How understanding the abstract nature of the photographic process can lead to creative breakthroughs
Everyone is and can be creative. It is an innate trait stretching back to the first people who picked up a rock to use as a tool. Look at a toddler and tell me some people aren't born with creativity (it is everything else that gets in the way of creativity as we become adults).
If it is impossible to create something new where nothing existed previously, then new things can only be created from the transformation and connection of existing things. In art it can be thought of as making connections between seemingly completely unrelated things or ideas. Prehistoric humans didn't create the rock or the bird they killed with it. They made the connection between the rock on the ground, the bird, and dinner in their belly.
So what is creativity in the photographic sense?
It has nothing to do with visualization, Sorry, Ansel...
If all you are doing is creating things you've already visualized then the actually making of it becomes drudgery, and ultimately unrewarding. You can't learn to see anything new if all you are creating are the images floating around in your consciousness. Even less so if you are hampered by preconceptions, expectations, and rules.
What IS rewarding, and what mastery allows for, is the ability to tap into the images floating around in you subconscious. It is getting to the mental/emotional space for your innate creativity to connect all those ideas and things you have previously seen into completely new ideas—new pictures.
You can call it Zen, the Zone, Transcendence, etc. but all you have is yourself, a tool, and the thing in font of you. And it is up to you to get out of your own way and allow yourself to see the connection between them.
Before I started this site and settled on the name BWMastery.com I thought long and hard about the perception people might have of me calling myself a "master" at this digital black and white stuff.
I've always been one to run away from those calling themselves a guru of anything, and here I am with a site based on Mastery and telling people I can show them the path to it. So how is this site any different, and why should you not run away too (or come after me with torches and pitchforks)?
Mastering something is essentially a process of learning something, applying it, measuring the results, and then recalibrating your perception and reaction to the thing in front of you. You do that again, and again, and again . . . until it becomes second nature.
This process can be done on your own, but usually requires many years of practice, failing and learning. And even then, you might be missing something that a well-informed teacher or thoughtful critique could have corrected or tweaked earlier in the process. This is exactly why people seek teachers, seek mentors, and attend master-classes. For the most part, technique is easy, and refining the skills associated with any technique simply boils down to practice and knowing when to use the tool.
So what exactly IS mastery in photography? I think it is like other creative pursuits where people talk about being "in the zone" when doing something—playing basketball, playing music, photographing. Mastery is the point where everything fades to the background and you can reach new creative heights. I think of it as state of being without friction.
Photography—cameras, lights, printing in the darkroom, or digitally in photoshop—takes brain power, or bandwidth, as it's being referred to now. When you have to think about the process or technical aspects of what you are doing it takes bandwidth away from creativity.
In the few posts I will address what I refer to as 'creativity' in regards to photographing and the editing process.