Category Archives: Art and Creativity

The Horses of Chauvet

Horses of Chauvet

This is one of the masterpieces of the cave paintings in the cave of Chauvet in France. The paintings were drawn 32000 ago and are the oldest cave paintings known. Humans visited this site for thousands of years but nobody ever lived in this cave. So most likely it was used for religious or ritual purposes.

The picture above gives only hints how dramatic and amazingly beautiful this painting is.  The movie „The Cave of Lost Dreams“ by Werner Herzog shows it better.

The Painters used the the three dimensional structure of the cave wall and fitted the paintings of the animals in and placed it chamber where no daylight could reach it. It was meant to be watched in torchlight! In the flickering torchlight it would have looked as if the animals are moving.

It must have felt amazing standing there and watch the animals moving over the wall in the torchlight 32000 yeas ago.

In the opinion of Jean Clottes, one of the leadinG Expertin paleolithic art, this was used for shamanic rituals, to connect with the spirit of the animals. And I can clearly see the emotional impact this must have had.

Such a powerful emotional impact is what art is about or at least what we should strive to achieve.

Can photographers achieve this? And can we produce such powerful art for modern humans?

Art does not make Happy

Long time ago I read an interview with the editor of a photo magazine. (I forgot who, which and where: sorry.) He was asked about the common trait of the greatest Photographers. His answer was obsession, a single minded determination to get a specific result. He said that this is in fact common for all arts and that great artist are usually not very happy people. But they can get a deep satisfaction from achieving results.

I forgot about this article. But I noticed that after photo hunting sessions I usually feel mentally, emotionally completely drained and exhausted. So I asked other people with interest and talent in some art about this and whether they feel producing arts relaxes them or makes them happy. The most common answer can be summarised as „Not at all, rather the contrary and I absolutely do not seek relaxation and happiness when I try to make art!“ Only very few felt relaxed or happy.

Now compare this with the common suggestion to make art to solve psychological problems or be more happy. Just try to google „Art+ Happiness“ and you will find millions of articles telling you that making art will make us happy. I do not doubt that painting or shooting photos can help many people. But if art is the goal, then art seems to be a sure way to unhappiness.

A while ago I recommended this article about the shadow muse. The article starts with this quote about Hemingway:

“One cannot but feel sympathy and even admiration for Hemingway in his lifelong struggle against crippling emotional shocks and scars, and be sustained and uplifted by the fact that out of that struggle, he created some of the most beautifully and powerfully written stories and novels of our time.” —Literature Online

Keith Johnstone has similar things to say about using the dark material of our mind when we want to be creative.

Yes, our vulnerability and our dark side give meaning and depth to art. Happiness and joy alone are shallow.

For myself I noticed that when I feel well and confident I must use this mental strength and give 100% of it to dig in my soul until I am completely exhausted to get good pictures.

When I hit a Low and feel horrible and have to face the demons in my mind,  pictures come flying automatically. This is only true for feeling psychologically bad but not physically. If I am physically exhausted or sick I can not take good pictures. Not at all.

Now let’s go back to the question of art and mental health. How important is happiness after all? Many people strive to maximise happiness and see it it as one of the most important things in life. And I completely disagree. Happiness is just ONE  emotion which is good in the right moment when there is a specific reason to be happy. The so called „ negative“ emotions anger, fear, shame etc are as important and very often more adequate than happiness if we want to live a whole and rich life. I would like to refer to an author who saved my life. Karla McLaren has a wonderful blog and great books about emotions.

And art can help us to learn to get comfortable with our dreaded „negative“ emotions and the darker and weaker parts of our mind and with this contribute to mental health.

Creativity, Jazz and the Brain

 

In the foreground trumpet of a jazz player, in the background the saxophone player

Live Jazz

Jazz Improv and you Brain

thats a quite interesting article on CNN. A neurobiologist and Jazz Musician studied the brains of  musicians in an MRI while these were playing memorised tunes and while they were improvising.

During improvisation the part of the brain which is responsible for self criticism and self censorship is dormant. I found it nice to see these results confirmed with an MRI. He comes to similar conclusions as Keith Johnstone and other theatre improvisers

He also mentions that creativity needs a high level of expertise and mastery. This can only be achieved through a lot of practice. I think this is indeed really important. Only if we are really very good with the technical side of our craft, we can really let go and stop thinking about how to do things and instead express ourselves uninhibited.

Musicians spend many hours just practicing, playing scales and etudes. A camera is much more easy to use than any musical instrument. But still I think the value of practicing in photography is highly underappreciated. We should also spend hours practicing specific techniques even if it is boring and does not lead immediately to pictures. We should take the time and go out to just practice for example focusing, high and Low key exposure, shooting a specific focal length or BW or ….

 

Generally I do not like MRI studies of psychological processes and think that the results are often misleading or meaningless in the absence of a good model how our subconscious mind reasons. But still this is really an interesting article about a phascinating research project. Thoroughly enjoyed to read.

Some Thoughts about Minimalism

Reduce to the essentials is very common and good advise for photographers and I admit that I occasionally had to crop overly ambitious pictures in which I included too much.

Now if we browse around Flickr or any other photo sharing platforms we usually stumble across a perfect minimalist picture of an orange on a table, a nail in the wall or… They immediately grab our attention. They are clear and brilliant, we get them immediately. But do I want to back to this picture and look at it again? If I follow this photographer and he publishes every day several nails or fruits or other minimalist pictures do I want to see it more often? Rather not. What for? Why? There is nothing happening in such pictures, no story.

I am also interested in Interior Design. Minimalist designs are sure attention grabbers. But they are mostly too sterile for living in them. Such designs tell nothing of me, I am a foreign body in a usual minimalist room. I am not at home.

Altogether I find that most minimalist pieces of art or design wear off very rapidly and get boring. Reducing should not be overdone in art. We should strive be very specific and we should reduce if it enhances a story but reducing by itself has no artistic value.

To close this post I would like to showcase my two most minimalist pictures.

Table with left dishes and chopsticks in the afternoon sun

Table at a Hawker Center

A black and white photo of a sprinkler. Blurred background

Sprinkler

Keith Johnstone on Improvisation

www.keithjohnstone.com

Keith Johnstone  is the most reputational teacher of improvisation and his books contain the most comprehensive and deep discussion of creativity which I know. They are a bit more difficult to understand than the book I recommended recently . It could be helpful to read the book of Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White first and then Keith Johnstone
In the end I think that Keith Johnstone’s books and videos, particularly „Improv. Improvisation and the Theatre” should be read multiple times by each and anyone involved in arts.

Keith Johnstone - Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone – Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone writes about his experience with children and adults and comes to the conclusion that creativity is natural for humans and children are all creative. But the socialisation process, particularly the educational system obstructs creativity brutally. He explains this very convincingly in his books. From this he developed his models on how to free our natural creativity again.
The willingness and boldness to fail big and trusting our natural, intuitive creativity and stopping to try to control what is happening are key steps in his method.

We usually self censor our thoughts because we are worried that they appear psychotic or obscene or unoriginal. At the core of spontaneity and creativity is developing the strength and ability to express our apparently crazy or obscene ideas freely. Without some psychotic and obscene ideas none of Shakespeare’s plays could have been written. Similarly in visual arts.
The fear of appearing unoriginal and the conscious striving for originality are similar blocks for creativity. Rejecting the first idea which comes to mind and trying to find something more original makes us less original. The things that come to mind uncontrolled and uncensored are truly authentic and as me and you are different they are different and with this original. But if we reject them and instead try to construct something better we usually all arrive at the same ideas. Keith Johnstone mentions that avantgarde theatre is remarkably similar whether it is in Paris, New York or Tokyo. They all end with the same ideas and get thoroughly predictable.

This is a small selection of ideas from Keith Johnston about spontaneity and creativity. I completely subscribe to this line of thinking which places the source of creativity in our subconscious mind. Creativity is not an active process and can not be forced or controlled. The trick is to learn to listen to what our subconscious mind wants to say. I think it is obvious how this relates to life in general to developing a more creative attitude and how this thinking will help creativity in photography.

Of course this does not mean we can never plan and must only shoot spontaneously. No, photography is not improvised theatre. I do planned shots all the time. I often go back to a certain place and see whether I can get a better picture than last time. The idea behind the picture is however always born from the mentioned natural, instinctive creativity.

 

I want to address another important concept from Keith Johnstone‘s teaching and this is storytelling.
When does a sequence of events qualify as a story? Something must be happening in this sequence. Now, very often think of something happening just as action, stunts, gags… There are countless movies which offer nothing besides this and they get boring very rapidly. All these are just substitutes. What happens in a good story is emotional change, someone gets changed. And this can be rather subtle.

This is something which is directly helpful to a photographer when shooting: what is happening in this picture? What happened before, what will happen next? Who got emotionally changed and how?
Visual art is not theatre and there can not be a lengthy sequence of events in a picture. The best we can achieve are hints to what happened before and what will happen next. But we should be aware of this and it should be part of our decision how to frame and when exactly we click the shutter. The question remains whether a each and any picture needs to express a story and most likely static scenes can work as art. But the vast majority of static scenes such as land- or cityscapes do not hold my attention very long.

Another way to look at storytelling is to think of breaking a routine. It does not matter how interesting the routine is, it will not be a story until the routine is broken. A brain surgeon doing a procedure might be interesting but it is still a routine until something happens. In photography a pretty sunset is just another pretty sunset unless there is something else in the picture. Not every picture must have something unusual or unexpected but it is a very helpful thought to make more interesting pictures.

Is it Art or Entertainment

What is Art? I am not sure whether there is any definitive answer to that question. But I feel quite certain that any artist must try to answer. Shirking on this question is not an option.
Here are some more thoughts about what qualifies as art. I find it easier to use examples from music than from photography.

If I go to a shopping mall or cafe there will certainly be some background music to soothe me. It requires absolutely no effort from my side to follow. Neither do the radio shows we hear when driving a car.
I love Jazz. But it is really impossible to do anything else when I listen to John Coltrane or John McLaughlin. It requires full attention and efforts from me to listen. Art is interactive whereas entertainment is a one way road and is quite a bit manipulative.

It is worth staying with the distinction of interaction versus manipulation a bit longer. Art is about expressing an opinion clearly and forcing the consumer to make a judgement about this opinion. Art is about involving the consumer. Entertainment does not want to force a judgement, entertainment wants to please a maximum number of people and wants to distract the consumer, stop him from reflecting.

In photography it is very similar. The pretty sunset photo in your hotel room is meant to calm you down but not hold your interest. Compare this to Saul Leiters semiabstract impressions. They invite us to come back again and again.

Looking out through a rainy metro train window on people at the station

Metro Station in the Rain

I acknowledge that these criteria are not absolute and there are plenty great pop songs which were primarily meant as entertainment but which are so emotionally rich that they have huge artistic value. For me the Beatles‘ „Magical Mystery Tour“, Heroes del Silencio, Jacques Brel… come to mind

 

The Improv Handbook By Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White

What is creativity and how can I be more creative in art and life?
People who can do improvised comedy are definitely creative and it is particularly marvellous that many of them developed frameworks to teach others this art and their creativity. Quite a few books have been written about Improv. I read years ago this book and found it invaluable resource for building a meaningful and creative life. We just need to substitute the words “game”, “theatre” etc with the word “life”

Cover of the Improv Handbook

Cover of the Improv Handbook By Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White

I highly recommend to read the whole book as a wonderful guideline to develop personal creativity for everyone and I do not think I can say it any better but want to provide a summary

The first step is to abandon control and perfectionism and stop trying hard to be good. Creativity is passive, our creativity is there and will find us but we can not control or force our creativity. The harder I try to be creative, witty, artistic… the less it will happen, I would just jam my creative flow. Instead curiosity is a good starting point. Curiosity knows no agenda and is open. I must be open and willing to explore anything that I find in my mind, in your mind and in my life and in my surroundings, no matter how small, unoriginal or trivial this appears. The less I try to find, the better. A good cue if we are looking for ideas is to assume that they are already there in my surroundings right here and now and in what I experience every moment. Usually exactly this is correct and my efforts to find them just obscured it. A good improviser always assumes that he or she or the partners already gave a starting point for a great story and just tries to develop the material.
Another factor is boldness. This means the willingness to be passionate about things, the willingness to take a position and the willingness to risk failure. We all learn in our adolescence that it is prudent to qualify everything and be outright pessimistic. If I tell my friends that the movie I just saw “was oK, but…” I am safe whether they liked it or not. If I take a position, I risk disagreement and it takes energy to solve disagreements.
But qualifying and pessimism are deadly for ideas. “Well…Hmmm…MAYBE it would be worth to submit a few photos for this exhibition , BUT I am not very talented and I am not sure if I am qualified for such an important exhibition. If you really think, I could perhaps TRY.” With this statement I predict failure and avoid getting hurt or embarrassed if I should fail in the end but I set myself up for failure. With such an attitude it is almost guaranteed that the result is just meaningless and boring.
“Wow, i love your idea. Of course I submit my pictures. I really want to be featured!” This is a strong statement and sounds much more like success. Of course a clear “No” is absolutely ok if this idea is not for me. The problem with the first statement is not caution, caution is good. The problem is the qualification “Yes, but…” In this statement I announce failure, because if I announce failure I could justify, if I really fail in the end and avoid shame. But this attitude almost guarantees failure. If I would be really worried, I should just address my worries, decide and then give a clear heartfelt “yes” or “no”. If we then go ahead with a big grin on the face and the determination to succeed in our heart, this will be just awesome.
Boldness is not recklessness, fearlessness or shamelessness. Boldness is the ability, the strength to proceed and take a position while using fear and shame to identify and control risks.
Curiosity and boldness are crucial for finding own concepts of a good and meaningful life but still do not give a direction. If I can not try to be good and must let things just happen instead of forcing and achieving, I have no direction and I am just lost.
The direction is achieved by a collaborative attitude. The direction is the other, the direction is you. Instead of trying to be good and witty and shine a good improviser tries to be good to work with and helps the partner to be good. If I am good to work with and you are good to work with, we have a great collaboration and most likely the result will be good.
Some boldness and optimism is required once more to trust in others, let their ideas invade our minds and with this to collaborate effectively.

I think this is generally a good instruction on how to live creative and helps to find us our place and what we want to do. With such mindset i can easily find out whether I want to paint or act or take photos. And I can find out what I actually want to photograph. This is the biggest difficulty for many photographers. Many photographers tell you they shoot everything. People who talk about everything waffle and people who photograph everything also waffle.

We can apply this more specifically to taking pictures. We need to move away from doing and from trying hard to make good pictures. Instead we need to perceive and let our environment guide us. What do I see? Why is this remarkable? What do I feel when seeing? And what is remarkable about what
I feel? How can I express that?
We need to let the picture find us.

I will soon write more about Keith Johnston, the most influential teacher of Improvised theatre.  He is deeper but more difficult to approach.

Vision and Fear

Of all emotions fear is much more directly connected to our senses vision, hearing, tactility and smelling than any other emotion. What we see can makes us angry, happy, ashamed etc but this is mainly learned, very differentiated and usually includes judgement and decisions whereas the fear response is immediate and often a reflex. And fear changes very much how we see. Happiness, anger, shame… do not.
Before I continue I want to clarify that fear is not a “bad” or harmful emotion but a very necessary part of being alive. It is what keeps us alive. Karla McLaren has an excellent article about fear (and about other emotions).

Fear and Contents of Vision

With the possible exception of a nuclear bomb the most dangerous thing we might encounter is a rabid dog or wolf. Chances to survive are very close to zero. Even a minor scratch leads to rabies and rabies is always fatal, even today.
Each and any human reacts with massive fear when we see an agitated dog or wolf with foam around the mouth as this is likely rabies. We even react to photos or paintings. This reaction is instinctive and inevitable, it is a genetic program to give us a survival chance in a very dangerous situation.
It is quite a complex reflex which includes identification of contents. Probably there are a few similar reactions in us but they are certainly less pronounced and I am not aware of them.

Peripheral Vision

Here is an experiment. Let’s go to a crowded pedestrian zone or mall and walk down. We focus with our eyes on a distant point or on a person walking in front of us at the same pace. Without loosing the focus and without moving the eyes we are mindful of the people walking in the opposite direction. We will notice that they all seem to accelerate the closer they come to the edge of our field of vision. In fact our vision exaggerates the motion the closer it is to the edge of our field of vision. It feels a bit unsettling, a bit scary to perceive this. And usually we feel an urge to look there.
The biological background is that we normally only see with a small area in the centre of the eye,the macula. The biggest part of the retina, the background of the eye, consist only of motion and contrast sensors.
We could greatly increase the emotional impact of this experiment by putting up headphones with loud music and just standing. We would still focus our eyes straight ahead and be mindful of the edges of our field of vision. If people now enter from behind and the side this would feel really scary (NOT RECOMMENDED!).
The background: hearing is our first perimeter scan and peripheral vision our second. They are part of base level fear scanning for danger all the times. In the millennia before headphones a sudden movement entering our field of vision with no audible advance warning meant ambush. Something or someone was hiding and is now attacking.
This is instinctive, a genetic program in our mind. Peripheral vision and seeing motion is part of fear. And so is hearing.
People override this all the time when they go for a jog or walk with headphones on. I doubt that this is a good idea. But the psychology of headphones exceeds this blog.

City Center in the Rain

City Center in the Rain

How Fear affects our Vision

In the foreground trumpet of a jazz player, in the background the saxophone player

Live Jazz

People who were in a really dangerous situation will all tell us how this affected the vision. I remember an online article by a police officer. He described in detail encounters with violent criminals. If the fear increased the field of vision narrowed down and on the other hand the resolution of details magnified massively. Sometimes even to a greatly magnified vision of just the gun wielding hand in slow motion.
This can be explained biologically. Seeing is not a passive recording of visual information, seeing is an active scanning process. Normally our eyes constantly scan everything in front of us, roughly the field of a 28mm lense. Fear concentrates our eyes on the most important part and instead of screening at random fear focuses our eyes on whatever seems most important. The field of vision diminishes but the resolution is greatly magnified if the eyes have to cover a much smaller field. So the resulting picture is greatly magnified and the concentration can even lead to slow motion perception.

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light

Dining

Vision, Fear and Art

There is one very good example how the interaction of fear and seeing was used in art. Sergio Leone and his cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli made extensive use of effects which are directly related our connection between fear and vision. In their movies „The Good , the Bad and the Ugly“, „Once upon a Time in the West“…they often use the extreme cuts from a very wide scene to an extreme close up, for example an eye or a hand or a gun. This reflects the emotional change from a danger signal in the peripheral vision to very concrete fear for life and the accompanying detail vision. This makes these scenes so compelling and memorable.

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

The Shadow Muse: Our Dark Side and Art

Recently I found this wonderful article by creativity coach Jill Badonsky:

The Shadow Muse

Well written and very inspirational. I love how playful she approaches such  a heavy topic.

 

C.G. Jung  introduced the concept of the Shadow, all the material of us which we repress because they do not fit into our picture of who we think we should be. This is our dark side and our weaknesses.

But we are not authentic without them and can not create authentic stories and art without expressing our shadow material. All these silly, obscene, psychotic, violent ideas which pop out from some dark corners of our unconscious mind are  important building blocks for art and add depth.

Keith Johnston has written more about this and that self censoring of such thoughts is a major roadblock for our creativity in his book „Improvisation for the Theatre“. But this exceeds this short post.

 

What is this picture about?

The first and maybe the most important question when taking or watching photo is: What is this picture about? And it is not just the subject! There are three elements always present and must be considered.

Let me show you a bad example first. I took this picture in 2001 in Angkor, Cambodia. The subject are these beautiful overgrown temple ruins. But what is the story this picture tells? The story is: “look everyone and admire me, I have been in Angkor!”

 

 

Here is better picture from me taken in a night club. The subject is the DJ who was illuminated by a very powerful spotlight. I exposed for the background and the DJ is overexposed and appears rather like a ghost of light and energy. This picture is not so much about the subject, not so much about her. It is about me, it expresses the energy and exhilaration I felt that evening.

 

 

Now let’s return to the subject with another photo from the same DJ on the same evening agsinst exactly the same background.

Can you see the emotions on her face, the pride, the professionalism of a performing artist and the tension when she faces the crowd? This picture is really about her. But what about me the photographer in this picture? I am still very present, I took myself and the background actively out by exposing on her to direct you, the viewer towards her.

 

 

 

And this leads me to the third part of what a picture is about. Please look at this picture.
What is the subject actually? The pavement? The light ? The darkness? Or something happening in the dark parts or directly after? There is no clear answer to this, the answer is subjective and your choice. The picture gives you a lot of space to fill, it is largely about you, the viewer and your phantasies and choices. Please note that you could also just reject the picture and dislike and just not care about the subject. Even then it is your choice, the picture would be still about you, the viewer.

 

 

Even in the previous pictures the viewer is present and chooses. Please look again at the picture of the DJ facing the crowd. You might have noticed that the spotlight is not focused on her face but on the boobs and the face is a bit dark. This is certainly not by chance but the intention of the light technician of this show and I conserved this and exposed the face a touch dark. It is your decision whether the emotions in the face are the leading element for you or the boobs as directed by the light of this professionally scripted show.

None of the pictures in this article is for sale.