2.11.2014

To be a Team Player or a lonely hunter? That is today's question.

Do you remember how we used to believe that people could multi-task? I mean really multi-task, like type on a keyboard, watch a movie and change a diaper simultaneously? And then neuroscientists started poking around in people's brains to figure out how that all might work and they found that, well, no one really does multi-task. Instead people switch between tasks as quickly as their brains will let them. And it's not too quick because it turns out that all those synapses have a kind of inertia. And time friction. It's like every task can only happen after its subroutine software is loaded in the right part of the brain and running. In fact, what the scientists figured out is that "multi-tasking" is really a very inefficient way to work.

The stopping and starting between the almost simultaneous tasks that one is trying to perform adds 10-20% more time to the overall execution of all tasks involved and causes more fatigue. The net result is that no one task is done as effectively as it could have been if the subject had undertaken each task sequentially or serially. Big surprise to anyone who has been rear-ended by a Suburban driver who was trying to text, put on lipstick or shave, keep a grip on their vente coffee and operate a motor vehicle in stop and go traffic.

So, that's one set of operational efficiencies debunked.

But a recent comment by a reader pushed me to think about one of the parts of the speech I recently delivered and subsequently put up on the blog. He suggested that teams can be machines of creativity and that my preference for "lonely hunting" is just that----a preference. As I understand his point teams, whether in workshops or on the job, can create imaginative content, creative content and original work as well as or better than a lone individual; an artist.  And I thought that, here too was another supposed operational efficiency that should be debunked.

A dancer on the subject: http://stanceondance.com/2013/05/23/collaboration-collective-art-practice-and-when-to-go-it-alone/

Larry Shiner's take on the evolution from collective guilds to the aesthetic of the individual mind is in his book: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/I/bo3633486.html

Is teamwork a valuable part of creativity?

The literature on this, and my personal experience, says otherwise. On the other hand the commentor and I may be defining the nature of the team differently. My knee jerk reaction comes from my days in advertising when "designed by committee" was always short hand for crappy work that seems safe from client disapproval because it has had its balls removed.  In the ad business you often hear about "creative teams" but it doesn't mean the same thing as it might when discussing a sports team. In advertising, as in film making, there is a very definite hierarchy to a "team."

Advertising is essentially mercenary and a good creative director will use ideas from anyone on his team. But in my experience there is usually a lone conceptor for each successful campaign who in spite of being a member of the team comes up with most of the great ideas. The teams serves as a support to hang the meat on the bones of the concept. But it's rare that the team brainstorms and jointly hits on some sort of group epiphany. The idea bubbles into one person's head. That's the genesis. Then the team takes the idea, embraces it, and forms it for presentation. Their presentation preparation skills might be legend but they need the spark of an individual to start the engine.

In the film work everything starts with a script and many scripts started life as novels. You'll be hard pressed to find a more solitary undertaking that being a writer--- honestly. But that's where the ideas come from. They come from a solitary mind working for months or years in isolation from group think. And then, when the novel is crunched into a script (which takes talent but not originality of ideas---they are provided by the primary source) the leader of the next team is the director. His alone is the over riding creative vision for the making of a real movie. He originates the scenes and the movement through the scenes. He understands the way he wants to tell the story and again, his team is there to support the manufacture of that vision. The making of the story. But the story existed before the team-----as an original idea percolated up from one person's mind.

The director doesn't sit down with the grips and gaffers and electricians on his "team" and ask them for ideas and creative input. If he asks for input it will be about practical matters: How high can we get a camera on a crane? How many generators will we need for the night time exterior? Where's the craft service? The ideas flow downhill from the director who is the source of all the creative ideas about the film. Can you imagine a committee telling Orson Welles how he should shoot Citizen Kane ???

"A good artist should be isolated. If he isn't isolated something is wrong."  - Orson Welles

"I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will."
-Henry David Thoreau


But let's reflect about teams and photography because that's the real gist of the disagreement. While you may learn new ways of thinking from a team or new ways to do things the value that you bring to your art is your unique vision. Two people shooting side by side and capturing the same image at the same time from the same angle dilute each other's vision. Or, one is the creator and the other the xerox machine.

While going for PhotoWalks or hanging together with like minded peers in a workshop is pleasant and fulfills our need for social company it's a dangerous situation for an artist. On so many levels it insinuates that the median distillation of the group's behavior and ideas is the correct one and this creates psychic momentum that pushes the individual off their equilibrium and pulls them closer to the attraction of the cohesive social and conceptual order.  "Look at the reflections of that bright neon in the water of the ditch!" One member might say, having made a solitary discovery. Then all of the members in the group come by and take a variation of the original idea. To each person who doesn't discover order in chaos well the original observation is given value and then the value is reinforced by the additive power of the group's repetitious capture of the same concept. That changes the individual in small ways because he gathers multiple data points that reflect what is considered artistically positive by his chosen group.

To walk solo with the camera and to discover the same reflection adds an empowering sense of discovery and increasing mastery for the individual. And it could be that the ability to discover the conceptual image was always in his power and he would have discovered it on his own anyway if not for the distraction of the group.

Speaking of distraction, the very nature of having a group means that everyone must feed the construct of the group for it to have continuance. A small portion (or large!) of each person's energy has to be concerned with compromising their unique point of view and needs just enough to create a cohesion to the group; to the purpose of the group. That shift in energy is tilted toward the group and away from the individual except in cases where the group disproportionally enables certain members.

In the case of a workshop, for example, the power of the group would seem to be evenly distributed and evenly contributed but that's seldom the case. There is always a small contingent that is able to manipulate or coerce everyone else in the group to rally around them and assist them in the realization and construction of their personal vision. They take a little more of everyone's power and attention than they return, and while the results of the group's efforts might be successful each lesser member of the group is more detached from the ownership of the final image than the more assertive member or members. There is always an ebb and flow to the politics of power within any group that diminishes the value of the undertaking for some while embellishing it for others.

I'm not saying that we don't need teams to produce an artifact from one person's creative conception. A writer benefits from an editor---but the story is already there. The director benefits from an editor but the footage is already in the can.  There are examples in the commercial world where teams create photographs. An art director may come to a commercial photographer with a comprehensive layout for an ad and ask the photographer to render the image to match the drawing.

A client may come to a videographer with a story board and ask him to shoot the video precisely but we both know that in these examples there was a point of creation somewhere earlier in the time line. In these cases the photographer is the part of the team facilitating the production of someone else's visions.

I need a team to produce a labor intensive advertising shoot. But I never need a team to produce personal work. But I guess my argument falls apart if I included in my personal work the making of portraits. In that pursuit I am somewhat at the mercy of the sitter.  Can I bend them to my will and force a one sided collaboration or am I willing to settle for a compromise that somewhat pleases both of us but at the expense of the true rigor of my conception?

My working understanding of the real value of teams is that they are good for taking big projects, breaking the projects up into discrete chunks and assigning each chunk to one or more people. At some point all the people bring their finished chunks of project back and we fit it all together. More like parallel computing than high speed serial computing. But the project always has a genesis. A moment of conception. An idea in someone's head. Without the individual conception there is nothing for the group to grapple.

The bottom line is that artist don't create in a vacuum, rather they pull in references from everywhere and everything in their lives but at a certain point they allow those resources to blend in their brains in a very unique way before have a moment of instant Satori where the creative concept flows into their consciousness. That's a moment that can be supported by a team but no team can, by support or force, cause the creative idea to exist. At the core every new idea is delivered by the muses to one mind at a time.

Humans are like sponges. They soak up every emotion and action emitted and acted by the people around them. They absorb influence and the constant subconscious goal is always to fit in. To be part of a society. But it's the outsider nature of artists that allows them to see and present a vision to their culture that is difference and valuable. The outsider sees things from a different angle.  Explains things from a different point of view. That's what makes the work valuable.

Teams facilitate what is already conceptually there. They are great at turning concept into artifact. They are great at providing efficiency. But to depend on them for singular ideas of power and vision is to expect too much. That's what individual artists were made for.

I suspect we'll get a lot of disagreement on this one and I'm okay with that. The idea of art and the individual has changed over the course of history. Our current idea of art as an aesthetic expression of  the individual artist is relatively recent (1800's?) and we're still wrapping our brains around it. But to me the concept of value of a team comes from manufacturing, harvesting and building. These are all concerned with realizing an idea that already exists, not making a creative new one.

Now, if you'll excuse me I'll step outside and make a few images on a lonely but happy walk by myself.

edit: I know, I know. It's too long. A blog should only be 500 words and one picture. Luckily my regular readers read quickly and with perfect comprehension.



14 comments:

TMJ said...

True. In a research project the lead author does the creative part in formulating the "question". Then assembles co-workers, methodological and statistical support - 'the team'.

Len said...

I have mainly worked alone, but tried a collaborative partnership for a couple of years. Was fantastic for quiet a while, and I think the work was enjoyable to create in a social environment. The partnership definitely changed the outcomes and took it into new directions. It was hard to maintain the initial enthusiasm and by our third exhibition we had lost it. Unfortunately it ended in tears... But I would go there again if or when the right person surfaces. There are more examples that I expected of people who do this, other than the usual suspects like Gilbert & George. Overall an amazing experience that I would recommend people to try..

Mark Davidson said...

I work solo for a couple of reasons. The first is that I collaborate with my clients who have ideas and concepts that may or may not be fully formed. My job is to start with their input and create a solution that meets or exceeds their expectations and if we have happy accidents along he way, so much the better. An additional person may help but not so much that it outweighs the second reason I work alone.

The other reason is purely economic.
If I have an additional person or persons they need to be fed. So right out of the gate I am the high priced spread for the available clients. Yes, I can get better clients but that is much easier said than done. In addition, the jobs I can complete solo end up netting me more than the ones I add colleagues to.

Craig Yuill said...

I think you really hit the nail on the head. It's similar in concept to the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth. It very much applies to movies. The very best ones seem to be made with only a very few people making the creative decisions. The most mediocre or worst ones seem to be the ones made by committee.

Anonymous said...

Whatever people's rationales are for doing what they do, group or solo, it doesn't really matter.

Professionally, you do what you have to do to put food on the table and electricity in the wires. Some jobs will require teams, and you can work with those. Solo, you can do that.

Artistically, what works for you, works for you. Here, you can indulge passion you often can't professionally. Nothing else matters.

cj gordon said...

Steinbeck. East of Eden. Just after the beginning of Chapter 13. Starts with...At such a time it seems natural and good... What he followed those words with has always resonated with me.

John Krumm said...

One area in the arts where this is not true is television, and I do think some of it is art. From what I understand, scripts are developed quickly with a big team effort. An original idea, perhaps the first script, might be the product of a single writer or a pair, but by the time it gets on screen it has hands all over it.

Huw Morgan said...

Hi Kirk, Thanks for the long post. It was very interesting.

Let me respond by limiting my remarks to the audience of the speech - the students. As a student, can a team approach to photography be helpful? I would argue that the answer would be a resounding yes. Group settings for learning photography have many advantages. First of all, there are logistical issues that group workshops can overcome, including knowing where to go, arranging access, arranging transportation, providing motivation to get up before sunrise etc. Second, there are huge benefits from being exposed to master photographers and fellow students when you are learning. You get information on everything from camera settings to how to print and matte your photos. You also learn that master photographers have endless motivation and patience.

As a student (and I'll always be a student) of photography, I really enjoy workshops with the masters (e.g. Michael Reichman, Alain Briot, Rob Stimpson) and always return home motivated, enriched and just plain better at photography. And, surprisingly, I nearly always come back with some great prints that are markedly different from the work of other students.

Teamwork can get you to your shoot and give you the tools to do the job, but when it comes to the subject, composition and light, the individual becomes the focus. You're the one pulling the trigger.

I'm not arguing that anyone should confine their work to team settings. Mature photographers with a body of work to build need to get out there and develop their own aesthetic. However, counselling students to learn by going it alone is probably not the best advice in my opinion. A balance is called for.

Paul Glover said...

I think it really depends on *what* is being created.

On photo walks, nothing depresses me more than seeing tripods and cameras every direction I look in. The people I walk with are respectful of not "stealing" shots, but odds are you'll see a few very similar results anyway.

More often than not, as a slower more contemplative shooter, I'll fall behind or drift off in some random direction if I spot anything that might be interesting, so those events really become a solo shooting effort, sandwiched between some social interaction and occasionally bumping into or walking with another person for a bit.

Kirk Tuck said...

Huw, first of all let me thank you for letting me use your original comment as a jumping off point for this column. I absolutely agree with what you've written here about the team facilitating all the logistics shooting for students. In this more carefully defined area the advantages for students outweigh any downside.

I guess my concern is that students and other photographers not get used to constant group give and take and get comfortable with the idea that the group aesthetic overrides individual creation.

While workshops can be very effective in teaching new ways of looking at things and new techniques the important point is that once motivated and educated one must divest of the group in order to pursue your vision and your subjects.

Thanks again for kicking my brain a little and motivating me to argue with myself publicly in the form of a blog post. I am rarely 100% right. But it's always more fun than being certain.

theaterculture said...

I suppose it depends on whether your goal is to produce art, or something else.

Most art that's art (as opposed to aesthetically pleasing commerce) expresses a vision of the world that is surprising when you first encounter it, but seems completely natural and inevitable after the fact. It seems almost definitional to me that it takes one person, or at most a very small group locked in creative tension (Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett style), to produce this.

There are, of course, many media where it then takes a collaboration to make the vision real.

RFS said...

I hate to say this about such a thoughtful post, but you're completely full of Texas brisket.
Lots of people think that they're doing it on their own. But that's not how life works.
You sit at the top of a very large pyramid of people whose support allows you to liv out your fantasy of being a "lonely hunter."
Let's see if we can name some:

• Your wonderful wife and the rest of your family who offer you their love and emotional support and pose for your tests.
• The swimmers in your club who let you work out your angst in the lanes next to them.
• The taxpayers of the state of Texas who helped fund your lengthy sojourn at UT.
• The government of the United States which has helped you with various tax breaks, low import duties on Japanese camera equipment, and by keeping interest rates reasonable over the past 25 years so that you can fund your frequent camera purchases.
• The people in your profession who have offered you help or guidance along your path and have helped shape your artistic sensibilities.
• The exhausted, back-sore, farmworkers who pick the beans for your coffee.
• Jeff Bezos whose affiliate links help fund your non-paying creative ventures.
• The saints at Precision Camera who must certainly think you're dangerously nuts for changing camera brands so often but let you in the store anyway.

Kirk Tuck said...

Reading comprehension mismatch. Read again and just think solely of the practicing of photography in the moment.

RFS said...

I understand what you're trying to say, and I too have had to watch many a time, sick to my stomach, as one of my ideas was violated, disemboweled, and then handed back to me to produce despite my anger and grief over the treatment it had received.
But unless you live like one of those monkeys from the Life magazine story in the lab with the mother made of chicken wire, your "team" is baked into the circuits of your brain.
OTOH, maybe you're right, it's liberating to head out with just a camera, my Manfrotto Nano light stands and a reflector or two..
But at the same time, I can't help feeling that maybe it's an illusion—freedom. Isn't every artistic decision I make influenced by the people in my past.