I’ve been thinking a lot about how to translate all the things I’ve learned about the creative process into a pathway that you can use to find your inner artist. I almost wrote method, but I think pathway is more appropriate.
A pathway is a route or a course that you might travel to get from one place to another. It’s a kind of map, and I thought about using that word as well. But that implies that there’s a sure and repeatable way from point A to point B and that doesn’t really fit the creative process, does it?
Biochemists use the word pathway when they talk about the way one organic substance is converted into another. It’s a chain of events; a sequence of actions. Enzymes act on a substance and the basic structure of the substance is changed. It transforms and becomes something else. And the process isn’t necessarily predictable or repeatable. There’s a bit of chaos involved. Now we’re getting somewhere!
The process of creation is like this: Imagine watching a master chef create a new dish. I’ve witnessed this many times and it’s close to miraculous. He doesn’t really need a recipe. He has knowledge and experience to lean on. He’s mastered his technique to the point where it’s not really technique anymore. It’s intuition and it’s automatic. It’s a feeling that certain ingredients in certain proportions treated in a certain way might work together. As he works, his mind isn’t on how many times he’s kneaded the dough or his knife skills or the exact temperature of the burner. He’s imagining what the final dish will taste like, what it will look like, it’s texture and color. He has an idea and he works toward it, wanting to see if it will come together. He’s not really working on the thing, he’s working in a direction, feeling his way as he goes. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, a quick taste, a flip of the sauté’ pan, a turn of the wrist, and it’s done. You taste it and you’re amazed. How did he do that?
He did it by doing little things in particular ways, by executing small processes and putting them together. Each of those small processes produces a desired result but is nothing on its own. It’s the combination and the order of the processes that matter. If he does things in a different order or introduces a different element, he gets a different result. Kind of like what the biochemist sees.
Here’s a word that can boil this down for you: Ritual. A good definition of ritual is this:
“a sequence of activities, gestures, words, and/or objects performed in a prescribed way.”
The chef engages in it and the biochemist witnesses it. They’re each engaged with a bunch of mini rituals which, when put together, make up a larger ritual. The ritual is different each time because there are so many outside influences that can act upon it. For the chef, it might be the quality of an ingredient. For the biochemist, it might be the temperature in the room. The point is that it’s the ritual that dictates the result.
For me, making photographic art is a ritual. I do a lot of small things and I put them together in ways that work for me. They sing to my soul even while I’m working and they allow me both the safety of a very loose procedure and a wide berth to improvise and create. Sometimes I leave certain things out. Sometimes I add things I rarely use. But I’m working in the direction of an idea and it’s the direction, the pathway, that’s important here. Like the chef, I might stumble on something along the way and go in a different direction. Like the biochemist, the physical or psychological conditions I find myself in are going to influence the result. But I know that if I work the ritual, I will often end up with something that at the very least is palatable. If it’s not great, then the next time I work the ritual I make adjustments.
Over time, the ritual becomes second nature. Then I can add variations. A musician learns how to play scales and chords in a prescribed way. With diligent practice, the musician soon no longer needs that structured formality. She can create something new, something uniquely hers, by improvising. Just like the chef.
The important thing to note here is that each step in a ritual is given maximum attention. Nothing is incidental. Nothing is left out.
So, what are the steps in this ritual? There are many, but if you’ve been following along you already know the big ones, the ones you must do before you press the shutter button if you want to make work that truly represents who you are as an artist:
Presence – “Being”
Contemplation – “Thinking”
Revelation – “Connecting”
Only then can you set your feet on the pathway. Only then can you begin “Doing”.
Artistic Ritual, as I use it, is much more than what I’ve talked about here. But this is a vital starting point for your own work. I’ll be talking more about this but for now, I’ll leave you with a couple of things for you to ponder:
Ritual is the acting out of a myth. If this is true (it is), what does myth have to do with making art?
Poetry is our native language, and imagery is our native vocabulary. Why then, must we struggle to make our photographs poetic?
Send me an email with your thoughts.
I have switched to ON1 Raw 2019 and a generally do not use photoshop any more. I have enjoyed your art in both but now have decided to stick to one. Too much otherwise andthank you so much!
It is always a joy to be challenged both artistically and spiritually. Thank you!
Now about rocks and Mr. Weston – the only time I ever saw a rock in one of his images, was by his latest nude.
As to the poetry of our photographs, I think that we each have to find that muse within ourselves – therein lies the struggle .I picked up my first camera when I was 50 and had no clue what I was doing. I took a couple of classes at our local community college. By happenstance, they dealt with B/W film only (darkroom facilities). I came to realize that colour was both a distraction and interfered with how I looked at the world through the lens. My eye is always looking for shape and rhythm.
Fantastic article! I really like the analogy of the chef creating a new dish – that really made sense to me, and I can see how that would apply to photography as well. Thanks!
There are three conditions of existence: Be, Do and Have. Figure out what you want to have then you can figure what you need to be so you can do the things necessary to achieve what you what to have.
Your essay, Jim, eloquently describes this process. Nice!.
Paulgrahamphotography, I like the KISS principle applied here. Three little words. I’m looking forward to your new course, Jim. My big issue is pareidoila. I see faces in everything and that somehow gets in the way of things. Here’s hoping I can get past this and see more of my creativity.