creative manifesto – restrict choices

Reflected spire, Church of St Mary Magdalen, Newark onTrent

As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity.  I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one.  The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.

There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item.  We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity.  Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass.  Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting.  He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death.  I can relate to this.

Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others.  However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all.  Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into?  Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.

Not sure?  How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:

‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)

Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free.  It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that.  If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost.  If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods.  And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.

Red reflection in puddle

I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me.  Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby.  I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep.  I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.

Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations.  Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time.  It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities.  The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.

Civil War figure, outside library, Newark on Trent

Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat.  His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography.  One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend.  He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids.  Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge.  And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:

‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly.  But soon, going crazy.  I worked mornings and late afternoons.  With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations.  I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat.  I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast.  The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine.  Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’

Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.

Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot.  The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else.  Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose.  Either way, it can be a very positive thing.

Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography.  Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one.  Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.

Rainy car window with tree

Exercises

External limitations

  • Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice?  Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it?  Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway.  On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me.  I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
  • Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens?  or an ancient camera?  Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it.  There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
  • Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area.  How does that change the way you see it?  For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before.  A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint?  How does it look driving through it?  Or cycling?  How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent?  What would they notice that you don’t?
  • Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens.  Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces.  Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh.  Wind? – try to capture the movement.  The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.

Self-imposed limitations

  • Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction.  It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing.  Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work.  It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it.  My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
  • Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month.  What happens when you have to take all your shots with it?  If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length.  Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length.  You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that.  Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly.  I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
  • Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions.  You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy.  Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on.  Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.

The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.

Other Resources

The Psychology of Limitations: how and why constraints can make you more creative – a great article with lots of examples in different fields of where limitations created greater creativity

Does Creativity Require Constraints? – a more scholarly article on the same theme

How to Harness the Power of Limitation Creativity in Your Photography

Limits and Creativity

The Paradox of Choice: why more is less – book by Barry Schwarz on why we’re less creative and less effective the more choices we have.

Andre Kertesz and The Polaroids – my own article about Kertesz.

How to increase your creativity in 9 easy steps – a more general article that goes beyond the idea of imposing creative limitations.