which is fine, too, as it’s always good to be challenged and have habitual thoughts questioned. However, sometimes I do find Sammon more single-minded than actually thought provoking.

An example is his adamant fixation about cropping. He calls it himself Obsessive Cropping Disorder and rant about how stupid (although it’s not the word he uses) it is when a photographer is against cropping and wants to get it right in the camera. Sammon makes a point that cropping afterwards is nothing different than using a telephoto or zoom in at the moment of captured.

Yes, technically speaking it’s the same. But to me he doesn’t get the point, that getting it right in the frame, is about mindset. It’s about concentrating to get it right at the moment of capture. And because it’s a different mindset, the result will be different when taking the photo. I used to photograph with slide film, which means you need to get it right at the moment of captured. These days I crop left and right, but sometimes still decide to get it right in the frame. The process is different, just like shooting with film versus with a digital camera. Just like he talks about “One-Picture-Promise”.

His “One-Picture-Promise” makes sense to me. He thinks that too many photographers shoot too quickly and too many frames. The “One-Picture-Promise” is a mindset in which he asks the reader to imagine he or she has only one single frame remaining on the memory card. It will force the photographer to become more creative. I agree, but also see that sometimes that’s a great approach while at other times it’s necessary to shoot a lot. Again, two different mindset at the moment of capture, that results in two different types of imagery.

Despite my objections or critical comments here, “Photo Therapy – Motivation and Wisdom” is a book I truly can recommend. It will broaden your horizon, inspire you to develop your photography and lift yourself to a higher way of approaching photography and life.


Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom: Discovering the Power of Pictures

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From Black to Double Black

Last week I was skiing in the mountains of Utah (USA), known for its astounding snow conditions. Although we didn’t experience its famous fluffy powder, we had plenty of new snow and good and fun conditions.

However, this post is not about my skiing in Utah, but about something that occurred to me while skiing in some of the more challenging runs. It came to me that there are similarities between skiing and the act of creating—as an analogue between the two. It goes to something I often enough have addressed in this blog, which has relevance for any artist or anyone who embarks on a creative endeavour.

It’s fair to say I am a good skiing, I think. Although I don’t see myself as an expert, I usually negotiate black diamond runs comfortably enough. The next level up, though, double black diamond runs, they are challenging enough for me. I’ll willingly enough admit that it feels somewhat daunting to get on a lift when you are warned that this is for experts only. And when you stand there at the top of the quite steep run or a narrow shoot, it’s definitely intimidating I would think even for many experts.

Nevertheless, again and again I find myself trying the best I can to cope with double blacks. I just want to feel the power of control and knowing I can do it. And of course the fun of whenever you feel you enter into a state of flow. I do fall and I do scrabble down those double black diamonds, but the only way to one day be able to master them is by doing them.

That’s when the parallel to the act of creation occurred to me. Because no matter how many times I practise in a regular black diamond run, and no matter how good I get at mastering those runs, I will never be able to reach the proficiency needed to master double black runs, without actually doing them. You cannot train for the double blacks in a single black runs. It is as simple as that. You need to pass the initial inhibition and intimidation holding you back to step up one level and just do it—and accept that you will fail, that you will fall, that you will fumble down the slope.

It’s the same at whatever level of skiing you are. You can’t prepare yourself for a single black run in a blue run, or a blue run in a green run. You need to take a chance when stepping up.

That’s exactly what you have to when you want to expand you creative skills, become better at whatever it is you like to create. You need to get out of the safety of the famous box, take chances, risk failing and falling. If you stay within the safe boundaries of the box, you will not step up to the next level. Your art will stagnate.

There is another aspect to this analogue. When you are a rooky, a new skier, you know that you don’t start in the double black diamonds, not even the blue runs. That could easily kill you in a worst-case scenario. Likewise with the act of creating. Don’t expect to perform like an expert when you start out, but rather take it step by step. Learn the easy skills first and then keep moving up and slowly by slowly become better. And don’t get discouraged when you fall. We all fall. Just get up and do it again. Know that at some point you will be ready to take the chance to step up to the next level.

There is a third piece to my analogue. We all want to be good at what we do. However, remember that even the best started out in a green run. Picasso or Cartier-Bresson or Beethoven didn’t miraculous become masters. They did all the necessary runs at each level, too. So don’t compare yourself with the masters. If you want to reach the level of mastery, just be aware that it takes a hell of a lot of work, a lifetime of efforts in fact. If you enjoy blue runs, that’s just fine. Keep doing them. And if you don’t like skiing at all, well, there is plenty of other fun activities you can embark on. Just keep creative and every so often step out of the box.

Behind the Creative Process—Book Review

Earlier this autumn Aperture released an inspiring and introspective book. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice is a book for the curious photographer, whether emerging or well established. As the book title indicates, forty photographers are asked about their approach to the creative process and how they translate that into photographs.

The focus is on a body of work, rather than the single image. Each photographer is asked the same set of questions—twelve to be more specific, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast. How does a photographic project or series evolve? How important are “style” and “genre”? What comes first—the photographs or a concept? These are some of the questions the forty photographers are asked. Curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf was inspired to seek out and assemble responses to these questions after hearing from countless young photographers about how they often feel adrift in their own practice, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way.

The responses, from both established and newly emerging photographers, reveal there is no single path. Their advice is wildly divergent, for the most part generous, and delightful: Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.”

I find Photowork to be a stimulating read. Acting as a manifesto of sorts, Photowork aims to depict an authentic image of the creative process in relation to photography. I love the many different approaches and how each photographer brings his or her own thoughts into something that becomes a fascinating, juggling act for the reader’s mind. Some answer are of course less interesting that others, but for the most part, I learned a lot and enjoyed reading about the many different paths that each photographer brings to the table.

A few photographers—particularly a couple of the more well-known— give way to somewhat arrogant responses, at least in my opinion. And some photographers bring forth pretentious and pompous statements. They talk seemingly very intellectually about their work, but with words that actually says nothing and are more like the emperor’s new clothes, if you know the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Nevertheless, the majority of answers are truly evocative and reflective.

I think most readers will find approaches they can relate to in Photowork. Certainly, I did. However, I what I found most interesting was to discover new approaches and new ways of thinking that forced me to think differently myself. To be creative is to be willing to be challenged. And often enough I was in Photowork. For me that was maybe the most enjoyable part of the reading experience—something to ponder on and bring into my own photography.

Interestingly enough, most, if not all photographers, agree upon working both intuitively and intellectually with a different emphasis on one end or the other of a continuum between the two. Otherwise, the diversity and difference in the answers is a great inducement. Like how some photographs embark on a project only after significant deliberations while others seem just to float into what eventually becomes a project. As an example of the latter is Katy Grannan. She says about the process as work that flows from other work: “Ideas come from anywhere and at any time and sometimes, not at all. I just keep working, keep living my life and trusting my curiosity.”

Also Peter Kayafas has a more fluid approach to his projects. He approaches his interaction with the world through the camera without much preconception. For him, it’s important the project such as they are—or might become—evolve out of using the camera without being inhibited by preoccupation to hunt something down that fits with a project. Furthermore, he says about a photographer’s voice: “I think an artist’s goal should not be to find a voice per se, but to empower the one that he or she already has. This is not to say that an artist should not strive to challenge and refine his or her voice, but I think that there is nothing more dangerous to original work than trying to create a voice”.

Another enjoyable part of the reading experience was learning about photographers and how they think that I had never heard about before. Two such photographers were for me Kelli Connell and Matthew Connors. I ended up buying some of their books, although out of print, still available second hand on Amazon.

The format of the book—the same twelve questions to all photographers—is both its strength and its weakness. It’s of great value to be able to directly compare how different photographers think about various aspects of their body of work and the creative process. But sometimes I would have liked for follow up questions to elaborate some of the more pensive answers. I would also have loved to learn more about how other cultures besides Western culture think about the process and practice of photography. Most photographers in Photowork are based in United States. Although there are a handful of photographers from other parts of the world, how interesting wouldn’t it be to learn how photographers from Asia, Africa or South America approach their photography creatively.

At first I was taken aback with the fact, that Photowork doesn’t show any photos. That’s right—text only. While the book is a collection of interviews where artists talk about their photographic processes and practices, there are no actual photos to be looked at between the questioning. At first, I thought it was silly. A book on photography without any photos? But this was clearly a deliberate decision. Since the artists speak specifically to creating a body of work, I can see how it would be difficult to pick and choose any one or couple of photos to represent the whole when the conversation calls for understanding a series—both how it is made and how it exists in the larger scope of things. Plus, including any number of photos of the many artists’ in question might have been disruptive to the ideas being discussed, when, in fact, the inquisitive reader is already doing a deep-dive on any names that interest them.

I will strongly recommend Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice for anyone who is serious about his or her photography. Particularly if you are curios about working on a photo project or a larger body of work—or are already working on one. With Christmas soon approaching, this is the perfect gift for your photographing friend—or yourself.

To buy the book, click on the link below:


PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice

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The Blessings of Boredom

I hate doing dishes. It feels like time squandered—even though I almost just as much dislike a messy kitchen. I have always had a hard time with time not used in the interest of good—good for me that is. If I need to wait for somebody being late, my body starts to ace. If I have a minute off in between work projects, I find a book or something else to read. I bet it doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that I also have to admit that I loathe standing in lines, can’t stand slow drivers, get irritated when things aren’t working as they are supposed to do.

But of course. I do dishes. I do wait for late friends. I do stand in lines. And surprise: over time I have found that it’s actually not time squandered. You know why? Because our brains need to wind down in between the battles. Brains get tired of always having to be creative, to find solutions, to navigate challenges, even to always be entertained—which seems to be modus operandi these days. Yes, I hate being bored, but my brain doesn’t. It thrives and expands on boredom.

I think you know exactly what I mean. You have worked on a project for hours, maybe even days and weeks to an end, and suddenly it’s full stop. You seem to not be able to progress with the project any more. Where you almost moments ago where sky high and taken away by the creative flow, suddenly it’s as if the muses have left you behind. Dropped you dead. Certainly, you feel dead.

What happened? Brain is overworked. That’s what happened. It just needs time to recover. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. You still push on, though, try a little more, but nothing happens. You simply cannot move forward with whatever you are working on. In pure despair—and probably a little irritated with yourself—you go out and do the dishes. Slam around with the cutlery, getting all worked up about how unfair everything is, now that you were almost done with the project. And you hate doing dishes, it’s so boring. Dull. Uninspiring. You hate being bored. Out of pure boredom, your mind starts to wander. Then out of nowhere, half an hour later because you have procrastinated doing dishes for all these days you were in flow—not wanting to interrupt the flow—out boredom comes a blink of an idea. Something you haven’t thought about that will move the project ahead.

You know?

It’s not rocket science. When actively working on a project, we sometimes need to step back in order to gain perspective. Such as getting bored. Sometimes clarity and renewed energy can only come with distance. Particularly if we have pushed the brain to its limits over a sustained period. Brains are like us, they need to rest, to recover, to reconnect, to deactivate. We need to get bored a little—that’s how our brains can get a bit of rest. Walk around the block, perform some physical tasks, such as filing papers, cleaning the desk, or washing the breakfast dishes. Relaxing the mind—while you bore yourself—will eventually stimulate the flow of insight.

Fact is, boredom is an integral factor in the creative process and one not to be ignored. Our minds are regularly tied up, often on our devices, and as constant stimulations leaves no space for idle thoughts, who knows whether some of our greatest ideas have already been pushed aside while we were gaming or checking social media?

The German word for boredom is “langeweile” meaning “long while”, which seems very appropriate, as boredom is essentially about nothing other than our interaction with time passing. However, boredom provides the exact nothingness in time that allows our minds to wander and invent. Unlike meditation, where you concentrate on keeping your mind focused and away from escape, boredom concentrates on seeking the most creative exit.

Apparently, the scientist Galileo Galilei was bored during a religious service in Pisa. He started to measure the duration of the oscillations of the cathedral’s giant chandelier by counting the beat of his pulse. By letting the mind wander, he had discovered a way to measure time.

Once you acknowledge that boredom can play a meaningful part in your creative journey, the most tedious of jobs—like washing up, cleaning or queuing—will show you that they nurture motivation and some of your best creative sparks. You are still bored, but at least there is a purpose to the boredom.

Are You Free?

Do you feel pressure when you are practising creativity? So much that you don’t even get started? I certainly do. Not always, but sometimes I have a really hard time getting myself out of the comfort zone. I feel pressure to come up with something extraordinary or at least something worthwhile. I may be holding back by what I consider expectations from my surroundings, but most of the time it’s most likely my own expectations that keep me from exploring a free creative path. I might be afraid of failure – and sometimes even afraid of success.

Performance anxiety is causing plenty of struggles for most creative persons. Moreover, I find it fascinating that in most cases it’s all for imaginary reasons. We construct all kinds of ideas about what we want to achieve, instead of just getting started and see where we end up, without any predefined expectations. Performance anxiety is good for nothing. Still most of us can’t put it to rest.

At best, to be creative means being free to explore possibilities. It means having energy to play, to let go of preconceived ideas of what things should be or not be. Just going with the flow – as it’s often described.

Performance anxiety keeps us from being free. Interestingly enough, when we think in terms of freedom, we most often assume that it means being free from. Particularly in our western culture (and I write us, since it’s where I come from) we talk about freedom from oppression, freedom from regulations, and yes freedom from expectations. In this sense we will never be free, because there will always be something that regulates our lives. But there is a different kind of freedom, namely being free to.

While the first is related to limitations, the latter is opening up to no an unlimited realm. We feel we need freedom from when we are pressured in one way or another. It may be pressure from yourself, your job, your boss, your spouse, your parents, yes even society. At least that’s the way it feels like. Sometimes it has great value to ask what is it that really holds you back. Could it be a feeling that whatever you do doesn’t come spontaneously from inside of you?

If on the other hand, you feel energized, being in the moment, without having to perform – in whatever connotation of the word – then you are have freedom to the create process. Nothing will hold you back. It’s not possible to live in a society and be completely free, that would lead to complete chaos. However, when it comes to creativity, complete freedom is possible – if we let ourselves loose from expectations and preconceived ideas of what should and should not be.

You know yourself, when you don’t think about it but just create, it’s playfully easy.

Creative Routines

If you want to stand out as photographer (as any artist, as a matter of fact), you need to put in the work. Simply put; it takes a lot of work to excel. Often enough I have written about the necessity to work hard. However, almost as important is developing good habits.

As Twyla Tharp, the dancer and one of America’s greatest choreographers, concludes in her book The Creative Habit: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.” Tharp wakes up every morning at five-thirty and takes a cab to the gym—a trite ritual but, as she writes, “a lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they begin their creative day.”

Most renowned artists have and continue to develop good habits for the creative work. Frédéric Chopin played Bach preludes and fugues. Beethoven took a walk with a sketchpad to jump-start his mind and jot down rough notes. Novelty in creative endeavours usually arises from routine—you have to be familiar with something before you know what is novel.

In his book The Accidental Masterpiece, Michael Kimmelman writes about the artist Philip Pearlstein—as one of many artists he highlights in the book. Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, followed Pearlstein’s process when creating one of his paintings and in so doing, observe the routine of his life. Pearlstein’s paintings are unusual and provocative. He paints in a style that has become recognizable his own. As to his work routine, though, he does essentially what most of us do whether we are in an office or teach in a school or we drive a truck or we raise children at home: he follows pretty much the same schedule, day in and day out, trying to make something constructive of it. Contrary to the myth that artists are eccentrics, leaping from one peak of inspiration to another, Pearlstein exemplifies the greater truth that most artists live as they work, incrementally, day by day, in the same way that they build up a canvas or chisel a sculpture. According to Micheal Kimmelman.

Kimmelman also refers to the artist Chuck Close who makes prints out of small, nearly identical dots. Close’s work is painstaking, repetitious, and methodical. As he says to Kimmelman: “My favourite analogy is a brick building. Stacked up one way the bricks make a cathedral, another way they become a gas station. Having a routine is what keeps me from going crazy. It’s calming. My working methods are almost Zen-like, like raking gravel in a monastery.”

Daily routines are also essential for Julia Cameron. She has inspired plentiful of artists and artists in coming by her book The Artist’s Way. The book describes a program for how to open up the creative self and become more in touch with one’s muses. An essential part of her program is what Cameron calls The Morning Pages. As the first think every morning, you sit down and basically empty you mind onto three pages of handwritten notes. The routine will help your artistic development and spur the creative drive.

Good habits create space for creativity. It frees up your mind and inspiration, when you otherwise might get bugged down by the mere thought of what could end up becoming insurmountable chores. Again, to quote Twyla Tharp: “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing.”

One way of developing good habits for a photographer is doing what the photographer and teacher David Ulrich calls Your Daily Record. In many ways it’s similar to Cameron’s Morning Pages, except instead of writing it encompasses photography. Ulrich describes Your Daily Record in his book Zen Camera (which I reviewed in my post Zen Camera).

The baseline for Your Daily Record is acknowledging that it’s imperative to photograph regularly and frequently if you want to strengthen seeing, improve your ability to discover potential subjects and become a better photographer. You need to develop photographic habits. Your Daily Record is similar to a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions—like Morning Pages. You let go of conscious thoughts on how you ought to photograph and let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. Ideally, you dedicate time for daily shooting. It doesn’t have to be time solely for shooting; use off time if you have a change. Shoot while you go for your daily walk, or shoot while commuting with bus or train, or during your lunch break. Now just see and record what you see with you camera (or cell phone). Don’t worry or think about making good photos. These are only sketches. Take photos of everything you see and that strikes you enough to make you become aware of it. Photograph anything and everything that ignites any kind of response or resonates with you. Just captured images without thoughts and any worries about composition, light or technique.

Reviewing the images is just an important part of Your Daily Record as the shooting itself. This is how David Ulrich describes this second part of the process: “Organize your photos and view them daily. You can do this at night or odd times throughout the day when you have a free moment. You want to look for recurring themes and core forms or shapes that appear and reappear. Study how you use colour and form, and your magnetic attraction or revulsion to certain subject matter. Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.”

I try to shoot and follow the guidelines by Ulrich on a daily basis, although I don’t always manage to set aside time for Your Daily Record. Nevertheless, I notice how it has sharpened my awareness and even increased my effectiveness when I photograph an assignment. I am quickly able to get in flow. The photo following this post was shot one morning some time ago during a walk while shooting Your Daily Record.

For the record, Holly who writes the blog House of Heart, recommended The Accidental Masterpiece to me. She creates beautiful poetry. I suggest visiting her blog.

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.

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.

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?