Call it beginner’s luck, but bright-eyed novices often possess an enviably unconstrained creativity. Many years ago, I led a workshop group to a field of wild iris in full bloom, beneath the soaring granite backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s east face. We arrived early, with ample time for everyone to scout out their own compositions before alpenglow lit up the peaks. The scene suggested a classic near-far composition, with clusters of iris in the foreground and the peaks toward the top of the frame. Folks went to work, and the sweet light came and went.
Back at the classroom, when we projected the resulting images, it turned out that the participants had made some very strong but rather predictable photographs, with more similarities than differences. They each had made a version of “the shot.” But then, up on the screen appeared an image that made us all gasp. One participant, whose name unfortunately escapes me—a true novice photographer—had dispensed with the mountains and the alpenglow altogether. Instead, she laid down on the ground, pointed her lens skyward, placing silhouetted iris stems and delicate, translucent purple flowers against a background of robin’s-egg-blue sky. The image had minor issues of technique that one might expect of a beginner, but the fundamental design, color palette and tonalities yielded a truly unexpected and elegant composition. It was simply a wonderful picture that she was able to find because she possessed both creative open-mindedness and the curiosity of a visual explorer. It was a unique photograph, all her own.
Contrast that with scenes we see photographed over and over, as keen photographers crowd together to knock off iconic landscape compositions. Astonishingly, in February 2019, about 2,000 photographers crowded together at narrow vantage points in Yosemite Valley, seeking to shoot their own takes on Galen Rowell’s classic 1973 photograph, “Last light on Horsetail Falls,” some trampling sensitive vegetation, some leaving behind trash and others arguing over tripod positions. I get it. It’s a great photograph of a truly sublime scene. I’ve personally inspected Galen’s original Kodachrome slide under a loupe and marveled at how well rendered it was in the original—no Photoshop trickery there. As is the case with many iconic landscape compositions, the formula for getting “the shot” can be readily found online, and other than potential human impacts to the landscape, there’s nothing inherently wrong with folks continuing to photograph the annual spectacle. But I suspect that if I found myself in Yosemite in February, I’d just leave my camera in the car and watch the lightshow, because for me, that picture was Galen’s, and I want to apply my efforts to making photographs that result from my own experiences and discoveries—my personal visual interpretation of the world.
The fact is that our most popular landscape photography destinations offer countless opportunities to make use of their special characteristics and qualities, their “photographic raw material,” so to speak, to create compelling new compositions all our own. Great photographers are still drawn to a heavily photographed place like Yosemite Valley because of its exceptional qualities of light and topography, not simply for specific famous vista points and compositions rehashed again and again.
Big landscapes like this provide the opportunity to play with scale, using the soaring granite walls to dwarf things that normally tower over us, like a mighty oak tree or a ponderosa pine. The canyon walls also offer the photographer clean backdrops that can be used to eliminate the sky and simplify composition. If we approach a landscape in terms of the particular inventory of visual elements and characteristics it offers, then we quickly realize that we don’t have to be in Yosemite, Zion or Yellowstone to apply the lessons they provide for us.
Look With Your Own Eyes
In a world overflowing with photographs, how do we keep our work fresh and meaningful in relation to what has gone before? To create unique images according to a way of seeing that is yours, you have to be open to coming up with ways of approaching subjects, scenes or themes that are in some way new, different or surprising. Fortunately, the difference in your personal approach doesn’t need to be drastic or revolutionary. Indeed, it can be rather subtle, but it should come from within you. It can even be as simple as letting go of familiar iconic scenes and giving yourself permission to look with your own eyes.
Creativity can be learned and practiced and, most importantly, it is absolutely possible to devise the circumstances in which you are able to be most creative. You don’t have to be born with it, although upbringing, life experience and your attitude do have an influence on how open a mind is to being curious about new possibilities and to solving problems in new ways. The English comedian John Cleese of Monty Python and “Fawlty Towers” fame has said that his best solution for breaking out of writer’s block is pure joyful play. He gives himself permission to be silly, let go of propriety and just have fun. After a while, the ideas flow.
I agree with Cleese wholeheartedly, but I also think that relaxing our frame of mind with calming music, a warm bath or sitting quietly to listen to the river flowing by—letting go of the pressure to perform and produce at least for a little while—will tend to lead to new ideas and perspectives. You have to have faith that the inspiration will follow. When you’re feeling pressure to come up with new ideas, the whole system can shut down.
Get Honest Feedback From Trusted Peers
Also, it’s impossible to overstate the value of finding a supportive but honest and constructively critical peer group willing to provide feedback on your work, help refine your creative direction and promote new ideas. Early in my career, I gathered monthly with a group of photographers in the Washington, D.C., area to review and comment on one another’s work prints and projects in development. Since then, fellow photographers, picture editors, gallerists, print collectors and artist friends have been important sounding boards. Cleese’s experience comes to mind once again, as he came up in just such a peer group with the Cambridge Footlights drama club before forming Monty Python, which was similarly collegial and supportive but also committed to brutally honest criticism. Through our Visionary Wild workshops community, we deliberately encourage ongoing communication among the various instructors and participants to promote just this sort of sharing and feedback over time. It’s important.
Curate Your Influences
For me, another important part of cultivating creativity has been to maintain what I call visual literacy. That is, building a familiarity and fluidity with the various components and aspects of composition, communication and expression through two-dimensional art. I’ve practiced this over the years by looking at a lot of art, identifying what I do and don’t like about a piece, what’s working and what isn’t, and tucking away my observations and lessons learned for future reference when I am photographing. Often, I’m not consciously aware when I refer to this internal visual database in the making of a picture, but I can usually identify the influence at play later on.
We have all been influenced by photographers and artists (and even non-visual artists, such as writers and musicians) whose work we admire. It’s important to acknowledge your influences and learn from them, but it’s even more important to move beyond them to deliberately pursue your own curiosity and interests, allowing yourself to be guided by your own passions, emotions, experience and insights. At the end of the day, your photographic expression should be yours alone.