Craft can only take any of us so far. Learn all there is to know about photography and the resulting photographs themselves may get Liked on Facebook but they’re unlikely to be art. Art, to be art, has to have something of the artist within. Art uses craft to say something, to point at something, and as often as not it says something about, and points back to, the artist. What we choose to photograph, and how, says as much about ourselves as it does about the things about which we make photographs.
Craft matters. The better our technique, and the more technical possibilities open to us, the more likely we are to take the expression of our intent into new places. But craft is no more than a foundation if you hope to create art. The real deal, as they say, lies not in our tools, but in the myriad and mysterious little pieces that together form our creativity.
I’ve been doing a number of interviews lately, in support of the latest book, The Print and The Process. One of the questions that often comes up has to do with where we – artists, photographers – get ideas. It’s an interesting idea because it has very little to do with 99% of what gets taught in popular photography education. Sure, we’ve got an all-you-can-eat buffet of technical knowledge laid out before us, but the artists are starving for want of food, because the ideas and reasons for the kinds of photographs we make, the different compositions, moments, themes, colour palettes, and post-processing decisions, come from another place entirely.
So what do I answer when I’m asked about where my ideas and creativity come from? I answer honestly that I’ve no idea, but, wherever they come from, they always come down the same road. They come from my process: a messy place filled with more questions than answers, and more failures than success. They come, not because I know about f/stops and shutter speeds, but because I know that my process (call it inspiration, or the muse) is the most valuable asset, perhaps the only asset, I have as a creative person. Camera in hand, having learned the basics of my craft, the only thing left is to know, trust, and to whatever extent possible, understand my process.
Breaking down that process, there are things I value and nurture – fiercely – in my own creative life. To put it another way – you have to feed the muse. For me, that means aggressively protecting my creative time. It means reading several books at once, most of them unrelated to photography. It means following my curiosity. It means being open to, and pursuing, new experiences for my senses: studying art, doing things that scare me, listening to new music, exploring new food, and drinking a really great bottle of wine once in a while. It means being mindful to what my eyes take in, and living in the moment.
Without being too clever about it, I believe one act of creation is our first and most important: the ongoing creation of ourselves. We collaborate with all kinds of external forces outside our control, but our most urgent daily task is to make ourselves into the person we long to be. To do otherwise is to live passively, allowing life to shape and mold us: the victims of time, and circumstance, and the will of others. First we create the artist, then the art comes. It’s why angry art comes from angry people. Beautiful art from beautiful artists. It’s why people who focus entirely on technical perfection create perfect images that are very large, very sharp (corner to corner, and without a hint of chromatic aberration, thank you very much) but move us to nothing more than mere appreciation of their technical knowledge. Fine for some, but most of us want more.