Photography And The Creative Process
When it comes to photography and the creative process, I fully embrace the principles of brain function lateralization. In a nutshell, brain function lateralization refers to how the left and right hemispheres of our brains process information in different ways. The right half of the brain is where we feel emotion, use our imagination, and do our dreaming, while the left half is where we use language, reason, and apply logic.
This idea is certainly nothing new to most of you, but learning how to use this knowledge can help you, as a photographer, better understand the creative process and make images that better express your experiences both intuitively and conceptually.
It’s important to understand that our conscious mind can only process information from one side of the brain at a time. We are able to switch back and forth fairly effortlessly, but it’s not the best way for the brain to operate. In the end, authority is almost always delegated to one half or the other when deciding what information enters our consciousness and what doesn’t. This includes visual information that is transmitted from our eyes via the optic nerve. Alas, the struggle is almost always won by our dominant left brain, while the right plays a much more passive role.
Our right brain is sometimes able to covertly sneak information into our conscious awareness but only when the left brain is either asleep at the wheel or lulled into boredom. During these episodes, random emotional and visual vignettes and freely associated images wildly dance and flicker through our consciousness before the rational left brain once again regains control and restores order.
For the photographer, it’s in the right half of the brain where the creative spark is kindled, making a connection to the world we see in intuitive, emotional terms. The left half is concerned with more workaday matters such as exposure, perspective, and composition (I am convinced that composition is a deliberate cognitive process rather than intuitive one although admittedly, I often simply defer to what feels right).
If your goal is to have others inspired and moved by the images you make, you must be inspired and moved by what you see and experience. If you want to evoke a strong emotional response from others with your photography, you must have a strong emotional connection to your subject matter. How can you expect others to be moved by your photography if you are ambivalent? How can you possibly expect your viewers to feel power, awe, tranquility, melancholy, or heartache in your images if you, an actual witness to the scene, felt nothing?
When I am in the field, I often forget that there is a camera with me. I am not thinking about composition, light, or pressure to make a single image whatsoever. I’m simply try to savor the experience and totally immerse myself in the present moment and place with heightened senses and awareness. I’m not looking for anything in particular, nor do I expect to find anything. Instead, I am creating a state of mind where I am completely receptive to something finding me.
The late fine-art photographer, Ruth Bernhard, once explained how she approached her craft. “I never look for a photograph,” she explained. “The photograph finds me and says, ‘I’m here!’ and I say, ‘Yes I see you. I hear you!’”
The key is being completely open and receptive to your environment while passive with your thoughts. I find this to be the most effective way for allowing the right brain to temporarily gain the upper hand. The worst thing you can possibly do is rush into the field or photography session with preconceived ideas or images that you want to create. That includes the pressure to create any image at all. There should be no expectations. Trying to force things only reasserts the left brain’s dominance and ultimately leads to photographic clichés, old concepts, and emotionally sterile results.
When something in the field does speak to me and I am emotionally drawn to a subject or scene, I don’t want to immediately reach for the camera and start shooting either. Too many times I have aborted the creative process at this point and began to take capture the images. These are usually disappointments as I am left muttering later over the computer, “What was I thinking here?” Far removed from the emotional high experienced during the capture, the images failed to trigger the same response later on. This is exactly how your viewers will feel, since they too are emotionally and physically separated from your experience. Your right brain may have provided the intuitive, emotional spark, but something was clearly missing in the translation to the finished product.
Instead of instinctively grabbing the camera, ask yourself some basic questions: Why do I want to photograph this? What is drawing me to this subject or scene? What emotion – specifically – is this scene eliciting from me and what ultimately do I want to express here? What elements within the scene are contributing to this emotional sensation I am feeling? If you can verbalize some of these answers, they will be easier to act on. Language is the domain of left brain processing and verbalization provides the catalyst to the left brain image execution. Remember, we cannot process information from both sides of our brains simultaneously, so this verbalization should jump start the transition from right to left.
What emotional sensation did you verbalize? Tranquility? Strength? Power? What elements – specifically – were contributing to this emotional response? The motion of the water? The ominous, foreboding sky? The sensual curve of the lake’s shoreline?
Now, what tools do we possess that can help accentuate these specific elements? Those tools can be found deep within your camera bag or in the well of your accumulated technical knowledge and photography experience. Where is the focal point of the image? Do these elements lend themselves to a wide-angle composition that merges the focal point gracefully with the surrounding environment, or does a more simplified presentation communicate this better?
Well, you get the idea here. We are creating a concept, which is all left brain thinking. If we remain in the right brain, intuitive mode without crossing over to left brain conceptualization, we are likely to create images with strong emotional content, but with little or no meaning to anyone but ourselves. Your emotional response to the scene must be conceptualized in order for others, who were never there at the scene, to “get it.” And if you only approach your photography from the left brain mode and never establish any emotional connection to the subject, the results will likely be technically adequate, well-crafted images that are emotionally sterile.
Creativity as artistic expression is a syntheses between the right and the left, the intuitive and the conceptual. A 2014 article in The Atlantic titled, The Power of Two describes the genius of The Beatles, how John and Paul were complementary opposites who probably would have failed without each other (I’ll let you decide who was the right/intuitive and who was the left/conceptual). Their creative process, and their genius, relied on both – as do you, the creative photographer.
Great article Richard. Sums up what I believe in capturing an image.
It was a great post the first time around in 2008.
Version 2.0 is even better.
Great article Richard and a reminder to all of us to spend more time immersing ourselves in the field before we reach for the camera. It’s also a lot more relaxing!
For a photographer, imagination is a must, Without imagination, there will be no new ideas and creativity.
You are my hero. Thanks for all that you do!
Excellent article, Richard. A great reminder to stop and observe the world around us rather than checking items off a list and moving on. I like to think of it as an image being ‘whole’ which happens when both sides of our brain are satisfied – the emotional side stirred by the capture and composition our thinking side created.
Fantastic article! As a aspiring professional this is some of the best advice I’ve heard! Thank you Richard!
Superb article richard,
It is Very Important Creative Process.
Another amazing post! Thanks for sharing your tips for great photography. I agree, creativity is such crucial part of taking stunning photos.
Superb article richard,
It is Very Important Creative Process.