Abandoning my "technical" approach to photography and video and embracing my "beginner self." It seems to work.

Lauren Lane in Harvey at Zach Theatre.

I know people who can tell you exactly how your word processor is programmed and coded but can't string together a coherent, creative sentence. I've met people who know every rule of grammar and every permutation of spelling who've never produced even a rudimentary piece of writing because the process rules dominate their thought processes. And I know some damn good writers who would perish without proofreaders. And there, in a nutshell, is the hierarchy.

The idea and the ability to express the idea carries the most value. Why? Because it can be applied to a universal product (the mercenary tangent). Because the new idea approaches culture with a new way of thinking about something. Because the idea and its express alone can push you to feel emotion and trigger your own strings of creative thought. New ideas, well expressed, create an intellectual resonance that ripples outward. Mastery of technology is self contained.  At its bottom line a creative idea, once given birth can be brought to further fruition by a technology master but without the idea the tools are rendered either idle or endlessly relegated to churning out "more of the same."

I realized yesterday that I was approaching videography in the same way I approached photography and I was afraid I might get the same results. When I started out I was captivated with just being able to make a good photograph and I pointed my camera at whatever interested me without the filters of "that won't work because....." or "you can only do this kind of shot with this tool..."  At the beginning, when I was a beginner, I was open to anything I could see or imagine. But with every layer of control and new technical knowledge I gathered I also gathered almost a permission to stop seeing clearly because my search was now for images that could be "optimally" taken with the tools I had at hand.  I let my ideas of the tools' limitations create boundaries for the way I took images. When I learned how to make images sharp every image from that point on had to be sharp.

When I learned how to light every subsequent image had to be lit. The technical knowledge I kept acquiring also led me into the voluminous catalogs of gear and I become obsessed with finding the "perfect tool" for every contingency. This cost money which caused me to work harder. But I couldn't work harder on exploring new visions, I had to work harder on jobs that returned money which I would then plow into the gear which would help me work harder.

And, sadly, when I look back at the work I produced the images done in the age of my greatest technical mastery are a diluted and sad shade of work I did earlier in blessed ignorance. Why do we show our earlier work? Because the content is more immediate and more pure. The impact of the work (in spite or because of its imperfections) is more visceral and sincere.

There's a mythology that real artists go through a virtuous cycle. They start with beginner ideas, then they move to master their tools and, at some point, like a beautiful butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the artist achieves true mastery and the tools become transparent. The use of the tools by such a master is almost unconscious. And, unfettered, the artist emerges with a fuller and more holistic approach that magically binds together the awe of the beginner with the technical mastery of the craftsman. In this was, according to the myths, an artist is born.

But based on what I've seen and experienced it is all so much bullshit now. The tools we use and the "canvases" we paint upon are constantly changing and whatever mastery there is becomes clouded with automation and new shortcuts. Looking back on the last ten years I would count technical mastery to be the least important aspect of being a "great" photographer while I would say, emphatically, that being able to connect to the innocent mind of a beginner and be able to look with wonder at the world is far more important. And, to be crass, far more sellable a gift.

But how do we reattach that creativity to our present selves? It's so hard and so simple. We need to step away from our need to control every process and just let stuff happen. We need to be able to find the point wherein the idea always trumps the camera we use. We need to explore the fun side.

After decades of severe and focused control I've started using my cameras on automatic settings. I used auto ISO to record a play yesterday and I put the camera into the face detection mode and made it responsible for keeping focus on the face of The Little Mermaid while I worked on composition and enjoying the spectacle in front of me. I'm out to give up thinking as much as possible about the endless details of production.

I don't believe that control and creativity go hand in hand. I think they are natural opponents. We need both to do our work but we should never lose sight of the idea that one is the treasure we search for while the other is merely a willing servant. Without the idea we are just documenters and some day our tasks will be taken over by robots. They too know every page of the gear catalog. The idea, the style and the power of concepts are what make life for an artist worth living. And those attributes are what make the work worth sharing.

My intention in all my work is to try and better channel the playful kid I hope is still alive inside of me. It's time to let him out, he could use the fresh air.... At the same time I am convinced that the engineer who's been running the show could do with an extended vacation.

Finally, I watch actors a lot. I've documented over 300 plays in the last decade or so. Good actors bring with them their own ideas about their characters in each play. They have no gear to dally about with. They are ultimately exposed. And it's what is inside them, their creativity and spirit that compels us to sit quietly in front of them as they do their work.  Just a thought.


Frank Grygier said...

I do think that the automation that is is available in today's imaging tools can free the creative child in all us once we learn the limits of what it can do.

Bob Dein said...

I always find your philosophical articles about creativity very inspirational. Now, if I could just maintain the momentum...

Dan Higgins said...

Ha!! I love your idea that my camera is a robot! And I'm a robot operator...

André Balsa said...

I have been reading your blog posts for a couple of years and I think this is one of the best ones yet. My take on this is that when the tools get in the way of creativity, then perhaps it's not a matter of more/different tools, but exactly the contrary.
Wishing you some fabulous shots in extraordinary light, and some good swimming sessions!

G Gudmundsson said...

The Beginners mind... now we are into Zen territory... and why not?

Kirk Tuck said...

We're always operating on Zen Time here. But only in our minds.

Patrick Dodds said...

I was thinking Zen too. Nice one Kirk. Time for some motorcycle maintenance?

G Gudmundsson said...

Seriously, this is a good post. Thanks.

Michael Ferron said...

It's all about idea, vision and the moment at hand. Once in a while it all comes together. The tech side is was it is.

Biro said...

I've been using automated modes more and more often over the past few years - with decent results. For a while, I was reluctant to send my work to friends and colleagues, fearful that they'd take a look at the EXIF data and realize my secret: That a program mode had been used. After all, I was supposed to be an experienced and capable photographer - even if still an amateur. Fortunately, I have outgrown this fear and am now far more comfortable giving up some control. In fact, I'm even proud of it. But you're post rings true, Kirk.

Brad Nichol said...

Ah, really enjoyed this post, like so many of your items it inspires me to a state of further and continued evaluation.
I of course like most will not always agree but the challenge of your words so eloquently put, keep me revisiting day in an out.

Please allow to perhaps present a somewhat different view, or counterpoint, from another perspective.

My income is derived from teaching photography and digital technologies, each year perhaps I have over 1200 budding shooters pass through my workshops. For them often the motivation is to "get off auto so they can get better control and better pics". And in reality once they de-auto, almost universally they see better results.

The trouble as I see it is that "auto" processes can be very useful for many tasks, right up to the point where you run into the limit of those auto tools.

Those who lack mastery or technical skill soon reach a point where their creative intent and desire is stymied by their lack of control, photography is reduced to a lottery.

Those of us who possess skills of mastery and technical competence forget that even though we may be using "auto" processes we bring a lot of prior knowledge and control to the table which we are still exercising in that mode. We know when the exposure or focus mode will fail us, we know intuitively when to flip from full auto to program to control the exp comp etc.

Probably like yourself, as a Sony user I often choose to use HDR, Panorama mode, Rich Mono mode and all the other modes that Sony so wonderfully offer.

Thing is I know when to switch, my students normally don't, initially at least.

Auto tools and modern developments are liberating, no doubt, creatively allowing me and others to create images that in the past were near impossible....but they are particularly liberating for those who actually have mastery because we "know when to use them".

Idea and concept is of the greatest value, I have no argument, it drives me, but when I go off to shoot I don't want my creative intents, plans and concepts compromised by the limits of the tools I am using.

I guess I could sum my pathway up as follows:

I started out excited by the creative possibilities and shot some things that excited me.

I realized my lack of knowledge and mastery were getting in the way and did what I needed to resolve the situation.

Liberated by the skills I could then fulfill my creative desires by calling upon my aquired mastery as needed, but I still needed to sweat a lot over the technicalities.

Now, with considerable practice I can automatically create without even realising that I am using those aquired skills.... and if that means I sometimes use auto modes, I'm cool with that.

But I don't think that it is likely or possible for a raw beginner to go straight to state 4 without having passed through all that the other states of photographic consciousness along the way. Otherwise those 1200 or so students would not be turning up at my door each year.

Steve huff has a post about one of my works, "one giant polaroid" which probably explains my take a lot better. The 120 shots involved in the work were taken on my Sony Nex and iPhone using all manner of modes, auto or otherwise....in the end all that mattered was the concept and result. But realistically I don't think that I could have pulled it off say 10 or even 5 years ago without my current level of skill and experience.

Dave said...

I always love the articles when you call it the way you see it. You are right, but I would say that new toys can be a lot of fun and what inner child doesn't like that? :)

I'd say the observation about control is dead on, especially in an online photography world where people are pixel peeping, metering reading robots. Sort of like a doctor who has cold hands and no bedside manner.

In years of taking my son to martial arts lessons I believe you are right about skills. To be truly useful they have to become an extension of who you are and what you are doing. The martial artist who was thinking about things usually got kicked in the head (literally). When I'm shooting I realized some time ago that I can't stop to ponder what I'm doing, though later realize that I was clinging to 2 or 3 basic concepts and usually that works out just fine.

Great piece Kirk, nicely done.

Barbara N said...

I believe the creative process is like building blocks. Year after year additions go on and the piece is never quite complete. Thankfully.

Torsten Walter said...

One of the signs of an alcohol problem is, paradoxically, to "have a drinking system". A principle like "never before 5 pm" is already a drinking system.
You see the parallel? If you have to set up a principle "I do not post about cameras, lenses and stuff", this means you have a problem.
My advice: this problem is not overcome by such a principle. The principle is a symptom, but not a solution.
This year is Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. Do you think he did not care about stuff? Quite the opposite. He even invented an instrument of his own, the Wagner-tuba, which plays an important role in "Der Ring des Nibelungen"
You are a successfull photographer, you are way beyond a gearhead. You do not have to be embarrassed to discuss cameras!