Introduction:I’m passionate about me! – I believe I have a job to do, and that job is to become the very best version of me; limited as it is by genetics, but otherwise constrained only by my imagination and commitment to apply myself. Over the years, I’ve made more excuses than I care to recall, but as I stride purposefully into my 50’s, I’m getting better at sticking to the job at hand – to become better at being me.
What does this mean? Measurement of this isn’t purely subjective, as others can have opinions. For some, my abstaining from alcohol for the past year makes me a more boring version of me, but who’s opinion is more pertinent? The same goes for my images, with some viewers preferring one style or subject over another, but I like them all for different reasons, as each represents various aspects of my creativepersonality.
As a full time artist who has chosen photography as my expressivemedium, my relationship with my work and my personal development walk hand in hand. I work 365 days a year, either thinking or writing about creativity, or out there in the field experiencingthe landscapes and wildlife. Even a title like the one above can only be born on a long hike through a wet Scottish Glen!
In the short introduction I highlighted three words:
Creative | Expressive | Experiencing
These three horsemen of the artistic apocalypse are my ever present companions and form the foundation of everything I do. Surely life is all about experiences, both good and bad? They shape us, define our preferences, give us hits of adrenalin and endorphins, and shape our personalities as we push boundaries and expand horizons. Creativity and Expression coexist, as they are our pathways to say something/anything about these experiences we’re having and how they are morphing us into better versions of ourselves.
This time last year I was in the Gobi Desert with my wife having one of those experiences we’re talking about. Hundreds of miles from the nearest road, alone in an area half the size of Scotland with just our zen-like driver, and spending our days ascending 1600 feet sand dunes in a 4×4. I felt very small and vulnerable, but once I had control of the fear, I was able to explore areas of myself I didn’t know existed. During that time, I developed a way of shooting that was new to me; I stopped thinking about image-making and began only pointing my camera at things that stimulated me in some way on a subconscious level. It’s harder than it sounds, but I’ll go on in this article to explain how allowing the subconscious to flow and create without conscious interruption is a gateway to greater understanding of ourselves and in turn a freedom to create that many find frustratingly illusive.
Flow States:This expression has become something of a buzz word, often interchangeable with “Being in the Zone,” and we are each entitled to our definition of what those things mean to us. Through my own analysis as an artist, I feel my own zone, or flow state is achieved when I allow my subconscious to drive. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that you cannot be in a flow state if you are conscious of being in it, or actively trying to achieve it!
This last sentence is huge, and I will spend the rest of this article explaining why!
What does a flow state feel like? Probably the easiest one to relate to is when you drive a car and as you park at your destination you come to the rather alarming realisation that you have no recollection of the journey at all! How many thousands of minute little decisions, actions and observations did we make without any conscious awareness of them? I’m not saying we weren’t subconsciouslyaware, and that’s the point; we’re awake, observing and acting, but our consciousness wouldn’t kick in until one of the multitude of potential accident risks manifest itself. Then, we’d fly out of our subconscious flow state into a very conscious, adrenalin filled awareness.
The split second when you realise you’re in flow state and become conscious of your actions, you are no longer in a flow state, even though you can be having sensations of being in the zone; you’re consciousness is now driving. These two aspects of our selves are complex and have become the backbones of psychology and understanding the nuances of human behaviours.
Flow States and Creativity: One caveat has to be stated at the start of all this; this is my opinion and it works for me – it is not the only way to make photographs. Hopefully however, it can shine a light on some of the obstacles many people find between themselves and their Utopian view of themselves as creative, expressive beings. It is the most commonly requested theme on our workshops – “How can I become more creative?”
I’ve already stated that I believe my best work is a function of being in a subconscious flow state; be that with a camera in my hand, or in front of the computer processing images. I believe this state is the only way I can tap into my innateperspectives without convention, judgement, societal acceptance or fear getting in the way. The highlighted word in the previous sentence is the key: But why should I be interested in the Innate?
Simply, if I allow my innate to drive, I can see into my own subconscious and feel more confident in the belief that what I am expressing is true to my own sense of the aesthetic and not confined by popular definitions. This is why I make photographs; to explore my innate appreciation of the aesthetic, which in turn corresponds to my own development as a human and my ability to experience a reality. By living this methodology I’ve discovered much about myself and my innate expression of beauty, uncorrupted by popular opinion.
Barriers to Flow:
Technique:In practical terms being in a flow state while doing something technical is the Mount Everest of challenges. When you’re first learning to drive, the idea of getting from A to B without constant conscious awareness of every tiny element of the mechanics of steering, signalling, observing, gear-changing and indicating is ludicrous. In fact, our driving epiphany takes place when we no longer have to think about the above and it actually becomes a subconscious act. You really only “focus your subconscious awareness” on seeing, which is where to point the car and what to avoid hitting. Does that sound familiar to a photographer!
Driving a camera is the same, you will not find a flow state if you are thinking about gear in any way: Apertures, shutter speeds, ISO’s, filters, lens choices, focal lengths, focus, tripod position, or even composition. The second you think “I’ll put that rock there to juxtapose a strong diagonal to that nice jaggy mountain over there,” that’s not flow, that’s consciousness.
The more technical your chosen field of photography is, the longer it will take you to find flow in your methodology. I practise technical things in meaningless situations to relegate craft to my subconscious, which in turn allows for a state of flow in more meaningful scenarios. The camera is a catalyst to creativity, not the means. It’s job is to record the light on the medium of your choice – nothing more.
The Art of Photography in the field is about feeling, experiencing, responding and arranging, but with limited, or at best, no conscious awareness of your actions. If your into High Dynamic range wide-angled, panoramic, focus-stacked images, your chances of finding a true flow state in there are exponentially reduced! This explains why my images have become technically more simplistic in recent years; not necessarily to look at, but in terms of their capture. I do still make the occasional technically challenging image, but years of doing it have enabled a certain casual competence in the craft; but even then, I would not define that experience as a true flow state, but I’m getting closer to that holy grail!
This realisation that technical shortcomings or unfamiliarity in the tools of our trade can be the most likely barrier to our creative expression is a humbling one. Reading the camera manual and keeping images simple is the surest way I know to start building creative confidence quickly. Few of us are patient enough to learn to crawl before we can walk, especially with a new flashy camera in our hands. Equipment is the success story of our industry and the manufacturers keep us drooling with new releases on an almost annual basis. Keep it Simple, the rewards come faster. The same mantra is true in processing, questions like “How to make that selection to adjust the contrast in that area there?” are barriers to creative expression as well. I’ve said before, Creativity is born on a platform of technical proficiency.
Rules:I can see the point of rules, but a point comes when they stop being helpful and start becoming a crutch, or worse yet, a box that confines our sense of self and our creative spirit. Comments along the lines of “If the horizon is not on a third line, the image is wrong,” are destructive to a budding artist’s sense of worth and confidence. We all respect the opinions of our peers, but be careful how you word them!
What are you trying to say? Where the horizon is placed has a profound effect on the balance and harmony of the image. It is yourintention that determines it’s location in the composition, not a rule, or guideline; or worse yet, someone else’s interpretation of where it should be based on their vision!
In terms of the impact of rules on our Subconscious Flow State; you cannot be in the zone if you are consciously composing images based on rules or conventions. If you’re having an internal dialogue along these lines: “I’ll put the horizon on the top third, that sea stack on the top right power point and then the creek running diagonally from bottom left to top right to lead the eye to the sea stack” then that, I am afraid, is not innate and it’s not subconscious. The result may be competent and it may even be popular and amazing, but it’s not telling you anything you don’t know about yourself or your creative vision.
Popularity:The third and final barrier to flow is making images that will be popular, based on current trends. This is probably the thing that creates the most conflict for working professionals today, as well as with aspiring amateurs. The similarity with the chart music is explicit. A style of music becomes popular, let’s say Rap. Within 6 months, 80% of all songs in the top 40 have some rap section in them. We see it all the time in landscape photography; certain locations become very popular, such as Iceland, Namibia, Patagonia or even our own Isle of Skye. Long exposure black and white, wide angled, high dynamic range, focus stacked images, Milky Ways, auroras, lighthouses and giant waves.
None of these things in themselves are inherently bad, nor am I in any way judging, but creativity and expression finally part company here. I read an article by Guy Tal recently that said (and I paraphrase). Nobody ever takes a photograph of an iconic view and says Original Composition by photographer X performance by photographer Y. Whereas in music, someone playing a Mozart Violin Concerto does not claim they created the score. Having played guitar at an average level for 30 years I can attest to that. I can play a passable rendition of a Dave Gilmour guitar solo, which may be expressive, but I could never write anything of that sublime nature myself. I did not create the relationship of the notes, I only influence the nuance of the performance.
Consciousness Cycling:In this final part, I aim to pull the whole thing together with the goal of achieving enlightenment! I like a challenge!
I believe in experiential learning: Building on our successes, gaining wisdom from our mistakes, fine-tuning efficiency based on reflection. Photography is the ultimate reflective medium, we can see right in front of our eyes the product of every action we took throughout the conception, birth and development of an image. I have waxed lyrical on the virtues of subconscious flow in our seeing, shooting and executing of image making. This even extends into the darkroom/processing stage. I want to be in a flow state when I’m stood at my desk working on turning RAW data into expressive photographs. In fact, I onlywork meaningful images when in a flow state, when I want to be there, feeling it.
If I achieve my artistic Utopia and an image has been shot and processed in a flow state, it can open doors of understanding that were not only closed, I didn’t appreciate that there was even a door. (Very Tolkeinesque!) When I look at a final image, and consciousness returns, I can be amazed at what I see. Something I did not consider was in me creatively, a freshness, a uniqueness of vision and expression that I recognise as me. Words coming unbidden to the surface, words that needed to be said, emotions that need to be exorcised, joy, agony, frivolity, it’s all good, and it’s all locked up in there ready to party.
Consciousness Cycling is my way of saying that I examine and review my Flow State work to gain insights into me. I look for themes, concepts, mirrors to other elements of my life or the zeitgeist. Each image becomes a little snapshot of a moment, not just the one recorded, but the essence of now; the me now and the out there now! If I allow my innate to flow and speak uncensored I can find the me inside, rather that the me with a perceived style, popularity or conventional competence.
Taking that reflective step, to examine what you have done in a state of flow, and try to understand why is a powerful pathway to personal, spiritual and physical development. A year ago I was in worse shape than I am in today, defying the rules of ageing! Our existence as creative artists lays a heavy burden on us, an obligation to take what we do seriously and set bars for ourselves higher than we ever believe we can reach. But, this responsibility comes with a bill, a debt that has to be paid, and we pay it with dedication, commitment, self-motivation and discipline. I stopped looking outward for inspiration and year ago, and have found the pastures locked inside my subconscious to be a fruitful wilderness for me to explore through being in flow states and the art of consciousness cycling.