What is Creativity?

Creativity is one of those concepts that seem to stimulate endless debates and discussion as to what it is or isn’t. Often the focus is on results while missing that creativity is better considered as a process than a result. This works best because it is, in fact, a process and as such can allow for everyone to be in a different place as they travel along this journey into their creative life.  What might be more important than specifically defining what creativity is would be to consider some of the characteristics that seem to point to its presence.

While I was on a trip last fall, I had the fortune of catching a NPR Ted Hour discussion on creativity. The presentation didn’t actually include anyone who was creating images but rather explored the creative process from several very creative people who have thought about the process and some who have deliberately studied it.  Whether the exact comments are directly relevant to where we find ourselves or to what we are doing, the ideas are universal and, I believe, fundamental to the process.  The link to the program is down below but I first want to consider some points that I think are worth noting before listening to the show.

Not directly covered in the show is one important aspect of creativity and that it is not something that springs up out of nothing. It comes from the accumulation of knowledge and experiences that are within us but might be viewed as the moment of revelation where things that we might never “think” would work together somehow come together in our heads as possibilities and then we allow ourselves to pursue that thought, for better or worse.

One of the key elements of creativity, then, is the idea that there is the allowance for risk, the risk of being wrong, of being ridiculed or made fun of or maybe just that others won’t “like” what we did–maybe we won’t like what we did either!  I purposely avoid the word “failure” as such endeavors rarely, even when they don’t “work”, end up with nothing having been learned or not generating even more ideas that can be pursued if we just “listen” to them. It is often just allowing ourselves to follow that “wild hair” that can open up even more creative possibilities that might never be discovered if we didn’t allow that first step towards that other crazy idea.

In fact, one of the segments in the show involved a scientist who used an MRI to scan the brain of jazz musicians as they jammed with others. A portion of the frontal cortex of the brain is considered the area that judges and filters our behavior. It is not uncommon for those with frontal cortex injuries to show less inhibition and often more objectionable or even unacceptable behavior. They are more apt to respond to their urges as the filters that keep us within socially accepted bounds have been diminished.

In the process of scanning the brains of these jazz musicians while they were jamming, there was a noticeable suppression in the activity of that part of the frontal cortex associated with that self monitoring while there was increased activity in the portion associated with self-expression.  The filters and judgements that keep us within limits of the norm were suppressed.

The unfortunate fact, as one of the other segments points out, is that for most of our lives we have had that self monitoring/judgmental part of our brain reinforced such that we do things that conform or which are most likely to succeed–we have a tendency to do what is safe and “acceptable”. How many times have we seen someone who tried something different in our profession, something that didn’t succeed, get rewarded for trying it rather than shown how to pack up their desk and have the door hit them in the ass on the way out! How many of us don’t take into consideration how people might respond to our image when we are creating it–or maybe our own (over)thinking that it won’t work, and ignore our interest in creating it in the first place? If you haven’t read my own thoughts on this in a couple of different posts here, then I might suggest those as supplementary reading to this. Link 1  and Link 2 .

I will present some follow-up threads to this one, where I explore my process of creativity, but for now I hope you enjoy the presentation in the link below:



(If the link doesn’t work for some reason, It can also be found on iTunes under a search for NPR Ted Hour podcasts. Look for the date of October 2, 2014 or so and the title “The Source of Creativity”)



Finding Our Creative Voice

One of the issues that I often find with those who are trying to find their own creative voice is the inherent need—or maybe desire—to please others. I don’t think anyone is totally immune to this, especially at the beginning of their creative journey, although some may have different ways of dealing with it than just complying.

Now, possibly, I should have made this into one of my “A Photographer to Know” threads as I certainly hope you will take the opportunity to view the work of the artist who inspired me to write about this topic . But I felt that there was a more important issue that she addressed in a lecture I found of hers and will present below with a strong urge that you take the hour or so to listen to—LISTEN being the most important thing even if the work doesn’t strike you. But let me digress a moment.

It was a couple of weekends ago that my wife and I visited Houston and, as we normally do, visited several different art museums. There were several stunning exhibits to be seen. Many of these were photographic but those certainly were not all that we visited. I often find inspiration in other art forms and how what has been done there—even seemingly insignificant things—might help clarify or move my work forward. Even revisiting the same work is never the same, hopefully, as I have grown since my last encounter and will be able to see/experience new things—of course, this can be incremental and nearly missed or much more concrete and enlightening in some cases.

One of those shows we saw (for the first time) was on the Painter/Photographer Marilyn Minter entitled: “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The first video found in this link will give a good overview of the work and what issues it deals with.

Most of the work was very large and it was nearly impossible to distinguish the photographs from the paintings unless you got very close to them as they were so incredibly detailed–and yet often largely out-of-focus or blurred. This was particularly incredible to me, a non-painter, as to how she could create so many “layers” of imagery that were of varying detail and color—something very easy with photography. The work might not be everyone’s thing but I think it shows how photography can be pushed in many directions (she creates many of her paintings from photo montages put together in Photoshop but they keep an organic feel to them).

I entered the exhibit with a sense of reservation from the appearance of some initial work. While I try to be open, I admit that I have my biases and what I was seeing was hitting against some of those in the wrong way. Fortunately, I am aware of these things and recognize them as “my issues” immediately, which then allows me to bypass them in ways I may not have been able in years past. By the time we finished—which included several complete viewings of the entire show, I was left in awe of what she had done.

This result alone would have been enough impetus for a “Photographer to Know” thread but my interest in learning more allowed me to find a wonderful video lecture she had given to some graduate art students. Now, while I want you to know about her work and what she has done, there were so many wonderful things said and put on the table about art and the pursuit of our own voice there that I felt that the importance of hearing those rose above my interest in your knowing just her work—which you will be exposed to in the video.

Warning: Before you jump into the video below or maybe even visit Marilyn’s website (the links above are not an issue), understand that while most of her work is very sensual and not overtly sexual, there is a series of what she even refers to as her “pornographic” images—they are paintings. It is very short in reference to the overall video content. So linking to the video below may not be safe for viewing at work or may not be something you want to experience. I can’t make that judgment for you but I do think the video has some very important perspectives on the creative process and the struggles to find our own voice.

In my last post here, “My Photograph Sucks!” I had linked to this lecture as another source of the idea that a successful image is not something that just happens with every click of the shutter or painting stroke, but is the result of many other tries that don’t work out as well, those things that were essentially our sketches or steps to a successful image—we generally only see an artist’s best work.

But maybe the overall value in this video is that it is one of the best I have ever seen that chronicles so many of the issues that can prevent us from actually finding our own true voice as artists. She addresses so many of the blocks and obstacles to actually finding and then pursuing OUR voice and where and how that can open even more avenues beyond our current view of things.

Regardless of what you feel about her work the important message there is just to be willing to do those things you feel you want and need to do without regard to what others think or how others respond. We need to find OUR voice, not the group voice. Whether you like her work or not, she is doing what she wants which has resulted in high-end museum and gallery shows, high-profile fashion and celebrity photo shoots because her work is so unique–much the same as with Sarah Moon–not because she is doing the expected. She found HER voice!

Here is the link to the lecture:

My Photograph Sucks!

I started this post almost 3 months ago and just wasn’t finding a clarity in the issue that I wanted to express here. While related to the former “Success Rate: an Irrelevant Measurement” , I think there is a different, but important principle here than the main focus in that post. A few recent experiences/exposures to similar views as my intent here helped me to clear my block in presenting this topic.

You see, I get bored easily, especially when I feel that there isn’t much more to learn. In fact, I don’t know why I have even stuck with photography for almost 40 years now except that I have the wonderful habit of always finding a way to make a bad photograph. I don’t purposely do this; it just seems to happen—and not all that infrequently really. The thing is that I love it and I really do think it’s what has kept me interested in photography.

When we first get going with photography, we just want to make something approaching a “good” photograph. This is generally defined as something others (most others) will look at and appreciate—our families often appreciate anything we do–bless them!

As we move forward, most of us will get to the point where we can make “good” photographs pretty regularly—whatever “good” means to us. This is the point where we can actually go back and refer to some of the points in that former post on “Success Rate”. If we only create images we know others will like and/or we know will be successful, we’ll probably create bushels of such images, although there will always be that occasional stinker along the way. We can end up printing and/or posting hundreds—maybe thousands—of images as everything we do is, in fact, “good”.

For many, this is exactly what their photographic endeavor is all about, making good photographs of their various experiences and to share with others. But, and this is the larger point of this post, there are many who get to the point where “good” no longer is all that important. What is most important are those images that move beyond good and which express our ideas or intent most succinctly. Even Ansel Adams, who was a full time photographer for most of his life, suggested that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

I recently came across a short video on YouTube which used the words of Ira Glass excerpted from another 4-part YouTube video he did on Storytelling, which is what he does so well. I recommend looking up the entire series but in this excerpt, he talks about the process we go through as we develop in our creative endeavors:

As he suggests, how the work we create as we begin our journey will often fall short of what we “know” we are capable of creating. We know we have good taste and yet we just haven’t yet learned how to capture, or express, that within our chosen creative endeavor. Later on in the full series, he also relates how even working with a team of creatives, after ferreting out the best ideas, that when they go to put those ideas into a tangible product, things often just fall short even with those best ideas. On the other hand, maybe magic happens when working on something that seems lesser or less likely to succeed. If we are working for others or under a deadline, we might have to pick and choose what might be the most likely to succeed. But when it comes to personal work, we can choose any idea and pursue it. We often learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes—in a larger context, we often learn more from just the journey than from achieving the goal.

And hidden in this is the reason I don’t mind that “my photograph sucks!” You see, I don’t go out trying to make a bad photograph—and I do know that I am fully capable of making a “good” photograph—but what I do is to photograph what interests me and/or seems significant in some way. Often, this means trying to solve visual problems and express ideas that I have not confronted before. Sometimes, it might be something I have attempted many times before and still haven’t created one that works. Even when I do solve a problem effectively, I might not still think it worthy of showing anyone, there are still things to figure out or maybe it is just alright. In fact, even when I create an image I love, it really is still just a stepping-stone to some photograph I will create in the future—a sketch if you will.

In fact, maybe the most important point here is that we should be looking at our work, even our best, as sketches for future work and solutions. This hit home for me recently about how our photographs, every one of them, can seem so “final” as we view them on the large screen of our computers and yet aren’t they really just the precursor of our next photograph—a sketch in that sense?

I had recently watched a movie about a sculptor and it all seemed so pointless as he spent years seemingly creating the same/similar sketch and maquette over and over. At the end of the movie, he finally creates his “seminal” piece based on those years of sketching. But it was a video on Gustav Klimt that finally put the pieces in place. The excerpt below (it’s worth watching the entire thing IMO) talks about how he would “sketch” various positions/expressions/gestures of his models until he found the one that would finally express the emotion/idea he envisioned for his painting or one of the characters in it . The pertinent part in this clip is about 35 seconds long—there is nudity, drawing and painting, in this clip if that is an issue:

This past weekend I was in Houston and viewed several wonderful exhibits at the local art museums. As a result of one of the shows, I looked up the artist and found a lecture on YouTube that she gave to a group of graduate students. In this video, which is wonderful overall (Not safe for work, by the way), there is a part linked here where she reminds the students that for every wonderful work that an artist presents there are at least 200 that didn’t work—You are only seeing their BEST.  Again, this is worth watching in its entirety–which I will address in a later post–but the pertinent part of this clip starts below and goes for about 50 seconds.

It is important to understand that great work doesn’t come out of anyone with every click of the shutter or swipe of the brush. It is a process of trying, experimenting, searching and discovering—not a goal but a journey or maybe even more like an adventure.

So, I embrace my failures and suggest you do the same. Try things when you don’t know whether they will work but you were attracted to or wonder about or try to express something you might not even yet understand yourself. I don’t throw even my “failures” away as it isn’t uncommon for me to go back and find better solutions to visual problems in that overlooked work than I did in those that caught my attention at the time—sometimes many years later. We often work ahead of our ability to currently see, our subconscious is often way ahead of us.

What do we really see?

Identical images--click on image to see larger

Identical images–click on image to see larger

This may be one of the oddest post I will ever make here and one of the hardest to present in a clear way.

Ever since I was very young, I have always wondered about our vision and how our brain translates the things we see. I can remember sitting in grade school and wondering if my classmates really see the same thing—if I could see through their eyes and translate that with my brain—as I do when I see RED, for instance. It wasn’t that I thought they didn’t see “RED” or relate “RED” to other colors as I did, but whether maybe their “Red” might be green or purple or something else if I saw what they saw but interpreted it with my brain. We know cultural norms can affect how beauty, for instance, is perceived but what about actual visual perception?  Do we really “see” the same things or just interpret them the same?

I suppose that I saw this in one form, at least, when I was teaching at PNCA back in the 90’s. One of the students in my photo class would routinely bring in these photographs with the most incredible rendering of light within them. This “light” was incredible in the sense that I have probably only seen it a handful of times in my life—once that I can remember in one of my own photographs—other than in this person’s photographs. Everyone was pretty impressed (the photos themselves were alright, but that light!) A student who had been photographing for quite a while asked him “how” he got that light. Pondering that question, a more or less blank look came over the students face. I said “you have no idea, do you?” and he looked at me and said “no, I don’t”. For whatever reason he interpreted light in such a way that he “saw” things that most of us don’t. The question, really, might be whether he saw what he was seeing as exceptional in the way the rest of us did, or just as normal—and how did he see our rendering of light?

It might be a surprise to you that the two photos above are actually identical! Well, at least in the sense that they completely match when I isolate them and look at the one on the left with my left eye and the one on the right with my right eye (actually, they did until last Tuesday!). And it might be surprising that, in this case, they both look more like the one on the right than the one on the left. Let me explain the best I can, which is not going to be easy.

Like most of us will at some point, I have developed cataracts over the past decade or two or three… They’re the result, in my case, of spending so much of my life outdoors with much of that in the desert or on the water with no sunglasses or UV protection for my eyes. And, I suppose, age might also be a factor. Over the years, I have had friends who had developed them in their 30’s, so I guess I have been lucky that it has taken a bit longer. Apparently, certain types of eye injuries can help speed them along as well.

But it was about three years ago that they could no longer correct my eyes back to 20-20 with glasses. At the time, the Optometrist suggested that I was seeing things pretty yellow, given how the cataracts had progressed, and I said that I didn’t see things yellow at all, things seemed very clear to me and as “normal” as they ever did. He suggested that I just wasn’t recognizing it, as they were definitely pretty yellow and getting worse. It was also about that time that I had taken a Color Acuity Test and scored very high—a “6”, although not perfect (“0”) but with 99 being poor, I’d say my score was pretty good. (The test can be taken here: http://www.xrite.com/online-color-test-challenge.)

But things progressed over these last 3 years and although I knew there were some changes, I didn’t recognize them all. For instance, when I bought my Truck a year and a half ago, I couldn’t see the speedometer unless I turned on the dash lights. Not having that problem in my other truck or my wife’s car, I complained about it being a design flaw (it wasn’t!). I started to get rainbow halo’s around bright lights at night and driving at night became much less “fun”. I love to drive from predawn to after sunset! During the day, I needed to keep my sun visor down while driving to cut the “haze” caused by the bright sky. One of the worst side effects was that I could no longer read a book (a paper one) comfortably, as I couldn’t get the contrast to see clearly on a white page and it was worse with those fancy art books that don’t use pure black type!  But color, that seemed totally normal to me.

Well, the fact is that I was halfway through cataract surgery when I created the side by side images above, last Monday. My left eye had been corrected the previous Thursday and on Tuesday, I was having the other eye done.

The first thing I noticed after that first eye was operated on was just how clear and BLUE everything was with the “fixed” eye—absolutely blue, not just in reference to the one not fixed yet. I wondered if the nodes in my eye were just so used to fighting the yellow that they needed to settle down. It wasn’t like seeing through a blue filter, just that neutral grays and whites just had a blue cast instead of being neutral.  Actually, each day I have noticed that the extra “blue” had diminished a bit. But I was driving my wife nuts asking her to describe what she saw color-wise to gauge how my “new” eye was seeing—by last Monday it seemed to have all but lost the bluish bias but still a bit more so than what she described (she doesn’t have cataracts).

The image above, on the right, is one that I processed about a year ago through my cataracts. Looking at it with my now fixed eyes, it still looks pretty much as I felt I processed it, if not maybe just a tad “cooler”, but certainly acceptable as it is.

To create the one on the left, I blocked my left eye, the fixed one, so it could only see the left image and the right eye, which still had its cataract, so that it could only see the right image. Both images started out the same as the one on the right. The eyes certainly were seeing different renditions of the image.  To equalize how I saw them with each eye, I made several Photoshop adjustment layers with masks to the left image to try to get the color, contrast and other visual effects to make what I saw with the left eye match what I saw with the right, unfixed, eye. Under this segregated procedure, these are extremely close except for a very small amount more clarity and contrast in the left image than what I was seeing with the right.

The odd thing was that as I was “creating” the one on the left, it didn’t look yellow at all, nor did the one on the right to my right eye. It wasn’t until I pulled away, allowing both eyes to see both images that I noticed the strong yellow in the one on the left. My brain seemed to still be “normalizing” what I was seeing color-wise, as I matched the two images as described above.

(I should note here that the same day that I created these images, I retook that color acuity test mentioned above. The “fixed” eye, which is my weaker one, scored a “9” while the uncorrected eye scored a “60”, which is a far cry from the “6” of just a few years ago!)*

But, when I wasn’t blocking either eye from seeing the image on the opposite side, I couldn’t get the right image to match the one on the left even by closing one eye and trying to look only at the image on its own side. The one on the right just looked “right” with the right eye and the one on the left yellow, with the left eye. The fixed eye did see the image on the right a bit cooler, and certainly sharper, but the right eye saw the right image pretty much as it appears except for those differences (there was a very slight yellow cast to the warmer nature of the image). The biggest color difference that I could notice was just that I could not see any of that rich yellow-green in the foliage in the center of the image on the far bank or in the reflections of the tree in the water.

When I again isolated the eyes to seeing only the image on the same side as the eye looking at that image, the yellow again disappears and the images normalize to each other—looking pretty much as the one on the right with those contrast and slightly warmer differences the “fixed” eye sees when looking at the right image.

I think what fascinates me most is just how the brain could find a way to interpret and normalize the color out of either eye, let alone the uncorrected color vision I have seen for the last couple of years. Certainly it wasn’t perfect, as I could see when comparing the fixed and non-fixed eyes, but in a reasonable range. I have gone back now and looked at the color images I have created over just this last year and although I might make some changes (warming some images up a bit), they are not garish, over saturated or too contrasty as I might have expected given the results indicated by the images above.

Anyway, I thought I might share this as I felt it really dovetailed well into some of the other posts here that have dealt with perception and reality and how the brain resolves all sorts of visual information.  In this case, overcoming substantial color variance to give a “normal” view.

Please feel free to ask questions.  I spent about an hour on the phone with a friend who saw these and heard the explanation and still was trying to get a grasp on what was going on.  In fact, this was going to be posted last Tuesday but after the conversation, I wanted to see if I couldn’t make things more clear here.  So, please ask questions if something isn’t clear and I will try to further clarify things.  Thanks.


*4 weeks after my cataract surgery was completed for both eyes, I retook the color test and had a perfect score.

Quotes to Ponder: #0007

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


~ Marcel Proust


I hadn’t actually planned to make a post today but I saw this quote posted by my nephew on Facebook.  It seemed perfect now that we have ended the “Looking at Photographs” series.  Perfect because like so many things in life, we often pursue “new” things when there are, in fact, so many things to be discovered right in front of us if we only take time to look.

The series was about how we can gain new insights when looking at a photograph or other artwork by trying to understand things outside of our awareness or just that quick glance.  Learning about the Context of an image, why it was made and what is important to the artist; Describing what is actually within the image, recognizing the little things that can be pointers to further understanding; and then the Analysis of the structure of an image, what visual clues do we have in the way an image has been constructed.  These things can all bring a new awareness to something we thought we understood.

As photographers we have an opportunity to show the others new or alternative ways of looking at the world.  To present our unique way of seeing and to let others see what is important to us.  We don’t have to constantly be chasing after new places or where we think we can find our next great photograph.  We can simply start looking at things in new ways, ways that are meaningful to us.  Doing so can only end in the creation of meaningful photographs.

(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

In the last installment of this series, I mentioned that there were two functions that involve Visual Perception that we can use in deciphering a photograph—or any piece of art. The first was just simple observation and description—noticing what is really in the visual, the objects. This is where we start to look for symbols and metaphor, things that enrich what the image actually depicts and means.

The second function is just a slight twist on the first and although maybe just as straightforward, takes a bit of study. It also takes a bit more work to break a visual down in this way. But it can be incredibly effective in our understanding of what we are looking at.

Sometimes, I think that when we read posts such as this series, we view them as more theoretical, unlike a tutorial on lighting or how to create this or that type of photograph. What I would like to suggest is that the information learned here, when practiced, will be more valuable to one’s photography than a simple instruction on how to do this or that. We build our abilities to respond to a scene and make the most of it, regardless of what we shoot or what type of image we like or dislike. When we are shooting, we don’t think about these things but draw upon them. These things are foundational and, as such, can be drawn upon over and over in any situation.

Studying and applying these while looking at great photography/art, we build up a “visual” vocabulary that we can draw upon in the same way we draw upon our verbal vocabulary to express ourselves in all situations—and without having to think about it, we just naturally use the tools we have that work best in any situation. It is when we are looking at work that’s already done that we analyze and think and gain/expand our basic self-knowledge, the only thing available to us when we create.

In fact, the particular skill that I am going to discuss here is fundamental to creating compositions that effectively communicate our ideas as well. Although I will be discussing this with regards to looking at photographs, it is also foundational to making them—in a very direct way.

On the most basic level, our visual perception is not really about things at all. As I said in Part 2, we translate what we see into things we can define and often make assumptions based on our first glance. But what we actually perceive is essentially what is often defined as the Elements of Art. We see line, shape, color, texture, value and form, then, based on our experiences, we identify what they mean or seem to represent. We see a rectangular shape with a pattern/texture and we know it is a plank of wood or a piece of sheet metal or whatever we decipher. Based on the elements we see, we might even be able to identify the particular type of wood or metal.

As well as being the building blocks of the objects we recognize, they also have visual properties that can affect the nature of a photograph and what it means.  They can be active or passive within a scene.

When we look at an image, if we take the time to start to really analyze these Elements and how they relate and interact, as well as how they are organized with the Principles of Design, we can gain even more awareness of what the image might be about—or at least an objective insight into how these things interact within an image and give it meaning.

I am not going to get deeply into describing and analyzing each of these things at this time but here is a list of each (lists will vary slightly if you research this on your own):

Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Color, Texture/Pattern, Value and Form

Principles of Design: Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Motion, Emphasis and Unity

Of course, what I am referring to here are the same things we covered in the post, A Tale of Two Worlds and there I referred to this particular link where these things are discussed:


As time goes on here, I will be covering these Elements and Principles in more depth and hope to complete a book on this topic in the near future. There are lots of resources on these things but very few that are photography specific. That is what I hope to present here later as well as in book form.

One thing that you will notice from these lists is that there are no rules or shortcuts. It is line that we need to understand, in all of its forms, not just leading lines or S curves alone. If we learn the properties of line, we can understand how they actually function within an image and add to its meaning. We learn how Balance affects the way we view an image, how it was achieved or maybe even how the work has employed a sense of imbalance to affect how we respond. Balance doesn’t rely on a specific formula but is rather something we feel within the frame of our given photograph.

I mentioned on Part 2’s introduction that in an art class I took, we were assigned to write critiques and the first criteria was to physically describe what we saw. The second part was to break down how the elements of art were used and how the principles of design were employed. We did this for both two and three-dimensional artworks.  It was uncanny how doing this purposefully gave so much more insight into the works than just my natural first, gut reaction.  Admittedly, it was very difficult to actually do this type of analysis but it got easier as I applied it to more and more works.

A significant point of all of this for photographers is that, especially when looking at great works and employing the tools of analysis presented here, is that we start to get a better understanding of composition and how what we do influences the meaning of our images. We begin to see how these things play within an image, what has been used, what has been subordinated to effect the artist’s vision. As we become more facile doing this, it further adds to our visual vocabulary and we find that we more easily solve our own visual problems.

Even if we don’t “like” a work, we can begin to understand how it works and how these things were employed. We get insights into what the work might be about and gain an understanding of just what was done.

The purpose of doing the type of analysis described in the three parts of this series is about personal growth and increasing our ability to understand and create visual art. It is important to realize that we still may not relate to certain types of photographs or other artworks. That isn’t the point but, with practice, we can develop the tools to start to make some sense of things we may have passed over before. Having this ability will facilitate the learning of new things and a recognition of ways of seeing that are different from what we already know-even if only incrementally. It can look impossible to get from where we are to some distant point—and that is often the case when learning these types of things rather than those “clear” shortcuts—but it is surprising how far we can get, and how fast, if we just start and push forward one step at a time.

My own experience with this is that for the past 30+ years, I constantly return to study these things and I always gain new insights. Sometimes I still look at a photograph or other piece of art and I think I don’t know where to begin to analyze it.  Then, I just start to describe it and things become more clear.  But I do think it has been constantly looking at great work and continually developing the tools to actually see what was done and how it all came together within the image that has helped me progress the most in my own work. When I am in the field or studio, I rarely think about any of this but instinctively respond to the image I am creating and the intent/idea behind its creation.  There is a trust that I will naturally draw upon what I know at the time and what will work best.

There are certainly those times when I get stumped and can’t figure out how to solve the image at hand. Most of the time just taking a moment to focus on something else allows the answer to emerge.  Just shifting my attention to getting lunch or a snack, the answer almost always comes right to me.  But, at times when I am shooting for myself, I might decide to walk away knowing that I learned something in the process. Often, I come back to that same place a day or even months later and the “solved” image is there waiting for me.

Part 2: Looking at Photographs–Perception : Reality

One thing that hopefully is clear from Part 1 is that this whole study of the idea of context is really about expanding our own knowledge base—personal growth– and not really something that is external to us. When we look at images or are out creating them, this is what we draw on and what influences the way we see. When we then run into someone’s work we don’t seem to be able to engage meaningfully, and have the opportunity to learn more than we “saw” through our own filters, we just add to our personal knowledge base.

I think it should also be clear that we grow our knowledge base through pretty much everything we do. Reading books, listening to music, conversations with people, etc– discovering things we didn’t know through whatever means. All of this expands our worldview and we end up drawing on all of this as we navigate our daily lives—including making and looking at images.

So, in the first installment of this series, we discussed processes that we can undertake when looking at an image to learn things outside of our awareness, or our worldview. But I would contend that we often don’t really use all of the knowledge that we have within us. We have built up mechanisms over time that short-circuit our digging deeper because these short hand mechanisms serve us extremely well in our daily lives. We often have to make quick, intuitive responses as we navigate our world. Most situations don’t require long or deep thought or understanding and many could end up fatal if we didn’t react instinctively.

What I am referring to here is just how the mechanism of human visual perception works. There are two techniques within this process that I want to talk about, one is totally within our control now while the other will take a bit of study to use more effectively. The first is a ridiculously simple concept—almost banal itself and can be easily disregarded for its simplicity—but both are not as easy to always apply as they may seem to be. They take practice.

Due to the differences between them, I will cover the “simple” one first and the other in another installment (to keep this shorter and the techniques segregated). Also, this first one might be more applicable to looking at visual things while it may be counter productive when creating a visual, if we undertake it consciously.

The process of visual perception is pretty much, at its base level, a survival skill. We take in information and through the processes of memory and association; we identify objects and situations that we encounter. We pay attention to the things that are relevant and often dismiss or ignore those things that don’t seem to be relevant at the time—the relevance of something can change based on the situation and is not fixed in most cases. It is also a pretty well documented fact that even when we do find something relevant, we aren’t always really recognizing what it, in fact, is. We make certain assumptions that fit our needs and in most cases, that serves us well in those situations.

We interpret based on context and sometimes things become ambiguous

We interpret based on context and sometimes things can become ambiguous.

I think I can say that we all have encountered the situation where someone will say, “hey, did you see this or that, wasn’t it cool” and we have no recollection of what they are talking about even though we were in the same place at the same time. I know that my wife and I have these sorts of exchanges all the time. I “didn’t” see that and then I go back and yes I did see it, but it didn’t register because it wasn’t relevant to what I was doing at the time. With new information as to what that thing was, or just a new perspective, it gains meaning to me.

The point is that we often jump to certain conclusions about things because of associations we are used to making between things we see and what we know—and those may not always be true. When we look at an image of any sort, those mechanisms don’t just disappear. For instance, I remember walking into the St Louis Art Museum and seeing a painting by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton is a very lyrical painter (also was Jackson Pollack’s early mentor—although I doubt many would surmise that without seeing Pollack’s very early work) and everything in his images seems to exude a sense of being alive. In this particular painting, there were some men cradling wheat and several women bending over stacking it—well, that is what I saw anyway. After a minute of admiration, I walked up to it and really looked, there were no women at all, just the men and stacks of wheat. The style of painting and my own filters had made me see something very different in the form of those stacks of wheat than what was really before me. Looking at it now, it is hard for me to understand why I saw women, but I did. Link to the Painting.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don't, in fact, exist.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don’t, in fact, exist.

So what is the point here? Essentially that one of the foremost tools at our disposal when we look at a piece of art doesn’t take any training at all—but some attention and practice. We just have to simply, objectively pay attention to and physically describe what we are looking at. This sounds incredibly easy and most think that they already do this, but my experience is that we often don’t see what is actually there but rather translate, through our individual filters, what is there. To be effective at doing this takes a lot of effort and discipline as it isn’t how we do things normally. But doing it can actually increase our awareness of what a piece of artwork may actually be about and define context that may otherwise be out of our awareness. In fact, we should do this with our own work as well.

A good friend who is a designer is always looking at my photographs and coming up with interesting things he sees that I didn’t. Often they add to the richness of the image but were outside of my awareness—they worked and so I didn’t give them much attention as I might something that wasn’t cohesive within the work and also not the main subject or interest point. With years of his doing this with my work, I have gotten a bit more aware of these things myself when I actually look at the work I decide to present.

When I read some of the more advanced writers/critics of our time, on art and photography, they more often than not do just what I suggest here before they launch into any other sort of analysis of an image. They just start calling out objects that they see in an image, relationships between objects, what the relationships, objects etc might represent etc.

For instance, take a look at this image, http://www.kunsthaus.ch/struth/en/exhibition/families/ before you read on any further to get your own take on the image and notice your interpretation of what you see there.

Below is Michael Fried’s description of it at the opening of the chapter on Thomas Struth’s Portraits (in his book “Why Photography matters as Art as Never Before”) before he even gets too much else.

“The Hirose family sits jammed together on a sofa; a tabletop piled with books and pieces of paper fills the right foreground of the image (slightly out of focus because near the picture plane); to the left one sees part of a desk, also piled with books and papers, and some glass-fronted bookcases; to the rear a lamp and telephone rest on on a table but attention is captured by several African sculptures, one a mask hanging on the wall, and to the left of the mask a framed painting of a mask like head in a somewhat cubist style. To the right rear one looks past an open door into another room.”

He then goes on to describe a few more images, all before getting into any of the analysis about the work. What he is doing is actually insuring that the image is being seen and not just interpreting, through his own filters, what is actually in the image. (He does then use these objective observations of the various family portraits to discern clues as to level of sophistication, relationships and other potentially relevant conditions portrayed.)

The importance of doing this objective description is that it makes us stop and consider things as they really are rather than missing or misinterpreting pertinent information by just seeing a family portrait and really not seeing all of those other things that can inform the image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

(Click here for Larger image.)

So, here is a little case study. I have selected this work because I am familiar with it and I also think it is a relatively easy one to decipher by employing this simple technique. Again, before reading further or looking at the link to the series below, describe what you see in the image above and see if you can draw some conclusions about what the work might be about. This piece is from a series of work that was created and exhibited by my wife.

Without any other reference, I think many of us—myself included—might just see some pictures of rocks on first blush. But by describing what is actually in the image, we might begin to see some things that will give us a clue on the intent of the work. Looking at several images, or just the one additional one below, and going through this same process of describing what is actually depicted will quickly reveal that these images have some rather specific and commonly shared traits and are not just random rocks—all exhibit some form of fracturing. The physical inventory we developed by describing what we actually see will reveal that most exhibit some evidence of recent fire—the charred ground/objects and smoke damage. We might also note the bare ground and the Pine needles. By just taking the time to see what is “actually” depicted, one could easily end up with an understanding that they are most likely looking at a phenomenon that was created by fire, which it was. This phenomenon of these rocks fracturing, or exploding, takes place during high temperature fire and can be found only after a recent fire—before they are hidden by new plant growth and/or scattered or buried by other natural events. There may still be some questions but viewing the images is now at a different level than what the cursory look could yield. The process can often lead to a contextual awareness that a casual look and innate response may not have been able to reveal. The link to the series is http://carol.acurso.com/.

_MG_2700new11x14-printEven looking at a single image, this process of describing what is actually there will often suggest that there is something more than what we might first assume.

Again, paying attention to what is really there, and describing, requires a lot of discipline—it isn’t how we go about most of our routine tasks and looking at images can become a very routine activity—especially when we aren’t used to seeing more serious or thoughtful work.

By looking at work in this more precise way–dissecting the physical elements within an image–we can often increase our awareness of the context of an image. It is just one step in the process leading to a more complete understanding of what we are looking at. It also allows us to gain some more objective evidence regarding what we are looking at, something maybe different than that first take gave us.

I admit that I don’t always take this kind of time myself. We will choose when and when not to do this type of activity. But if we are going to really comment on an image, then it should be the first thing we do. I know that in my own art classes, we were assigned to review art work—alone or on field trips—and the first thing we had to do in our written critiques was to fully describe, in detail, what it was that was before us before we started the further process of analyzing the image. The process can make a huge difference between our first gut reaction to something and the intelligent analysis of a work.