I often find that books I read on subjects other than photography are more helpful to me than books that are directly about it. One I go back to frequently is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone, which is about theatrical improvisation. I have little or no interest in theatrical improvisation itself, but what fascinates me about the content is how easily it can be applied to any aspect of life, including photography.
One of the most interesting sections is on spontaneity and originality. As artists, we all aspire to be original but so much of the time our work is lacking in it. Johnstone’s view is that the more we strive to be original, the more likely we are to fail, and that’s usually because it leads us to constantly censor how we respond. When he teaches students to come up with successful improvisations, he asks them to do or say the very first thing that comes into their heads. When they do this the improvisation works but when they hesitate slightly and substitute something they think is more acceptable or more interesting or more original, it kills the whole thing. We all know how it feels to see someone try too hard – it’s never effective.
The worst possible thing improvisers can do, according to Johnstone, is to make a deliberate effort to be original. This always falls flat anyway, and usually they think they’re being original when in fact their ‘originality’ is the same as everyone else’s – a bit like punks rebelling against authority and the pressure to conform, but all doing it in the same way so that it becomes just a different way of conforming. ‘I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place’, says Johnstone, ‘Some idiot would always shout out either “Leicester Square public lavatories” or “outside Buckingham Palace”. People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers‘.
Thinking too much before you shoot is a certain way to produce photographer’s block. For a while, due to some tactlessly delivered criticism from a tutor, I kept hearing the word ‘trite’ in my head every time I went to take a shot. No doubt most – perhaps all – of the resulting images would have been trite, but to censor myself like this meant I froze so much I couldn’t take anything at all. And maybe, just maybe, had I let myself take without judgement what presented itself to me then there may have appeared the germ of a good idea in there. And even if it hadn’t, if I’d continued to shoot for long enough then the odds would have got higher that something would appear – creativity can often be a numbers game. The first shots anyone takes are frequently trite and obvious, but if they do what’s obvious and get it out of the way, they make space for something more interesting to develop.
Johnstone emphasises that there are two points to consider here. The first is that we must let go of that hesitation, that self-censorship, and allow the first impulse to emerge even if we think it’s too obvious or too dull. The second is that when we do this, what starts out as objectively obvious and dull can actually become original and intriguing to others in no time at all. It still feels obvious to the person doing it, but they’ve moved away from the obviousness that comes from conformity, to the uniquely obvious that comes from deep within them. ‘An artist who is inspired is being obvious’, says Johnstone, ‘He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.’ Johnstone goes on to say: ‘No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears’.
When we’re inspired, we’re being truly ourselves. This sounds easy but is one of the hardest things to achieve and most of us never manage it. I think that’s why great artists often appear a little crazy or eccentric or just very different to the rest of us, who’re too busy trying to appear sane to other people to allow our real thoughts and feelings to emerge. Being ourselves means ignoring the influence of what we think is acceptable, or clever, or on trend, and allowing our own uniqueness to emerge. Since we’ve been trained since babyhood not to let this happen, it’s pretty difficult for most of us to reverse the process. It can also make us feel extremely vulnerable, and that’s scary.
To a very few, this comes more easily. People like Mozart and Van Gogh weren’t trying to be original, they were just being themselves. Mozart had some success in material terms, while Van Gogh struggled in poverty, but both of them were doing what seemed ‘obvious’ to them. Van Gogh probably had one of the most original visions in art history, but he wasn’t trying to be original – he simply did what presented itself to him without self-censoring. And he didn’t realise his unique vision overnight – much of his early work is quite dull and poorly executed.
Mozart wasn’t trying to be original either – he said:
‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause that renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.’
If we allow our fear of being dull and unoriginal, or our awareness of other people’s opinions, or our own self-censorship to stop us doing what might seem ordinary and obvious, then we could be smothering our creativity at its very source. We need to give ourselves permission to be boringly obvious, in order to cultivate the ability to be obvious in our own unique way.
Photographers call it ‘working a scene’ –
keep going, move past the obvious shots, and you will eventually come up with something more interesting