Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

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Slow Down

One of the curses of digital photography is that it’s so easy. It’s so easy to shoot anything and everywhere. We end up shooting too fast and too much. In photography fast is not always better. We may do better by slowing down, be more deliberate in our approach.

In the days of analogue film, it cost somewhere around 25 cents for each click. That cost would make expenses rise quickly if you weren’t careful. It motivated photographers to learn their craft and to focus, concentrate, and compose in a more mindful way. Back then, you couldn’t just hold down the shutter and hope, not even on assignment with a comfortable budget.

Pushing a button is easy, but crafting a good photograph is hard. Lake paddling across the sea, it takes consistent work. If you have a long way to paddle you will quickly tire out if you go out too fast. In the long run slow is fast. The same in photography. If you want to create lasting images, don’t just shoot anything and everywhere. Don’t just hold down the shutter button. Rather be mindful and slow. As Chris Owen, photographer, teacher and best-selling author, says: “In the era of instant, it’s the permanent that stands out from the crowd.”

By slowing down you may actually accomplish more. Creating photographs that stand the test of time isn’t an easy thing to do. And I believe most people can’t make images that last, because they are moving too fast. We worry about moments missed, and we take pictures in a furious pace. In photo circles it’s called “spray and pray”—that is to say holding down the shutter and hope.

I notice it in myself particularly when I do street photography. In the beginning of a session, I run around searching for something, anything that is worth capturing. I am afraid I might miss a moment, I believe maybe around the corner is a better vantage point with more activity on the street. I end up shooting a lot of photos, but nothing worth keeping. It’s when I take a deep breath, slow down and decide to stay in one place, wait and let things happen in their own time and pace, that I slowly start to get images that might be worth keeping.

Making good photos requires effort from us. So we shoot a lot of photos to make up for our lack of skill. However, just because you can shoot a lot doesn’t mean you should. But we still do. Why? Because less takes more time. We don’t have—or don’t take—the time to take better photographs, so we end up settling for good or even inferior. We work quickly and hope for the best.

Creating photographs that last means, we need to change our pace. Even Ansel Adams used to say, “twelve significant photographs in a year is a good crop.” When you slow down and lower your expected output, you can become an artisan in your craft. The constrains of a slower pace beckons you to photograph in a more thoughtful way.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Fujifilm X10 with the lens set at 20 mm (the equivalent of a 80 mm for a full frame camera). Shutter speed: 1/800 s. Aperture: f/7,1. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Do you need some ideas to improve your photography and not having to spend a lot of money on new equipment? My eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera might be what you are looking for. It’s an inexpensive eBook full of inspiration, and it’s available on my website http://www.munchow.no.

The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

«Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.» – Oscar Wilde

We all have our heroes. We all have our role models. Be it in arts or in other aspects of life. And that is all fine. The hardest part, though, is to break ties with those heroes. Particularly in arts. To find our own voice takes courage and determination. It takes consciousness and willingness to do those first stumbling steps on our own. Finding your own voice may take some time to develop. But there is no way around it if your want to become true to your own vocation, if you want to become a true artist. It’s just like the child breaking ties with its parents to become a grown-up himself – or herself.

As artists we have all copied others at some point in our creative training. That’s but natural. We learn by copying. One of the great artists may have been the inspiration for our own pursuit of artistic development. And we may have gained momentum by this artist’s vision. But there comes a time to break away. There comes a time to stand on our own, because we don’t want to remain copycats the rest of our lives. That is when your artistic vision starts to develop, and that’s when you start to develop your own artistic style. If you don’t make this initial break, you will always stay in the shadow of your heroes – and nobody will ever care about your arts. No success of any other artist will help you become successful yourself, no matter how good you are at copying their way of seeing, their way of doing and their way of expressing. If you are as good as Ansel Adams doing what he did, no one will ever see anything but his influence on your work – if at all they will cast a glance on your work.

In his book «The Accidental Creative – How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice», the writer and creative consultant Todd Henry opens the last chapter with the title «Cover Bands Don’t Change the World». The same could be said about any arts – our arts. If we don’t free ourselves from our heroes, we will never be able to impact anyone with our arts; in fact it will hardly be worth the term art at all.

Henry continues: «It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to weed out all the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. This can be very tricky because it often means turning down more work than I accept, but my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I chose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.»

Back when I started out pursuing a photographic career one of my heroes was Ansel Adams. I thought his black and white landscape pictures spoke directly to my heart. I was very impressed with his way of bringing out details and tones in all parts of the landscape and his dramatic visual language. He inspired me to learn about the Zone System – and needless to say, my pictures started to look very much like his – if far from as good. In my case breaking loose happened by itself, simply because I lost interest in landscape pictures and moved on to other fields. Of course I found other role models, but then I was already more conscious about my own vocation and my own way of seeing.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein.

A few years ago the magazine Wired had an article about 10 photographs one should ignore. One of them was no other than Ansel Adams. The writer Blake Andrews wrote about him: «Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snow-capped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.» Point made, I should add.

To sum up my point then: The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams. It needs a genuine you.

On a different note: For the next two weeks I will take some time off from blogging – I am actually gonna have some holidays, padling and travelling and visiting friends. But alas, by mid July I will be back blogging again. See you again then. Have a great summer (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or great winter (for those of you in the southern hemisphere).

Skills versus Creativity – One More Time



I have previously written about the seemingly inherent conflict between technical skills and creative expression. If you have read the posts, you know that I don’t really believe there is such a conflict, but think that craftsmanship only broadens the artist’s expressive abilities. Some time ago I read The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger. Feininger was a late staff photographer at Life when the magazine was at its heights. In the book he has a passage that goes straight to this duality I have focused on in my blog-posts, which makes for a very strong statement. Let me quote a few passages the book:

«Although, according to popular belief, photo-technical knowledge and skill are first among the qualifications of a good photographer, in my opinion they rank last. I say this because I have met too many photographers who literally knew all the answers in the book, were experts in photo-technical matters, owned the finest equipment, and never made a worthwhile photograph. On the other hand, I know for a fact that several of our most successful photojournalists have only the sketchiest ideas about photo technique – and that the laboratory technicians [remember this was written before the age of digital photography] assigned to do their work suffer whenever they have to print their films. But these photographers know how to make good pictures. They know how to see, they feel for and with their subjects, and they know how to express their feelings in photographic form. Any competent photo technician can make acceptable prints from technical poor negatives, but if feeling and sensitivity are lacking, then obviously, there is no remedy».

«This should not be interpreted to mean that I condone bad technique. I don’t. But if I had to choose between the two – a meaningful picture that is technically poor, and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable – I unhesitatingly would choose the first. However in this age of foolproof cameras, […] there is really no excuse for bad photo technique. Technique can be mastered by anyone who cares to make the effort. And once mastered, it should be taken for granted and not used as a measure of the value of a photograph – or a photographer».

The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger was first published in 1955. Since then photo technique has only become easier to get grip on and to master, thanks to digital imagery and cameras that are so much more advanced compared to back then. Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger – as his full name was – (1906-1999) was a German American photographer, and writer on photographic technique, noted for his dynamic black-and-white scenes of Manhattan and studies of the structure of natural objects (according to Wikipedia. The photograph to the left, «The Photojournalist», may be Feininger’s best-known photograph. The now-iconic image of photojournalist Dennis Stock was taken for Life Magazine. Picture also from Wikipedia).

Reaching Your Potential

Have you ever had the feeling that you are not being the photographer you could be (or painter, or musician, or writer, or whatever—put in the right word for you)? That you are not making the best photographs you could make? In other words, that you are not living up to your potential as a photographer (or whatever artist you are)?

It’s nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary. This is a feeling we photographers have all had. Sometimes we may feel on the top of the world, and then the next day we just feel we can’t capture anything worth saving. Reaching our potential is a constant struggle, to become better, to overcome the fear that creative work always gives rise to, to step out of the box, to not succumb to old and proven routines. Here in this blog, I try to give snippets of thoughts on how to keep developing and getting closer to that potential that inherently lies within all of us. Moreover, my workshops, if anything, are all about helping the participants be the best photographers that they can be.

Throughout the years and many posts in this blog, I have pointed to the importance of doing the work, to challenge yourself, to work with passion, to be willing to learn—to mention a few things you need to do to be able reach your potential as a photographer. For a little summery of how to develop your creativity and become a better photographer; look up posts like A Path to Creative Life or Become a Better Photographer. Nobody said it would be easy, but as with everything in life, the purpose of the creative travel is not the end goal, but the road to the goal.

One aspect I have not written a lot about is constantly evaluating your own work and yourself as a photographer. On a regular basis, take stock of yourself. Where do you stand as a photographer right now? And how can you improve yourself so your photography will become better? In my personal experience, and as I have learned from talking with students in my workshops, one of the biggest things that hold us back is the feeling of vagueness and lack of clarity about how to get better. If we wander day by day with no sense of direction or movement, then we are easy pray for the forces of resistance—the internal and external forces that try to stop us from being creative and living the life we want.

When you evaluate yourself, don’t only look to your technical skill level. We should never lose sight of the fact that becoming a good photographer, like becoming a good artist in any medium, involves heart and soul in addition to craft and technique. A technically perfect photo can be banal, and a very imperfect photo from a technical perspective can touch something deep within us. This implies that discovery about how to improve our photography is an emotional and transformative journey in the psychological and spiritual domains, and that mastering of technique is but the barrier to entry. So when evaluating your present state as a photographer and where to go from there, you need to look at both aspects.

Evaluating yourself and your own work is difficult. Sometimes we need the help from others. We turn to family, friends, Flickr, photo clubs, or submit photos to competitions, or attend workshops. All good, but we also have to keep in mind that not all «help» is necessarily helpful. Obviously, the quality of this kind of evaluative response varies, and depends greatly on who is doing the evaluation. However, while we should keep in mind this truth, valid and useful feedback is important, and can come from many sources.

Ultimately, though, it is extremely important to develop the ability to evaluate you own work, no matter how difficult it is to do so. Almost every good artistic vision is individual, and not the result of a committee. External opinions can be noise on the line, and pull in many different directions. Learning to evaluate yourself and your work, is about practising. Do it on a regular basis and it will slowly by slowly become easier. Maybe you need some help in the beginning. Well, participate in a workshop where evaluation in most cases is an important part of the experience. Or look to literature. For one, I can recommend the book, Achieving Your Potential as a Photographer, by Harold Davis.

Are you trying to reach your potential as a photographer? Are you working as hard as you can to encourage your own development? You know, often in my travels to troubled areas, I meet kids that have nothing, may live on the street, have lost their family, or seek shelter in refugee camps. I can’t let go of thinking about the potential that lies within them. What could they have grown up to become in a better world, with better opportunities, with some guidance by mentors or parents?

Take Risks!

There is nothing as boring as a safe photo. When the photographer didn’t risk anything. However, I don’t mean physically risk his or her life, like going into a war situation or into a dangerous neighbourhood. Instead, I mean going into a situation where you as a photographer feel vulnerable and exposed. Yes, of course that could be photographing in war, but it could be as mundane as photographing a total stranger. It takes guts to approach someone you don’t know and ask permission to take this person’s photo. For most of us, at least.

It could also mean shooting something you don’t feel comfortable with or in a way you have never done before. A photographer who comes to mind is Adrian Chillbrook. He does some amazing landscape photography. On his blog Cornwall Photographic he regularly posts images he captures, often from his favourite place in the world, Iceland. Some time ago he took a chance a posted for him unusual photos; very minimalistic, clean, almost empty but yet very expressive photos. Adrian was overwhelmed by the positive response. He took a chance and the result was magnificent. If you want to see for yourself, have a look for instance at his post Ice and Snow.

All this said, however, just not to tread all alike, there are all kinds of successful photographic approaches where the photographer is quite comfortable when taking his or her pictures. For example, I don’t think André Kertész, one of the old masters, ever felt uncomfortable when taking a photograph. Someone like Brassaï, however had a bodyguard with him at various times. The thing is, much of the best photography happens when one begins to overcome one’s personal limitations. I see for instance that participants in many of my workshops tend to be very shy, particularly when photographing people they don’t know. They often retreat to photograph in empty, abandoned places where no one will bother them.

To do photography, for the most part, we must manoeuvre our bodies around to be in the right spot to take a picture. As photographers, we must be physically in front of something. Once again, noticing what’s happening during my workshops, participants—and I think many photographers in general—are not getting themselves in front of things that really interest them because they aren’t quite brave enough. I try to remind my students that passion can’t really exist in the absence of risk, or feeling risk. Think of love. Falling in love means taking a risk. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, if it’s going to last, and it might even break you heart. Nevertheless, you—or most of us—are willing to take the risk.

And so it is with photography. You need to take risks. It could indeed be a physical risk, like visiting a dangerous neighbourhood, or a more emotional risk, such as visiting your estranged parents or face something you don’t understand. Or it could be, such as the case with Adrian, that you take a complete different approach to your photography.

Are you taking risks when you photograph? Would you be willing to? To try at least?

Facts about the photo: The photo from the Tierkidi refugee camp near the border of South Sudan was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-105 mm lens, set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/18. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Afterword: I always feel uncomfortable and at unease when photographing people in for them dire situation.

The Blessing of Insecurity

Munchow_1678-1594_E

I believe insecurity is good for the shooting process. When you are out in the world with your digital camera and see something, you raise the camera, frame, and make a photograph. Nine times out of ten, you will look at the screen and respond to what you see previewed there and maybe try again. You might repeat this process three or four times before you «see» the result you want or expect on the screen. Then you move on.

When shooting with film, obviously you don’t have the benefit of seeing the results immediately, so you work with some degree of insecurity, having no idea if you «got it». Actually, the thought of «I got it» isn’t part of the equation at all. The instinct is more to stay within the relationship you established when you responded to something in the first place. You keep working, shooting, and keep trying as many variations as your attention allows. Your attention is not continuously shifting between the world and your tools.

I was brought up with film, so to speak; therefore, it’s been natural for me to adapt a similar opus operandi when shooting digital. What I have noticed in my own process is that photographs that interest me on my contact sheets or in the editing of the shoot later on are often far from what had grabbed my attention initially. Most are the seventh, eight or later variation into the investigation.

With this in mind, you should ask yourself if, by being able to look at your results immediately, you are just confirming what you immediately responded to and capturing what you expect? Or are you actually using the «preview» as a tool to keep working and to discover something transcendent, beyond your expectation? There is capacity for both to happen. You just need to avoid the feeling of self-satisfaction that disrupts the shooting and results in only the former and not the latter.

Another argument for not looking at the preview screen during the shooting process is the fact that you take your eyes off the subject when doing so. You might actually miss the Picture with capital P because of this defocus. (I wrote about this in my post A Curse and a Blessing).

I would like to suggest shooting photographs without looking at them in the moment. Work with a bit of insecurity lingering over your shoulder and see what happens. Put black tape over the preview screen if the draw to look at it is too great—which of course requires that you have a viewfinder to see what you actually shoot (or you can even playing with not seeing what you photograph. You are maybe in for an interesting surprise).

Do you use the preview screen all the time? Or do you take chances and turn it off?

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX7 using a 4.7 zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/1000 of a second. Aperture: f/2.8. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Killing by Comparison

Et ungt par med en klassisk amerikaner

I remember as kids, me and my friends, were always comparing each others’ birthday—or Christmas—presents. Who had gotten the coolest, the best, the most expensive, the latest, the hippest present of all? It was of course a childish competition of sorts, but just that; childish or naïve. I believe all kids have probably done the same. However, many of us still do it in various ways as grown-ups, don’t we, even if we don’t spell it out as blatantly as we did as kids. But we still compare in our minds, and we envy the neighbour when he has bought a bigger and better whatever it is than we have or when she got promoted and we didn’t. The comparison is similar compared to when we were kids, only the objects have changed (and become more expensive): Who has gotten the coolest looking car? Or who has the most beautiful looking home amongst our friends? Now, though, as grown-ups, it seems silly or spiteful. Moreover, as grown-ups we have learned to feel inferior when we fall short on such comparisons.

From a rationally point of view such comparison does derive as silly, but it does—or did—serve an understandable purpose. It’s instinctively something we human beings do, and it’s a way of securing our existence—from the times when we were hunters and gatherers. However, in a modern society, it may not serve much of a purpose any longer. I am not trying to make judgements in any ways, just observing the behaviour of my peers and myself. What I do know, tough, is when we pass on this need to compare into our creative lives, it becomes very destructive. Creativity is killed when we start to compare ourselves with others.

As kids when we compared presents, it wasn’t something serious, we didn’t hold it within us for longer than it took to spell it out. Then we moved on. As grown-ups, life becomes serious, and I believe that is what makes the difference. Everything means so much more when we leave childhood behind. As we get older, we learn the importance of the outcome of comparing one thing with another—or we put more significance to it. We learn to interpret the result of comparing with others and make it become something we adjust to. And that’s why comparing creative work is so destructive for us.

If you go into a classroom of kids and ask them who can draw or who can sing, you will get every single kid to raise their hands. Do the same with the same persons twenty years later and probably none of the class will raise their hands—or only a very few. The older versions of the persons hear the question with a string attached to it, making it into a comparison: «How many of you can draw or sing… well? When we age, we start to compare everything. We compare ourselves with everyone and dwell on where we fall short. The older version of the kids that could draw or sing, think to themselves, «I can’t draw that well so I shouldn’t raise my hand». This comparative logic is extra baggage that devalues and decreases any creativity we once had.

The first step to become more creative (regardless of age) is to stop blaming ourselves, stop believing we can’t do, and take action. Even if you think you aren’t very creative, it doesn’t mean you can’t change. You might just need some practice, or you need to let go of the mean teacher who criticized your lack of skill. Like Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and countless other great books, whose teacher once wrote on his report card when he was 15: «A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.» Roald Dahl wasn’t the sharpest kid, but he channelled all of that into plot lines, characters and words. That is what makes his writing so fun.

The moral is that we should not compare our creativity with others. Keep it flowing by itself, there is no need to hold it up against the rest of the world. That only creates—pun intended—fear in ourselves. And if anything, fear kills creativity. So—as hard as it sometimes feels—believe in yourself, believe the creative magic that is within you and don’t look to your next door neighbour. As before mentioned Roald Dahl was wrote: «Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.»

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D and a 24-105 mm zoom lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/11. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Climbing Mountains

Little Bandera Mountain

The driving force behind most creative activity is the creative process in and of itself. The road is the end itself not a means to reach some higher goal. I have said this before. At the same time I recognize that most creative people—whether professionals or amateurs—all the same seek acknowledgement and some kind of success to gauge their creative endeavour. Nothing wrong with receiving some measurement of encouragement for work done, as I wrote in the post Finding Bearing, some weeks ago. Indeed, being recognized in some shape or form certainly may spur the creative growth further.

However, if success becomes the main objective for our creativity we stand to lose exactly that creative self that makes our art or our expression unique. I believe climbing—or hiking— mountains is a good analogue for the creative process. If all that matters is reaching the top, everything else becomes a hassle and pure arduous. We struggle and fight for only moments of triumph at the top—if we are able to reach it at all. Haven’t we all at some point in life, climbed that mountain only to find that the sun disappeared and all view got concealed by foggy clouds that came in just before we reached the summit? Had we instead enjoyed the hike or the climb on the way up, we would have been able to take pleasure in the sun, the lovely flowers, the animals, the slowly opening of the view as we got higher, the rests in between the work, feeling the body doing some good workout.

Pursuing creativity ought to be the latter. Instead, we too often seek out the highest mountain (in a manner of speaking), thinking the view will be better there. But what is a better view? It’s not the highest top that makes the journey better. It’s not how much effort it takes but the work itself that makes the journey worthwhile. As the American president Theodore Roosevelt said: «Far and away the best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.»

Or to quote Yvon Chouinard, the famous mountaineer: «How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.» Success isn’t planting the flag at the top of a peak. It’s embracing the challenge and enjoying the view at any point. As such, success isn’t only external results, but even more so an internal reward. For Chouinard climbing is not about getting to the top, but about changing yourself as a person and a climber (or an artist).

We can’t all climb Mount Everest or K2 (which is suppose to be one of the most challenging peaks in the world). Instead, we need to find tops and peaks that fit our skill level and our interests. If it’s the hill next to your house, then that is just as good an endeavour as seeking out the highest peak in your area. Again, it’s not the height of a mountain that makes climbing it worthwhile, but being able to enjoy the accent no matter how.

The way the world most often define success doesn’t fit for creative work. Success is more than a list of accomplishments. Success is leading a fulfilling life as a creative person and as a whole, with family, friends or whatever else matters to you. To be successful in this sense, we still have to fight, but we have to fight in the right way. We have to pick the right mountain to climb. And maybe even more important; the biggest success isn’t even just about you, but about accomplishing dreams and inspiring others to do the same.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and the lens set at 74 mm. Exposure time was 1/500 of a second and the aperture f/8.0. It was processed in Lightroom and then the app Instagram with the Lo-Fi-filtet.

Floating Again

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I strongly believe that the joy of creating in and of itself is the driving engine for artists. We create because creating is fun, is uplifting, is developing, is opening our minds, is exciting, is a way to express our innermost feelings. My motto has always been that we do not create because we hope for success, but because we enjoy the creative process itself. Creativity is its own fulfilment.

Success, however, is of course not a bad thing, but it becomes a road to frustration if that is what drives our creativity. If we start to look for ways to make our creative work more popular we lose that which is our genuine expression, and thus what could make it stand out from everything else. This much said, I also acknowledge that approval is something we all strive for and something that can spur our energy towards the creative process.

Some of my photos from Cuba have earlier this year been invited to participate in the 4th Biennale of Fine Art & Documentary in Berlin. The exhibition takes place in October and of course, I am very pleased to have been asked to participate. As you may know if you have read my posts lately, I have been in a bit of a creative rut lately. Having worked with preparations for the photo exhibition in Berlin this week has been good for me; it’s been inspiring and energizing. I have to admit that.

The invitation to the 4th Biennale in Berlin came as a result of a competition I took part of last year. Three photos I had sent to the Jacob Riis Award had been picked out. I didn’t win the award, but my work was rated among ten finalists. I didn’t know that at the time, though. I registered that I hadn’t won, and thought no more of it. That was until the invitation from Berlin came and I was made aware of the fact.

I have not done much creative work as of last week when I wrote about the rut I was in, but I feel my mind is lifting, that I am about to break lose from the straightjacket of negative thoughts I have put myself in. Working with the preparations for the 4th Biennale of Fine Art & Documentary in Berlin has definitely helped, but also small pleasures in daily life, that has nothing to do with photography or creativity as such.

For instance, yesterday I overcome a big inhibition I have fought with for a long time. I like skiing, and I am quite okay—in all modesty. However, in one of the areas I go skiing there has been a black double diamond run that I have not dared to even make an attempt to negotiate. I have done all other black double diamonds in the area—and in many other ski areas as well, but this one, was really pushing my limits. It’s probably the steepest run I have wanted to give a try, coming out through a narrow shoot, and where falling means not being able to stop before the slope evens out a bit. Yesterday I finally did it. I had my heart up in my throat, but I did it. Moreover, I now know that the inhibition has been broken. Next time will be much easier. In the bigger picture, breaking the impediment has giving me some confidence, giving me energy to think in positive ways again, is helping me to breakout of the before mentioned creative rut.

Thank you to all of you who sent encouragement to me after last week’s post. It means a lot, and gives and impetus to move forward again. Stay creative!

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS 5D MII and a 24-105 mm lens set at 24mm. Exposure: 1/160 of a second and f/8. It was processed in Lightroom and the app Snapseed with the filter Drama and Frames.