The missing link between mindfulness and creative photography - Part 2

Benjamin Stevens

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Welcome to Part 2! Let's get straight into it.

In Part 1, I talked about the scenario where a child haphazardly creates music by banging on kitchen implements. It's creative in a theoretical sense, but is it true creativity? Is it the kind that we should strive for as photographers?

Unless the toddler is a child prodigy in the making, no one would suggest the sound being produced was especially pleasing to the ears. The child, of course, lacks the experience of a musician with a solid concept of what constitutes music.

Cattell and Butcher (1968) called this haphazard approach to novelty pseudo creativity. In other words, creativity for the sake of creativity.

So how does the child learn to play music?

How does the photographer learn to take photographs?

Intuition

Intuition is one way we can produce something with meaning, interest or cohesion. It is how the toddler graduates from mindless banging to something approaching a symphony.

Intuition is a heady mix of gut feeling, emotional investment, deep interest, and courage. This intuition comes from a process called implicit learning, or the incidental acquiring of information without being aware of it (Cropley 2004).

Riding a bike is a simple example of implicit learning. When learning to ride a bike, we use knowledge of balance gleaned from learning to walk (itself implicitly learned).

Indeed, balance is not something we consciously acquire or take detailed notes on, but we acquire it nonetheless. What’s more, we continue to use it throughout our lives.

Intuition leads to an accrual of knowledge. And knowledge leads to intuition in turn.

Critically, intuitive knowledge never leaves us. We never forget how to ride a bike. We never forget how to walk.

During the convergent thinking process, knowledge and intuition turn noise into music and snapshots into creative, meaningful photographs.

Here are three ways that knowledge influences creativity

1. Knowledge of past experience shapes creative ideas

Charles Babbage is widely considered the father of the computer. But his prior knowledge of Jacquard looms in the French textile manufacturing industry enabled his Difference Engine, one of the first automatic calculators, to be constructed in the early 1800s.

Intuition derived from past experience is particularly important to sports photographers, who must be able to predict where the action is heading. They can only achieve this “oneness” with the game after observing many millions of interactions over time.

As landscape photographers, our past experience means we develop an intimate knowledge of our subject or location. Intimacy and familiarity are achieved through repeated visits and mindful study.

Over time, we develop an intuition for the landscape. We know when and where the eagles nest each year and where that secret waterfall is and how much rain is required to get it flowing. The landscape becomes our landscape because we understand it better than most.

But past experience does not always need to come from photography.

Bruce Barnbaum, an American landscape photographer, says his background in physics inspires him to photograph Antelope Canyon. Ansel Adams used his background as a pianist to apply artistic devotion, a love for process, and a strong work ethic to his photography.

2. In order to be creative, knowledge tells you what isn’t creative

In their book Defying The Crowd: Cultivating Creativity In A Culture of Conformity, authors Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart argue that one needs knowledge of their relevant field to produce something creative:

To go beyond the contributions of the past, one needs to know what they are. Otherwise one risks reinventing the wheel.

Sternberg and Lubart mention the case of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Widely considered one of the most gifted mathematicians to walk the Earth, Ramanujan lacked sufficient contact with the outside world and, as a result, spent much of his short life “discovering” mathematical theories already known to the west.

But knowledge is not merely concerned with being aware of those who have gone before you.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of flow state fame, says that for an idea to be considered creative, it must be deemed useful and effective by experts in its relevant field.

Usefulness, as you might have guessed, is judged against prior knowledge derived from convergent thinking.

Occasionally, knowledge-backed creative ideas will be rejected at first and then gradually accepted over time.

Rejection occurs because of societal values or less commonly because especially novel ideas eclipse or redefines understanding of the fields they originate from.

In the case of photographer William Eggleston, his style of everyday life captured in saturated color was met with resistance at first but gained traction over time as aesthetic tastes and public sentiment shifted.

Photographers must have adequate knowledge of camera settings in order to effectively manipulate them.

Photographers must have a basic understanding of composition and style before they can understand how to bend them to their creative will.

As knowledge increases, it can become a barrier to creativity. When we know something very well, we tend to resort to familiar patterns — especially if we know these patterns give a predictable, desired result. To counter this, we must keep our eyes fresh and our minds young.

3. Knowledge is the foundation for creative expression

With knowledge comes power — the power of knowing what works and what doesn’t. Between two ends of a spectrum lies a continuum where creativity can take place, but it is still constrained by lower and upper limits, nonetheless.

These limits are common to many artistic pursuits and they are governed by norms, conventions and societal expectations.

A good example of creativity constrained by knowledge lurks in the finer details of jazz improvisation.

To the untrained ear, jazz improvisation sounds like pure divergent creativity. It sounds as if musicians are making it up as they go along.

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© Benjamin Stevens

But while there is a degree of wiggle room during improv, musicians still adhere to some semblance of structure. Without structure, jazz runs the risk of sounding like something that isn’t jazz.

The majority of jazz musicians rely on licks — musical clichés of short melodic lines of between 4 and 10 notes in length.

Individual licks are rehearsed before a performance, but their exact order or combination is not.

Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker used at least 100 licks on stage used in various permutations to produce something both novel and creative, but he still respected the basic principles of his craft.

Photography is similarly constrained by basic principles. Concert photographers are constrained by crowds, low light, and moving subjects. Astro-photographers are constrained by sunrise and sunset.

But creativity exists within these constraints, nonetheless. The extent of creativity is determined by the photographer and how well they can use the resources at their disposal.

What are these resources, exactly? A photographer’s unique collection of dots. Life experiences, hobbies, interests, values. The information they absorb in the course of living their life.

Final thoughts

Mindfulness meditation is a key driver of creative photography. In a mindful state, we allow ourselves to be curious about our thoughts and surroundings.

Instead of defaulting to the obvious compositions, we use divergent thinking to come up with a range of creative ideas.

We can then use convergent thinking to choose the composition that aligns with our artistic vision, drawing inspiration from our prior knowledge and intuitive sense.

But we cannot skip the step of acquiring knowledge and intuition. In order to draw inspiration from the well, there must be inspiration in the well to begin with.

When we visit Sunset Point overlook in Bryce Canyon, we can do much better than hang our camera out the car window and take a half-arsed image of the hoodoos before driving off again.

It is within our power to get out of the car and find a (relatively) quiet place to stay awhile.

We can read the interpretive signs, I mean really read them, and digest the information in such a way that it enriches our experience.

We might then be inclined to hike down into the hoodoos themselves and really immerse ourselves in the landscape. We may observe tiny human figures in the snow set against these towering hoodoos. Suddenly, we’re reminded of our passion for winter sports and the pitting of man against nature.

When we seek solitude and tranquillity, something magical happens.

Our minds open. We notice the striking interplay between the bright orange hoodoos and the dark green fir and pine trees. We hear a woodpecker in the distance and then as if by coincidence, we start seeing them everywhere.

Eventually, we may even produce an image that could not be distinguished as having come from Bryce Canyon.

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

Seattle, WA
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