The Life Creative (1)

In Creativity and Inspiration, The Life Creative by David22 Comments

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.


  1. Your thoughts on this rings very true in my ears! I always learn something from your writing! Even though, I feel the subject is very complex, at least in my worry head. Some people seem to manage the process of distilling the creative mess in their mind and make it understandable, and reckognizeable, to other people. For some of us, I hope I am not the only one, this distilling is maybe the hardest part in a creative process.

    Thanks for a thoughtenhancing post!

  2. Coming off of a year where all (literally every frame) of my photography was based on a what will sell attitude and moving into a year when I can refocus on what made me love photography in the first place I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

  3. Hi David,
    I like what you are saying but the last part of the essay, about creating ourselves is, like, level three to the path to art. One has to be good at steps one and two, first. The metaphor of steps is an arbitrary one; but there is a lot of work, practice, theory,trial and error as well as study to climb the steps.
    There is too much technology in the way to contemplate level three without levels one and two.
    An artist with a camera has to be proficient with his/her chosen tools otherwise the result is limited by luck or the “auto”
    setting on the camera. Had van Gogh not had the skill and techniques to paint, our ‘impression’ of his paintings would be lessened.
    Many of us, myself included, are struggling to become proficient at our craft and hope that somewhere during that struggle we find our own voice.
    Ron O.

    1. Author

      Ron – Agreed, but that’s why I began the short essay the way I did. Craft matters. You need to start there. But I don’t think you have to, or even should, wait to get through the development of craft before you intentionally pursue your innner life and begin wooing the muse. They are, I think, less about stages that logically follow one another and more like areas of our lives that develop parallel to each other.

    2. hmmmm….I’m not certain that I agree totally with this. In Van Gogh’s time, most would have said that he was definitely NOT proficient in his craft…that he was a ‘hack’…but he continued on with his vision…his passion, never selling a painting or getting positive criticism, but now….have his paintings changed, or the world’s view?…doesn’t matter to him…he expressed HIMSELF and that is what draws us to his work. There may be levels on the path to art, but I think they are a circle more than a line or steps. “…too much technology in the way.”? What is in the way, IS the way. Where have I heard that?

      1. Author

        Totally agree. Though I think this too is important: “most would have said…” Art’s not democratic. Voting on it doesn’t make it good, or bad, for that matter. He had craft sufficient to accomplish his vision. He killed himself, so who’s to know where’d he have gone, and in what ways his art would have evolved as his craft changed. Either way, what I am most appreciative of is that you, and others, use this blog to entertain the questions, not just take my words for answers. 🙂 Happy New Year, Randy.

  4. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting December 24, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  5. David,

    As you probably realize by now, I find great inspiration in the quotes of creative folks, past and present. This one always inspires my creative side, especially the last two lines. I “wonder as I wander” as the songs says, an wonder becomes my muse…

    “And whether a man dispassionately
    Sees to the core of life
    Or passionately
    Sees the surface,
    The core and the surface
    Are essentially the same,
    Words make them seem different
    Only to express appearance.
    If name be needed, wonder names them both:
    From wonder into wonder
    Existence opens.”

    ~ Lao Tsu

  6. you give voice to what many of us feel- may this next year bring you even more fuits of your labours- I always enjoy seeing what you come up with next!

  7. As one who is constantly in search of connecting with herself through the creative process, this post resounds with me. In a busy and sometimes overwhelming life, it can be like glimpsing myself in a mirror as I rush by. Not enough. Never enough, but always there…at the corner of my eye. Sometimes that’s all I get, and other times I’m allowed to gaze a bit longer. It’s those times that allow my art to shine.

    Great post, David. Thank you for always, always, making me look a little harder.

  8. {raises hand} I am definitely in the ‘want more’ camp – technical brilliance is only one piece of a larger creative story.

    A firm believer in ‘learn all the rules, then break them’, I have been playing around with the big stopper these past couple of days. Whilst a lot of the photographs I have made have been technically good, they are missing something of me. That’s the bit I want to work on, now I have played with the filter.

    And, I wholeheartedly agree that the ongoing creation of ourselves is important. This is certainly true for me.

  9. I always enjoy reading these posts where you speak about your art and looking for your vision. I suspect though that when you answer that you don’t know where your ideas come from, you are being a little obtuse. I think that as artists, our ideas germinate from our own artistic experiences. I recently re-read the book Art & Fear. I read a profound statement about the nature of Art. “In making a piece of art, both the artist and the artist’s world are changed, and re-asking the question – will always yield a different answer. This creates a certain paradox, for while good art carries a ring of truth to it- a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear- the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person, and one time.” I think that what they mean is whenever we make art we are constantly re-interpreting the way we see the world. As artists this is where our ideas come from. Our past successes, failures, and discoveries are what form the way that we see the world in front of us. Curiosity and incite from experience is what leads us to how we interpret what we decide to photograph and the story we choose to tell. Thanks for what you are doing, and Happy Birthday, David. Sorry for the long comment, but you struck a chord.

  10. This was a perfect post to read, heading into a new year, pondering the road(s) to travel in the coming year. It is messy… the whole entire process. But somehow, that’s the beauty of it and when I click the shutter – that’s the moment of calm. It’s so hard to explain but you were much more eloquent about it than I am!

  11. Happy birthday David.

    Your post is where I’m at right now… making the leap from technical to infusing my photography with what runs through my imagination. My photographs have transformed, as have I in the last couple of years! Thank goodness for the camera as means of expressing it.

    So thanks for this post. It put the process into words for me.

  12. I have tried to find what I love about photography countless times, yet I always return to the same answer, the moment. You did an excellent job of capturing the experience to a “T” in my opinion.

    I know nothing about photography, yet the entire world makes sense that moment presses the button? Do I make good art? Do people like my perspective on the world? I really don’t care. What I do care about is sinking into the moment where nothing else exists.

    Thanks for giving others and me encouragement to connect with the mood and let go.

  13. Great post. Made me reflect on why I choose to photograph the world around me.

    Here’s to exploring within in 2013, listening honestly to our hearts, learning to personally express what moves us in fresh, creative ways, sharing and hopefully touching others in ways that heal, inspire, and positively motivate others.

    Happy holidays, David. Thanks for being that person for e in 2012! Look forward to another year of cyber friendship,

  14. I love the messy aspect of it! Embracing it, letting change be your moving strength is an amazing motivator and accepting that my craft and vision are ever evolving makes me a happy artist.

    Well me and my wallet. I’ve finally got “gear is good, vision is better” to actually sink in and that itself has been a refreshing thing. A new start, in a way.

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