What is creativity? How elusive is it and can we learn creativity? This article tries to describe the creative process and what it really is based on an influential essay of military strategist John R. Boyd and then tries to apply it to the artistic process.
Joel Tjintjelaar – Amsterdam Canals (2017)
Simply put, his essay describes that as individuals we always aim to improve our capacity for independent action as a way to survive on our own terms. If we cooperate or compete with others we’re essentially striving to satisfy that basic need to overcome obstacles we can’t overcome on our own. When cooperating, we do that to pool skills and talents for an improved capacity for independent action, but less on our own terms – a trade-off. When we compete, an improved capacity for independent action will constrain that same capacity for other groups or individuals in a world where skills and resources are scarce. From this follows that decisions and actions must continuously be made to achieve the goal. Decisions will be made based on mental concepts of an observed reality. If reality changes, that mental concept needs to change too. All for the sake of improved capacity for independent action.
The way we create mental concepts is either from specific-to-general or from general-to-specific. In other words, in the case of from general-to-specific: we break down a whole and deduct, analyze and differentiate: it’s destruction. In the other case, we induct, integrate and synthesize: this is creation. When we deconstruct and then construct we change our perception of reality.
(…) what needs to happen continuously is destructive deconstruction into its smallest components and then rebuild, synthesize and integrate those components into a new concept or model by looking for the common qualities within those components (…)
“To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment.”
In other words: we impede progress if we stick to our concepts, our beliefs, our mental patterns, no matter how good and successful these concepts were. We must not only continuously shape new models by breaking down the old ones, but also let ourselves be shaped by our environment that we helped change.
Artists throughout the centuries have always understood this principle intuitively, but instead of analyzing it and writing it down, they dedicated their brilliant artworks to their muses, sometimes to their own brilliance. It took a military strategist to describe what creativity really is.
Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-portrait (1659) – Dutch Golden Age
Claude Monet – Impression soleil levant(1872) – Impressionism
Pablo Picasso – Family of Saltimbanques (1905) – Rose Period
Pablo Picasso – Three Women (1908) – African Period
Pablo Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) Proto-Cubism – the figures on the right are influences of African Art
Or a more concrete example, Picasso is widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the past century. He became the artist with his stature because he continuously reinvented his artistic concepts. First starting with the representational works of his early period, followed by the blue and rose periods, to then suddenly distort the shapes in his African period, inspired by African masks. This eventually lead to his famous Cubist period. The artistic concepts, the model, behind the works of his blue and rose periods are fundamentally different from the works of his African and Cubist periods. The African and Cubist periods works could never be the result of a refinement of the preceding periods. It could only be the result of a destruction of his earlier concepts in favor of something new. He used lines, color, and shape in completely different ways in his African and Cubist periods, triggered by the central question: Why make paintings if photography can capture reality so much better and more accurately? Picasso’s answer was Cubism because he left all traditional views on what art should be and what painting should be.
And now we have to ask ourselves a similar question. Why make artistic photographs if its goal is recording reality? Or, why make fine art landscapes or architecture the way we make them now? Or still life or portraiture? Why even use objects at all? Some of those questions have been answered by artists like Stieglitz and Steichen who established a movement called pictorialism. There were some brilliant photographers and photographs ever after like Ansel Adamswho broke down photography in its smallest components, and built it up again with new techniques and a visual expression that did justice to photography as a medium and as an art form. Irving Penn gave a new interpretation to portrait photography and especially fashion photography. Artists like Alexey Titarenko and Michael Kenna, used a fundamental component of photography, time, in different ways than usual, by using long exposures that resulted in different visual concepts.
Edward Steichen – The Flatiron (1904)
Alexey Titarenko – Crow trying to enter the VASSILEOSTROVSKAYA METRO STATION, 1992
This is also what needs to be done if you want to succeed in (fine-art) photography: continuously breaking down of your own successful concepts and trying to rebuild it with something completely new based on the same elements but integrated and synthesized in a different way. It will lead to a deconstruction of your own success by trying to refine your own concepts and visual expressions. By destructing and deconstructing your concepts you reconstruct success because you’re giving way to progress.
I have been trying this myself in my own photography without being aware of these “Boydian principles”. It was a very intuitive process, but the mistake I made is to cling to my proven concepts for too long. I became the victim of my own, relative, success and thought that by refining and tweaking my concepts, I could be the victor again. But that didn’t happen, it simply wasn’t enough to work within the same mental pattern and only improve on elements within my concept. I was looking inward and talking to myself. I contributed to changing my artistic environment, and while my environment adapted and kept changing, I didn’t allow myself to be changed. I stuck with my concept that has proven to be successful and should continue to be successful, or so I thought. I stood still.
Joel Tjintjelaar – Pantheon Rome (2014)
Joel Tjintjelaar – Amsterdam Palace (2017)
Adriaen Coorte – Still Life with Asparagus (1697)
Juan Sánchez Cotán – Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602)
Still life (c) Joel Tjintjelaar 2017
Rhopography 4 (c) Joel Tjintjelaar 2017
This deconstruction of older mental patterns can perhaps be amplified by using other technology. The photography projects I have in mind for next year, for example, will largely be done with a 4×5 Large Format camera, not so much because analog photography is better than digital photography, I think that’s an elitist statement, but because I believe it will force me to change specific patterns, routines, that have crept into the way I approach photographic subjects. With Large Format, I need to look at an image on the ground glass, upside-down. That’s already a disturbance of the mental models in my head. Focusing the camera with a Large Format camera happens in a different way too. And I can go on for a while giving more practical examples. The idea is to ‘find newinspiration’, or more accurately: to break down mental patterns and models that I’m continuously trying to refine but at some point won’t evolve anymore. And then to construct a new model, by changing routines, disciplines, subject matter or even camera gear, that can contribute to triggering ideas for a successfulnew model.On a related note: I’m not going completely analog, but I chose to make it partly analog up to the phase of developing the negative, but after scanning the negatives I will use my digital workflow to process the photos. I will report on my experiences with the Large Format camera in articles here on this website. To get back to still life: based on what I have now as a preliminary mental concept of still life, I could develop another model for portraiture. Another genre I’m working on. Perhaps these new concepts, these new mental patterns, can serve as an external model for the moment I’m going back to architecture so I can base my architectural photographs on that external model to come up with something that’s really ‘new’. The point is to change mental patterns, to see things literally in a different light by deconstructing them and try to use the deconstructed elements in a different situation and combination, and if a change of tools and technology that you’re used to use, can help with that, then even better. The result of a change of technology is already that my workflow will become a hybrid workflow instead of a strictly digital or analog workflow. And that may seem an insignificant change, but it can force you to see things differently. Perhaps it will result in new artistic creations again. Fine-tuning of the existing models we are using, will simply be not sufficient.
- One of the best books on what still life is with very interesting analyses based on paintings from the masters of still life painting: Norman Bryson – Looking at the Overlooked
- I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art, that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou and goes into the artistic aspects of photography (and is on sale now for Black Friday/Cyber Monday)