21 Jun 2016 Creative Block and Digital Dilemmas Across Disciplines #1 (Podcast 528)
Creativity is something that most people struggle with, and for good or bad, technology has changed everything in recent decades, and this is adding to the problem for some. Photography was transformed at the start of this millennium as digital cameras became available. Many have embraced the digital era, but it does create its own unique dilemmas, and as we’ll explore today, photographers are not alone in this.
The Digital Revolution
Digital photography gave us instant access to our images. Being able to review the photograph you’ve just exposed right there on the back of the camera, and recording the settings used when you released the shutter into each file, made it possible to take our photography to the next level much more easily than in the film days. This in many ways freed our creativity, because we don’t have to wait until we’ve developed our film and printed the photographs to reiterate on our ideas. If something doesn’t work, we can reshoot straight away.
Although the digital single lens reflex cameras, or the DSLR as they became known, were initially very expensive, the price has dropped to the point where people can get started in digital photography for really not much more than it used to cost back in the film days. Of course, we also need a computer to manage our images, but if you already have one, the price of entry is really not that high anymore.
Of course, there are also mobile phones now that can record images at better quality than the original digital SLR cameras, and if you rule out the inability to change lenses, they even give modern digital cameras a good run for their money, and the result is that now anyone can be a photographer.
I think that the explosion in the photography industry over the past 15 years or so, has been totally enabling. In many ways, I think we are in a new golden age of photography, and the quality of some of the imagery being created now is incredible, but not everyone thinks this way. You’ll hear professional photographers lamenting over the good old days. Now everyone has a camera, anyone can shoot a wedding, and it’s quite possible that they’ll mess it up, because they don’t have the background or the skills to hit it out of the park, as a professional would, or should.
I also hear from many people that are in a creative rut, or are finding it hard to find inspiration to proceed with a particular project, or even just battling with the dilemma of how they can improve on previous work, but as I discussed in episode 438 on the Evolution of the Photographer, this is something that happens to musicians, and pretty much anyone engaged in a creative pursuit. I believe that as digital photography has helped us all to become much more creative, it’s also making people more anxious when that creativity doesn’t just flow like water from a tap.
A Comparison of Photography and Music
Music has been a part of the human race, probably since our origins in Africa around 55,000 years ago. As we spread around the globe, we took music with us, and it has been found in one form or another in every culture. By comparison, early photography started to appear in the early 1800s, around 200 years ago, so it’s hardly surprising that the electronic and digital revolutions took a hold on music before photography.
Electronic musical instruments started to emerge as far back as the 1870s, but synthesizers, the machines that really changed modern music, emerged 100 years later, in the 1970s. This means that the music industry has been dealing with the digital dilemma for almost 30 years longer, approximately three times longer than the photography industry.
You would hope that this extra time has enabled music professionals to overcome the difficulties that digital technology has brought about, but I recently watched a video of a conversation about overcoming creative block, with four music producers, and I had to smile as I listened and was reminded that they are struggling with the exact same things that I hear a lot of photographers complaining about.
I’m sure you’ve heard these conversations yourself. “Everything has now been done!” “It’s impossible to be original any more!” “Everyone is a photographer now!” During this conversation with the four musicians, if you swapped out the word music for photograph, musician for photographer, or instrument for camera, it may just as well have been a conversation between four photographers.
The conversation was on Ableton.com so check it out if you are interested, but today, I’m just going to pick up on a number of the statements made, and add my take on how each relates to photography as I see it. There are also a lot of great comments on creativity and inspiration that we’ll dig into as well. The conversation was between Matthew Herbert, James Holden, Young Guru and Phoebe Kiddo, moderated by Dennis DeSantis.
Has There Been a Time When You Were Stuck? (0:54)
The first question put to the panel was has there been a time when you were stuck. In reply to this, Matthew Herbert said that he gets stuck 6 to 8 times a day, for his entire life. He went on to paraphrase a quote from pianist James Rhodes, who said that this is why he practices the piano five or six hours a day, because inspiration is so fickle.
This is something that I’ve mentioned before too, but often, when you aren’t inspired, just sitting around waiting for your muse to turn up and force a camera into your hand, and lead you to something amazing, is just not going to happen. I fully believe that creation breeds creativity. Quite often, if I’m feeling a little bit deflated or non-inspired, I’ll just pick up the camera and go somewhere anyway. Luckily for me, and I hope for you as well, the act of photography is also therapeutic, so even if I come away with nothing, just looking through the viewfinder, thinking about my composition and exposure, then releasing the shutter, makes me happy.
What I often find though, is that as I start out, even when I’m not inspired, as I frame the world with my viewfinder, inspiration and creativity start to flow. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many people expect creativity to find them while they are not engaged the pursuit in which they want to be creative. It doesn’t always follow that you’ll be creative with the same subject. I’ve dreamt up totally unrelated projects while photographing something else, but I’m sure it’s the act of creation that is feeding that creativity.
Phoebe Kiddo went on to say, “Discipline is one of the most important aspects of work, because it’s not always enjoyable. There are often many long boring hours that you need to put in to complete a good piece of work.” She also said that patience and perseverance are two of the most important characteristics.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve talked about perseverance, but in everything we do I think this is so important. I’ve seen people leave a location having waited for something to happen, only to capture that something myself just minutes later. Of course, I’ve left locations a little too early myself, and regretted it, but in general, if you can be patient and stick with something, it pays off.
On an ongoing basis though, I think having the discipline to keep doing your photography is highly important. As I’m working on projects in the office, I can sometimes go for weeks without really getting out with the camera, and when I finally do get back out, it all feels rusty for a little while. Fortunately it comes back quickly, but there is no doubt that the more we do something, the better we become at doing that something, be it photography, music, sculpture, writing and anything else you can think of.
If It’s Your Job, It Isn’t All Fun!(4:12)
As an extension of this, Young Guru goes on to talk about how working in a studio is not as glamorous as people tend to think. If it’s your job, it can be hard to put the time in to complete each day’s work and complete each project. Of course, Guru is talking about the music studio, not the photography studio, but it’s the same thing! Luckily, as I mentioned earlier, if I’m doing photography, regardless of what I’m shooting, it’s a meditative and therapeutic process for me, whether it’s for work or pleasure, and I feel so fortunate to be making a living doing what I love.
There are times when I’m sitting at the desk, preparing my accounts or doing other back-office tasks, when I really wish I was standing out in the landscape in Iceland, or Namibia, or anywhere, rather than in front of my desk, but it’s that desk work, the work that I don’t enjoy quite so much, that enables me to get out and do the work that I love. It’s a means to an end, and that makes it much easier to put my hands to the wheel each day.
Feed One Form of Creativity with Another (5:07)
Guru goes on though, to talk about another thing that I think is so important. He says that when he gets stuck, he can find inspiration in other things like listening to other peoples’ music and practicing other forms of art. It’s important to understand all forms of art to enable us to understand our expression. He even says if he gets bored and can’t come up with an idea, he’ll go out and shoot photography, and that inspires him to come back and make music. How cool is that!?
It’s actually surprising, although it maybe shouldn’t be, but I know a lot of photographer’s who are also talented musicians, or even just passionate hobbyists. I’d put myself in the latter category. I played sax and sang in a band as a kid, and have always had instruments around. Living in an apartment block in Japan made me more conscious of making noise with an instrument, but I still practice the sax now, only on a midi instrument that I can play through earphones now, rather than a deafening instrument that would get us kicked out of our apartment.
I have electric pianos and keyboards, and an electric guitar, all of which are pretty much silent if use headphones. And you know what, if I’m feeling a little pressured or stressed, sometimes I’ll just grab one of these instruments and play for a while, and I find that as therapeutic as making photographs. I also think that it just helps to keep our creative juices flowing, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to musical creativity. It feeds other forms, and I think this is why so many photographers play music, and so many musicians are also talented photographers.
Got to Think of Something to Learn Between Projects (5:53)
James Holden was then brought into the conversation to talk about a comment he’d made, that he had “Got to think of something to learn between records.” This is so easy for me to relate to. I love learning new stuff, whether it’s new techniques in photography, or a new musical instrument. I think that the human mind is perhaps at it’s happiest when we’re actively engaged in learning something.
Although we never really stop learning photography, the early years when we initially don’t know our aperture from our f-stop, and those early days when everything is still so new, are wonderful times. I’m sure at some point you’ve found yourself not being able to get to sleep because you have a head full of new stuff that you’ve been reading about, and you can’t wait until you can open your book again and pick up where you left off. Learning is something that we generally enjoy, especially if it’s about something that we have developed a passion for.
James Holden posed the question, “If you haven’t learned something, you are basically the same person, so how are you going to create something new?” He said that when someone makes their first successful record, it’s kind of like their whole life up to that point, and this is why it’s so difficult for bands to get past their first big success. He says that he never really feels blocked, even though he has no inspiration to sit down at an instrument. He wants to go into the studio but just so that he can learn something technical, or learn a new instrument or listen to records.
Unfocussed Procrastination is the Creatives Worst Enemy
Now, I can relate to this to a degree. As I just said, learning is fun, and therefore sitting down and learning something new can be addictive, but as a creative professional, that can be a really unhealthy form of procrastination. When creating something new is required to pay the rent, it’s a dangerous loop to get caught up in. Play is important, and I think that we should always give ourselves time to play and experiment, as these can lead to great things, but it’s also important to stay focussed.
Even if photography is a hobby for you as opposed to a profession, we still set ourselves goals and develop certain expectations for ourselves and I think you’d agree that most people want to gradually get better at what we do, even if it’s just a hobby. So, I’d propose that we might try to focus our procrastination on areas that we know we have an outcome to work towards.
For me, for example, I actually really enjoy working on my web site. I’ve been making web sites at various levels for more than twenty years now, and I find it interesting. My technical background also makes it exciting to me to jump into my Linux server on the back end, typing in commands and tweaking performance. Over the last few weeks I allowed myself the project of moving our Web site to a new, more powerful server, and I’ve become a bit obsessed with improving my performance score by speeding up the web site in a number of ways.
Now, this is fun for me, so in many ways it’s a release. I’m supposed to be a photographer but because I wear most of the hats around here, I allow myself to assign time to the maintenance of our site, so I basically get to procrastinate, but in a way that gives us results that will hopefully benefit the business and visitors to our web site. Now though, it’s time to buckle down and get something else done now. The point is, I think it’s cool when we can focus our procrastination so that it still helps us to achieve goals.
Engineers Built Things with No Idea of How They Would Be Used (11:11)
Matthew Herbert made a funny statement, about engineers in the 70s building the earlier synthesizer and adding features that they had no idea how they would be used. This reminds me of a story I heard about the Canon team when they were building the 5D Mark II. I don’t know how true this is, but I heard that they’d developed the LiveView feature, and it resulted in a video stream being available in the camera, as the signal for the LCD was processed, so kind of as an afterthought, they said, hmm… what if we record this video signal to the CF card?
The rest is history of course. That one seemingly simply “what if” gave us video in cameras and changed not only the still photography world but the video world as well.
As an extension of this though, this is one of the areas where you will hear photographers lamenting about how this has resulted in jobs being lost. I’m not close enough to this part of the photography industry to comment on this, but now, it seems that photojournalists are expected to gather video clips as well as stills, and in some ways, the video crew have become less necessary. So, we have photographers now providing video for little to no extra money, and some videographers without jobs. We’ll come back to this line of thought a little later.
Easy Doesn’t Have to Mean “Bad”
Matthew also talks about how it is so easy now to create various styles of music, because the options are right there in the software. It’s like going shopping, and we can just pick a bit of this and a bit of that, and it’s made making music too easy. This sounds like a disgruntled photographer’s woes, right? Then Young Guru comes back with “Yeah, but you can turn all of that stuff off.”
How many times have you heard the traditionalist panning digital because it’s so easy to manipulate images now? Sure, it’s easy to manipulate images now, but people have been manipulating images since the earliest days of the medium. But just because we can, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will. And it certainly doesn’t meant that it’s wrong if we decide to manipulate our images either. Of course, photojournalists aren’t supposed to play with their images. The news is supposed to be factual, but if it’s art, I think it’s up to the artist.
I think that this whole conversation, around it being easy to do something, in both music and photography, is founded in a lack of confidence and fear in the artist. If it becomes easy to do something, they are concerned that someone will come along and do what they do better than them. You know what? They will, and they always have. Things change, and we adapt and learn how to make the new status quo work for us, or we allow it to kill us.
Of course, I feel for the photographers that have lost their jobs because a newspaper decided it was going to work out just fine to use iPhone photos from the general public. But you know what? The world is changing. As the digital age and computers make it possible to do so much of the work that humans have relied on to make a living, everything is going to change. In thirty years time the amount of work available is going to be reduced by a huge amount, and society is going to have to be restructured or we really are all going to be eating soylent green. We’re going to have to learn to deal with it.
Bright Future for Creatives?
If we remain stuck in our ways, and cling to the past, the future is not going to be very bright for many professionals, as machines replace the workforce, but you could argue, that there will remain a place for the creatives of the world, because art and creativity is probably going to be one of the hardest things for machines to replace. I’m sure it will happen, but as machine art becomes main stream, I can almost guarantee you that we will yearn for original art, as much, if not more than now. We relish uniqueness and individualism, and there will probably continue to be value in art created by a real human being as long as we don’t physically change into a different animal altogether.
In fact, if we think back a few centuries, as photography was invented, painters we afraid that they’d be sent out of business as it became easy to create a likeness of someone, and even print it and put it over the fireplace. Sure, there were painters who found themselves with less work, and I’m sure there were many that allowed that to devastate them. But in the midst of that, some stuck to their guns, and the better of them continued to make a good living, and some embraced photography instead, moving with the times rather than fighting against them.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we choose our own fate when it comes to new technology. We can either embrace it, or fight it, and for me at least, I’d always prefer to shake someone’s hand or give someone a big hug than to argue and fight with them.
Part Two Next Week
Because I got a bit carried away with this episode, I’ve split it into two parts. Part two will be released on June 27, 2016, so please check back then. If you’d like to be notified when it’s released, please sign up for our newsletters here.
The music related conversation on Ableton.com: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/overcoming-creative-blocks/
Music by Martin Bailey
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