I recently wrote 2 articles that seem, on the surface, to be contradictory. In When The Flash Goes Off I discussed the cognitive theory that we recognize images we like based on a library stored in our mind. In It’s Complicated I argued that there is a creative side of our mind that discovers and creates new things. Which is right? I believe both are. It is recognition from the image library and creativity, not either or.
I believe that when I am searching for images, the mental library is being scanned all the time. This is a fairly conscious activity. I have asked my mind to let me know when there is something there that I probably want to be aware of. This is the active hunting phase.
Here is an example from a recent shoot. I was near Leadville Colorado. One of my favorite areas in the world. Cruising around the old mining area I came on this scene below. I love old mining cabins, beaver ponds, ice, mountain views, and historic areas. So those are all filed in my image library. This hit on all of these. It was immediately obvious that I would have to stop and work on this scene. No chance of going past it. My head was exploding.
By the way, why does this hunting work much better for photography than for painting? Because a painting is constructed from nothing. The canvas starts blank. The artist must decisively choose and place every element wanted. The camera, instead, constantly receives massive amounts of information. Every place the camera is pointed and every time the shutter clicks, there is a complete, fully formed image. The photographic artist’s job is to sift, reduce, minimize, compose, organize this embarrassment of riches to select what would be a worthwhile image from all this. A completely different mindset from painting. And this is why the mental image library works to locate promising scenes.
Where is creativity?
Contrast the mountain cabin above to the image at the top of this post. This was taken on Loveland Pass in late fall in the early evening after sunset (burrr – very cold). This image was preconceived before I got to the location. The reason I was at Loveland Pass was specifically to look for this. I challenged myself to explore the concept of “dark” and this was one variation that formed in my mind. I had never taken an image quite like this before. This one, as a matter of fact, is a composite of several time exposures.
I hope this is perceived as a valid and fresh take on the concept of “dark”. I hate the phrase “out of the box” and seldom apply it to myself. Maybe because I fought long and hard to never let myself be confined to a box. Too many people toss it off casually. The trouble is, it’s easy to say it, but doing it takes a lot of discipline.
So this was not a result of my mental library. It was a new creative event. I consciously pre-visualized the image rather than recognizing it as I passed by. Actually, it was too dark to have recognized much of anything.
So where did it come from? In this case, I posed a project for myself and that got the other side of my subconscious mind working on solutions. This is one source of creativity. Other creativity drivers are looking for connections, asking “what if”, and seeing examples of other work. The subject of creativity is too big for here. It needs other posts.
Mental image library or “out of the box” creativity? Yes, both.
These are not in opposition. Rather they are just 2 different aspects of our marvelous minds at work. They are complementary. Together they are 2 of many tools we have that allow us to see and create great images.