Creativity is Dead

(© Ian Plant) cre·a·tiv·i·ty (noun): the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination. Source: Dictionary.com

Creativity gets talked about a lot these days. It seems that every photographer (including me) admonishes others to be creative, and we all like to talk about how creative we are—especially when photographing something that has been photographed many times before. And no matter how derivative our work might be compared to the many shots that have come before ours, we always somehow find a way to explain how our work is in fact fresh, new, unique, and . . . creative. Sometimes I wonder how I do it with a straight face—I always imagine crossing my fingers behind my back whenever I talk about creativity.

So let’s try something different, and be brutally honest about creativity for a moment.

The truth is, it is very difficult to be truly creative these days as a nature photographer. Nature photography, in many way, has become a “been there, done that” sort of thing. The art form is very mature (it has been around in one form or another for over a century), and these days everyone is doing it. People have been all over the planet taking photos, and there really aren't many photographic frontiers left. Trust me, I've seen (and taken) a lot of nature photos in my twenty years as a photographer—most of which, I'm afraid to admit, have been done over and over again. Arguably, much of the photographic creativity we've seen in recent years has come from the digital camera revolution and an increased reliance on Photoshop techniques—a technology-inspired creativity boost that has been interesting to watch, but I'm not sure it has fundamentally altered any of the old artistic paradigms. I don’t mean to sound gloomy, but anyone who tells you that creativity is easy is trying to sell you something.

Most art forms, as they mature, end up scrambling to diverge from what's been done before, sometimes leading to truly weird (and awful) results. The music of Yoko Ono immediately springs to mind (I know she has her loyal fans, but after 30 seconds of Don’t Worry, Kyoko I was ready to stick a screwdriver into my brain to end the pain). The recent and oft-maligned "grunge HDR" fad is an example that is closer to home for most of us. Sometimes it’s better to color inside the lines.

Of course, it is "coloring inside the lines" which is part of the reason why nature photography has arguably become somewhat static, creatively speaking. Take landscape photography, for example. The vast majority of landscape photographers (myself included) are trapped in the Ansel Adams paradigm of crisply-focused near to far images; even with the Photoshop-fueled hyper-landscape images we often see today, the basic template is still the same. Technical perfection has been elevated in a way that is far out of proportion with the rest of the art world, which has been moving deeply for centuries into increasingly abstract representation. But how does one break free from the traditional landscape paradigm without being faddish—and without creating the visual equivalent of primal screaming?

The truth is, all of our work is derivative to some extent or another, and we’re all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. So what? That doesn't mean we should enjoy what we do any less. And it doesn't mean we shouldn't try our very best to be creative, no matter how difficult it might be to achieve truly unique results. Looking at the world in a way that is different from most other people is the basis of the process of photographic transformation, by which the photographer converts the everyday into the extraordinary. This is the very essence of art: the collision of reality, imagination, and a creative impulse yearning for expression. If you approach every image you make with this attitude, there’s no telling what you will come up with.

So yes, in many ways it has all been done before. Breaking free from traditional approaches may lead us to some pretty weird places. Then again—with any luck—it might lead to something extraordinary. I'm skeptical that we'll ever get there, but I'm looking forward to being proven wrong by each and every one of you.

Creativity is dead. Long live creativity!

"Dance of the Dead"—Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Zoom Lens for Canon, ISO 100, f/18, 0.5 seconds.

9 Comments

    I think you’re talking about the move from Modern Art to Post-Modern Art, which in painting, started with Impressionism, then to Abstract. I think more photographers would benefit from more time in art museums looking at great paintings and less time in the woods just snapping away at anything pretty. On the other hand, everyone needs a hobby, and why not photography.

    I was just in Peter Lik’s and Art Wolfe’s galleries in Las Vegas last week and saw someone’s rendition of Horseshoe Point. The gallery manager mentioned it and I assured him that if I was ever there, I would not be photographing it.

    I’d also like to say that I just finished Ian’s book, Visual Flow, on composition. It was every bit a wonderful as advertised and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better 2D artist.

    A problem is that any time we try to look for one thing that will be “the answer,” whether it be a technical thing, a technique, a particular aesthetic approach, the denial of a familiar approach, preparation, fresh thinking and all the rest, we cheapen the process and its richness.

    Sometimes in order for find a new thing you must do a lot of the old thing. New ways of seeing cannot be summoned up, but if you do, do, do with regularity and serious intent, you may be surprised by a realization of a new way to see things. It isn’t _all_ in the work and it isn’t _all_ in the mind, but it is in both and more.

    As you write, virtually all work is derivative to some extent – we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. But the one thing that no one else can do is see the way that we, individually, see. That is the thing to pursue.

    Thank you for starting this discussion. It’s very interesting. Im my opinion there is no need to get pressed into a “new creartivity”. Yes, I agree with you. There is not much ” new creativity” seen in nature photography these days. But is this necessary ?

    To be on the right place at the right time and you have done half of the job. This is for most of us challenging enough.

    It’s always better to take a beautiful “old style” photo than a ugly “new style” photograph.

    Another great post, Ian. As a musician and composer, I can tell you that your choice of Yoko Ono as a paradigm of avant-garde music was perhaps the most awful example you could have used. But your point is well taken.

    A better example might be someone like Igor Stravinsky. He mastered the techniques of the great classical composers who came before him. Only then did he go on to radically change music as the world knew it. Yoko on the other hand, has never mastered anything!

    I personally think of nature photography as an art form that has finally matured. The pioneers of the craft like Ansel Adams and David Muench created the techniques and compositional tools, or the “language” of photography that we use today. Now that the “language” has been created, we can use the “words” of that “language” to craft our own works. The creativity of photography now comes in how we as individuals choose to tell the story of a given subject. Which of the myriad photographic techniques will we employ? What do we include? What do we leave out? And most importantly, beyond the single picture, how will we put together a series of images to create a unique narrative about a place?

    Well put, Ian. In the end it is how we see that makes our image potentially unique. We look at life through the filter of our own personal experiences, and those are what form how we interpret what we see in front of us. Good food for thought!

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