As photographers, we are obviously interested in our subjects.
But are we curious about them? Are we curious enough to ask questions?
Mindfulness is how we see deeply and perceive the world uniquely. We come to understand the beautiful, interconnected nature of all things and learn how we relate to subjects we want to photograph.
For example, we may find a beautiful plant with vibrant yellow flowers growing on the forest floor.
While may marvel at its form, function, shape or colour, we should not be so focused on the plant that other, more peripheral thoughts are blocked from entering our minds.
Thoughts such as:
- Why is this plant growing here, and not over there?
- Last week I remember reading these plants like to congregate in groups – I wonder if there are more nearby?
- How would these flowers catch the late afternoon light during winter when the sun is not blocked by that massive Eucalypt?
- Why do I prefer yellow flowers over red flowers?
- What would happen if I got down on my hands and knees and photographed the flowers from below?
- What can I infer from all of the above and what stories can I tell?
In our attempts to make sense of our perceptions, it is only natural that questions should arise.
Questions, of course, contain answers. Mindfulness helps us learn about ourselves, our processes and our environment. We become more knowledgeable as a result.
And knowledge, as we’ll see, is quite important.
Divergent thinking is an imaginative process of coming up with a range of possible solutions to a problem.
In photography, the problem we are trying to solve is often a real or imagined lack of creativity. Coming away with more than the obvious shot, finding compositions that align with our artistic self-expression, and so forth.
The solutions, then, are creative compositions which communicate what we want to say in a fulfilling and meaningful fashion.
There is another player at the creativity table, however.
Convergent thinking is the process of choosing a single solution to a problem.
But it can be abused. In the aforementioned article, I argued that convergent thinking was the enemy of creative photography.
Photographers who visit Yosemite National Park, for example, usually have a few popular locations they want to shoot. Popularity, it seems, is proportional to the quality of the potential image. The more one has to jostle for position, the better.
Now, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone adding these photographs to their collection. Photographs from these areas are undoubtedly beautiful and popular for a reason, but does that mean your interpretation has to be the same as everyone else’s?
When I took a trip to the USA in 2014, I spent a month visiting most of the major parks in the western half of the country. It was never going to be long enough, in hindsight.
Not even close.
In fact, I probably spent longer researching the destinations before I left. I’d write out a list of photographic hot spots for Zion like I was writing a shopping list for dinner.
And while I had a ball, my photographs didn’t speak to the emotions I felt visiting these parks. The sense of peace, awe, wonder, joy and oneness with nature was largely absent from my images.
Looking back, I don’t think I wanted to take many of the shots I came home with.
Perhaps I took them out of some sort of societal obligation. The herd mentality. Or perhaps a scarcity mentality – when could I afford to go back? I better take as many photographs as I can.
In hindsight, my rather formulaic approach to location-bagging guaranteed my images would lack emotion and meaning.
The curse of modern photography
While I’ll never encourage photographers to go on cookie-cutter destination workshops, convergent thinking does have a place in photography when used in conjunction with divergent thinking.
When a photographer visits Yosemite with a shopping list of photographic locations, they have bypassed the divergent thinking process. They have not blissfully walked through Yosemite’s lush meadows and wondered how they might express their joy through photography.
They are not using divergent thinking to mindfully come up with creative solutions because there is no need! The solutions have been created for them.
This, my friends, is the curse of the 21st-century photographer.
The sanctity and mystery of many national parks, indeed of many locations, has been removed. We can visit them from our living room, pick out the photographs we want to emulate, bag the shots and then move on to the next park.
When we give locations the respect they deserve, convergent thinking is an asset because it helps us make sense of the solutions we proposed during divergent thinking.
But divergent thinking has to take place first. We need to come up with a range of solutions before we can choose one of them.
Sometimes, there might only be one or two solutions to a photographic problem. One or two compositions that are the best representations of your vision.
For example, we don’t need to work a scene for lake reflection photography when there is only one place to get the shot without falling in.
Nor do we need divergent thinking to tell us when to photograph the receding dusk light on the mountain peak in front of us.
In both cases, the best solutions are the most obvious solutions.
To employ divergent thinking in these scenarios would be to miss the shot and contradict the very essence of what it means to be a photographer.
Most of the time, however, we will have a range of solutions available to us. We will have to work a scene and choose a satisfactory composition.
How do we make this choice? Indeed, how do we define satisfactory?
In a paper titled In Praise of Convergent Thinking, educational psychology professor Arthur Cropley (2006) argues that prior knowledge is crucial to the convergent thinking process and by extension, creativity itself.
And while divergent thinking can lead to creativity in the literal sense of the world, the end product may lack meaning, interest or cohesion.
Take the case of a toddler haphazardly banging away at saucepans.
The toddler may use divergent thinking to choose to manufacture a sound that has never been heard before. But is the sound novel? In other words, is it original, useful or interesting?
If the sound were a photo, would the photographer want to show it to their friends?
Unless the toddler is a child prodigy in the making, no one would suggest the sound being produced was especially pleasing to the ears. The child, of course, lacks the experience of a musician with a solid concept of what constitutes music.
Cattell and Butcher (1968) called this haphazard approach to novelty pseudo creativity. In other words, creativity for the sake of creativity.
So how does the child learn to play music?
How does the photographer learn to take photographs?
Intuition is one way we can produce something with meaning, interest or cohesion. It is how the toddler graduates from mindless banging to something approaching a symphony.
Intuition is a heady mix of gut feeling, emotional investment, deep interest and courage. This intuition comes from a process called implicit learning, or the incidental acquiring of information without being aware of it (Cropley 2006).
Riding a bike is a simple example of implicit learning. When learning to ride a bike, we use knowledge of balance gleaned from learning to walk (itself implicitly learned).
Indeed, balance is not something we consciously acquire or take detailed notes on, but we acquire it nonetheless. What’s more, we continue to use it throughout our lives.
Intuition leads to an accrual of knowledge. And knowledge leads to intuition in turn.
Critically, intuitive knowledge never leaves us. We never forget how to ride a bike. We never forget how to walk.
During the convergent thinking process, knowledge and intuition turn noise into music and snapshots into creative, meaningful photographs.
Here are three ways that knowledge influences creativity
1. Knowledge of past experience shapes creative ideas
Charles Babbage is widely considered the father of the computer. But his prior knowledge of Jacquard looms in the French textile manufacturing industry enabled his Difference Engine, one of the first automatic calculators, to be constructed in the early 1800s.
Intuition derived from past experience is particularly important to sports photographers who must be able to predict where the action is heading before it happens. They can only achieve this “oneness” with the game after observing many millions of interactions over time.
As landscape photographers, our past experience means we develop an intimate knowledge of our subject or location. Intimacy and familiarity are achieved through repeated visits and mindful study.
Over time, we develop an intuition for the landscape. We know when and where the eagles nest each year and where that secret waterfall is and how much rain is required to get it flowing. The landscape becomes our landscape because we understand it better than most.
But past experience does not always need to come from photography.
Bruce Barnbaum, an American landscape photographer, says his background in physics inspires him to photograph Antelope Canyon. Ansel Adams used his background as a pianist to apply artistic devotion, a love for process and a strong work ethic to his photography.
2. In order to be creative, knowledge tells you what isn’t creative
In their book Defying The Crowd: Cultivating Creativity In A Culture of Conformity, authors Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart argue that one needs knowledge of their relevant field to produce something creative:
Sternberg and Lubart mention the case of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Widely considered one of the most gifted mathematicians to walk the Earth, Ramanujan lacked sufficient contact with the outside world and, as a result, spent much of his short life “discovering” mathematical theories already known to the west.
But knowledge is not merely concerned with being aware of those who have gone before you.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of flow state fame, says that for an idea to be considered creative, it must be deemed useful and effective by experts in its relevant field.
Usefulness, as you might have guessed, is judged against prior knowledge derived from convergent thinking.
Occasionally, knowledge-backed creative ideas will be rejected at first and then gradually accepted over time. Rejection occurs because of societal values or less commonly because especially novel ideas eclipse or redefine understanding of the fields they originate from.
In the case of photographer William Eggleston, his style of everyday life captured in saturated colour was met with resistance at first, but gained traction over time as aesthetic tastes and public sentiment shifted.
Photographers must have adequate knowledge of camera settings in order to effectively manipulate them. Photographers must have a basic understanding of composition and style before they can understand how to bend them to their creative will.
As knowledge increases, it can become a barrier to creativity. When we know something very well, we tend to resort to familiar patterns – especially if we know these patterns give a predictable, desired result. To counter this, we must keep our eyes fresh and our minds young.
3. Knowledge is the foundation for creative expression
With knowledge comes power — the power of knowing what works and what doesn’t. Between two ends of a spectrum lies a continuum where creativity can take place, but it is still constrained by lower and upper limits, nonetheless.
These limits are common to many artistic pursuits and they are governed by norms, conventions and societal expectations.
A good example of creativity constrained by knowledge lurks in the finer details of jazz improvisation.
To the untrained ear, jazz improvisation sounds like pure divergent creativity. It sounds as if musicians are making it up as they go along.
But while there is a degree of wiggle room during improv, musicians still adhere to some semblance of structure. Without structure, jazz runs the risk of sounding like something that isn’t jazz.
The majority of jazz musicians rely on licks – musical clichés of short melodic lines of between 4 and 10 notes in length.
Individual licks are rehearsed before a performance, but their exact order or combination is not.
Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker used at least 100 licks on stage used in various permutations to produce something both novel and creative, but he still respected the basic principles of his craft.
Photography is similarly constrained by basic principles. Concert photographers are constrained by crowds, low light and moving subjects. Astro-photographers are constrained by sunrise and sunset.
But creativity exists within these constraints, nonetheless. The extent of creativity is determined by the photographer and how well they can use the resources at their disposal.
What are these resources, exactly? A photographer’s unique collection of dots. Life experiences, hobbies, interests, values. The information they absorb in the course of living their life.
Mindfulness meditation is a key driver of creative photography. In a mindful state, we allow ourselves to be curious about our thoughts and surroundings.
Instead of defaulting to the obvious compositions, we use divergent thinking to come up with a range of creative ideas.
We can then use convergent thinking to choose the composition that aligns with our artistic vision, drawing inspiration from our prior knowledge and intuitive sense.
But we cannot skip the step of acquiring knowledge and intuition. In order to draw inspiration from the well, there must be inspiration in the well to begin with.
When we visit Sunset Point overlook in Bryce Canyon, we can do much better than hang our camera out the car window and take a half-arsed image of the hoodoos before driving off again.
It is within our power to get out of the car and find a (relatively) quiet place to stay awhile.
We can read the interpretive signs, I mean really read them, and digest the information in such a way that it enriches our experience. We might then be inclined to hike down into the hoodoos themselves and really immerse ourselves in the landscape.
We may observe tiny human figures in the snow set against these towering hoodoos. Suddenly, we’re reminded of our passion for winter sports and the pitting of man against nature.
When we seek solitude and tranquillity, something magical happens.
Our minds open. We notice the striking interplay between the bright orange hoodoos and the dark green fir and pine trees. We hear a woodpecker in the distance and then as if by coincidence, we start seeing them everywhere.
Eventually, we may even produce an image that could not be distinguished as having come from Bryce Canyon.
Cattell, RB & Butcher, HJ 1968, The prediction of achievement and creativity. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
2006, In Praise of Convergent Thinking, Creativity Research Journal, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 391-404
Sternberg, RJ & Lubart, TI 1995, Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity. Free Press.