“What If ” Photography: some examples #2 of 3

This weekend I started reading a new book about Ideas and where they come from.  Now, I haven’t gotten very far into the book so I don’t feel I can yet give it a strong recommendation, however, I am finding it interesting.  The book is Steve Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From—The Natural History of Innovation”.  (I got it from the library, so there wasn’t any risk associated with it not being interesting!)

It was in the introduction and first chapter that he covers some points that are very relevant to the pursuit of “What If’s” that I have been discussing here.  Following or trying these ideas, by definition of the statement “What If”, takes us places that are not familiar or known to us.  Pursuing these introduces new things into our awareness, things that we can draw upon later in our work—often in unrelated ways to how we discovered them.  The point is that the more we know, the more we have to draw upon either to create something or to solve problems.  One of the points in the book is that most of the major innovations we are aware of aren’t quantum leaps beyond what is already known but rather new ways of relating different known things to create something new—what he calls “The Adjacent Possible”.  The more we know, the more robust our solutions and innovations will be.

I often hear the statement with regards to photography that everything has been done and so everything is just a rehash of what is known.  The reality is then one day we see something new that someone comes up with, a new way of seeing or photographing or presenting something—of course, with that “everything has now been done”, but then this phenomenon repeats itself.  The fact is that these “new” things are generally just new applications of that which already existed, things we may or may not have, personally, been aware of.

So, the author of the book made a statement there that I thought was extremely important and that is: “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts.  The trick is to get more parts on the table.”  Of course, the “table” is our knowledge base and getting those parts isn’t sitting around thinking but being out doing.

Sometimes we will have a lot of parts and have an idea but we don’t yet have the “tools” to make them a reality and maybe the discovery of some new tool can stimulate other new ideas.  In the last entry, I presented several “what if” ideas that were related to pre-digital photography.  The pursuit of those ideas helped me more deeply understand the processes of photography that I still use today whether I am working digitally or with analog processes.  In the following examples, it was digital processes, both with scanned film and digital capture, that facilitated my discoveries.  The discoveries were not just visual but deepened my understanding and proficiency with digital processes.  These “What If’s” that I will focus on here, and the thoughts around why I pursued them, all led me to a current process that I am exploring and which will be revealed in the next installment of this “What If” series.

In that regard, I started pursing a line of questioning with regards to space, time and perspective and how to express that photographically about 17 years ago although I had done some cursory investigations 30 years ago when I created some grid imagery as well as multiple exposures along these lines.  I should mention that these explorations were also related to my long time interest in the transformation of subject to “what else” it becomes other than representational concerns.

So, let me give some examples of this particular aspect of following those “What If’s” I explored with regards to time, space and perspective:

Explored how adding a "drop-shadow" to a subject could affect space in a photograph

Explored how adding a “drop-shadow” to a subject could affect space in a photograph


In 1998, I began to play with extending the idea of how the drop shadow, used extensively by designers with product shots, could separate an object from the background (space), as well as the concept of aura, through multi-layering. (I was also exploring the use of the Holga and another aspect of cross-processed film at that time) After about 30 hours using a much more primitive version of Photoshop to create the image above, I had learned a ton more than I already knew about the program although I had been working with it since 1993.  I used this technique both personally and commercially for several years after that.

A variation on using multiple images to alter space, time and perspective

A variation on using multiple images to alter space, time and perspective

A few years after creating the Electric Tower image, I started working with multiple images to see how space, time and perspective could be presented by photographing pieces of a scene with 100’s of different images and then reconstructing the image with these slightly different perspectives.  The image above was created in 2008 or 2009 when I resurrected the idea after getting a “serious” digital camera.  Of course, this idea had been explored by many others, including David Hockney, but I wanted to see how it might be applied within my own work.  Again, I learned quite a bit from the process of shooting several different types of images over the next couple of years.

Playing with an idea while bored!

Playing with an idea while bored!

The image above was a short-lived experiment where I combined the separate RGB channels of the first three images (The Red from one, the Green from the next and the Blue from the last.)  Unfortunately, this is a pretty monochromatic color image but you might recognize that the stationary parts of the final image are rendered in “true” color while the moving parts take on the more colorful variations.  This was actually a process that had been experimented with by several fine art photographers in the 70’s and 80’s using film and RGB sharp cut filters for each exposure—either printing as dye transfers from three separate pieces of film or on a single piece of film through a multiple exposure using a different filter for each exposure. One day I was just bored and decided to see how it worked with digital exposures—and whether it had some relevant application for me.  I did discover what I believe was a new permutation of the process, that using the same color channel from each of the exposures pasted into the RGB channels of the final  (eg only the red channel, one from each exposure into the r, g, b channels of the final) converts the stationary objects to black and white while the moving objects take on the multi-colored effect.  (I would be glad to demonstrate this in another entry here if there is interest by anyone, just make a request in the comments here).

Some recent experiments with those “What If” ideas have been a bit more interesting for me and have presented a direction that I have been pursuing a bit more seriously over the last couple of years.

Stacking Multiple Exposures

Stacking Multiple Exposures

The image above represents the first test I conducted on stacking various exposures digitally–which might also be done in-camera although some digital post processing might be needed to finish the image.  This idea came from seeing others working in similar ways.  One of the first discoveries of “visual” similarity I have come across was done by Idris Khan with appropriated imagery.  Of course, his idea was a bit different and it should be understood that it is how we use various techniques, our ideas, that can make them our own even if we create more traditional imagery.

When I had done several of these, another “What If” came to me to take the idea in a slightly different direction, I created the image below:


Which led to another “What If” with regards to the processes of how one combines those same images and how a totally different visual, something more solid, can emerge:

exploring other alternative processes for combining images

exploring other alternative processes for combining images


Although I have been pursuing these various ideas over the last few years, the acquisition of a new piece of equipment was the catalyst to asking another “What If” and discovering a different approach to this sort of imagery.  This process was right before me without the new equipment but hidden.  I will present this work in the next entry here.

The important thing, again, is to just get as many “parts on the table” as possible by trying different things.  We do this by continually exploring into those unknown areas stimulated by our “What If’s”.  Even if those don’t end up being something we want to pursue, the knowledge we gain, those parts discovered, can be what invaluable to our growth and development and a discovery that’s in our future.

“What If ” Photography: some examples #1 of 3


Positive Transparency Film Cross-Processed used as Final Artwork for Ad

A few weeks ago I returned from almost 2 months on the road photographing and although I wanted to get to this post, I ended up needing some time to decompress—I haven’t even fully unpacked yet!  At some point I may share some of my experiences from those travels—across most of the southern US between Utah and the east coast—but, for now, I want to offer some tangible examples of the “”What If”’s” I spoke of in the last couple of posts here.

Before that, I think there are some important things to consider with regards to those “What If” moments.

First, there is no specific nature of these “What If” moments or ideas.  They don’t just occur when we are doing something creative or related to our photography.  It can just be an urge to read some book or see some movie or even something related to our day job that triggers a seemingly random thought.  And THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE ORIGINAL IDEAS either.  If we see something someone else has done we might have the urge to try it.

Second, the value of pursuing these “What If” ideas is not necessarily accomplishing the original goal but what we learn or discover along the way.  Exploring into the “unknown” is where we gain knowledge and wisdom.

Third, “What If” ideas are not always disposable once we pursue them.  We only know what we know at the current moment.  We might get an idea we don’t yet have the skills—or other tools— to fully realize when we think of it.  Two things are important here.  First, what we learn pursuing the idea will help us in all of our work and second, years later we can come across something we did that “failed” and see the solution due to the skills/knowledge we have gained pursuing various other “What If’s” into new areas.  Or maybe some new “What If” combines with or allows the realization of an old one.  Keep a list of those What If’s, even one’s never pursued, and review it often.

Some Personal Examples:

The whole point behind these “What If” discussions is that when we have one of those moments/ideas, we choose to follow it and see where it leads.

One of the most important things for me as one who photographs largely outside the studio is that I have learned to follow those feelings I get to walk or drive down unplanned paths or roads that I come across. (see post: Looking for vs Finding)  I pass a lot of “side” roads and hike a lot of miles, but I don’t always get the feeling to move in unplanned directions, it is just that when I do and I try to respond, I am almost always rewarded on some level—not always photographic, but always valuable.

Almost missed ever finding this location

Almost missed ever finding this location

One such discovery by doing this was the place pictured above, back in 1984.  It’s now one of my favorite places to visit when I am in the area, an alien landscape that was nearly missed.  It is not visible from the road nor is it on the way to anything in particular, just a “What If” that was followed.  I discuss my discovery here.  https://acurso.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/the-wash/

Cross-Processed Neg Film for Microsoft and Novartis

Although there had been various “What If” moments/ideas before then, it was in 1990 when I entered the commercial photography field that things really ramped up in this regard.  One of the things I confronted was that I was now going to have to shoot color and I didn’t really like “normal” color.  I had already been shooting for 12 years and only black and white for most of that.  At that time, photographers did not have access to digital solutions and the most common deliverable for a photographer was a transparency (essentially what most might know as a “slide”).  So there wasn’t much one could do except choose a film that “fit” your style and the client’s needs.  But it was also the beginning of experiments to cross-process negative films, creating positives instead of color negatives.  I experimented with, probably, 12 different films but wasn’t crazy about the very soft, cyan results they all seemed to generate.  I picked a couple that seemed to hold some promise but I wanted something different and varied the processing and other factors I could control at the camera.  I was learning a great deal about color theory that I hadn’t ever considered before as well as insight into various processing variables that I still draw upon, even with digital.  Over 6 months or so of various “What If” moments and not getting where I wanted to go, I was just about ready to give up.  I had just picked up a batch of test film from my lab that still hadn’t gotten me any nearer my goal and was driving back to my studio when I got one of those most improbable “What If” flashes.  Trying it, I had discovered what I believe was, and remained until the film was discontinued, a unique color process that gave a hyper-real feel to the photograph while maintaining a somewhat conventional look.  Along with other stylistic factors, the process helped attract clients from across the country to not only shoot “branding” type images but what might otherwise be mundane product shots as well.  I even had an art director fly half-way across the country just to shoot four slices of bread!

During the time I was experimenting with this type of cross-processing, I was also exploring the use of cross-processing positive film and using the resultant “negative” as the final image (many were having these “negatives” printed for the high contrast and color shifts–later, I also scanned these “negatives” to create positive images).  One such case is the image at the top of the page here, which was not what the art director asked for but when I presented this version, it was used as the final artwork in the ad for a snowboard company.

It’s important to understand that while most of the examples here are related to my commercial work, that isn’t the point.  Rather, although I did explore ideas before I turned Pro, it was  during this time that these “What If” explorations intensified and, in looking back, that I realize how important constantly looking into unknown areas is to our creative development.  The things we learn build on themselves and build up our capacity to move further than we ever imagined.

Below are a couple more examples related to the above explorations.  In my next entry, I will explore some more personal explorations of those “What If” ideas and close with a final entry introducing some new work that grew from continuing to follow a line of  “What If’s” that date back to the mid-80’s.

Cross-Processed Neg Film For Series of Technical Brochures

Cross-Processed Neg Film For Series of Technical Brochures

Exploring the cross-processed negative film (turning it positive), some of my early failed experiments came to life once I figured out those “missing” elements.  The color in the two images above was created in the camera not with lighting.  Yes, the camera lens was filtered, but it was not how one might think (using normal film or digital capture) but rather a more complex application of color theory due to the abnormal characteristics of this process.  This variation of the process was used on several projects including the packaging for an entire line of teas.

Positive Film Transparency and Cross Processed Positive Film Transparency (negative)

Positive Film Transparency and Cross Processed Positive Film Transparency (negative)

The image on the top, above, was created to be used on an album cover with the color palette and subject specified by the Design Firm.  Once I completed this image, I decided to have some fun with color theory and replace the filters on the lights to create the same palette in a negative image.  The result, the image on the bottom, was the one used for the album cover.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions.  My next post should appear early next week.

Quotes to Ponder: #0008

“There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivates you.”


~ Martha Graham

I thought this quote by Martha Graham would be an excellent follow on post to the last ” “What If” photography ” and hope it will stimulate further thoughts on TRUSTING yourself to explore those urges to do something new or different.  Enjoy!

(“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!)

“What If” photography

This entry is going to be about exploring creativity but it occurred to me just how we often use the statement “what if” to look back at our lives.  We often hear of folks asking themselves: “What if I had done this…or that…or that other thing instead”.  While we certainly want to learn from our past, I doubt that it serves any useful purpose to take part in such pondering as it is actually irrelevant. What has been done is done!  What is important is what we are going to do now.

Personally, I adopted a philosophy a long time ago to never ask that sort of question of myself. The fact is, if I had done anything different in my life I may not be where I am right now and I’m probably as happy, if not happier, with where I am now than at any other time in my life.

So what I want to talk about is how the “what if” question can be used as a way to stimulate our creative thinking.  You see, when this question comes to mind in this context it means we are contemplating some action that has an outcome that is not KNOWN to us.  That can certainly make it a bit more scary and we may shy away from that uncertainty.  But it can also be very exciting if we push through that initial hesitation.  The most exciting part of it is that because we don’t know what is going to happen we have no idea what else we might discover if we just allow ourselves to explore that “What If”.  In fact, I often find myself discovering a new, even more interesting “what if” as I start to pursue that first idea.  Although we can certainly end up at a dead-end, we will rarely not have learned something of value.  Something that will come forward at some later time as the experience percolates through our subconscious or conscious thoughts.  At times, it is just some new application of the process we explored that didn’t work but when applied in a slightly different way or to a different subject it becomes magic!

One of the most common reasons we don’t follow these impulses or “Wild Hairs” is that we don’t feel we have time to go somewhere that might not “work”.  We have jobs and family demands and carving out photography time is too valuable to do something we don’t know will be successful.  My own thought on that is that we need to realize that we don’t have the time to not pursue these things.  If we only stay with what we know will work, we will never move forward in our work or will do so only very slowly and 10 years from now we might look at what we are doing and wonder why we haven’t grown or only done so in limited ways.  For some, that is acceptable but for many that leads to long-term frustration, especially for those who want to create more personal and innovative work.

I have been on the road for the last couple of months and will be returning home next month and will present some of my own experiences and results of this process then.  In the meantime, consider what I have said here and see how it might fit into your own creative processes.  Remember that our best work often comes when we just respond to our curiosity and while we are doing things we aren’t even sure work all that well.  It takes time for us to understand new things and that image that doesn’t seem to work today may be one of our best if we allow ourselves to the time to finally understand it.

Pursue those “What If’s” so you aren’t asking yourself years down the road “what if I had done that back then”!

I Could Do That!

Recently, I came across a link to the YouTube video below and thought that it might be a good one to share here.  I know that we often wonder about “ART” and comments like “I could have done that” are pretty common.  I even remember taking my dad to a museum and while we were standing in a room full of Jasper Johns’ Numbers work and him questioning why it was art–essentially, as an engineer, anyone he knew could do that!

The thing is that I not only thought that this video was one of the best on the subject I had seen, I think their entire YouTube Channel is pretty wonderful.  They have found a way to make learning about the artistic process a bit more fun and less intimidating.  Maybe, as a bonus, along with more specifically educational videos, they also offer a series of assignments that are thought up by various artists and allow you to explore some ideas in a fun way (with lots of great references to current art–more educational stuff done in a fun, relevant way!)–and every assignment requires that you document what you did photographically–a real bonus!

Hope you will enjoy this video and the rest of their efforts as much as I have.


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”)