We work in a business that depends on our being “new” almost as much as it depends on our being good journalists. All editors and publishers strive to have a look that will attract readers. Thus we always need to be on the hunt for ways to attract editors.
Of course, solid work, delivered dependably, is extremely important.
But as I said in the last post, that creativity part of the equation is critical. We all slip on that, particularly after we find a groove that works for us.
Sometimes we get out of a rut or move forward by adopting a visual trend, a hip style or a gimmick. That can help push us forward, but all those are short-lived. Remember hand-of-god burns? Fuzzy black borders? Tobacco-colored filters? Holgas? Now ring light portraits and tilt-shift lenses?
I confess to many of those gimmicks too.
Long-term creative juice comes from longer-term work at it. It also comes from finding joy with what you’re doing. Here are a few ideas on how to get those things moving.
10. Have unrelated creative pursuits.
Creativity on one area can be fostered by creativity in another. Have other hobbies than photography. The best way to ruin a hobby is to make it a job, after all. I like to cook. I cook fairly well, but nothing like my professional, trained friends. That doesn’t matter to me.
I also get great creative joy from tearing up my knuckles wrenching on my funky classic car. Job of the week: New seat upholstery, and some concoctions to use up the glut of kale and dill in the refrigerator.
9. Experiment with new cameras, old cameras, weird cameras.
This old trick can easily be defined as a gimmick, but often gimmicks work for temporary satisfaction and long-term creative gain. It helps us see differently.
Though you can create almost any look you want with the latest digital technology (and enough money), there is a vast difference between making an image look different with a computer and using a camera that inherently sees the world differently. Visual surprises lead to creative plans on a computer later.
New cameras have many advantages. The new gizmos and buttons and video and bells and whistles can trip off great ideas. Their technological advantages — like now-noiseless high ISO — can revolutionize what you do.
And undeniably, the instant feedback of a digital camera has sped up the learning curve for a generation of photographers. My students are more creative more quickly, than I or my contemporaries were as students. No more waiting for the film to see if that idea or accident led to a cool picture.
But left to their default setup, all digital cameras look the same. Their similarity in sensor size and lens design doesn’t help.
Try different formats from the highest-quality Hasselblad to a dusty thrift store TLR. They have a look unique to their world. Get even bigger — try a 4X5, an 8X10, or if you’re rich, a giant 16X20. Creamy tones and crazy shallow depth of field that can only be had with a $10,000 lens on a digital camera. And on big film, cheap lenses look fantastic because all the optical flaws become meaninglessly small.
Try different shapes. That 2X3 proportion of 35mm and digital is lovely, but you can shake the way you see with a camera that shoots a square frame, a panoramic frame, or a round frame.
My favorite camera of the moment is a little folding Nagel Vollenda from the early 1930s. There’s only one B/W film, made in Croatia, available for it. I spent twice what its worth to have the shutter cleaned and calibrated. But it its images are little time machines, seeing the world in a long-forgotten way.
Weird cameras are a gimmick, yes. But this is all about keeping your brain thinking and seeing differently even on that stodgy assignment. Creativity everywhere else helps. And some of these experiments have led to great work.
So buy that weird little Lomo, put film in the Soviet-era thrift-store find, buy that 1950s stereo camera or make a pinhole camera out of a blow drier. It’s like being in junior high again.
8. Find the brilliance in new and old technology.
The Web is an incredible resource for discovering how your colleagues are using their computers, remote connections and the latest gizmos for break new ground. Even if you’re a luddite chemical lover like me, watch those blogs and scan those online communities to see what others have discovered. Not only will you find good ways to create your work, but fascinating ideas on how to present it.
Like I get great creative juice from cooking in the kitchen, I have always gotten good creative juice from cooking in a darkroom. When I was young I tried it all in B/W and color. I made classic fiber prints (and still do), I made solarizations, posterizations, gum bichromate prints and photograms. I had to be dragged out of my father’s darkroom so he could get some work done.
I still experiment with all this, for fun as much as anything. Interestingly, the digital boom has moved chemical technology away from big powerhouses like Kodak and Ilford, and off to small startups that are making amazing things. The lack of monopoly has opened doors to small manufacturers packaging film and chemical formulas last seen a half century ago. Thanks to the Web you can also more easily buy the components to mix your own developers or emulsions.
The results can be staggering. See Robb Kendrick’s work with tintype photos. Go to a museum, look at the unmatched ethereal glow of a daguerreotype, then try it at home (with mask and gloves and good ventilation).
7. Chase a totally foreign, or very difficult subject.
What’s your weakness?
Like an athlete who trains hard to overcome a bad habit, a weak skill or a physical limitation, we need to work regularly at improving what in our photography is not the best.
Can’t shoot sports? Try more, but not to the point where it becomes a chore. Try to keep your creative work from ever being a chore. But there are applications for all those areas of work that spill over into what we like to do or what we do well.
Being reasonable at sports action improves your mechanical skills and your timing. Fleeting moments erupt in quiet portrait sessions all the time.
Good at sports? I dare you to try it with a press camera, shooting single sheets of 4X5 film, or a hand-wound rangefinder. The timing required will help you never miss another moment.
Poor at portraits? Study some you admire and try them yourself. You’ll find insight into the working methods of masters become better at it yourself. Try that and everything else with a contemplative, slow camera too. Force yourself to think as much as you react.
And telling a story you’ve never told before will lead to new vision for familiar subjects. Pattern, regularity, predictability can be the death of creativity. If you shoot a small set of subjects all the time, break out on your own and chase something new.
6. Get help.
That can mean two things: We can take classes, study with masters at workshops, and seek mentors to help keep us out of ruts. A good workshop can be invaluable for shaking preconceptions and grabbing new ideas from the instructors and students both.
But that can also mean figuring out how to hire an assistant to handle the drudgery of the daily business — like filing, archiving, billing. More time in pursuit of creativity is a valuable luxury. That’s expensive though. If you figure out how to earn as much extra as it would cost to have an assistant, please pass that formula on to me. I’ll be at my desk going blind over keywords.
5. Play in other media.
A beauty of the Web-driven world is that we no longer need to be pigeon-holed into one craft.
I am a big believer in the mastery of one craft. Pick yours and make it powerful.
But like those unrelated hobbies, it can be good to dabble like a school kid in video, audio, writing, multimedia, Web design, page design, printing, book binding and all the other crafts that make the journalism world.
Write a journal. Shoot some video or cinema film. Record your friend’s band. Make an audio documentary. All will help the creativity of your story telling.
4. Really listen to music.
We all listen to music. For many of us, though, it’s simply background and not well understood. I am not a music theorist, but I am a music lover. I find great relation between photojournalism and the improvisation of jazz. I find subject and mood in most musical forms — all fit some subject, somewhere.
And above all, music is art. It makes our brains move in new ways. I once found myself on a hallucinatory trip listening to the challenging work of Cecil Taylor, laying on a couch with my camera photographing all the something and nothing the struck me as he banged and plucked bare piano strings.
Music conjures images in our minds that inevitably influence how we see the world. Let it do that, whether you like the genre or not. Wander the streets with rappers. Survive bitterness with the blues. Embrace the grace of the classics.
Observe how music is made visual in dance. Let the art of gesture color your observation of it in the spontaneous world.
3. Surround yourself with visual art.
Painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, graffiti, cinema, architecture…
As above, embrace every form of visual art you find. I don’t mean “like” it all. But look at it, imagine what drove the artist there and why he or she did what they did. Don’t listen to the critics only. Find those answers for yourself.
Read great (and not) literature and relish how the story is told. Let the images that flood your mind reappear in your photos the way images seen in photo books and gallery walls inevitably color your work. Savor the concise telling of a short story. Learn from both the riches of a novel and the economy of short fiction.
Read newspapers, magazines, blogs and journals to stay on top of the way the world is working. Look at the pictures too.
1. Critically study other photography.
I have 200 books of photography, I stop into galleries regularly and wish I could spend more time in museums. All of that work inevitably colors our own, either by an almost direct regurgitation, or through mood or style. We must see as much work of as many varieties as we can.
But don’t just find it there. Really look at it in the publications you read, whether you respect them or not. Analyze how and why the photographer made that image. As importantly, ask yourself why the editor published that frame.
Steal ideas. Absorb ideas. Regurgitate ideas. Reinvent ideas. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “There are no new ideas in the world. Only a new arrangement of things.”
Plus one: Think deeply about your own work.
The best way to get the wheels out of a rut, or keep them from falling there if they haven’t yet, is to understand what you are doing. Take all the critique you do of other work and apply it to yourself. What has worked and what doesn’t? What bad habits do you see?
Ask the same of others you respect, be they photographers or not. The average person is our audience after all.
But don’t be excessively hard on yourself. I know many artists who beat up on themselves all the time. They are not the most successful artists I know. It takes pride to market yourself and convince others of your greatness, just like it takes self-examination to improve.
The successful artists and story tellers are as proud of their own work as they are critical of it.