Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, said in a recent Business Week interview, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do.” Replace “innovation” with “creativity” (I’m not sure I can tell you the difference, but “innovation” is not a word that resonates as well with artists) and “frugality” with darn near any constraint, and you have a truth that has been demonstrated over and over to me. It seems that the tighter the box, the greater the unleashed creativity. The opposite is also true: when I don’t set limits for myself, I get lazy and take the easy way out, which, by no coincidence, is the way of most photographs, and my results are just as mundane as the average ones.
We don’t have to get esoteric to see how limits foster creativity. Ultimately photography is about putting a frame around the world; the boundaries of the photographic image are crucial to the result. That’s why photographers hate it when others crop their work; it’s like someone is messing with the soul of the image. Many photographers almost always use the entire image that’s captured by the camera. When using film, some even prove it in the end result by including the edge of the negative.
Why do people do this? Doesn’t the perfect frame for any subject vary widely with the nature of the subject? Maybe it does, but there is a wonderfully clarifying consequence of constraining yourself to a certain image shape. The easy response is to seek out subjects that do well with that shape, but the real magic happens when you find compositions that work within the shape for subjects that don’t seem like they should naturally fit. The shape of the image, which you decided in advance, forces you into a picture that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Stated more accurately, your own creativity is energized by the challenge of mapping the subject into the predetermined frame, and you come up with an image you wouldn’t have made without the constraint of the frame.
Once you start looking at limits as good things, rather than problems to be gotten around, there are endless opportunities for creatively boxing yourself in. Equipment is a good place to start. I’ve talked about image shapes, but why stop there? Plastic, light-leaky cameras with unsharp, flare-producing lenses; pinhole cameras; big, ungainly, view cameras, old, soft lenses with or without shutters; all will present restrictions that demand, and practically enforce, creativity. Film is another: infrared, big grain, low contrast, long toe; pick your poison. There are an endless variety of quirky print media and alternative processes, each with things they don’t do so well.
If you’ve got photographer’s block, a way to break out of it is to turn the usual equipment/media selection process on its head. Instead of blocking out the subject and style of photograph in your mind and finding the right gear to get the job done, grab a camera you’ve never used before (or at least have never used on the subject at hand) and see where it takes you.
While setting down your Leica or Linhof and picking up a Holga might be called for in severe creativity droughts, such extreme measures are usually unnecessary. Like many photographers, I work in series. I don’t usually define the series in advance; it usually grows out of some other photographic project or something else that’s going on in my life at the time. Once I’m into the series, it slowly becomes clear to me what the focus of the work is. For my best work, that focus is narrow, which means that there are lots of limits. Dealing with those limits forces me to be inventive. There are many other reasons for series work (some of which may be the subject of another post), but I’m convinced that one of the not-so-obvious effects is that narrowing your options spurs creativity.