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A Spiral Model of Creativity

Becoming a More Creative Photographer Column by Harold Davis, August 2009 (updated November 2009)


Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

This is the seventh—and final—column in my series about Becoming a More Creative Photographer. The purpose of these columns is to help you become a more creative photographer. I hope that you’ll find the self-assignments I suggest in these columns helpful in that goal. If you do want to get quickly up to speed on the earlier columns, please take a look at the introduction to the series of columns, or the summary of the content of the five extent columns at the beginning of the sixth column, Setting Limits.

I won’t summarize the previous six columns in this introduction, because this column itself will go over much of the ground covered in the previous columns. Instead, I’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s the thing in a nutshell. When we photograph, or make art, we are in a relationship with our subjects and with our art. Like relationships with flesh-and-blood humans, photography in this sense can only prosper if we don’t hold on and cling too tightly.

If you try to have a relationship with a person where you smother them and never have any trust that they can function independently, the relationship won’t work. The same thing is true about your photography. You cannot smother it too tightly and must be prepared to give your craft, subjects and art time and space to develop.

True richness in photography comes from in-depth work with subjects and techniques.

You need to let go. At the same time, you need to dig in to achieve greater levels of depth. How is this paradox successfully resolved?

The answer lies in adopting a spiral model of creativity. Most likely, you move away from your subject once you’ve thoroughly explored it. At a later time you can circle back, perhaps not at exactly the same place, and come to know your subjects—and your photos—in a different and larger way.

This is what I mean by a spiral model of creativity.

Preparing for Serendipity

The essence of many kinds of photography is recognizing serendipitous moments and objects. For example, chance is key in field and street photography. Even in tightly controlled studio conditions, circumstance and quickly using new ideas play an important role.

Fortune favors the prepared mind. Odd as it seems, you can prepare to take advantage of things that come up. Be aware of the lighting, your surroundings, what might come along and how you might use it. Think ahead of time what some creative options might be.

As I wandered in a field of sunflowers, I considered that it would be neat if a flower core contained spiral elements. So I looked closely for a “spiral” flower center, and made the photo shown left.

Your assignment: Consider a particular visual motif or theme, for example, a spiral shape or the color red. Then go someplace where you are likely to find photographic subject matter that matches your motif. You are only allowed a little wiggle room: in other words, you can adjust things a bit, but don’t create a composition from whole cloth. See how many interesting photos you can make using your selected motif.

The philosopher Emerson wrote that “a foolish consistency is the petty hobgoblin of small minds.” Being prepared for serendipity, and embracing it when it comes, keeps us from being petty hobgoblins who place consistency and regularity above the marvelous force of artistic creativity.

For more about this topic, see I: Expecting the Unexpected.

Targeting the Essence

If photography matters, it is because we photograph what matters to ourselves. The appreciation of others for our visual ideas comes later. Try to understand what it is hat you care about and why you care. With this in mind, you can create images that people will respond to because they sense your caring. They will care themselves.

In a bucket on the street in front of a florist shop, a white Dahlia looked a bit forlorn. It was by no means perfect with some blemished and torn leaves. But I saw a magnificent spiral and partially symmetrical form that far outweighed the surface issues presented by this flower.

My original concept was to present my photo of this flower in black and white (left below), and I was pleased with how this came out. But I decided I also wanted to create a color version (right below) that showed the transparency and sensuousness of this flower in a way that the black and white version did not.

Your assignment: Photograph something that is not perfect, but nonetheless contains seeds of magnificence. Present your photo (or photos) in multiple ways that show different aspects of your subject. For example, a black and white version and a color version, or two different angles or two different focal length lenses.

For more about this topic, see II: Focusing on What Matters.

Designing Your Images

At its core, photography translates a three dimensional world to a two dimensional rendering on paper or monitor. This translation implies that creating a photograph is an act of design.

It behooves us as photographers to become conscious of the design aspects of our craft. While art school design rules should not be followed rigidly, we shouldn’t accept sloppy visual compositions.

A chambered Nautilus shell, like the one left, is a beautiful visual symbol of proportion in composition. The spiral within the shell is a great way to represent the creative journey.

Your assignment: Create a photographic composition that involves a spiral.

For more about this topic, see III: Becoming Composition Conscious.

Beyond Literal Vision

Things that most people can see are not that interesting. If everyone sees something, and they see it every day, and you are not showing it to them in a different way, then what is the point?

At best, something seen in the normal way might become postcard quality. This is not great art.

To make a photo truly interesting, it should show something in a new way, or something that is not normally seen or something that only a photo can make visible.

The image of stars in a nearly circular progression shown in the photo left was made by compositing many exposures taken over the course of several hours from a perch high on Glacier Point in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. While most people know that the earth is moving in space round the sun and that the earth is moving relative to the stars, it is unusual to see a visual representation of this effect.

Your assignment: Create a photo that shows something that is not often seen.

For more about this topic, see IV: Making the Unseen Visible.

Time Management for Creativity

It is a sad fact that our lives are limited and our time on earth is limited. It’s also the case that our time for creative work may be severely impacted by other responsibilities such as working for a living, taking care of kids, and so on.

Photography does not take place in a vacuum. It must exist along side of our “real” lives, our day jobs, our families and everything we love and hate about our existence.

With one “tusche” you can’t dance at two weddings, as my Grandma used to say. Therefore, it pays to be realistic and thoughtful about the wedding you want to dance at.

An important part of being a creative photographer is having good time management skills so you are in position at the right time and place—and so you don’t waste your time on dead ends.

I planned my trip to The Wave, a desert rock formation on the Arizona-Utah border, so that I would be there after sunset as the stars began to come out. Being able to photograph late let me capture the image shown left where the swirl of stars visually mimics the swirls in the rock formations.

Your assignment: Consider a destination and position for photography. Next, think about the ideal time to be there considering weather, direction of light, and so on. Plan it so that you are in location at the right time and place to make your photo.

For more about this topic, see V: Knowing When to Quit.

Narrowing Your Scope

When you feel creatively stuck set a limit. Without limits, the possibilities of what we can photograph are enormous. It is all too likely that the photographer without limitations will begin staring blankly into space and frothing at the mouth while the brain circuits fry over what should be photographed.

So if you don’t know what to photograph, limit yourself in time, space, subject matter, or technique.

At the same time, don’t limit yourself without knowing it. Fear that you cannot master a certain technique or that your photo won’t come out is no excuse for not trying and giving it your best.

No rules are absolute, and all rules are meant to be broken.

So when all else fails, set a limit for greater creative power. But don’t accept unconscious limits.

Photographing in San Francisco’s City Hall, I limited myself to capturing staircases, including the spiral back stair shown left. A just-married couple wandered into this four-second exposure—showing that creative self-limitation can often put you in situations to take advantage of serendipity.

Your assignment: Create a self limitation: photograph only at a specific time, or place. While filling this assignment, keep a special lookout for chance occurrences that you can use to benefit your image.

For more about this topic, see VI: Setting Limits.

Conclusion

These columns have been a great journey for me. I’ve enjoyed joining you in exploring the sources of photographic creativity. Writing these columns has helped me understand where my inspiration comes from. The process has also helped make me a stronger and richer photographer. So thank you for coming with me on this journey!

And journey it has been: the point is always the journey, not the destination. As a photographer when I focus on the process, the doing and the journey, I am happy and creative.

On the other hand, if I think about the end product—for example, my prints on a museum wall—I am diminishing my creativity. This kind of external results-oriented thinking is likely to leave me stuck in a rut. If I think too much about external results I become more like a photo ‘bot’ than a thinking, pulsing, sensitive human being who likes to take pictures.

Creativity is like a spiral, and the end of one phase should be the beginning of the next. There’s no reason you can’t go back to the beginning again, but this time starting a higher level. Join me in iterating the spiral process for becoming a more creative photographer. If you ever wake up in the morning feeling stuck, start with the assignments in Expecting the Unexpected and remember to:

  • Embrace serendipity by being prepared for the unexpected.
  • Focus on the essential elements of your chosen subjects.
  • Consider form and composition when you create photos.
  • Seek to reveal the previously unseen.
  • Use your time wisely when on a creative journey.
  • If you are creatively stuck, limit yourself; but be conscious of the ways in which you may be self-limiting without realizing it.

More

About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »


Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Article revised November 2009.

Readers' Comments


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Riva Berkovitz , November 17, 2009; 08:33 P.M.

Take a look at this website.

http://jwilson.coe.uga.edu/EMAT6680/Parveen/Fib_nature.htm

It explains the spirals in nature and the Fibonacci numbers.

Riva Berkovitz , November 17, 2009; 08:52 P.M.


Sunflower

Photo of the spiral in a sunflower.

Mariellen Romer , November 18, 2009; 08:01 A.M.

This ia a beautifully considered column. Thank you very much for sharing it with us all.

Your photographs are inspiring.

Miguel Rodriguez , December 23, 2009; 08:22 A.M.

Thanks a lot Harold. Great set of articles. Excellent guidelines and inspirational assignments. As an amateur I have been applying some or most of the principles you described without even knowing it. for example, I love the idea of "making the unseen visible". If you have a moment plese have a look at my white light spiral at http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=10391311 , I would appreciate any comment from you.

Thanks again


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