Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The creative process in photography.

There is generally a confusion in our minds between technique and creative process. Although the two are linked they are not one and the same thing.

It's particularly important to address this issue in photography, where all too often this confusion reigns supreme. One only has to look at the great majority of uninspiring (and often remarkably similar) alt-process genre images to realise that technique in itself adds little to the realisation of creativity. Similarly in my own genre of landscape photography the predominance of the F64 Group attitude still reigns supreme, as if getting everything in focus says something in itself. It does not. It says you have mastered a technique, but that is a long way from mastering the creative process.

It may be legitimate for the individual to pursue the mastery of technique so that it doesn't detract from the expression of his or her ideas, but it is equally legitimate to utilise technique in a more questioning frame of mind, where it becomes linked with the creative process itself.

Although the act of photographing something is itself transformative, in Gary Winogrand's words “To see what something looks like as a photograph” I find this a limiting perspective and a narrowing of the possibilities of the photographic medium. There are vastly greater possibilities for creative expression than that. It's little wonder the misunderstanding that everything has been photographed is repeated so often.

Are we really so limited in our expressive possibilities, as thinking, feeling, analytical human beings, to simply limit ourselves to photographing something to see what it looks like photographed? Or can we take ideas and run with them, pursue them through our complex, individual minds and find new ways of saying things or new things to be said? If we can’t then photography as an art form is dead, but I see plenty of evidence to the contrary on a regular basis.

Equally there are misunderstandings around conceptual art and conceptual photography. More often than not I hear people talking about conceptual modes of artistic expression in dismissive terms. There is ’good’ and ’bad’ conceptual art as much as there is ’good’ and ’bad’ art in any other form of expression. The truth being that ’concept’ is only one stage of the creative process. Starting and finishing with an idea is never a good thing, it's too simplistic for the viewer to engage with, or maybe too simplistic a perception on behalf of the viewer if they fail to see below the surface of an idea. To get beyond that stage we need to consider what the creative process is, how it enables us to reach deeper, to intuit more and realise better.

In simple terms the creative process is the application of a concept to the chosen medium. But this is just the beginning of the possibilities of creative process.

Creative process if expressed in purely analytical terms  (that feel somewhat alienating to the artist) can be reduced to perception, conception and expression. Perception - being the information gathering stage; conception - the idea or what is to be said; and expression - how it is to be said.

The creative process is also cyclical as an expression is made, new ideas are formed, new information gathered and it feeds back into the process once more. Ideas, expressions, solutions and the reassessment of information becomes resolved once more. They maybe dismissed, pursued or forgotten, but it's all happening!

In this way it's possible for the artist to follow previously unseen routes that come from a much longer, deeper internalisation of the concept. This is probably why to the outsider work can look difficult or opaque, or, in more positive terms, mysterious. For the artist it is a journey that does as much to open their “doors of perception” as it does for the viewer.

It may not feel like this is what we’re doing, assuming we are in fact doing any of it. But this is essentially what the creative process is about. To take the, very personal, example of my Mametz Wood series, the realization of the initial idea came about over a period of years and from a wide variety of sources. The more immediate starting point came from a very simple and unfocused (metaphorically and photographically!) exploration of some interesting old sessile oak woodland. I had some very vague ideas to do with a sort of abstract expressionist landscape photography that honestly got junked fairly quickly. I made some very unsatisfying images during the few days I could spare there, but they set me thinking. It wasn't until days or perhaps weeks later that I started to form connections with the images I'd made for a previous series I'd worked on, Skirrid Hill, taking inspiration from the poems of Owen Sheers and in particular Sheers’ poem called Mametz Wood.

They were personally satisfying images - more evocation and allusion than description and the process of going out and finding metaphors for the poems on Skirrid Hill itself was even more satisfying. In truth I'd been searching for several years for a way to return to that process, I just hadn't found the right subject. Being a messy human being I initially skipped the research stage and concentrated on the technique for expression. Did I mention that the stages of perception, conception and expression don't necessarily happen in that order?

I'd recently completed a series, Songs of Travel, using multiple exposures to explore our movement through the landscape, so it wasn't a great leap to consider a more simplified double exposure. Still it took me a while to realize that what I wanted to introduce through double exposure wasn't simply ambiguity, but that each layer had to have a meaning in itself as well as working with the other layer. I suppose it's taking the idea of layers of meaning a bit literally! But it did open my “doors of perception” it is one case where technique took me to places that I would otherwise have had difficulty imagining. But the techniques alone would have been meaningless without the ideas to back them up and the creatively virtuous circle of their pursuit.

So I'd worked out the perception and conception stages before doing a great deal of research. I wouldn't advocate this approach, but it was a busy time for me, so things happened rather haphazardly. When I finally did some research on the battle of Mametz Wood I came across David Jones’s poem In Parenthesis and began to find titles for my images that were in part explanatory and in part gave them context and I hope greater depth and resonance for the viewer. That had a virtuous effect on the progression of the images, the insights I sought and my own understanding of the ideas I want to express.

None of this happened quickly, in fact, if I exclude that earlier work on Skirrid Hill, it still took me about three to four months. Time to allow the stages of the creative process to intermingle, suffuse or gestate is vitally important.

It is for these reasons that I advocate working on at least some form of series or project. We need to focus on that ’thing’ we want to say, allow it to gestate within us, the pursuit of it enables us to better understand it and the expression of it feeds back yet more ideas and understandings. In reality that probably feels extremely vague, it takes a great deal of time to come to fruition - at least for me it does. And if we’re working in new territory to our previous work then grasping that ’truth’ is never a simple process.

An, as yet, untitled image from Mametz Wood. 

Rob Hudson 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Walter Kleinfeldt: A Powerful Admonition Against War.

Contrary to popular opinion I don't devour everything about the First World War that I can lay my hands on. Mametz Wood is an act of imagination, a reflection on how a battle can transform our perceptions of place and I have source material aplenty for that in David Jones' long modernist poem In Parenthesis. It’s more about a collective memory than specific events, or reminiscences. I'm about to read its 225 pages for the sixth time in order to research more titles for my next batch of photographs. Reading David Jones’ words and making the images are a challengingly emotional experience, so it's a relief to escape elsewhere when I can.

So when Al Brydon suggested I'd be interested in the BBC4 documentary Hidden Histories: The Lost Photographs of World War One, I was actually a bit tentative. With a few exceptions the images were exactly as expected: groups of friends, officers or privates and big bushy moustaches followed by the descent to vacant 1000 yard stares as the war took it's toll. There was one serious exception in the photographs of a 16-year-old German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt who actually photographed bodies. Here he is, in the early days of the war apparently cheerfully carrying a box of munitions through the trenches.

Photography was banned by the British army in 1915 for fear of contradicting government propaganda when soldier’s photographs were published in newspapers or sent to relatives. So with a few exceptions the later, nastier years of the war aren't covered well by photography from the British and their allies. There was no such prohibition by the German forces and perhaps that in part explains the potency of Walter Kleinfeldt’s photographs. Yet he had an extraordinary grasp of photographic narrative and in the image below a potent metaphor for the futility of war. The bodies he photographed strewn across the battlefield weren't distinguishable by nationality or rank; there were no insignia visible. They could be anyone, they could be us. They were us. They are, as his (now elderly) son Volkmar said, “...a powerful admonition against war.”.

Walter Kleinfeldt went on to run a camera shop in Tubingen until his death in 1945. He never showed these photographs to his family; his son discovered them only three years ago. We can only speculate that he had no desire to revisit those experiences; and that, perhaps, the photographs acted as a form of catharsis; a finality, a sealing, a cleansing? One can only hope they did. He apparently continued to love photography and what better purpose can photography serve other than as a salve for the soul. Especially a soul that witnessed the horrors of the Somme at an age when most of us were still in school. I think I can understand that, my pictures, in part, play that role for me too.