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The Curse of Creativity?

Published: 30/11/2019

I hope you will indulge me with this article because it's going to go off the beaten path a bit. I've been thinking about creativity lately because the truth is, I've been in and out of a creative funk for the past little while. I even had a chat about it with a couple of folks at the PFRE Conference in Las Vegas and I've continued to think about it since. And while I've been out on a couple of major shoots since the conference and have started to feel better about my creativity, it was not a coincidence that, a few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a YouTube video on cretivity from Dr. Jordan Peterson, a noteworthy professor of psychology at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. Dr. Peterson is a highly-respected teacher, speaker, researcher, and author but perhaps, is equally as famous for his highly provocative views.

The video that I was sent is called The Curse Of Creativity. In it, Dr. Peterson tries to dispel common beliefs related to creativity. For instance, he does not believe that everyone is creative and that saying so is "just as wrong as saying that everyone is extroverted." It was a very interesting thing to say and after giving it some thought, I reached the conclusion that I completely disagree! Here's why: All people are not static in their personality. No one--and, I repeat: No one--is 100% extroverted or introverted. Our personality is a very fluid thing. In fact, personality exists on a continuum. That is, while we may have strong preferences to spend most of our time being either introverted or extroverted in our day-to-day lives, we each have the capacity/ability to regularly move across the continuum, depending on the circumstances before us. That is, someone who is extremely introverted most days has the ability within themselves to summon extroversion if the need arises.

So why am I bringing this up? I believe that just like the introversion/extroversion continuum, creativity is on a continuum as well; and while we may go through periods in which we believe that we have ZERO creativity, the truth is, we all can be creative! As such, we all have the capacity to break out of a funk that we fall into every now and then.

Given my recent funk, I did some exploring online to see how someone can beckon creativity, even if they feel they're not very creative in the here-and-now. I discovered some interesting things that I'd like to share. Here's a quick recap of some of the things that I found (in no particular order):

  1. You don't need a clear mind to be creative. In fact, the opposite may be true. Constraints and limitations often force us to think creatively. If you think about it, all of us are "constrained" by the triumvirate of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Sometimes, the constraints are literal (i.e., trying to find the best composition in a very small space).
  2. Do things you normally wouldn't do. Sometimes, we get mired in a creative slump because we've become successful at doing what our clients expect. Some clients expect corner-to-corner UFWA shots, so we give them what they want but if we do it too often, we numb ourselves to other possibilities. We get caught in a comfort zone/habit of shooting corner-to-corner at 16-18mm on our 16-35mm lens. One way to break out of a creative slump is to go to the other extreme. So, what would happen if we were to shoot at 35mm? What would the frame include then? What would happen if we were to pan a little left or right at 35mm or at 30mm? I know that if you're shooting 6 houses a day, this might not be feasible on every shot but, when we're in a creative rut, doing something beyond the norm is often what sparks better shots.
  3. Ask yourself tough questions and book time in your calendar to work out the answers. Building off the previous point, if your creative slump stems from doing the same old thing, the same old way, then start asking yourself some tough questions and book 15-30 uninterrupted minute slots in your calendar to think through your answers. The questions can include: What new things am I learning? What's the one technique I've always wanted to try but haven't? Am I too focused on the producing images rather than trying to enjoy the process of capturing them?
  4. Talk to others about inspiration. One of the articles that I read on this topic suggested that speaking to a mentor was a way of sparking creativity and, while I agree with that, I'd like to make another suggestion. Reach out to a few photographers in our community that you admire and ask them some questions about inspiration. On the night before the PFRE Conference in Las Vegas, I had the unbelievable good fortune to have dinner with some of the most talented shooters in our field and we got to talking about what inspires us in our work. We shared stories for at least 45 minutes. And by the end of it, I was smiling from ear-to-ear because each story that came out around the table reminded me that, as per the final question in the previous section, I've been too focused on producing images rather than having fun at a shoot while trying to capture them. At my most recent shoot, I remembered this and I went out of my way to laugh a bit more and take more chances with my compositions and I ended up having a great time and producing some little funky shots!

Anyway, I'm confident that I've broken through my recent slump and I'm hoping that if you've been going through one lately, this post has helped you, too!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.




6 comments on “The Curse of Creativity?”

  1. Well that is an interesting perspective. But a definition of terms might also be a good idea. What do you consider "creativity" to be? For me it is non-rational problem solving; problem solving that just seems to appear out of nowhere in particular but that just appears or emerges into your consciousness in no rational way. Which means, at least to my way of thinking, that you can be creative in almost any field from science to photography. I think it is why so many musicians who come up with words and music so often don't feel they can take credit for what flows from them.

    It sounds like to me from your thoughts above that several things might be getting a bit mixed in. If you shoot a house the same way each time, then you are shooting on a rote approach rather than letting the house speak to you and letting your experience and open mindedness provide your approach to the problem solving of how to shoot the rooms and spaces. Not doing so seems to me to be more a matter of burnout than lack of creativity. A dulled mind through repetition. I can understand how that happens if your work involves shooting endless cookie cutter houses, a stream of 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath ranch houses on postage stamp lots. Happily in my market the properties I shoot are all very different even those ranch houses since most were built in the 60's or before and have had endless remodeling over the intervening years.

    But I have experienced the burn out of visual repetition but it was when I was doing a lot of studio work of shooting an endless stream of tan boxes containing all sorts of electronics and I thought I was going to go mad. I did not take the path of talking to other photographers but instead started shooting for practically nothing magazine stories on topics that interested me like food and travel. To be sure my early training was with photojournalism but I had used a form of that in shooting annual reports and brochures. So shooting available light, on location, of completely different subject matter broke my monotony and allowed that to cross fertilize my studio product shooting so I could look at each new project from the point of view of what I needed to say visually about that damn tan box instead of using cookie cutter lighting approaches.

    So perhaps if any of us find ourselves going stale at something we actually like doing normally and find our "creative" problem solving drying up, just shoot something completely different in our own time. Something whose subject matter is a personal passion whether it is landscapes, animals for the local humane society, kids for parents, farm machinery, ruined houses rotting away against the sky. Anything really that ignites the photographic passion again, that is not designed to make a living but to fuel one's photo interest. If it benefits some organization that cannot afford to hire a photographer like almost any non-profit, so much the better.

    I have an old friend who went to journalism school with me so very many years ago. We both fell in love with photojournalism and even started a short lived free lance business together. He had a knack for shooting people and getting the most marvelous moments out of them. Their personalities just flowed out of the images. But because he did not realize that what he did came from an innate talent, he gave it no importance and in fact did not see his abilities. We went our separate ways until recently when we reconnected on FaceBook. He had left the shooting of photography for the setting up of programs to teach it instead and just let his talents lie dormant, until recently. When he picked up a camera again and started shooting, his innate abilities were right there for him to draw on. But since he still does not see his talent since he never had to learn it, he has spent his time exploring various digital darkroom apps and fiddling with technique when what he does best is not part of a learned or technical technique. It is just part of who he is. My point is that if we have survived in this business, it is probably because we all have an ability that appeals to others, our clients, that we probably don't really understand about ourselves and when we need to do if that flame from within starts to become obscured is to do something else with photography either from our past or that we have not tried yet since we have been obsessed with making a living from shooting. To allow it to break free again, we need to use it in a different way which will then cross fertilize what we do do for a living and re-inspire us to shoot the way we used to shoot. What that will be will be different for all of us. If we love to scuba dive it may be underwater photography. If we love to sky dive it would be GoPro's attached to a helmet with spectacular photos of our earth on the way down. And so on.

  2. Great topic! This is something that is hard for Natsuko and I to deal with in this profession. The constant grind of editing architectural films and photos has taken a heavy toll on our overall creativity. After our last set of films this past summer...we decided to put down the cameras for entire year. It seems crazy...but is proving to be the best thing we've ever done for our creativity. By putting away the tool that was seeming to drive us crazy recently, and the computer as well, we've grabbed back hold of reality and the things that made us love it in the first place. Music, dance, hand-arts, juggling, slack-lining...whatever...all feel so much more pure now that our camera is not here with us. The camera almost seems like a ball-and-chain sometimes. Also, traveling without a camera is so refreshing & makes us focus on the "now". Focusing on relationships & friendships has helped us remember why we love telling stories. Focusing on other artists works rather than our own has helped us gain perspective. Focusing on what makes us truly happy in the non-digital world has helped us consider the digital possibilities.

    This may be drastic for many to do...and may not be for everyone, but it's proving to be the best medicine for us. We'll pick up our cameras again next summer & hopefully have a whole new love for the art of architectural filmmaking. For now, we'll enjoy life without the extra 2-4 pounds at our side.

  3. Great article Tony! I just wanted to add something in case anyone is interested. I recently signed up for an all-documentary streaming service called "Curiosity Stream" (very reasonable yearly fee), and for me it's been a great refuge from some of the garbage TV programming, and relentlessly negative news channels. One 3-part series I watched last week is called "Redesign My Brain" and it's a fascinating peak into our brains and how we can absolutely expand our capacity. The second chapter of the series deals exclusively with increasing our creativity, and I think you'd really enjoy it.

  4. This is an interesting topic. And Tony has provided us with some useful suggestions for rekindling our creative spark.

    I'm going to take a different tact on the creative process related to shooting commercial photography jobs.

    Our clients want us to make images that attract potential buyers. That suggests that our focus is to create visually appealing images regardless of the visual appeal of the house.

    That's the creative challenge! How to make an image that will stop a prospective buyer from clicking to the next listing.

    In my view that means I need to find one, two or more opportunities to create "hero" shots for every house. That's the creative challenge.

    Do I succeed with every house. Probably not. I do hope that I can come close.

    As for revitalizing my creative juices. That's one of the take aways from Mike Kelley's presentation. Find a way to carve out a day a week, or month for a personal project.

    And, I made a small reminder label and stuck it on the edge of my LCD on the back of the camera. "Make Art"

  5. I'm with David Ward on this one. I tend to shoot a lot of vacant homes and my approach is typically formulaic. I look for one or two hero shots that emphasize the best aspect of a home, but on many jobs, I don't get a big flash of inspiration so I stick to doing my best to bring back technically great images. Many of the homes have been rehabbed and the finishes are neutral/bland.

    When I get a furnished and well staged home, I'll try to spend extra time looking for the out of the ordinary photo. The extra images may be outside of the aesthetic for an RE gallery, but not out of line for a different category of customer. I have a few folders of images I could use if asked to provide a portfolio outside of RE. I get a chance to exercise my creativity and build portfolios that could open the door to more opportunities.

    I'm always learning new genres of photography and I strongly suggest a subscription with video tutorial site. Lynda or Kelby are obvious suggestions but there is also Sue Bryce if you are into photographing people. Karl Taylor education has an emphasis on product and fashion photography. CreativeLive has a broad topic line up. Sometimes it's a matter of being introduced to new things that can spark the imagination to find new directions.

  6. With respect to RE photos, creativity may come and go from 2 categories: shooting and processing.

    They won't necessarily coincide with each other all the time. Sometimes I shoot formulaic and process creatively, and I may choose to shoot a little more creative and apply a formulaic process to it. It mostly depends on what I'm hungry for on a given day, and that might be based on the home I'm shooting, or what I've been learning about online.

    in any case, I don't think it can be forced. Inspiration comes and goes, depending on what we are exposed to. It's got nothing to do with the price of the home, or the client. Some places just have a certain magic, and some don't. And I usually have several variations of processing I could apply, because one approach may or may not be better suited. And if you get neither one happening on a particular day, you can always lean on your basic formula. Most of the time, I'm not even sure our clients could point out the differences, anymore then we can tell if a cook uses more or less salt in a recipe. In a way, it's more for our interest and entertainment, and eventually it collectively creates our signature.

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