Posts Tagged creativity

Ode to the Underwood: In Praise of the Mechanics of Creativity

As I sit and type this gently on the elegant and thin modern keyboard of my computer, I find myself wishing for the catharsis of a mechanical typewriter.

Behind me, on the other end of my office, is my grandfather’s 1923 Underwood upright. As a kid I pounded on it until all the keys bunched up in a wad. I rolled the platen. I rang the little end-of-line bell.

I love computers and digital technology. I am fascinated by the powerful communication tools offered by the 21st century. But nothing beats a cool mechanical device. The sensuality adds to the creative process.

A.I. Moloney's 1923 Underwood. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

Writing on that machine — a few high school papers when my father wouldn’t let me on his IBM Correcting Selectric — was a physical endeavor with all the rewards of exercise. You swing fingers into the long throw of the keys, controlling the strength of a word through how hard you pounded the letters. The emotion of a word or line exploded into the act of typing.

Each line musically ended with a sweet ding and a gratifying swipe at the carriage return lever. Through the process your mind needed to stay three steps ahead of your fingers, plotting each word and paragraph in advance to avoid a retype of at least a page. When that page was done, you could melodramatically grab the paper and yank it out of the platen with a satisfying and final buzz of the ratchet.

Just over a year ago I pulled out the small portable Smith-Corona my father used in college. I thought my seven-year-old guests would be happily occupied banging on the keys and tangling the font the way I did. “Is this an old computer?” Zoe asked with a gasp of fascination.

1946 Meridian 45B with a Wide-Field Ektar in a Flash Supermatic Shutter. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

In photography I get the same pleasure from pulling a dark slide out from in front of a fat sheet of film, or from cranking a film roll into a Rolleiflex, or from cocking the shutter of an old Flash-Supermatic leaf shutter. I listen to the soft trip of a Leica M3 at 1/60 second and savor the polished roll of the advance lever mechanics. The sense of beginning in those actions is so much more palpable than in the slip of a memory card into a slot and the tinny ping of a DSLR.

In a darkroom I still relish the feel of a roll winding onto the stainless-steel reels, the sour smell of the hypo, the suds of the Photoflo. Watching an image appear as I tip the corner of an amber-lit tray takes me instantly back to age 15, a basement darkroom, and the excitement of discovery.

But I am not a Luddite. I am a master’s student in Digital Media Studies at the University of Denver as well as a working digital photojournalist and photojournalism teacher. I find sensuality in the visual and aural output of the digital age and the elegance of its engineering. But that’s another post.

My message is only this: Remember to embrace the process of your work and find joy in it the way you find it in your images. As le maitre Henri Cartier-Bresson excitedly giggled and growled:

“For me it’s a physical pleasure, photography. It doesn’t take many brains. It doesn’t take any brains. It takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs. But it is beautiful when you feel that your body is working or, like this, full of air… And in contact with nature… It’s beautiful!… Pow… Grrrettta… Arrruff! …You see?!”

, , , , , , , , , , ,


Maintain your creativity, part B: Ten possibilities, plus one.

Distorted by heat waves rising from pavement, members of the Slipstream-Chipotle prefessional cycling team spin on a training ride in Boulder, Colo.

Distorted by heat waves rising from pavement, members of the Slipstream-Chipotle prefessional cycling team spin on a training ride in Boulder, Colo. © Kevin Moloney, 2007

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.

50-year-old camera, 50-year-old lens, 50-year-old film formula. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

50-year-old camera, 50-year-old lens, 50-year-old film formula, 70-year-old exposure technique. Amazing shallow depth. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

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.

1933 Nagel Vollenda, Efke 100 127 film. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

1933 Nagel Vollenda, Efke 100 127 film. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

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.

Magnum’s Christopher Anderson published his first book entirely of Holga images. Sports great Neil Leifer made an amazing set of images using a fast-moving finish line camera.

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.

Bull riding with a Leica M3 rangefinder. © Kevin Moloney, 2001

Bull riding with a Leica M3 rangefinder. © Kevin Moloney, 2001

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.

2. Read.

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.

Drilling rigs shine across the night landscape near Rifle, Colo. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

Drilling rigs shine across the night landscape near Rifle, Colo. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Maintaining Creativity

Maintaining your creativity takes work.

To stay in top form (and we all slip on this from time to time) we need to pay diligent attention to how we are working, what tools and techniques we might find to help our work, and how we are seeing the world.

A week or so ago I stopped by the Pinocateca do Estado art museum in São Paulo, Brazil, to see a fabulous building and an interesting art collection.

One show up, as part of “The Year of France in Brazil,” featured photographs of Brazil by Brazilian and French photographers spanning a half century.  “À procura de um olhar: Fotógrafos franceses e brasileiros revelam o Brasil”In Search of a Vision: French and Brazilian Photographers Reveal Brazil.

It was a nice array of work with beautiful square Rolleiflex images from the 50s through modern digital color.

One particular group of fresh images particularly caught my attention. The work was classic street photography from Brazil’s colorful edges, shot in dim light. The saturated color and almost noiseless image quality said this had been done with the latest digital equipment. The technique was modern, but the images didn’t sport any overdone trend.

I looked at the image tags assuming I would find the name of a new Brazilian of French talent. This person was embracing all the advantages of the new but without being driven by technology.

But it was Magnum’s Bruno Barbey. The 68-year-old master has been a member of Magnum since I was a toddler, and through my whole photographic life I’ve admired the magic that creeps into his image from his home in Morocco and throughout the world.

Barbey exploring world with which he is by now very familiar with a fresh eye and new technique. His work at maintaining his creativity has paid off.

, , , , , , ,

1 Comment