In my previous article for Photography Life, I wrote an article about stage photography, where I discussed some of the modus operandi I use to take professional stage photographs. That article was a lot more straightforward, technical, and objective than the one below. That’s because I’m hoping to explore the philosophical, cultural, and spiritual aspects of the creative process. It is less about the technical, and more about the inner journey of photography as an art form.
We all know that the three primary variables in image making are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I’d suggest that a set of three other important variables mirror these. They are:
- The photographic tools at your disposal
- The available subject matter
- Your creativity
Part of creativity is to have a very open mind about these three variables. Another part is to always have a camera close by and to pay attention to anything that is special. It’s amazing how incredible opportunities seem to present themselves when one’s camera is sitting at home in a bag! Mobile phones are fine, but still not quite there.
For example, the next image here was taken in an artificial pond outside a busy supermarket, with puzzled shoppers milling around while I dangled my camera precariously over the subject. I’m a professional stage photographer, but even when I’m not doing paid work, I’ll still be constantly taking photographs of any subject matter which attracts me.
Recently, I took a solitary walk along the Fairlight track, near Manly in Sydney. This is an area of virgin bushland directly across from the entrance to Sydney Harbour, less than 10 km from the Central Business District. Along this track are Aboriginal rock carvings which predate Western civilization and settlement. I mention this because, as a culture, we are so utilitarian. For many indigenous cultures, on the other hand, their creative urge and composition of artwork is completely interwoven with their spirituality, connection to the land, and ancestry. Although these works were created prior to the invention of photography, the creative principle is the same.
There are, however, significant differences in mindset. It is difficult to put yourself into the creative perspective of certain indigenous cultures, where the notion of private property is an alien concept – given that it is central to the Western thought process. Art in these cultures is an extension of their spiritual and emotional relationships to the world around them. I’m not sure how our technologically sophisticated societies of modernity have managed to disconnect us from such a deep-rooted desire, but I am sure there is a lot to learn about the fundamental need for the artist to create and their crucial role in explaining our human condition.
And so it is with photography. Practically everyone has some form of digital imaging device or mobile phone, and images are being generated by the billions on a daily basis worldwide.
Yet, how many of us are intoxicated with the staggering complexity and infinite variation of the creation around us? How many of us look beyond the utility of making money from our work, or gaining approval on social media? How many of us see each moment as a unique work of art; or an expression of something infinite and wonderful at play?
How many of us feel a deep or even spiritual connection to the landscapes we photograph, or some exquisite bird wing, or to a person’s portrait? Think about how profound these things are – and how easy it is to take them for granted.
I tend to do a lot of long exposure photography at night, even though it doesn’t really generate any income for me. I love the meditative aspect of it. The following photograph required a long walk in pitch darkness to capture a long exposure of an ocean liner coming into Sydney Harbour prior to dawn. The image after it, of the wharf, was taken in Townsville, where a large group of indigenous people sat directly behind me, taking a close interest in my activity while they played guitar and sang. It was wonderful.
As a culture, I wonder if we are trapped in a cycle of cynicism, viewing everything as an opportunity for acquisition, aggrandizement and false ego. The old adage about the artist starving in some belfry is an interesting one. Yes, many artists in the creative realm do struggle for survival in a world increasingly defined by mundane possessions, status, social contacts, mobility, and ageism. It’s not always a meritocracy. So much of the visual, architectural, musical, and theatrical landscape is banal and ephemeral. So, it is important to ask ourselves, “How can I rise above that and capture something beautiful and profound?”
In some ways, this question reflects on the culture we inhabit on a larger scale. Some people contend that we live in an era of political and moral bankruptcy, and that the “Capitalist Project” is an epic failure; creating great wealth and inequality, while stripping our lives of morality, religion, and meaning. Even if this claim is just a partial truth, it by definition elevates the importance of creativity and art in any social context.
I hesitate to generalize, but there does seem to be a cultural paradigm that tells us to take the credit for everything we create. This mentality fails to acknowledge an intrinsic truth: our very existence, and even the air we breathe, have been provided to us, and are not something we created.
If we acknowledge the sheer poetry of the visual world around us, we are also giving respect and gratitude to the spectacular gift of our sight and developed consciousness.
While I’m certainly not advocating some Luddite agenda and wholesale rejection of technology, I think in every culture the fundamentals of tradition, ancestry, respect, humility, and gratitude are universal constants. These nuanced thought processes also influence creativity and image making. It is more than just pointing a camera and pressing the button.
It is also more than having the very latest camera, the most expensive lens, or even recognition. Creativity should be as integral to our being as breathing, yet it is seen today as just another tool of productivity and material advancement.
In some ways, it is disturbing to witness a majority of attendees at any event, gathering, or tourist location holding their mobile phones aloft to take an image. Are we slaves to our obsession for capturing an image of every waking moment of our lives? Have we become addicted to living vicariously through imaging devices, using them in an almost cowardly fashion to mask reality – a reality we are addicted to experiencing second- or third-hand?
I recently bought a Nikkor 135mm F2.8 from Japan. It’s a thing of exquisite beauty: more than that, it’s manual focus, and forces me to spend time and thought composing each image. The jewel-like construction and quality are only enhanced by its image quality.
I can see how many photographers still use film, or work with older cameras and lenses. Really, a work of art is timeless. You might recall my three alternate variables in the image-creating process: photographic tools, available subject matter, and creativity.
Once the technical aspects of taking a competent photograph are mastered, I think it’s worthwhile to delve a little more into the deeper questions about art as one of the more mysterious facets of life – and use it as a bridge to the more fundamental questions about the very meaning of our existence. Why not try to understand photography as a contemporary extension of those indigenous peoples carving the shape of a fish into sandstone? Why not study a Jackson Pollock painting and try to comprehend the vision of the artist? After all, great art isn’t always about what is obvious or superficial. Great art should contain nuance and challenging narratives about our relationship with a greater truth.
Here is an image taken through my hotel room window at the Star City casino, using a long exposure zoom technique to create a photographic abstract:
I’m a person of faith; nonetheless, I would never preclude anyone from such moments of inspiration or wonder, whether believer or atheist. After all, we are interconnected on so many levels, and the potential for revelation is there in all of us. The universe is infinitely large and complex enough that the almost unfathomable mystery of our own consciousness is readily available for exploration at any moment. Photography done in this kind of creative spirit enriches our appreciation of so much of the subtle beauty we might otherwise pass by without noticing.
Certainly many photographers specialize in some specific genre of photography – perhaps landscape, portraiture, wedding, or something else. While I think that is important, and I myself specialize in taking performance stage photography, perhaps it’s also important not to pigeonhole oneself creatively and be open to all kinds of aesthetic styles.
Our cultural and societal instinct, augmented by endless propaganda, tends to incentivize the ego in the creative process. It convinces us that we should not abandon the ever-present urge to turn everyone and everything into a commercial opportunity; it causes us to seek approval and validate everything on social media platforms, including most of the images we create.
I would also add that creativity and inspiration need to be supported – but, before that can happen, creativity needs to be recognized. If the society in general cannot discriminate between mediocrity and culturally/artistically significant work, artists will be creatively stifled and financially suffocated. Such a society may be technically advanced but spiritually and creatively dead.
I recently sold my Nikon D3s to pay bills. I regretted it almost immediately. Somehow, despite being apparently obsolete, that camera had a quality of output I’ve been unable to reproduce with any of my other cameras. It’s like some musicians who find an old guitar or instrument which is just special.
A work of art is like that as well. There is some intangible quality which transcends our daily existence and expands our consciousness. Without that, we live in poverty, despite being surrounded by material possessions. The moral of that story is, if you own a special camera or lens, don’t sell it when your mortgage payment rolls in, especially if it diminishes your ability to create a beautiful image. One profound photograph is worth a million random snapshots, irrespective of the equipment used to take it.
As a final point, these questions I’m posing are as much to me as to any reader. They might be summarized as an examination of my own motives. Is my desire to randomly photograph virtually every waking moment of my life – to post to social media images of shallow mediocrity to gain egocentric and emotionally insecure social approval? Or, am I genuinely trying to enrich the experience of others by sharing my own inner voice and vision with them in creating something of lasting meaning?
Thank you to Photography Life reader Stephen Weir for contributing this article as part of our guest post contest! You can see more of Stephen’s work at his website.