It was getting too dark for photos. I was on a narrow road within a menacing forest. Dorothy growled into the gloom. Then, like a ghost, a solitary coyote emerged toward us. After sizing us up, it turned and trotted off up the road. My cellphone beeped. The curious coyote stopped for one magic second and held us once more with glowing eyes. For a moment I had the realization that we were fellow travellers.
It’s an exercise that’s guaranteed to sharpen up observation and creativity. You have to accept the proposition that looking through a camera viewfinder and taking pictures is a valid creative tool. Rather than letting subject matter move you, in this exercise you are called upon to be moved by a prompt. “Timed creativity” needs to be set to suit each individual, and may vary in different environments. Walking in an enriched place might call for a creative moment every minute or so. Every three or five minutes works best when in a car.
A kitchen timer is perhaps the handiest, except that it often has to be reset after each beep. Some wristwatches or alarm clocks can be set to go off regularly. A simple timer that’s readily available is the cellphone. Most mobiles these days have an audible beep that can be set to alert the owner that there was a missed call. You need to call your cellphone and not answer it in order to get a regular insistent beep. Mine’s set for every five minutes — and it goes on indefinitely.
When the beep goes off you immediately compose and shoot whatever is available. With digital it won’t cost you a penny. Things are truly seen when you have an obligation to do something about them. In the city or the country the exercise can be exhilarating. It’s in familiar environments, particularly, that you realize you’re making gains. Time and again you hear yourself saying, “Why didn’t I notice that before?”
The second part of the exercise is where you bring the timed material back to your computer. I run my shots through Picasa 2 and give myself a slide show. Water reflections, distant vistas and patterns at the feet, mixed with human interaction and architecture, gain interest on the big screen. The world becomes an even more interesting place, calling for further study, understanding, and pictorial love.
PS: “Wolves are hunters; they are adaptable with eyes that absorb their landscape. Be like a wolf — fascinated and alive with curiosity.” (Michael Duncan)
Esoterica: The digital revolution has introduced the free and wholesale collection of images. A curiosity prompt heightens the senses and hones compositional ability. The system will find yourself making “tweeners,” those images you grab between the timed obligatory ones. Don’t resist. Even a trip to Safeway can become a creative bonanza. I always thought creative folks did this sort of thing automatically. I was wrong. Visual tonics such as “timed creativity” need to be introduced to refresh and refurbish the muse.
The decisive moment
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Perhaps one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists, Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote the best essay about timed creativity, The Decisive Moment, in his famous book, The Mind’s Eye. Forethought, observation, anticipation, and the action of taking a photograph in the decisive moment, is the heart and soul of his philosophy. Concentration, discipline of mind, and sensitivity are the foundation of putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. That’s timed creativity.
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I love your camera idea. I do a similar exercise with my painting students called Progressive Paintings. I time them for fifteen minutes and then ask them to immediately look in a new direction for another 15 minute painting, and then again for another. We line all of the paintings up and evaluate the progress. It is amazing to see how much better they become as we move through the exercise.
by Carol Ann Cain, FL, USA
I wonder if it is better to take hundreds of digital photos in hopes of getting one great shot, or if one should take care and time to shoot an interesting, composed shot. Ansel Adams could only carry so many heavy plates with him on his photography shoots and he had to be particular. Perhaps the digital camera is abating great photographers due to the taking of excessive images.
Adopting the ‘Visitor’s eye’
by Florence Nicholson, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
It was only today, when walking along the “same old river walk,” (but with visitors from Australia this time) that I felt the same thrill of seeing a familiar place through someone else’s eyes. “Why didn’t I notice that before?” was my instant reaction. I found myself taking as many pictures as my visitors! What excitement to view familiar sights through other’s perception! My camera will become the “Visitor’s eye” as I adopt your Timed Creativity routine.
Cameras without guilt
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
The digital wave has helped amplify creativity. I rarely leave home without my Panasonic Lumix. For myself, the most appealing element on the camera is the burst feature. Taking numerous shots of any given inspiration opens up a plethora of inventive options. I love returning home from a day trip, uploading the memory card into the computer and finding “happy accidents” on the monitor. It’s a treat to discover perfect compositions made fully by nature. A streak of light that falls perfectly between groups of trees, or clouds that are intensely lined by the radiant sun. Snapping pictures of mountains from the car can cast uncanny illusions, as if they are in motion. Even rain can make an exquisite symphony of shapes on screen. Cameras are undeniably an expansion on the artist’s vision and should be used for the sake of image reference… without guilt.
Photographer as car passenger
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I, too, have taken advantage of the digital mania. My eyes have led me to taking photos while driving, which is not to be recommended, and I have limited myself because of safety concerns. Bad enough living in Los Angeles with cellphone conversations dominating the freeways as well as the airwaves. If I’m lucky enough to be a passenger, there’s no holding me back. It gets to the point that the driver will ask (if it’s safe), “Do you want me to pause here?” Sometimes you get lucky.
Narrative of chance
by Steve Banhegyi, South Africa
Through a stimulating, interactive workshop we provide participants with first hand experience of how techniques inspired by African divination can be an aid to critical and creative thinking and equip problem solvers to deal with information and knowledge in complex systems. The workshop is not ‘flakey’ in any way and is facilitated in such a way that it will not offend any participant’s religious sensibilities. The process engages the narrative of chance, and how useful different views of a complex dynamic can be. The process is a fun way to trigger moments of creative brilliance and stimulate breakthrough into new visions and possibilities. Through the random configuration of meaningful symbolic objects, divination initiates breakthroughs in limiting thought patterns and generates new ideas and associations.
Whole new world
by Lianne Gulka, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Recently I enrolled in my first advanced photo course with an upgraded digital. Wow, I’m opening up a whole new world! Though, it can be a bit frustrating. Do you find that what is a perfect “photo” shot isn’t necessarily a great painting shot? I found myself looking more for lines/shapes etc. for composition as opposed to lighting in the middle of the day. Photography is becoming more painting-like with all the digital editing opportunities available. I’ve often wished I always had a camera in my glove compartment to catch the unknown and the “happy accidents” as my teacher referred to this weekend.
(RG note) Thanks, Lianne. There are photos — and there are photos that are useful for paintings. Pure photography opens the mind to possibilities and enhances seeing. Taking reference photos for paintings is a methodological process that works toward another vision. In the building of this vision, more than one photo is often needed. It’s been my experience that there are very few “ready-mades” — photos that can be simply turned into paintings. Painter-wise, photos tend to be laden with pictorial problems.
Creativity by distance travelled
by William Leo Cranny, Kalamunda, Western Australia
I pre-select a road out of town and stop at a regular, pre-determined distance, sometimes 1km, sometimes more. After traveling the required distance I pull over and paint whatever is before me, allowing myself the luxury of choosing to select a subject in any direction. I carry several 8″ x 6″ MDF panels (underpainted yellow, orange or cadmium red and limit my painting time to 30 minutes at each stop. As J. M. W. Turner said, “There’s a sketch at every turn.” For me it’s an oil sketch every kilometer or two. The time limit and the discipline of using only No.8, No.6 and No.4 hog filberts cancels out any tendency one might have to fiddle around and overwork the paint surface. The payoff is a more spontaneous look to my work. What’s more, I now keep breaking the record for time taken in setting up and taking down my French easel.
Discovering through observation
by Vivien Jean Budgen (Dymond)
This is the same concept as filling a page in your sketch book every day. It’s the same concept that Kimon Nicolaides’ in The Natural Way to Draw suggests we record our observations. Your timed photography idea accelerates these ideas. As a professional, your job is to find beauty or interest or excitement. It’s the same principle as Julia Cameron’s morning pages in The Artist’s Way or journaling. Do your craft, practice your art, keep doing it regardless of what comes out. Suddenly you will become skilled. Gradually you will see a pattern in your musings, your discoveries. Appreciation will grow. Your art, your writing, will become a connector that is greater than yourself. “There is only one right way to draw… physical contact with all sorts of objects through all the senses.” (Kimon Nicolaides)
A photo for all seasons
by Angela Sheard, Rieti, Italy
I still take pictures with a traditional film camera and pay to develop them. Though every film ends with my never-quite-agreed-to-be domesticated, ex-stray cat Shadow, they are mostly of a very beautiful Italian Apennine landscape that I love beyond words. “Pictorial love” is the perfect description of my attempts to take some of this beloved place with me in my portfolio. I revisited one site last week which I have photographed in several seasons. It is a narrow piece of road at the head of a small lake, and in winter the meadows flood and reflect the mountain. There is also a particularly photogenic herd of white, long-horn Abbruzzi cattle in the view. In spring, the meadow drains again and there is a large patch of wild yellow flag irises but I missed capturing them this year as I couldn’t stop for following traffic. So I went back this week to add a high summer picture to my collection, only to find that the summer dryness had taken all the interest out of the view. Everything one colour, a dusty green fading to yellow, no reflections, the mountain draped in heat haze. Nothing left of the drama and endless interest of the wild winter, the tender, cold spring or dazzling autumn.
Car wash magic awakening
by Rose Moon, Sedona, AZ, USA
Last winter I visited some friends in the Bay Area whose daughter had recently graduated from a prestigious art school. Her hopeful and proud parents’ excitement fell when the graduate became a hermit in her room and only appeared for an occasional meal. I emailed ahead of my visit and made arrangements for the daughter to drive me into the city to visit some museums and have lunch. The antisocial young woman, though feeling put out to have to drive an older auntie visitor around for the day, agreed. The day arrived and she decided to first pull into a car wash on the way. I pulled out my handy purse digital camera and began snapping photos as we went through the wash. It was magic. She woke up from her trance and we had a wonderful time the whole day.
Life of unfinished projects
by Alan Dorrell, United Kingdom
Picasso, besides being talented and clever, was fortunate because, while looking to explore other possibilities in manners of painting, he was successful. For myself as an artist, I have reached a time of life where I accept that, while I have shown some talent in quite a range of activities, I have never become either totally obsessed or top dog. While I type this I am looking at some unfinished paintings. As well, out in the workshop lies my barely commenced long case clock, my half finished reproduction lowboy, and the yet to be commenced second working model steam loco I intended to build thirty years ago.
Camera good portable medium
by Cyd Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
I think the main advantage photographers have over other artists is that we carry our medium with us everywhere we go. I have a variety of cameras, each with its own purpose — to fit in a certain size purse, a back pocket, full size kit for major hunts, studio cameras that are precious and not to be touched by anybody but me. A photographer really doesn’t need a beeper to remind them to be creative, but rather a beeper to remind them to pull back from the hunt and join the human race from time to time. Many times during a meal or a vacation when my hands are empty because I’ve left the camera at home, my husband will say, “For crying out loud, will you stop taking pictures!” In my mind I silently forgive him for calling them “pictures” instead of “photographs” and let him live to see another day.
Even though I have the deeply ingrained habit of seeing everything as composition, color, mood, concept, there is always more to be learned. I recently had the good fortune of being in New York City in the company of some of the best photographers in the business. During a ferry ride with a master by my side, my attention was constantly pulled away from the obvious and directed to the thousands upon thousands of beautiful abstracts that were everywhere. I took over 200 shots on that ferry ride, but not a single one of the Statue of Liberty. In the studio of James Porto, I was stunned to learn that my eye missed so many fine points of composition that the master could see as he viewed what looked to me like just a bunch of “pictures” of the same pose a dancer had held as he danced around her. I came home humbled and more deeply entrenched in the perpetual hunt.
That said, I am a sculptor at heart and in practice, but I will always work as a photographer because there is no finer training for the artist. It teaches one the compulsion of art.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Myrle McIntosh of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “With all the (de)construction going on, it causes me to wonder, with pain in my heart, where all the dear creatures of our world are going to be.”
And also Holly Friesen of Canada who wrote, “Nature has a way of sending us the gifts we need at exactly the right moment if we are prepared for them.”
And also Judith Madsen who wrote, “With digital cameras, computers, Photoshop, printers, how lucky we are to be of this amazing technological age and to embrace this newfound knowledge and education.”