How do you speak through your photography? A short essay on making meaningful images - Part 1

Benjamin Stevens

The power of divergent thinking in photography

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To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false - Dorothea Lange

At some point in our photographic journey, we want our work to mean something.

We want to graduate from taking images to making them.

No longer are we content with photographing a scene for posterity or jostling for position with other photographers at golden hour.

This discontent manifests as a lack of meaning. We know what we’re doing with our camera without necessarily knowing why.

In searching for meaning, we seek to produce self-expressive work that resonates with ourselves and with our audience.

Google defines self-expression as “the expression of one’s feelings, thoughts, or ideas, especially in writing, art, music, or dance.”

But the path to self-expression can be a rocky one. Most photographers have a desire to express themselves but are uncomfortable with the journey to get there.

Some grow tired of fumbling around in the dark, looking for that tiny morsel of individuality or flash of inspiration.

Soon enough, they look for an easier path.

The obsession with aesthetics

There is nothing inherently wrong with the contemplation or appreciation of aesthetically pleasing scenes.

One can, for example, appreciate and photograph the sunset and convey that beauty to others.

But photographs with high aesthetic appeal often lack a message.

Sunsets are undoubtedly beautiful. But what else do you want to say about them?

What about the sunset moved you to make the photograph in the first place?

Without clarity on your motivations, it will be hard to find locations that resonate with something deep within you.

Photographs with high visual appeal and no message to back them up are a dime a dozen. They’re usually of things, rather than about things.

Aesthetic photographs are the Toyota Corollas of the automotive industry.

Mass-produced. Reliable. Economical. Even successful, on some level.

But not particularly exciting.

Landmark photography

There are so many photographs of Antelope Canyon that one almost becomes bored of its gloriously sculpted sandstone walls.

Photographs of Antelope Canyon or Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia or Mesa Arch in Utah do not facilitate self-expression and thus, an ability to offer something that hasn’t been offered before.

These photographs follow a formulaic process with an identical, known outcome.

Following a recipe is the path of least resistance, so it’s no surprise that most photographers take this path.

But our photography should never feel like it has come off a production line.

Creativity requires that we break free of largely self-imposed shackles and be proud of what we produce.

How exactly do we do this? How do we deviate from the norm and have the confidence to stand behind our work?

Divergent thinking

Originally coined by the American psychologist J. P. Guilford in 1959, divergent thinking is the creative process of imagining several solutions to a single problem.

Problems in photography that can be addressed by divergent thinking include:

· Bringing fresh eyes to the same old locations.

· Working a scene and coming away with more than the obvious shots.

· Making images that elicit an emotional response.

· Composition — distilling complexity into simplicity.

Divergent thinking considers a range of possibilities, instead of defaulting to the single, most obvious possibility.

Importantly, a high IQ is not a requirement for divergent thinking.

More useful traits include curiosity, risk-taking, persistence, and nonconformity.

Torrance and Myers (1970) later hinted at divergent thinking involving a process that is:

one of becoming sensitive to or aware of problems… bringing together available information… searching for solutions… and communicating the results.

With that said, in photography it might look something like this:

1. Preparation — trying and learning new things to feed the brain information.

2. Incubation — using mindfulness photography to quieten the mind so the subconscious has a chance to be heard.

3. Illumination — the moment when creative photography bubbles to the surface.

4. Verification — assessing each creative idea in terms of photographic viability.

Let's have a look at each in more detail.

1. Preparation

The literal translation of creativity involves creating something from scratch, but this not to say we can pull creative thoughts out of thin air.

Preparation is also known as collecting the dots. Think of dots as the raw materials of your creative expression. Dots may be drawn from experiences, hobbies, or interests.

Creativity may also be drawn from seemingly unrelated information.

Steve Jobs credited the design of Apple products to his childhood home, a post-war style eschewing clean elegance, smart construction, and affordability.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings contains Catholic imagery and symbolism, a product of his religious upbringing:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision… For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know… - J. R. R. Tolkien

Preparation is mostly subconscious.

Jobs and Tolkien could never predict how their respective dots might prepare them to solve future problems.

Photographers can also draw inspiration from dots that seem, at first glance, to be unrelated to their craft.

Preparation may also be more deliberate.

More of a conscious decision, if you will.

We can, for example, study the work of the photographers we admire.

In seeking clarity on our creative process, we can take notes on theirs and what makes their work so attractive to us.

With any luck, our subconscious mind will store these notes away and bring them out when we have the camera in hand.

In the preparation stage, creativity is the problem that we attempt to solve based on the tools at our disposal.

Sometimes our tools will be inadequate. We will encounter roadblocks more often than not. We will struggle to find compositions, develop a coherent body of work, or recognize locations with potential.

Unfortunately, none of us is born with creative expression. We don’t know what we don’t know and as such, the path to knowing may take months or even years.

The preparation stage is hard and requires that we persist and become very comfortable with uncertainty.

In Part 2, I'll take a look at incubation, illumination, and verification. Do join me then!

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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