Creative Motivation

There isn’t a single, simple answer to this, partly because my fascination with photography and the kind of work I do has evolved over many years. But I think one constant throughout that evolution has been that I enjoy working with the process, the interaction of creative ideas and the successful use of tools and techniques to realize them. When I was a kid, photography was a hobby that was just fun and a bit magical. The first time you see a print of anything begin to appear under the darkroom safelight, it’s a thrill, but there really wasn’t any creative ambition driving it. As I learned more about the craft and about the work of many other photographers, the two dynamics of creativity and technique became more inseparable as parts of the same process.

This is an early favorite, taken during my senior year in college. I went to a Halloween party with friends, and we were all costumed as ghoulish characters. One of the girls had painted her face with white acrylic, but when she started to peel it off she looked even more bizarre. So I grabbed my cheapo 35mm camera and took two snaps. When I first printed this image all those years ago it was very exciting, mostly because it was arresting and different.

A year or so later I lived with a friend in Ridgefield, CT. The house had most recently been a doctor’s residence and office so there was a perfect space for a darkroom. My friend and I were making ends meet by painting houses all week, but a favorite thing to do on Saturday was to put a roll of black-and-white film in the camera and spend the morning around the house or in the nearby woods taking pictures. Then I would go into the darkroom to develop and dry the roll of negatives. When that was done I would set up for printing with big trays of chemicals and make a contact sheet so I could look at thumbnails of all the images. Then I would spend hours working with the enlarger to see if I could come up with one or two decent prints. The fun was still the process more than the end product, but the work with the camera and the results in the darkroom were more connected, partly through trial and error (a good teacher if you pay attention) and partly through creative intent.

These kinds of Saturdays were quickly eclipsed by the need to “retire” from house painting and find alternative employment. Along the way I did a fair amount of commercial photography where the process was quite different. The main objective, of course, was to come up with images that made a particular client happy, and to do this I had to learn more about color photography, lighting and composition. Although I learned a lot, the images I worked to create were what someone else wanted, not necessarily what was interesting to me.

Most of my career involved some intersection between creative and technical things. During my years in marketing, we were constantly balancing the creative demands of partners like Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”) with the realities of low-cost toy manufacturing in China and the service demands of clients like Burger King. Much of this was about problem solving but it was really just another process, albeit with more complicated variables. And during this very busy time my photographic work was mostly limited to recording family activities, gatherings and milestones.

This began to change as we had more time for wilderness backpacking in the Sierras, the Rockies and other destinations. For the first time in a long time, I found myself in an environment where the camera was just part of the experience, along for the ride. I found myself interested in panoramas and panographs and did some early experiments. But once again the process was about just looking (at beautiful things) and reacting with the camera. Everything I worked on was in color so the days of the “wet” home darkroom were over, but the digital revolution got started not long after the camera got creatively busy again.

I’ll never forget going on a weekend hike to the summit of San Jacinto near Palm Springs with an early digital camera, an Olympus 5050. Along the trail there was a foggy mist that sometimes obscured boulders and other things. When I got home and looked at this image on my computer screen, I was amazed. It isn't a great photograph, but I never expected that the atmosphere of the moment could be so convincingly captured and rendered. That’s when I decided I wanted to really learn about the digital darkroom from soup to nuts. I realized that with digital (and some free time) I could once again control the whole process.

Years later, after learning much more about the creative and technical sides of digital photography, I finally had time to think about what the work was ultimately for. Was I doing it only for myself and family? For others? I decided to take the image-making process a step further and learn about framing and presentation. This was partly an economic consideration because good mounting and framing is very expensive, but I also learned I could better control how my images would look when exhibited for others.

So now the process has come full circle. It begins with a creative idea and ends with finished images ready for hanging. If I feel like an image would look good in my house, maybe it would look good in others.