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.
Huntington Witherill says
As a counterpoint to “Creating Inside the Box”, vis-a-vis Jeff Bezo’s “frugality drives innovation”… I believe you’ve essentially substituted the word: “limitations” for the word: “frugality”. Thus, the quote would then be reinterpreted as: “limitations drive creativity”.
I disagree. (Strenuously!) (Or… as Dan Akyroid used to say, on Saturday Night Live: “Jane, you ignorant slut!”) 🙂
If we’re going to apply catch phrases to help explain some of the intangibles that drive creativity, I’d prefer the old adage: “With freedom comes responsibility.”
I believe the reason so many people feel more comfortable with limitations, is because they then can feel somehow absolved of having to take responsibility for the decisions they make. (The more limitations you have, the less decisions you are able to make, and therefore, the less responsibility you need take.) You said it, yourself… “when I don’t set limits for myself, I get lazy and take the easy way out”.
My take is that if one is able to exercise some self-control (some responsibility) and resist the tendency to become lazy, having unlimited freedom in one’s creativity is a far more optimal condition for driving that creativity, than is the act of placing some form of self-imposed and artificial limitation.
Photography (like any other artistic pursuit) is all about making choices. The only reason I can think of to limit those choices, would be so that one could then excuse themselves from taking responsibility for the choices they’ve made.
Unlimited freedom is not necessarily the easiest, nor most expedient route toward fostering creativity (or anything else, in life). But, in my view, restricting one’s freedom will do nothing more than to restrict one’s choices. And, if you restrict one’s choices, you’ve then done nothing more than to restrict their creativity. Again, taking responsibility is the key.
Don’t limit yourself. And, don’t be lazy. Enjoy your freedom and exercise it with a sense of responsibility. Choose wisely, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If you do, you’ll find your creativity has no bounds. Limit yourself, and you’ve done nothing more than to stifle your own creativity.
kim suominen says
Nah.. I don’t agree completely with neither of you.
My creativity is, as I’ve experienced it, best when I get free hands, BUT within certain limits. When talking about equipment it’s a whole other story, I can’t even count all the times I’d needed a good wide angle lens, having to settle for a small tele. As expected, the picture produced wasn’t that great, and more importantly, nowhere even near what I’d planned it to be.
All too free hands often only confuses me. “Create something nice!” .. Without knowing even near what to do. That’s bound to be taking shots in the dark. Either they like it, or not.
Frugality doesn’t work for too long either, at some point you start repeating yourself trying to come out with great stuff at minimum cost. Worked one time, works again, and again, and again… And so forth.
I’d put my bet on diversity in both work, ways and equipment. First come up with an idea, then produce it with your equipment. Also, equipment obtained piece by piece, over a long period of time and handled with proficiency (and passion!) usually works like an extension to your body. You simply know what it’s capable of. That alone ought to put your thoughts and creativity on the right tracks from the very beginning, hindering any too complicated ideas.
I don’t think I stifle my creativity with boundaries.. It’s all about working with the current situation and making the most of it. Creativity, afterall, isn’t what people usually think it is. Creativity is indeed creating something completely new – but it’s mostly working with old information, and through that creating something new, adapting to other situations and coming up with alternative solutions.
I can’t work if you don’t give me something to work with..
Just my five penny thoughts.