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16/02/2011

Creative Photography: Shooting from the Heart

  Helmut Mohelsky

Introduction

As an amateur, taking pictures does not come easily to me. It is a struggle from the beginning with an uncertain outcome. The battle is with the equipment and with the composition. Occasionally an image comes together. When it does, it does so more by accident or magic, rather than by deliberate design. Real magic cannot be taught. What we can do is to create conditions that favor its occurrence.

The material for this paper is based on metaphors, used by photographers to refer to creativity, and based on my own personal experience. It is supported by what I have read in books and articles that have come my way over the last few years. My hope is that anyone who can be moved by photographs finds this article interesting.

In no way should this paper be compared to any authoritative text on photographic art. In fact, I tried to stay away from it as much as possible.

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Implicitly or explicitly, we often divide picture taking into two categories. One is shooting from the heart, the other is shooting from the head. One could say that the latter favors an organization of the world that is more analytical and intellectual, while the former is more a receptive mode of organization that favors openness and letting things happen. The analytical mode is associated with science, with the objective world outside. The receptive mode is commonly associated with the arts.

The present market of photography is flooded with evermore cameras, software and their instruction manuals. Overwhelmingly, they draw attention to the technique of photography and reduce the connection to our senses. There are vast numbers of amateur photographers who are connected to the world around us, not just mechanically, but organically as well. Their eyes and minds are not just instruments used to follow instructions. For them seeing is an experience that raises questions which are not addressed by more workshops and new cameras.

Metaphorical language in photography

Professionals in the field are aware of this imbalance. At times they refer to the creative side of photography metaphorically. They use metaphors sporadically and we are left wondering how they should be understood. When they let us in on what goes on inside of themselves before they trip the shutter it is greatly appreciated because it allows to look deeper and become more aware of what is involved. For that reason I like to give examples of the metaphorical language used. It is, for instance, revealing when Freeman Patterson (1) says ʻ the camera looks both waysʼ, meaning a photograph is as good a description of who is behind the lens as who or what is in front of it, or ʻ what can be taught about composition is littleʼ (2). ʻThe rest has to grow in youʼ, he explains. He also stresses the point that ʻgood pictures can be made anywhereʼ. Others talk about practicing daily their ʻvisual scalesʼ in order ʻto stay in shapeʼ. Another metaphor we hear frequently is ʻto develop our photographic eyeʼ. These expressions are hints in a direction that tells there is more to photography than technique. At other times we hear ʻphotography helps one to learn about oneselfʼ. Many ʻfeel driven by a relentless desireʼ to go out and take pictures again and again. They canʼt rest in peace until they have done it. Darwin Wiggett (3) says all the creative photographers he knows have a strong inner drive and motivation for what they do. They feel they are ʻprisoners of their passionʼ. He mentions Galen Rowell who describes this passion as the ʻinner ratʼ. Its visceral, voracious power can drive us time and again to create new images – against all odds, like extreme temperature, dangerous terrain, lack of food and the like. This may be experienced as a blessing and a curse.

An example, taken from my experience as a workshop participant was fascinating. The setting was outdoors and the teacher was a well-known and well respected photographer. It was very interesting to see how he went about selecting his subject in nature. He was pacing up and down ʻlike an animal in a cageʼ, or was it a ʻdanceʼ ? The tension was palpable. I could not help but compare him with a ʻhighly trained rescue dogʼ, ʻsniffing out life under a pile of rubbleʼ. One understood he was not just guided by his eyeballs but by something inside of himself – ʻsomething that stirred in himʼ. He seems to have been ʻsmelling the picture before he could see itʼ. For me, this is vivid evidence that when all our senses and feelings are engaged, we see more than the eye of the observer can.

To say it is an inner vision that produces meaningful pictures is not to say the technical aspect is less important. We need to have the technical know-how to translate our visual experience on to film or on to a digital sensor as best as we can. To do this is as essential as the view from within. One is not more valid than the other. However, it is the inner aspect I shall be talking about.

Photography as life

Life can be seen as a dynamic field. We experience its forces as tension that increases and decreases constantly. It is the result of the interaction of opposing forces, or we may say the result of nature having multiple faces. We canʼt see how these directed forces work together and against each other at the same time as a dynamic whole. Not only are they invisible, they are also outside of our awareness. What we can see in nature, are the footprints of this ongoing hidden struggle that may catch our eye as beautiful ripples, left behind on a sandy beach, or as growth rings in a gnarled tree. In our body it is not different. The heart with its contractions produces a rhythmic tension that keeps us alive.

We easily overlook, as Albert Low (4) reminds us, that the “…force which creates in the human being is the same force that creates the human being”. We may call it the life force or just life. Since this force is so basic to our being how could it not play a dominant role in visual perception and in composition? In musical composition it is present in harmony and disharmony. In photographic composition we may increase tension through the introduction of ambiguity by obscuring the visual center and letting the viewer take over by searching for meaning on his own.

For Arnheim (5), visual tension is accomplished through deformation. This effect can be achieved by distorting shapes and perspectives or by using a different optical lens. “Seeing is perception in action”, he says (6). It means seeing is dynamic. What we see, or what is held in place, is delicately balanced by the interaction of directed forces  that are generated spontaneously in the visual field. Their energies balance and counter balance each element in such a way that we can perceive objects as whole. I would add to this that the whole is reflected in its parts as well. This ʻholographicʼ view is not static but life in action. It resides in the percept and is not added by the observer for reasons of his own. In photography we make use of this dynamic tension, or sensibility in our composition.

 

The universal principal of dynamic fields is also active in the particular. It plays not only a fundamental role in the visual field, but in life as music as well. Tones also have a dynamic core. They move on their own when they belong to a musical context. We can sense their dynamic qualities as unrest, for example, or as tension that urges to move in a certain direction as in a melody. V. Zuckerkandl (7) talks about this dynamic energy in music as the movement of tones. What we hear is directed tonal motion, he says. Like in a visual field, this dynamic can not be recorded objectively, nor can we say it is not there.

Creativity in photography

A picture is composed. The word composing comes from the Latin and means ʻputting togetherʼ. When we put together the essential parts of the picture we have in mind, we try to do what the eye does by itself. It is like giving life to an organism, or it would be perhaps be better to say it is creating the illusion of a living organism on paper. However, the cognitive or structural forces in seeing are free of any emotional content. But how then does seeing or ʻperception in actionʼ become an experience? How does emotion get into it? How can a picture give us joy and make us wonder? This is difficult to talk about because there is no visual experience without emotion. If we turn again for a moment to music, we may find suggestions that are helpful. V. Zuckerkandl (8) says “…there is no way of grasping a musical context, the motion of tones, otherwise than by partaking in it, by inwardly moving with it – and such inward motion we experience as emotion”. Assuming this holds true for images as well, we can understand when G.Rowell (9) says “ We produce our best pictures when we feel them oozing out of every pore of our body. The time seems to stand still and the world is more beautiful than we have ever seen it”. He could have also said we have to become the image, by moving inwardly with it. When we do that and participate fully with our senses and feelings, there is freedom to visualize and orchestrate elements in infinite, previously unseen patterns. At this moment our analytical way of thinking has vanished, and the ʻinner eyeʼ opens up to a world as a wondrous garden. If we are able to translate this moment onto the sensor of our camera, we are thrilled and excited and we feel we can relax because our work has been done. However, if the response is too late itʼs all over – until the next time. In this context, the saying of ʻgood pictures can be taken anywhereʼ fits because we carry that ʻinner gardenʼ in us, independent of location. It also makes sense now when photographers use the metaphor of ʻvisual scalesʼ. We come to understand why the daily practice is as important as the practice of musical scales is for the pianist. But how are we to understand that only a small amount of composition can be taught, and the ʻrest grows in a personʼ? This inner growth has to be guarded and cultivated carefully. It has to do with moving inwardly by self-reflection and learning to withhold quick judgement. We have to relearn the capacity of seeing through our senses and develop an authentic vision. In other words, we have to change our daily diet. If we feed ʻour innerʼ rat with junk, it will get fat, out of shape, and fall asleep. As a consequence, the images produced will become repetitive, lose their freshness, and become stale.

There are some metaphors I have mentioned at the beginning that I have not yet referred to. We will deal with them next, in our conclusion.

Shooting from the Heart

ʻShooting from the heartʻ is itself a metaphor that has been used widely. The receptive heart is commonly associated with emotions while the cool head is associated with logic, analysis, and science. Images with impact always release emotions but this is not to say that is all they do. In our context it means to create for oneself because one is driven to do so by a genuine need. Shooting like that is open to anyone, not just to the gifted. It comes through participation and immersion. We have called it a becoming one with the image. The masters of photographic art are not only one with the image but one with the camera as well. Both need to work seamlessly together to bring out the magical qualities in a picture. It requires an openness, a selfless heart, so to speak. To most of us this openness does not come easily. When it does, It makes us feel productive and fills us with joy. In order to make it happen, we have to undo a great deal of what we have learned – to be less dominated by prejudice, by craving for recognition, or by a know-it-all attitude. It keeps the creative rat in us hungry. When we uncover the capacity to become more sensitive, we feel we have learned something, we feel we have grown. This will surely be reflected in the pictures we take since the camera is a two way looking glass.

 

Notes

1. Freeman Patterson & Andre Gallant, Photography for the Joy of It, (Key Porter Books, Toronto, Ontario, 2007, p.13)

2. Ibid. (2007, p.87)

3. Darwin Wiggett. Where Does Your Creativity Come From? (www.darwinwiggett.worldpress.com; go toPages, then to Articles)

4. Albert Low. Creating Consciousness. A study of consciousness, creativity, evolution, and violence. (White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon, 2002, p.133)

5. Rudolf Arnheim. Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye, The New Version. (University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London; 1974 expanded and revised edition, p.428)

6. Ibid. (1974, p.16)

7. Victor Zuckerkandl. The Sense Of Music. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1959, p.244)

8. Ibid.(1959, p.245)

9. Galen Rowell. Nature or Nurture. (www.mountainlight.com; go to Books & More, then to Galenʼs Articles)