Likening a camera to a blank canvas and redefining your perception of a subject can rejuvenate your artistic approach to photography. Rather than looking at a rose simply as a rose, try redefining the flower based on its color, tone and shape to create a composition where your imagination acts as the main influence, not the subject itself. This can sometimes lead to more conceptual images like the flower abstract above or the zebra shot lower left. Changing your creative process often results in finding new ways of expressing familiar subjects.
It becomes necessary, then, to start fresh, throwing out what we’ve learned and seeking new meanings. When confronted with the responses from my workshop students about what a camera is, I asked myself if it can be perceived in a different way. Can it be more than just a camera? Ultimately, the answer, while simple in its concept, resulted in a major paradigm shift for me. Rather than a device to capture light or record a scene, I came to realize that I could consider the camera to be nothing more than a blank canvas (specifically, the sensor or film) onto which I could “paint” anything that my imagination could conjure up. This was a key perceptual shift as a different mind frame comes into play with the word “paint” than the one associated with the word “record.” I wasn’t holding a device to trap light; I was hanging on to the back end of a blank canvas!
All I needed was something to paint with. Almost immediately on the heels of the first paradigm shift, the second one came about in the form of redefining the concept of “subject.” Thanks to our desire to define things—a flower being just a flower—we tend not to look any deeper than the definition. That action in itself is a barrier to creativity. Rarely do we abstract a subject down to its essence which, when we do, can significantly influence our imagination and the type of images that we can make. Instead, we simply put the subject in our shot and let it go at that. Staying with the “paint” theme while working with a vase of flowers on my dining room table during one Minnesota winter, my subjects weren’t roses or tulips. Instead, I redefined them as sources of color, tone and shape that I could use to create compositions based on whatever my imagination could conjure. As soon as I embraced these two new paradigms, whole new pathways of creativity began to open up. Tripods? I experimented without one. As the flowers (my new paintbrushes) were already fixed in position, all I needed to do was move the canvas to paint!
The result of these two paradigm shifts was a journey into abstractionism and, lately, impressionism photography, which has blurred the boundary between photography and art. Over the last five years, I’ve put these paradigms to the test, letting my journey into abstractionism run its course while photographing in the creative environment of the estate gardens of Claude Monet, where I now teach a workshop using the creative tools that I developed. Being in such a garden, I feel a bit like Monet (well, at least like an artist), who has just opened a box of pastels or a case of paints. I’ve come to interpret it not as a garden, but as a fascinating space filled with color, luminosity and tone that ignites my imagination to create images that are based on the essence of the flowers. I aim for a result where the work transcends the natural definitions, leaving the viewer with the challenge of adopting new levels of perceptions to arrive at their own interpretations.
These paradigm shifts in both definitions and perceptions not only opened new pathways of expression, but have created ripple effects that have impacted the way that I approach my landscape and wildlife photography, as well. Familiar subjects have taken on new visual interpretations, and old perspectives fade into the distances as new possibilities beckon me to come and give them a try. All that from a simple change made in our definitions.