Saturday, July 10, 2010

Challenge Your Creativity

"I can teach technique, but I can't teach vision." (Mike Cindric)
"Photo gear is good, but vision is better." (Chase Jarvis)

The local art museum recently asked me to write up a brief description of my photography. Hmmm. It sounded easy enough at first, but it became exponentially harder the closer I got to writing. Sort of like describing your life in three paragraphs or less.

Huckleberry Moon (c) John AshleyBut I did it. I boiled photography down to one sentence, and then backfilled with three paragraphs of fluff. I'll fluff it up even more for you.

(My opinions are not intended to bash those camera owners who will feel, well, bashed. Rather, I think this way in order to challenge to myself to hone my own photography. I want to dig deeper and make better images, and I don't want my work to look like everyone else's.)

So, here goes...

As a medium, photography spans a wide range of merit, from a vacation snapshot to an Ansel Adams creation. In this sense, I believe that there are many people who take pictures but only a few photographers who create photographs. And I'm not talking about Photoshop creations. It's a creative imagination behind the lens that makes a few photographers stand apart from the ubiquitous copycats.

Let's say that I wander around in Glacier Park until I find a "pretty" scene -- this will require 2 to 3 seconds. I choose a pleasing composition, carefully select my camera settings (manual, always!), and wait for the best light. But when I press the shutter, I am taking a copy of something that is already "pretty." In this case, I'm just a technician, and there are thousands of technicians with cameras out there. Not much different than some guy pressing the button to Xerox a glossy calender.

In some cases, this is where I begin the image making process. But in many cases, this is where a lot of self-described "photographers" end their efforts. I see these guys over and over at art shows. Oh look, yet another "picture" of flowers in front of Mt. Reynolds in evening light. Gag me with an Instamatic.

Pretty? Sometimes. Original? Not in the least.

I don't understand how some people claim the "photographer" title, just because they can point a camera and press a shutter. A moderately bored orangutan can do that. We can do better, fellow humans. We must, or photography will continue down the slippery slope towards boring irrelevance, the rejected spam of the art world.

One local "photographer" (his claim, not mine) appears to "take" every picture with a 50 mm lens from a standing position, and then whines about digital hurting "real" photography. Well, I believe that a "real" photographer should be able to create compelling images with digital, film, wet plate, pinhole, or even a cell phone. The image depends on how the brain cells are used, not the kind of camera.

Another photographer I cross paths with apparently finds images in photography magazines, and then drives around the country to copy them exactly. Shaft of light in slot canyon? Check. Sunrise in Tetons? Got it. Lighthouse on California coast? Got that, too. There's not a single image in his booth that hasn't been taken and published by a thousand others before him. Not one faint flicker of originality.

On the other hand, I recently met a high school photographer named Alex, and some of his early images are more creative and original than many of the examples above. I always tell aspiring young photographers to go ahead and "take" the easy picture. But that's where they should begin, not end. Keep working it, changing it, and sometimes you'll end up with something rare -- an original photograph! Something that isn't in every other portfolio (and art fair booth) out there.

(Don't even get me started on the so-called "game farms." If your idea of creativity involves forcing incarcerated animals to perform for you then, in my humble opinion, you don't even deserve a camera. Your dollars are creating a demand that forces wild species to live their lives in cages, and you should be strung up by your camera strap. Enough said.)

Like I said at the beginning, this is my own personal challenge and a goal that I often miss. Some days, I only manage to "take pictures," and I'm a so-called full-time professional. I try not to put too many of these pictures out in public view. Instead, I try to keep working an idea until I get to something original, or until I give up.

Chief Mountain Moonrise (c) John Ashley
Okay, a few examples.

On the east side of Glacier Park, Chief Mountain stands apart from the rest. I watched the moon rise past Chief Mountain a few times, and took some pictures. But my images never did justice to the real live spectacle, so I kept mulling it over. Finally, I experimented with a few nights of interval photographs as the full moon cruised silently past Chief. That was it. My final image is not a top seller for me, but in my mind I finally captured a bit of the spirit of the vision quests that the Blackfeet Indians seek from this mountain top.

This photograph was created 20 years after "taking" my first "picture" of the full moon behind this mountain.

Another example. I spent a few years monitoring Bald Eagle territories in Glacier Park. I watched eagles catch fish and ducks, but I'd never seen a photograph that did justice to the skill involved. I pondered, how can I photograph eagles in a way that shows what they must do just to survive? After the image came into focus in my mind, we set about in a canoe, photographing the resident pair of eagles on a small lake.
Eagle Talons (c) John Ashley
It took three months, off and on, to get the "Eagle Talons" image out of my head and into my camera. This photograph is one of our top sellers because people have never seen anything like it. Neither had I, before developing it in my mind.

One more moon example. A lookout friend tried to describe a full moon night in a fire lookout, but couldn't find the words. So I set about creating a visual description. I picked Huckleberry Lookout, looked up the azimuths and transects for several nights around the full moon, and started drawing lines on a map. To make the moon look huge, I had to make the lookout small, so I needed to be miles away from the mountain. I started hiking.

Three nights moonlighting (c) John Ashley. Click to see final results.

On the first evening, a cloudy moon rose to the right of the lookout. So I drove back the next night and changed my location. This time, the moon climbed the ridge and just missed to the left. Rats! So I returned the third night and moved the camera location again. This time it worked. From the first two nights, I learned to anchor my tripod better and shorten my interval. The final, edited photograph at the top of this page -- a photo that I created in my mind before creating it in my camera, many months later.

For two years now, I've been working on a moonrise panorama over yet another mountain. Still not good enough. Still trying -- this one, and a head full of other images that are still just ideas.

"Taking pictures" is easy. About all it takes is opposible thumbs. "Creating photographs" is much harder -- not for technical reasons, necessarily, but because it requires you to think. It requires imagination.

Again, I'm not saying that my images are better than others', or that creative photography necessarily sells better than the repetitious "pretty pictures." What I'm saying is that we should work hard to create our own niches, to be a little different. I don't always succeed, but at least I try.

And if I can succeed from time to time, then obviously you can too.

Behind the brain cells: If my words are less than convincing, listen to a much more eloquent version from guru David "AKA Strobist" Hobby at The Candid Frame podcast #98.

Behind the pinhole: If you need a little inspiration, the quote at the top of this entry is from the website of one of my favorite photographers, Stu Jenks down in Tucson, Arizona. Not only is he a creative photographer and musician, but Stu is also one of the best writers I know. His business card identifies him as, "Nocturnal Photographer, Daytime Writer." Damn, sure wish I'd have come up with that before he did. Should I just copy his creative words?


  1. Well said. Creativity will be lost down the drain if we as photographers do not step outside of our own boxes and think freely.

  2. I just found a great insight on this post. Vision is definitely the most essential element in all aspects I believe so. Vision is the core value of all the fields that construct the foremost value of our works. Incorporating the most of our goal brings just the perfect outcome that we adhere to attain.

  3. This is one of those posts that I will keep coming back.... to read, understand and be inspired.