Can one learn to be a creative photographer?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Landrum Kelly, Apr 16, 2017.

  1. "and so totally un-photographable."

    Yes, they are, Julie. It is easier to photograph a flower or some rock--even lichen or moss. Something small or concrete--something limited--in the mountains is doable, but the mountains in their fullness and totality cannot quite be captured--almost, but not quite.

    The reason? What one really wants to photograph in the mountains, of course, is how one feels--or felt. Alas, mental states qua mental states cannot be photographed. They cannot even be easily remembered--not in all of their momentary glory.

    Still, I have seen mountain photos made in the East that are spectacular. I don't have any of those--yet. Both light and weather have to cooperate. If I lived closer, I would have a better chance of being there under those conditions. I remain hopeful. Perhaps I shall go tomorrow--for the ninth time this semester.

  2. So I "settle" for mountain shots like this.

    The image has some power over me, but is it simply because I was there on that cold day, alone, as night approached? I cannot believe that the power of any image over any of us lies in the image itself. Surely "it" is also about what we bring to the picture, or what the picture evokes in us by way of memory and emotion.

    How, after all, does one capture the "sense" of wilderness? It is a very real "sense" or feeling, and persons who speak of it speak not (typically) of the same moment, but surely of the same kind of emotion. I cannot, after all, feel what someone else felt when they were in love, but we can both speak of what it feels like to be in love without, I think, talking completely past one another.

    Sometimes lovers are both in awe of the same moment. They both felt the closeness. It was palpable, real. They have some reason to believe that it was mutual, that what they felt was the "same feeling," although surely it was in some sense both of their own private feelings--unless there truly is some sharing of "spirituality." I usually back way off from such strong metaphysical claims.

    Much less do I claim to be "communing" with Nature. Do I really think that Nature is some conscious entity that I am actually sharing a feeling with? I think not.

    What, then, is the source of the awe or other feeling that I have in the face of a true wilderness experience? We are back to metaphysics again. More to the point for this discussion: Can I capture "it" in a photo so that someone else can feel it, too? I am dubious, and yet sometimes a photo made by someone else does move me very deeply. I wonder to what extent I feel "the same thing" that the photographer did.

    I do not know how to answer such questions. It is perhaps out of such quandaries--true mysteries--that persons posit "God" or some transcendental force in Nature (yes, personified with a captial "T"). God or Nature become the ultimate residual category into which we dump the unexplained. (Pareto lives!)

    Can we speak of a metaphysics of photography? What on earth is it that we are sharing with one another, after all?

    Last edited: May 3, 2017
  3. Here is why Lannie's photo that I chose interests me. I say that as if I knew yesterday, but it took me until this morning to have a real Aha! moment. I knew it drew me; I didn't know why. It's because it's so Lannie. I mean that as a compliment. Let me explain:

    "... leaving a city on foot is almost unimaginable (although completely possible)," I read recently from an art professor describing how astonishing the view was when he did this. Immediately, I thought, "But we do that all the time!," we being photographers. And since then I've been thinking about on foot. About how much "on foot" has to do with the making of photographs and critically, essentially, in the creative making of good photos.

    The pictures of Lannie's that I love, that over the years I've come to enjoy are the very ones that I look at and think "why on earth was he standing THERE??" Because, because, he irritates me into asking that, because he makes me think that, those are the ones that I look at, those are the ones that I remember. The pictures he makes that are "good" and "correct" and where I know perfectly well why he was standing "there," are the ones I flip by and forget immediately. And/or the ones that are just bad are just as predictably bad; it's the ones that I can't place that hold my attention and make me feel Lannie's presence.

    I think that our feet take us where we need to be, creatively, as photographers — and this is one of the central differences about photography as a creative practice — and that then our head can work the scene. If our head is full of other ideas, if our head doesn't listen to, or ignores, or actively resists where our feet take us, we come to the Philosophy forum and ask how we can be 'creative' ... when our feet are and have been getting us there, already. I'm not saying we don't need our head (you know me better than that). I am saying that we need to listen to what our feet (our body, or 'inclinations') are taking us and work with it. The hard part, of course, is believing we're right, because it's going to be your strange vision and not anybody else's. Notice how I said Lannie's point of view irritated me above. Good. That's as it should be.

    Back to the specific picture. When I love is that Lannie is standing in the middle of the street (if he posts and says he was, in fact, in his car, ignore him. What does he know ... ). Traffic is whizzing left to right, there is no obvious sidewalk, there is no place for a man on foot to be, much less in the middle of the street. He has, in some sense, left the city on foot. He's not where he's supposed to be. I know his title says he went there to get the Marlboro signage, but I choose to think that his feet know where Lannie likes to be even as his head is trying to justify it by claiming to be looking at signage. He's out of place.

    In my first request, above, to use this picture, I was thinking about all the places my feet would like to go in that scene. I'm not going to do that. I've twiddled with the picture a little to accentuate my awareness of Lannie (so don't blame this version on Lannie). Here it is. If you can stop looking at the picture content and just feel the atmosphere of being there with Lannie, I think it's lovely.


    Browsing through his Galleries, I find this picture that I love for the same reasons. It's full of a sense of this person I know as Lannie on the forum. A strong sense of someone being there, because he's in "the wrong place." There are many more throughout his Galleries, popping up persistently. Some don't work, but all of them, to my mind, are creatively alive.
  4. Lannie, we posted at the same time. I had not read your post immediately before. Reading it now ...

    [Adding after reading Lannie's]

    Ha! It looks like we're in near perfect harmony! So rare in this forum!
  5. Debating whether to link a few more but why not. This one , by Lannie, I think is also just lovely. But it's very slow. You'll need to look at it for a while, decide it doesn't work, nice try; ... then look at it some more. And another ... I think that one's easier, flashier.
  6. I was not speaking of "Pareto optimality" above, but of Pareto's discussions of "residual categories." I found only this when I Googled that latter in quotes. (Usual academic crap.)

    ALERT! Not all knowledge can be found on the web. I find nothing that helps me to make my point. Oh, to live near a great research library again! It is a hundred miles to Chapel Hill, and yet another ten to Duke. That is as good as we have around here where libraries are concerned.

    Julie, I wonder if UVA has a better library than either? But I digress. . . .

    Last edited: May 3, 2017
  7. Yes, talking past each other now. . . but not on topics, but because of time. I have a nine o'clock class twenty miles down the interstate, and I have yet to start the day.

  8. Gosh, I just saw your posts. I was mostly responding to what you got me to thinking about yesterday, Julie. Thanks for all the "attention"--and the questions. I ask myself the same questions all the time.

    I have to go for now. Alas. . . I am completely out of time this morning, for now.

    I wish you would post some of your mountain photos, Julie. Perhaps I can catch you on the Appalachian Trail some time. (Yeah, right--wait, there is Grayson Highlands S.P. not too far away, more or less between us! I have never been there. Wild pony pictures, anyone?)

  9. Well, there is this.

    It's probably crawling with tourons now that the weather is warming. Spring has yet to get to three thousand feet yet, however, and so there is still hope at four thousand and up.

    Hard to find anything wild in the East. I think that I need The Wild to feel creative these days.


  10. I'm no good at photographing with familiar people. If I'm not photographing them, they disturb the seismograph for pictures that aren't about other people.

    Somewhere I read (can't remember by whom) that he/she wanted to photograph the landscape "from behind." It's still there, around the corner, you just have to walk around back. On foot.
    Landrum Kelly likes this.
  11. I'm not saying photographers should or shouldn't do this and I'm not saying this would work for all photographers. But what works for me is often not trying to photograph how I feel. My own sense of creativity is in creating something, which suggests not necessarily reflecting how I feel but projecting something else. I may feel this way or that way when looking at a mountain, but I may visualize shape and color, perspective, scale in ways that occur to my imagination, very much aside from however I may feel at the time. I do think how I feel will go into all that but I don't think I'm photographing my feelings. I'm photographing mountains.

    Last time I was in the mountains was in Yosemite. I was taking pictures while strenuously hiking. I hadn't brought enough water along and was getting a bit dry but it was manageable enough to keep going. I was not trying to photograph how I felt and I'm glad the photos don't reflect how I felt.
    I believe photos do have a kind of power. I'm not one who believes photos are solely or even mostly a function of what the viewer makes of them. I do agree that my own experiences and history will play a role in how I respond. But I believe and hope I'm right that others' photos are not all about me and my photos are not all about viewers. I think the photos themselves speak . . . and we hear in different ways. If Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Donald Trump gives a speech, the speech may be interpreted in different ways and people may respond very differently. But that doesn't mean the speeches themselves have no power of their own.

    I'm afraid an untenable kind of Idealism would arise from removing power from photos and putting too much power into the hands of subjective beings looking at those photos.
    Landrum Kelly likes this.
  12. Fred, I would not want to overstate anything about what comes from inside the viewer, but in evaluating "emotional impact" I would not want to minimize the subjective component, either. As for wanting to photograph what one feels, I simply mean that there are times when I am in the mountains that I really want to capture and communicate that special feeling I often get while in the mountains. I know that I cannot photograph that, and so I do not try--but I still sometimes wish that I could.

    What I was really getting at in that part, however, was trying to offer a comeback to Julie's statement that we can't photograph mountains--if she meant that we can never quite capture those special feelings we sometimes have while in the mountains. There is also the practical impossibility of capturing the full panorama of being there in any single photo in a way that remotely approximates the reality of what we would like to capture if we could--and I mean by that the full sensory experience, including the wind on one's face, the "champagne air" that one breathes, etc.

    One might as well try to capture through a viewfinder the subjective experience of having sex. Photography does have its limits, after all.

    In any case, my recent mountain series has not been a serious artistic effort--just trying to capture as best I could images from my recent winter hiking in the Linville Gorge. I do see, however, the creative potential that is there in mountain photography. I wish that I lived just a bit closer.

    Last edited: May 3, 2017
  13. Lannie, I think photography's limits are probably where a lot of its creative potential lies. You are right about photography (and I would add, all other mediums or arts) not fully capturing another sensory experience. Art captures its own sensory experience, which is often directly related to but not identical to other experiences.

    A photograph is always going to be "less than" what we experienced when we were photographing. It will leave out some context, some feeling, some periphery, some atmosphere, some smells, some noises. But in being "less than" it can become more than. It can in some ways hyper-focus on something significant that otherwise could get lost in the magnitude of the larger experience.

    I don't find photographing, for me, to be necessarily about trying to approximate the reality that was happening at the time of shooting, though there are times when it may be. In the same way that 2+2=4 symbolizes some very complex concepts, a photo can symbolize and signify events, which in a reductive way, does approximate them. But, for me, often more than approximating what I experienced is creating a distinct photographic experience, which draws from my experience. In drawing from, but not necessarily trying to recreate, experience, I may instill feeling into my photos, but feeling that acts more symbolically and significantly than merely as a reflection of specific feelings I had at the time. I don't suppose Chopin was typically as melancholy when writing his musical works as would be suspected if he were composing through music only his feelings at the time. I think he felt melancholy in his life at times, and used music to express that, writing melancholy music even when he didn't feel melancholic.

    Creativity, I think, is in part an ability to transcend the specifics of the moment and create something of significance using the moment as raw material but not necessarily trying to reproduce the moment as it is or was. Through what I'm seeing and feeling in this moment, I can create something only loosely related to it that has a significance independent of what the moment itself actually is.
  14. it


    I don't see how creativity can be learned.
    You can learn to express it, through use of tools or whatever.
  15. For Lannie. This is Edward Abbey on the way to climb Clingman's Dome:

    "When I saw the red claybanks, though, I knew I was in the South for sure. Land of romance and myth, of chitlin and chigger, or country-cured ham, Dr. Pepper and Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken, finger-lickin' good.

    " ... Approaching Gatlinburg, Gateway to the Big Smokies, we drive down a highway whose shoulders are sprinkled and ditches lined with glittering aluminum litter. Immortal beer can, immutable chicken basket, eternal plastic picnic spoon. At night the round ends of the cans gleam in your headlights like the glowing eyes of foxes.

    " ... following this road, at a safe and sane distance behind some reckless rustic who was tooling his Plymouth into eternity at 30 mph, we come barreling round a turn into the Knoxville-Gatlinburg highway and the mainstream of the way things are. By this I mean Sevierville, Tennessee, and the Little Pigeon River, full of filth and the walls of billboards on either side of the pavement, busy selling something fake:

    GOLDRUSH JUNCTION — Cowboys, Indians & Outlaws: Gunfights Every Day

    FORT APACHE — Gunfights Hourly — Saloon Shows

    FRONTIERLAND [illlustrated with a picture of a Sioux Indian in full ceremonial regalie] — Cherokee, N.C.

    Don't Miss the New WAX MUSEUM — See Alan Shephard, Sgt. York real-as-life​

    ... Here we make camp for the night in a pleasant motel room.

    ... Walking at night through the quiet streets of Gatlinburg — where have all the tourists gone? — I look up, above the motel-hotel rooftops, and see the dark forms of the mountains bulking beyond, snow gleaming in the starlight.

    Real mountains.

    [ ... ]

    " ... One suffers from hope. Maybe we can learn something from what we have done to this land. Probably not. And in any case, is it any better elsewhere? No matter in what nation I lived I am certain I would find much to detest. All big social organizations are ugly, brutal, inhuman — prone to criminal acts which no man or community of men, on their own, would even think of. But just the same I despise my own nation most. Because I know it best. Because it is mine. Because I still love it, suffering from hope.

    " ... A Russian writer named Prishvin said that 'Home is where you have found your happiness.' I think I know where that may be, at least for myself. I'll reveal this much: it has something to do with those mountains, those forests, those wild, free, lost, full-of-wonder places that rise yet (may they always!) above the squalor of the towns.

    Appalachia, we'll be back."​

    Abbey wrote that for Appalachain Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains which is a book of Eliot Porter's photographs. Porter is the photographer that I think seems closest to doing what Lannie is after — even if Porter did it fifty years ago.
  16. " ... I must thank you for having given me the opportunity to live with your spirit in the form of those photographs that for three weeks were on our walls — And 'our' includes yours. — Some of your photographs are the first I have ever seen which made me feel: 'There is my own spirit' — quite an unbelievable experience for one like myself." — Alfred Stieglitz to Eliot Porter
  17. Art captures its own sensory experience, which is often directly related to but not identical to other experiences. -- Fred G​

    Well, Julie, Abbey through his eloquent words reminds me as to why I have not been back to Gatlinburg since December, 1970. In fact, I haven't even seen the mountains in that corner of the world since that time. Alas, the "federally designated wilderness areas" of the East are often just nonsense (as wilderness). The Uwharries and their "Birkhead Mountain Wilderness" are neither mountains nor wilderness, but I can occasionally find some comfort there because they are closer to Charlotte--meaning that I more often have time to get there and back after work. Even I will likely shrink from the Linville Gorge as the higher temperatures bring back the crowds, but I enjoyed a sense of wilderness there from January 26 to February 26 of this year, when few people were around on week days. (Weekends cannot even begin to bring a sense of wildness in the winter for me: too many people.) I had never even entered the gorge proper until January 26, and then suddenly it became my photographic project for thirty-one days. I have been back once (in April), but the smell of smoke was in the air that day from a fire on the west side (outside the wilderness boundary) near U.S. 221 It was still a good day, but I had to work hard to find a few rock ledges which could give me a sense of being in anything wild.

    All of this brings back the truth of what Fred is getting at. When I got my "raw material" back home from my first two or three outings in late January and early February, I could better see the potential in what I had captured, and sometimes what I saw in the files was not even something that I was capable of finding in the reality of the moment of capture. It became clear that in my cropping and processing I started creating illusions that were not of the gorge in its totality, but which evoked a sense of wilderness that I have found in bigger mountains everywhere I have hiked. Sometimes a particular shot which I would work over some hours or days later helped me remember something that I had felt of the gorge in general, but often not something I would really want to remember from the actual place where I had taken the photo.

    In some ways these illusions became more important than my experiences of the moment. Here is one that looks the way mountains can look in the East. It even reminds me in some small way of how the slopes of Pichincha can look from high above Quito, an area that I had the good fortune to hike through quite often while spending the summer of 1998 there studying Spanish. Never mind that the volcanic rock of the Andes doesn't begin to resemble the gneiss, schist, and granite of the Blue Ridge, nor that I was more than three times higher in Quito when I got off the plane than I will ever be at Wiseman's View in the Linville Gorge. Those illusions are important to me not only artistically but experientally, if only because they remind me of what I have felt in the mountains of the East--even if I have to be sure sometimes not to turn around and spoil the illusion by seeing the mess that is often behind me.

    There was also a sense of discovery that I found in the gorge back in January, since I was poking around both on foot and in my old Honda Civic on roads that ran close to the wilderness boundary--but roads I had never seen before. I cannot usually capture that sense of discovery in a photo of a road, but this one does it for me--although not likely for anyone else unless they know the area really well and have seen it in all its moods.

    "It's life's illusions I recall. I really don't know life at all." The same is often true of mountains. Their majesty can overwhelm, but then one forgets. Then something unrelated of another mountain somewhere made by someone else brings it all back. I like it when illusion becomes a new reality, but I won't worry about how nonsensical that might sound. It is too much like reading Faulkner and then trying to explain The Sound and the Fury to someone who has never tried to enter his world.

    Last edited: May 4, 2017
  18. I just realized how inadequately I have responded to Fred, but there is a richness in his post that I cannot begin to match this morning--the last day of class for two of my classes. I am inundated by grades and the bureaucratic end-of-semester rigamarole. That, however, is just an excuse. I might not ever be able to match your insights, Fred.

    Rest assured, Fred, that I get at least a glimmer of what you were trying to convey four or five posts above, and as usual you have nailed it.

    You also made me realize that it is more generally wilderness that intrigues me when I am intrigued by the mountains, even though it is not always the wilderness that I see but can only imagine from a bygone era--especially in the East where one can at best sometimes capture the illusion of wilderness.

    Here is one where illusion reigns supreme. I can even imagine that I am in the tableland of the West for a moment in this one. Alas, I am still stuck here where I have been for far too long. I will go back to the gorge if I can, but I know now that whatever I might find of enduring value there will not likely consist in what I experience solely while I am there.

    Last edited: May 4, 2017
  19. I agree with your characterization of much about photography being an illusion. Don't know if you remember a Philosophy thread from quite a while back where we discussed the role of illusion in photography. LINK.

    In any case, I think there's an element of abstraction in most creative endeavors (why I brought up the math equation).

    A fun experiment would be to recall as best you can your feelings about being in the mountains and try to express some part of those feelings with a picture of a person or a barn or railroad tracks or a corner store. That kind of forces a non-literal, abstract approach to photographic suggestion of feelings, which can be helpful sometimes. Then, when you go back to photographing literal mountains, their literalness won't so much get in the way of the more abstract feelings. The more abstract qualities of the photo you did of the barn or other object (with the feeling of mountains in mind) might be more intuitively applied to the mountains.

    I often bring the exhilaration or depression of an experience I have to a photo seemingly unrelated to that feeling-generating experience. I may well remember my feelings about the majesty of Yosemite's mountains when photographing someone, to whom at the time I may want to give a little majesty in the photo.

    Photographing people has helped me to see empathetically, to not necessarily capture my own feelings but sometimes (and only sometimes) to try to capture the feelings of my subjects. (I say only sometimes because often I'm trying to create new feelings rather than reflect given ones.) While mountains don't exactly have feelings, when I've photographed them, and living out west I've had ample opportunity, I often will try to capture what they're giving to me rather than what I'm feeling. Do they have something of their own to tell me?
    Supriyo likes this.

  20. That's a really good picture, Lannie. There's all kinds of good, evocative stuff going on with the off-kilter stones and the lines in the upper left rock, all set in the into-the-air location of a reaching distance. To my eye, it's good because it's not an illusion. The realness bites.

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