Photographically Seeing

Are you ready to learn and understand how you eyes work—and how to make your visual perception sharper and better fit for the task of finding potential photographs? My new eBook “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” will take your seeing—and thus your photography—to the next level.

For a photographer, seeing is where it all really starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking photographs.

“Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” will take you on a journey into how our eyes and brain work and teach you how you can develop and train your perceptive skills.

By training your perceptiveness, you not only improve your ability to discover and see potential subjects better and thus are able to create stronger and better photographs, but the opposite is also true. In the process of photographing, you train yourself to see more deliberately and clearer. The camera can consequently help liberate your awareness to see clearly and keenly, to know something about who you really are, and open your being to an unfading swell of empathy and compassion for those you meet along the way.

Maybe it’s time to discover how to see again? By taking the time to truly focus on what it is you see you’ll be able to create more engaging photos. Rediscover what it is you really see, and you will probably find that your photos will change dramatically. Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography by itself, though, but a captivating photographic expression is impossible without it.

“Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper” is 106 pages packed with useful information and practical exercises to make to see what is rather than what you believe is there.

Order the book “Photographically Seeing—Seeing Better, Seeing Deeper”

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.

It All Starts with Seeing

There is a saying that “some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world”. This is a reminder that for the most part we see only what we expect to see. That is why it’s so easy to hide something in plain view.

It’s quite obvious that being able to see is an indispensable quality for any photographer who wants to create engaging images and surprise the viewer with a fresh vision. Anybody can see, one might point out, but the fact is, it requires more than merely taking in the world through the eyes to see beyond the obvious, to become observant and consciously register what is going on in front of your eyes. Yes, most of us “see” equally well if you talk about the physiological process—more or less that is, of course. However, seeing with the intention of really seeing is not merely a physiological process and not something most people do, no matter how sharp their eyes might be. Seeing—in the finest and broadest sense—means using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you, even when it has become habitually mundane.

There is a whole process of internalized steps behind capturing a photograph. It all springs out of you as a person. You bring yourself, and whatever you are, into the visual world. Your whole previous life experience and personal development becomes part of the equation. Being who you are, you see the world differently than any other person, simply because you are who you are. Perception is shaped by values, upbringing, and culture. No two persons see the same way. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. However, most of what you see goes unnoticed by your conscious mind. Then suddenly something triggers you, visually and emotionally. There is what could be called a momentary encounter between you and the world. It might be anything from a strong colour splash or an odd object to extraordinarily beautiful light or some human interaction. This initial flash of perception sparks a desire to take a photograph and finally results in your camera registering a photo when you push the shutter button. Somewhat simplified the process can be described this way:

Personality → Perception → Picture

Who you are is nobody’s business but yours, and not something you necessarily need to work on or improve, not to become a photographer at least. I certainly have no say in who you are or ought to be, but let me just point out that it does ardently affect the way your photography will manifest itself. In the end, that is what makes your photographs different from any others.

Personality aside, for a photographer, seeing is where it all really starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general, as indicated above, and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways, we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you “only” see as you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

This is an excerpt from my soon to be released eBook “See Better, See Deeper”, a book about seeing with the intention to take photographs. It’s an in depth study into all aspects of seeing and learning to see better. I will get back with more information when it’s ready.

Thrilled to Feel Alive

I remember first time I tried white water rafting. It’s maybe the first time I felt totally and completely immersed in “now”. I let myself fall through the cascades of raging waters—or so it felt. There was something magic about being in control, or maybe not at all, of both my own anxiety and the run through the roaring river. Maybe it was in that first white water rafting attempt I experienced my life’s most ecstatic seconds.

Part of the seduction is the intensity and the thrill that chase away anything else. All thoughts of yourself, your life outside of what is happening on the raft, any worries—except those for the forces of the river, whom you are and what you need to do tomorrow; all that is blown out of your mind.

Out of the river I live many lives—as I think we all do. One life at home, another at work, yet another when I am creative, a fourth life out with friends and so on. It can be pretty arduous. All thoughts that go into this can be like a clamp on the head. Thoughts, desires, worries, demons and daydreams behave like hectic sparrows in the fall. In my daily being, I am faced with many demands, many of which I create myself.

Down the roaring river, it was different. There it was just this one. The river and me. The water that squeezed in from all sides. The body that through the paddle fought with the raging water. It’s a reminder that resistance is a sure way to feel that we are alive. Resistance prevents us, but it also provides presence. That is why we are quick to seek it out.

Creativity in many aspects resembles the experience down the river. It’s encompassing—when you enter flow. Then nothing else exists. Just like with white water rafting or any other exhilarating experience. But you need to expose yourself to resistance, get out of the safe zone, out of the box, take chances. Only then will flow come and take over you mind, like when bumping down a boisterous river.

And like any thrill, when you get used to it, the thrill of creativity fades when what was first encompassing, becomes routine. We have to keep raising the bar, keep pushing ourselves out of the box as it widens, keep taking new chances.

Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for using my affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and really appreciate your support.

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

Thank you for using my affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and really appreciate your support.