The Blank Canvas
Creativity is often described as being something reserved for the “real artists” such as painters and sculptors who start with a blank canvas or a mound of clay. Within those art mediums you start with nothing and construct an image that didn’t exist before the first mark. Photographers on the other hand often start with the physical world already before them and the construction of their image is limited to framing these subjects in relation to one another.
I think many photographers are uncomfortable discussing how to infuse their work with their imagination because of a fear of the blank canvas thinking that it requires.
Photocopying the world
Much of popular photography is often limited to replication as evidence by the millions of cell phone photographs uploaded to social media every minute. A former national geographic photographer friend of mine has described this phenomenon as simply “Xeroxing the world!”
The problem with photography as a creative medium is that it has these traits and limitations:
- Photography lacks a blank canvas and is limited to recording what already exists in front of the lens
- It is a technology of reproduction
- It has limited cognitive requirements as a point and shoot medium
- Original thinking is discouraged by social media that inspires conformity of composition in exchange for “likes” and “loves”
- There is a fear of NEW and UNKNOWN imagery
Evidence of emotion and ideas
A painter has to create their visual world by starting with the first mark on a canvas. This first mark is the first evidence of the emotion and the idea of the artist.
Photographers don’t have that first mark making experience. We are starting with a subject that exists in the world and we’re recording it with technology of reproduction. Whereas the painter must contemplate the first mark, Photography requires limited cognitive requirements. I don’t have to think. I can just push the button. I can put the camera on auto exposure and and I really don’t have to put a lot of thought into making images. On top of that, we live in the world of Instagram, Facebook, and other social media and what’s happening is that we are becoming accustomed to trying to please our audience in order to earn likes. In this scenario of imagemaking we are actually creating a pavlovian response to what kinds of images people like.
Many photographers are making images based upon what they know will earn likes and praise in the comments. The problem with this is that great creative work is rarely liked by very many people.
The limited value of universal likes
Recently I was listening to a podcast where a really successful artist talked about the fact that eighty percent of the people that see his work walk on by without caring about the work. It’s that twenty percent that say “Wow! That’s amazing! I have to have one of those!” that actually purchase the work and support his career.It’s that eighty twenty rule known as Pareto’s principle at work again!
I think the work that everyone likes is not valuable. The work that inspires debate is usually more valued. When we look at the history of creativity virtually every revolutionary creative idea was at first rejected because there is always a fear of the new and the unknown.
Fear of UFO’s
Here are three examples of that fear of the new and the unknown. The image on the left is a painting by Claude Monet that was resoundingly rejected at first. In fact he was part of the first exhibition of impressionist painters that were rejected by the academy of arts in France. They were outcast and they decided to hold their own show in defiance to the establishment.
They were fleeing the world of realism because they said photography had already perfected realism. They wanted to enter into the realm of the internal thoughts and emotions of man and go where they thought photography could not go. Realism was seen as being tied to science rather than creativity. Instead of doing realism they wanted to do something they felt was more emotive and more expressionistic through color, light, and value. Thankfully they sparked a visual debate that encouraged photography to move past science into the realm of creativity in an ongoing dialogue between the mediums.
The image in the middle is Robert Rauschenberg’s work Monogram where he took a taxidermied goat and combined it with a tire and other found objects. His early work was severely criticized until this new idea of combinations or combines was recognized for the way it expressed a visual lexicon that could be used to supply the artist a language for making cultural commentary and inspire self reflection in an increasingly consumerism driven society.
One reason it is important to accept criticism as part of creativity is that it takes a while to understand new and original work. When you’re doing something truly new there’s no bridge behind it to connect it to the past and so you have to form a language that connects and bridges the work to the past.
The image on the right is one of my favorites. I had an opportunity to see an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s earliest moving art pieces. This work was not accepted early on. Today, we all know this work is a mobile and small reproductions of these are commonly found hanging above cribs of babies. They’re fascinating to watch as they move through the effects of gravity and air pressure.
Thinking like an artist
Being an artist is about taking risks. While I will be talking about strategies for composition in future post but for today I want to talk about ways we can begin to think about creativity by being around other artist. I think we benefit from the divergent thinking that comes from conversations with non-photographers. For example, sharing a studio with another 3d artist gave me access to different objects that were interesting and intriguing which led to creative play in my work. In this case I am not pointing my camera at a scene for a recording but rather I am creating an image to illustrate the idea I had about the way in which gardening has given me a sense of freedom from the mental prison we experienced during the Covid quarantine in 2020.
Refine and reinterpret your ideas.
Refining the idea and translating a photograph into a new medium can further add to the creative act. While I was happy with the original digital photograph, I feel the effort to create an enlarged negative and platinum-palladium print augmented the work and took it further towards a creative act.
“Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.”— Peter Adams, Sydney 1978r
Learning to think like a creative
One way I have attempted to learn about creativity has been by hanging out with other artist and learning from them. Talking with painters and sculptors as well as other designers has informed my creative practice. From them I get the sense of freedom of ideas combined with disciplined craft that mirrors what photography is capable of when the camera is mastered.
I was fortunate to have a downtown studio with an artist collective for three years in Spokane. Being around artist working in different mediums and compelled to produce new work for quarterly gallery shows was an invigorating experience! I think artist residencies and group shows are a great way to immerse myself in creativity and access it in my own photographic work. This informal education has been as important as any class or workshop I have ever taken. I look forward to photographing more artist in the coming year!
The artist Angie Wojak speaks to the value of connecting with other artist this way, “Make sure you seek out and nurture mentors. Successful artists work closely with other artists and have not one but often numerous mentors to guide them through their careers.”
I also get together with a group of photographers every couple of months. We call ourselves THE PHOTOGS. It was a group organized by a now deceased friend named Jay Cousins. I have been fortunate to be around so many talented craftsman and free thinkers. We used to do a group show at a local gallery once per year.
If you are looking to connect and talk about creativity feel free to reach out to me here. In the mean time, I hope you find it worthwhile to think about the blank canvas problem and ways we as photographers make our mark.