What Is Creativity?

I’ve discussed aspects of creativity before. Mostly from a practical standpoint. It is a topic that has a special call to me. But what is creativity actually? I decided I would do research to find out what the experts say.

Psychology

So I set out to find out what people who spend their career studying creativity have to say about it. I have mentioned Teresa Amabile and some of the intriguing papers she has written. They led me to believe there might be useful insight to be learned.

After some internet research I saw several mentions of a book “The Nature of Human Creativity“, published by Cambridge University Press. It is a collection of papers by 24 psychology scientists that are frequently cited in textbooks and other papers. The first page describes it as “an overview of the approaches of leading scholars to understanding the nature of creativity, its measurement, its investigation, its development, and its importance to society.” Wow! That’s exactly what I wanted!

I eagerly bought it and jumped in, only to find it was like wading through a swamp. Turns out the giveaway I should have caught was that this was by “leading scholars”. Works like this are written by PhD’s to impress other PhD’s. There is little thought of communicating practical advice to real people. But I have read a lot of PhD and above papers, so I pressed on, although with diminishing enthusiasm.

Spoiler alert: I gave up about half way through. It’s not that I couldn’t understand it. Instead, I found it very unsatisfying. I could tell there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, because the real answer is that the scientists don’t know. Sure there are lots of theories. Scholars live by making and publishing theories. That does not mean they are very meaningful.

So, what is it?

A lot of psychologists accept the statement that “creativity involves the production of original, high-quality and elegant solutions to a certain class of problems – novel, complex, and ill-defined, or poorly structured problems.” [Mumford, Medeiros, and Partlow, 2012] This is one of the simplest and most concise statements defining creativity I have found by the psychologists.

In practice, though, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for me. The one word I definitely agree with is production. You cannot evaluate the creativity of something until it is made or built. Someone has to be able to see it, hold it, examine it, compare it to other things. Otherwise it is just an idea.

But then what about terms like “original” and “high-quality” and “elegant”? What do they mean? Who defines them? And is art included in the set of “novel, complex, and ill-defined” problems they study? To me art is definitely all of those.

How to measure it

One of the greatest problems I had with the psychologists, though, is how do you measure creativity? If something calls itself a science then its theories must be measurable and other scientists must be able to repeat and independently verify the results.

Most of the psychologists agreed, probably correctly, that creativity varied by domain. They pretty consistently solved the measurement problem for their research by using a panel of domain experts in each specific area to score the creative works. The expert scores determined the creativity judgment for any work being evaluated. The fact that the expert’s scores had decent statistical correlation was their “proof” that the measurement was valid.

That is easy and it takes the researchers off the hook. They do not have to be the judges. To me, though, it is the thing that invalidates the whole research approach.

Is art different?

The psychologist’s measurement approach will work OK for engineering or math or software or accounting. Most any problem solving discipline where the problems can be expressed and solution quality can generally be analyzed and agreed on.

I believe art does not fit this pattern and has a terrible history of valid critical judgment. There are no clear right or wrong solutions in art. Critic judgment is often strongly biased by their opinions and background and training. Just look at the resistance and rejection a new movement like the Impressionists got when they opposed the established Realist intelligentsia. Or look at Paul Klee. History seems to repeat itself about every generation.

On a much smaller scale, look at typical photography contests or exhibition competitions. Perhaps I am just an arrogant curmudgeon, but I often look at the winners selected and think “you’ve got to be kidding; I throw away better ones than that”. I have done judging (forgive me) and I know judges can come to consensus and select the top 3 entries they like best according to the criteria they have set. But unless a work is a blatant copy, I disagree that they can reliably determine a quantitative measure of its creativity.

To me this shows that we should have little confidence in the ability of critics to judge creativity in art.

If we don’t know what it is, how can we do it?

Sherlock Holmes seems to be the first to state “I know what is good when I see it”. Don’t we as artists do that all the time? Isn’t that the only criteria that can guide us?

We could say “I don’t know what creativity is, and judges seem to be telling me I must not be creative, and I can’t always do work that is demonstrably original and novel, so I will give up”. If we did that no art would ever be done. At least not by honest, truth seeking artists. It is easy to copy what seems to be popular, but really different work always fights against a headwind.

But think. Who is it that is telling you your work is no good? The same people who told Monet and Van Gogh and Klee they were no good. I’m glad they didn’t listen. They kept their head and did the work that was unique to them. And the world is better for it.

We each have to determine what evaluations we choose to accept for our art. Do not give weight to the negative talk by the critics when your inner voice disagrees. Your inner voice may not be right. It may need new training and experience. But you have to trust yourself, and go with your instincts. You really don’t have any other reliable standard.

Talent or skill?

So is creativity a talent or a skill? Does it come from the Muses or is it something we are born with? Can we develop and enhance it or are we stuck with what we have? Can other people reliably measure our creativity?

Probably some or all of that. Don’t expect the answers to come from psychology research . They are at least as blind as the rest of us. If scientists can’t give us objective answers, we have to decide who we listen to. As an artist we need to give greatest weight to our own evaluation. It is the only way we will follow our path.

One thing I do know is that creativity seems to reward hard work. If we sit around waiting for inspiration, we may be sitting a long time with nothing to show for it. Get busy. Go out in the field or go to your studio and make trash if necessary. Do something. Movement seems to generate creativity. Make your own path and don’t look back.

Disclaimer

I am not belittling psychologists. Most of them I have studied seem to be very intelligent, hard working people. I’m just saying I don’t think the methodologies I have seen used in studying creativity are destined to lead to much success in understanding art.

Maybe they can understand why 2 software developers with seemingly equivalent training and experience can exhibit vastly different levels of creativity and productivity and quality in their work. Something I have often seen first-hand. But that is a different and easier to study domain.

I wish them luck. But for me, I will not look to psychology research for future help in understanding artistic creativity.

Lighten Up

Reflections on flowing water.

By lighten up I don’t suggest we make more high key images. It’s not a bad idea if you don’t do it much. But I mean to give our viewers more opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

Serious

Most of us take the world very seriously. Of course, there are serious issues we live with all the time. I don’t minimize them. But I learned from an expert in culture that, being an official old guy, I typically have less anxiety than most of you younger people.

Personally, I’m glad. I hate going around burdened down with angst and fear. Instead, when I’m out taking pictures I see joy and hope and feel uplifted.

I’m not trying to change the world with my images. At best, I hope to help a few people have a better day by looking at my work.

But another way to lighten things up it to be more ambiguous. I notice that most of my work has a clear subject. Low ambiguity. Also, not so many questions for you to answer for yourself. This is probably a fault.

Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a marvelous tool. Used sparingly it can liven up our work and give our viewers more challenges and rewards. Ambiguity means being open to more than one interpretation.

I recently watched a video on Creative Live by Renee Robyn. She is a conceptual artist who constructs images as composites of many layers. Some of her work leads to various interpretations. I was interested that she said about one that she asked many people what it meant to them and every one had a different interpretation. And none matched what she had in mind. That is ambiguity.

Ambiguity introduces the option of different interpretation. Of course, that is always possible with any image, but more ambiguity makes it more possible.

Leave questions unanswered

As I get older I find my work asking more questions than answering them. Maybe I realize I know less as I age.

I cynically view that a lot of young people come out of art training thinking they now think deep thoughts and have to raise great questions for their viewers. Later, whether they realize it or not, most of them settle down some and their work says “this is what I see”. Even later, like me, they might come around to saying “these are things I still don’t understand, but I see them different and less rigidly now”.

Intentionally introducing more ambiguity is one way to move away from imposing my own interpretation on a scene. By leaving more room for the viewer to create their own story it becomes more of a conversation.

Say more

It is quite possible to say more by saying less. This is one of the beauties of poetry. Great poetry may introduce deep truths in a few words, but in a way that keeps the reader thinking about it on and off for years.

I have no images where I claim such insight or depth. But I do think that by leaving more for the viewer to fill in from their own experience and viewpoint, there can be more interest.

Giving viewers the clear answer to things can come across like a boring lecture. It may be good information, but it doesn’t necessarily engage you. I have this problem with a lot of landscape images I see (and take). It’s a landscape. Beautiful place, great time of year, I’d like to go there, but there’s nothing else. Nothing left for me to figure out or question.

It seems much more rewarding to hint that there is more depth there to be discovered. To give the viewer a chance to participate, to become a co-creator.

Today’s image

This image is a little ambiguous. I’ll let you figure out what it actually is. I left a couple of strong hints, but feel free to make up your own interpretation, your own story.

Print It!

Abstract pseudo-aerial. A trick to edit and print.

Some would argue that an image is not final until it is printed. More and more I am tending to agree. Print it – you will learn a lot and be a better photographer.

What is the thing you are creating?

I am intrigued by the idea of creativity and I have studied creativity research some recently. Real, hard core theoretical psychology. It has been disappointing. One of these days I will write an article on what I have observed.

One of the things I do appreciate about the papers I have read is that they tend to tie creativity to producing something. Sort of the idea that if you just think creative thoughts, are you creative? If you can’t or won’t produce a creative work, is the creativity really there?

There is benefit in producing something and holding it up for yourself and others to see and examine. Small images on a screen do not have the impact

Why a print

A print is real – a tangible, physical product. It takes on a life of its own; it is held, examined, felt, passed around, hung on a wall. It is permanent.

Creating a print changes our thought process and our relationship to the image. We must finalize it, because the print will never change. And we have to re-think it in terms of the limitations of the print medium.

It is kind of like having a child. Initially it is my baby, very closely held and personal and protected. Then it grows up and becomes an independent person.

And by analogy, the print is made to be permanent and independent. It is a work we have produced for others to have and enjoy.

What do we learn

I am amazed by what I learn by printing an image. It was edited for hours until I am sure I am happy with it. Then when the print comes out, it’s “Really? That needs more work”.

Viewing a print is quite different than looking at an image on screen. We have a different relationship with it. Our perception is very different. Even at a simple technical level, an image on a screen is formed by light being generated, an additive process. A print is seen as light reflecting off a substrate as modified by colored pigments. A subtractive process. The perception and the psychological process is different.

But ignoring all technical considerations, there is something about a print that points out all the flaws in your image. Seeing it as a physical representation on paper changes how we look at it and what we see. If you want to find out if your image is any good, print it.

How is it that I can work with an image for hours on screen and not see that sensor dust spot in the sky? Why didn’t I see that the mid tone contrasts are inadequate? And that purple highlight just doesn’t have the punch I wanted. Where did that distracting line leading off the edge come from?

We see a print more critically. Since it is a different process on a different medium we have a fresh look. And a print is far more limited in dynamic range than our camera sensor or computer monitor, so we have to map it differently to get the result we want.

A real thing

Holding our image makes it real. It has weight and texture and it is a permanent work independent of us. To use the baby analogy again, before the child is born it is still kind of an abstract idea. After it is born it is real and living.

In the days of film, making your first print was often a seminal moment. The experience of seeing a black & white image “come to life” in the darkroom bath is often the moment people say they became hooked on photography. It can be somewhat similar with printing, if you do your own. Seeing this baby of yours coming to life on paper right there in your studio is a joy.

Have you held a print? Isn’t it magical? And if you hand a print to someone, watch their reaction. Wonder, joy, maybe fear of ruining it combined with a desire to touch it. They only see images on screens. When it leaps off the screen and becomes a real, physical object they perceive it very differently.

Summary

I am doing more printing recently. I knew it would be a change and a learning, since I had not done it for a while. But even I was not prepared for it. But I love it. A great print is a thing of beauty. The image becomes real, alive, permanent. Like our child, it grows up and has a life of its own.

Try it. It could change your viewpoint.

Throw It Away

Going to work on a Paris morning

This is a controversial subject. I have touched on it before, but it is time to circle back. My assertion is that most of us should throw away more of our work. Horrors! Kill our darlings? Sounds terrible! But I am convinced that one excellent way to improve our work is to throw it away.

We probably overshoot

It is so easy now days with digital cameras. There seems to be no cost for shooting a lot of frames. We “work the scene”, taking many shots at different angles and positions and focal lengths. Refining it to find the best view. And then shoot a few insurance shots, you know, in case one doesn’t record properly or we jiggle the camera. You know.

That’s a pretty typical process and can be useful. But the reality is these shots are not free. We have to edit them, cull through them to select the best, do some “quick” processing to see if they seem worth investing more in. This takes a lot of time. They take up disk and backup storage space.

So where with film, we might have taken 3 or 4 images of a scene, now we come back with 15 or 20 or more. That can be good. If you really have to work through different views to determine what is best, then do it. Or increased experience might help to get you there in fewer attempts.

For example, you come to a nice waterfall. So you shoot brackets of apertures from f/ 2.8 to f/22, and brackets of shutter speeds from 1/1000th to 10 sec, and exposures from -3 to +2 stops. Just in case. Why? You should know from experience what you prefer. You should know that f/8 +/- a little is what you like with this lens at this distance. The amount of blurring you prefer is usually achieved at around 1/4 to 1/10 second for this kind of subject. You should know how to expose to the right and prevent clipping of highlights.

Just that takes it from shooting all possible combinations to intelligently determining what to do. You have a style and preference and you should be comfortable with the craft. Why shoot things you know you won’t like?

Overshooting creates a huge backlog of work. And lots of wasted disk space. And a cluttered Lightroom catalog. Simplify.

We keep too much

OK, let’s say you intentionally shoot a lot of images of a scene as you work it. How much of that do you really need to keep?

Are you going to keep all the shots in case you later change your mind later about what you like? Don’t. Make an artistic decision and stick with it. Don’t keep that full bracket of apertures “just in case” you change your mind.

We make it hard on ourselves by second guessing our decisions. Decide what you like in the group, what matches your intent at the time, and throw away most of the others. My experience is that if I didn’t know what I liked at the time, one of the variations seldom captures “it” either.

The great gets lost in the sea of good

Are you drowning in a sea of pictures? So much that you can’t locate the shots you like best? I get the impression that this is an increasing problem for a lot of people.

A solution is a more disciplined filing and catalog system. This is made much easier when there are fewer images competing for our attentions.

You don’t need 20 decent pictures of that scene. You need the one that represents your best artistic sensibility at the time. And that one should be processed to bring out your vision as you saw it then. It should never be a case of wading through many competing images to pick out the best one.

Here is a hard lesson I have had to learn: good images are usually worthless. Only great images have any chance of making it. You seldom need the ones that are only good.

Declutter

I am arguing for decluttering our catalog by removing images you aren’t going to need. But yes, that means you have to kill some of your darlings. Delete perfectly good images.

This hurts. Why should you delete good images? Because as I said earlier, we are artists. We have to have the confidence to make a decision and a statement. This is my vision of that scene. None of the other attempts matter. DaVinci didn’t paint 20 variations of the Mona Lisa.

If you have a catalog of 100,000 images, are they 100,000 excellent images? What good are all those OK images that you will never use? Wouldn’t it be much better to only have 10,000 great images? The numbers are just for discussion. My point is, declutter your environment.

But, we say, I need insurance shots in case my great image gets corrupted. Really? How often does this happen. And if it does, that is what your backup strategy is there to correct.

But I really like all those shots. Yes, but when is the last time you used one of them? Why would you use one of them? If they are not the great image you love, their value is close to zero.

To use the example from before, if you have 100,000 pretty good images, how do you locate that 1 great one you want to submit to a gallery? It is hard to find the signal in the noise.

Declutter. It hurts at first, but is healthy.

Tighten up that portfolio

The same applies to our portfolios and projects. Less is usually more. This is another of those painful lessons experience teaches if we listen.

Your portfolio should have a max size you pick. If you want to add a new image to a portfolio, make yourself decide which one you will replace. This is hard. But here is a truth: every time you take one out, you make the remaining set stronger. Taking out a picture you love doesn’t mean you don’t love it anymore. It just means that it is not the strongest in the group.

I don’t think I have ever damaged a portfolio by taking something out.

Same with projects. That is a little trickier, because sometimes we need images to set a context or help tell our story, but still, they should all be strong. Less is still usually more.

A personal example. I recently needed to pull together a group of images for an exhibit. The subject was one I love, so I had a lot of images I really liked. In my first pass, I pulled out 162 images I loved that I thought would be great for it. I knew that was a ridiculous number for this exhibit, but I really liked all of them.

So hard core culling mode on. After my next pass, it was down to 125. Progress, but way out of range still. I had to remind myself that deleting an image from the set doesn’t mean I don’t like it, just that it was bumped by a stronger image of mine. So with a great struggle, I was down to 69. So far I have taken out nearly 100 of my favorite images!

Narrowing my focus and getting even more selective got it down to 44. It hurt, but now I have narrowed it to 23. I’m kind of stuck right now, but I know I need to get it down to about 15.

A funny thing has happened, though. At this point I believe ALL of them are great images and I could almost randomly select the next 8 to cut. That is an interesting realization.

Be reasonable

In all things you have to make reasonable judgments for yourself. I’m not saying never keep alternate shots of a scene. I routinely keep a few. But I don’t keep duplicates that do not add any value. And I don’t keep alternate images that I know from experience are not my style.

And there are those shots you know are flawed, but you just love them. Fine. I have a lot of those. Generally they are segregated from my “main” images, but they are important memories for me. Or they tell a behind the scenes story that is valuable to me.

I use a multi-pass editing process and I usually let images age some before making many final judgments about them. But I figure if I don’t delete about 1/2 of my shots, either I am on a great run (it happens sometimes) or I’m not being critical enough. Often it runs to 2/3 deleted. And by deleted, I mean really gone, erased, trashed, removed, never to be seen again, digital dust.

It hurts, but the remaining ones are stronger. I want to always be biased toward making the survivors stronger.

Today’s image

The project I described above is on France. More about the joie de vivre rather than a tourist view. To present more of a mirror than a window, to refer back to a recent post. This picture is one i am struggling with. Would you keep it? So far I have. I think it says a lot about the environment and culture and spirit of the people. I love it for a number of reasons. If it doesn’t make it into the final set, I will be disappointed, but it means the overall group has a higher bar.

Window or Mirror

In a storm? Standing bravely?

It has been observed that photography can be either a window or mirror. The idea has some merit. But like most real world things, it depends.

Szarkowski

The idea originated with John Szarkowski, at the time the head of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was expressed in an exhibit named “Mirrors and Windows, American Photography since 1960” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Mr. Szarkowski was a huge influence on photography for many years. I don’t agree with many of his ideas, but I believe there is something to consider in the ideas behind this exhibit.

The press release for the show states that “In metaphorical terms, the
photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

A window on the world

At the beginning of photography, it was seen as a way to quickly capture real scenes. The “writing with light” aspect was a big thing. A landscape or a portrait could be captured much more quickly than by previous artistic media. What a breakthrough! To make a portrait in a few seconds instead of having to sit for days while a painter works! And it was “real”! Indisputable. Unaltered. Exactly what the person or place looked like.

This notion that a photograph is true to reality carries on strongly today. I see photographers who refuse to alter anything in the frame for fear of being dishonest. And most viewers have a natural belief that what they see in a print is real. Unless an image obviously looks like a fantasy illustration, it must be fact.

A great many photographers follow this tradition. I started there, too. The idea that an image represented exactly what was there at the time. No illusion or tricks or modification. Many great photographers like Ansel Adams and Gary Winogrand could be placed in this group.

This could be described as the “window on the world” view. What I choose to frame in the image is bringing the viewer an exact representation of reality. It is an outward looking viewpoint. The photographer is silently in the background. It is not obvious what he was thinking or feeling. There is little clear message beyond “look at this”. And there is always the implication that you could go there and see the same scene.

A mirror reflecting the artist

Somewhere in the mid twentieth century (around 1960 according to Szarkowski), many photographer’s intent started to shift. This would describe some great artists like Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. It was no longer sufficient to just bring reality. It was important to express my beliefs, to make a statement, to convey my feelings. And it was no longer important that the image depict the scene literally.

Now the goal became to express the scene as I perceive it. That may require extreme processing or compositing or absolutely anything as long as my intent is brought through. The final image may bear little or no resemblance to the original. That is OK, though, because it is an expression, not a capture of reality.

There was one idea in the exhibit notes that resonates strongly with me. The image that a scene projects on the artist who then internalizes it and interprets it to the viewer. This seems to me to capture a large range of what is done in art now.

A natural evolution?

I believe this movement from window to mirror was fairly natural and predictable. By the 1950’s or 1960’s people had become used to seeing images of the world. Major publications like Life and National Geographic flooded us with images of the world, both landscapes and people. Pictures were becoming commonplace.

To take landscapes, for instance, there is only room for a limited number of shots of the major sights of the world. The market was saturated. So artists started to differentiate their work by allowing their own personality to show through. The notion of a personal style became important.

The part of this that seems valid to me is that, while there are millions of photographers out there shooting everything imaginable, only I have my personal point of view and style. Therefore, my images are unique. Even if they are of the same scene many others shoot. That seems to me to be the only chance of artists to carve a niche in the crowded market.

Both?

Even Szarkowski was quick to point out that this was not intended to be a clear division of artists. It is an axis, with strong window view points on one end and strong mirror view points at the other. Most people will fall somewhere in between. And they may move back and forth on the axis with time. Although I think the movement is typically from window toward mirror. At least that was my path.

But even with that said, I do jump around. It depends on the context and what I am feeling at the time. So, for instance, when I go to a new location that excites me, I may start out taking “window” shots. To capture the locale, the scenes I am loving. Many of these are consciously for my own memories.

If I have the opportunity to spend time in the location, I move past the “window” shots and start feeling a personal view that begins to be expressed. This is now drifting toward the “mirror” end of the axis. But in the same day of shooting I will probably do both. In familiar territory where I spend a lot of time, there is a greater tendency to concentrate on mirror views, since the conventional views are well gone over.

The metaphor is useful to help us reflect on how we are seeing subjects at any time.

Neither?

This idea of window vs. mirror views is just Szarkowski’s concept. That doesn’t make it right or some universal truth. I must admit, though, the model has merit. It is a valuable metaphor.

Photography started out as a window on the world. Just the fascination of being to quickly capture as “real” scene in all it’s complexity was one of the things that propelled it into popularity. And I think many new photographers still start out intending to shoot realistic scenes of nature or architecture or people. It is a great way to hone our technique.

And I believe that many who stay serious about the art move toward the mirror end of the axis. It is no longer enough to just present a scene and say “here is what it looked like”. We feel a need to express how we felt about it, or how we perceived it differently than other people.