Becoming Creative

Every person has a unique perspective—practice finding yours

Recently a friend and fellow photographer asked a penetrating question. He expressed how he is struggling with how to become a creative artist: “Is my voice original at all, and does it matter?” I think we all battle with this question, so let me try to answer him here, and hopefully it will help you, too.

Lichen-covered tree and rock, Yosemite. Wista 4×5 field camera, Fujichrome 100.

Do your images—or mine—matter? That depends on why you are doing your photography and for whom. I like to think that most of us make photographs for ourselves, for the enjoyment of experiencing nature and exploring the landscape, and not to please someone else. The less concerned we are with who will like or approve of our images, and more concerned we are with the process of creating art, the better. A great read on this subject is the classic Art & Fear by Ted Orland and David Bayles. Here is one quote I like especially:

To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this, you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have.

This seems obvious, but it is good for each of us to remember that great art is made from the heart and soul of the artist, not for the approval of others.

Once we realize that the drive to create needs to come from within us, what next? What makes for a creative, original landscape photograph? When we see an inspirational image, our first response will usually be emotional. After the “wow factor” wears off, we can be more analytical. Does the photo have great light or a captivating graphic design, a unique perspective, or all of the above? Are the techniques applied invisible, or do you notice that a particular filter was used, or excessive color saturation or unnatural HDR applied? Whatever the technical qualities we might subscribe to such inspirational images, most importantly there is a sense of freshness, of innovation.

Having a sense of the history of landscape photography is a valuable tool in the process of becoming creative and developing what I call visual literacy. This skill can be defined as the understanding of essential elements of visual design, technique and aesthetic qualities of an image. It is also the knowledge or memory of photos you’ve seen, and recognition of what makes images succeed or fail. We all have looked at thousands of photographs. It is this history stored in our brains, that of our favorite photographs made by our favorite photographers, that form our “customized” visual literacy and that influence our compositions.

For example, if I set up my camera in front of Half Dome in Yosemite and try some compositions, my mind is subconsciously referencing my visual library, my memory of Half Dome images, and I tend to skip over compositions that seem too familiar. If I am editing and discover an image that is very derivative of others, I will disqualify it for most uses.

Above is a photograph of an alder tree trunk in Yosemite. The combination of lichen-covered tree and rock, along with the ambiguity of depth between the two, has brought me back often over the years. The first image I made there was in 1984, and I felt it represented my own unique and creative viewpoint. A few years later, I discovered two well-known photographers had previously made very similar images. I had not seen their versions, so I was very disappointed.

Well, life goes on, and I returned to this tree over many years to enjoy the magical scene and see how I might rework the subject. I have enjoyed the process of standing there again, with my updated visual history in mind, while I try out new ideas on a location with limited compositional options. I kept trying, and I believed that an image, unique to me, waited to be made of this tree and rock.

Twenty years later, I made the photograph shown here. Maybe I succeeded, maybe not; but it is not “win or lose” to me, rather part of the ongoing process of striving to improve, striving for excellence. This experience taught me a valuable lesson. If one’s goal is to create unique images, it helps to know what has been done already.

I was fortunate to have known Ansel Adams, and I learned from him the importance of being true to one’s vision. I believe that every person has a unique perspective, and the first step to realizing that potential is to believe this is true, that it applies to you.

So back to the original question: “Is my voice original at all, and does it matter?” I readily admit that I am always asking myself this question and have accepted these doubts as part of the artistic process. Enjoy the ride.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.