Alternate theories of inspiration

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What do photography, food, time and EDC objects have in common? If you can answer this to your satisfaction, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of today’s article. In the past I’ve talked about the more systematic approach to composition from a structural/ compositional point of view – the Four Things – and how to translate an idea into an image. Both deal with the mechanical part of arranging the elements in your frame and ensuring that they are ‘read’ in the expected way by your audience, they don’t really deal with something a bit higher up the food chain: where do the ideas come from in the first place?

We’ve discussed stylistic inspirations here in the past, too. If the Four Things and translating an idea cover ‘construction’ of an image once you know what you’re going to build, style is the presentation of it. Sticking with the construction analogy, you can have two identical buildings that both meet a fixed set of specifications, which occupy the same plot of land, both blending into their environments – but finished and presented very differently. Or two cars might both seat four and offer 400bhp, but one is a Mini with a small displacement heavily turbocharged engine and front wheel drive, and the other is a twin-cab 7L ladder frame dually. Both ‘work’, but arrive at the endpoint in very different ways.

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Son of Sam

Perhaps we also need to explain the role of ‘the idea’ at this point: it can be as broad or as specific as the creator desires. So, descending hierachy would suggest ‘object’ ‘man made’ ‘transport’ ‘ground’ ‘wheels’ ‘enclosed’ – that’s already quite specific – but perhaps goes further to say ‘truck’ vs ‘hatchback’. But today, I’d like to go further back than ‘object’ – to try and examine some of the motivations that make us have any ideas at all in the first place. In each case there is almost always a trigger that gets noticed and then is processed at at least an unconscious level before we start actively thinking about making an idea from an observational twinge. I believe the process is best described something like this:

  1. We are almost always passively observing
  2. Something in the environment triggers a sensory reaction, through recognition of a sensation of bias: something we remember because we like or don’t like
  3. Unconscious awareness – the brain asks ‘is this important to take notice of?’ in the background
  4. Conscious awareness and assessment of ‘is this interesting?’ ‘should I do something with this?’ ‘what can I do with this, if anything?’
  5. Generation of an idea
  6. Compositional process – ‘The Four Things’
  7. Mechanical process – pick lens press button post process etc.

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Somebody is always watching

Sections 1 through 4 are what we’re considering today. I think of the whole group of those things as the process of inspiration. I realise even this terminology is contentious as inspiration by definition contradicts the idea of a ‘process’; we like to think of it as being spontaneous, but in reality – it isn’t. It’s not difficult to prove that all creative output is derivative; unless the creator has been placed in 100% isolation from anything else, there is always carry over. The creative part comes in either where all of those inputs are synthesised or combined in a way that hasn’t been done before, or are taken a step further – i.e. 1+1=3. It’s entirely possible that the result has been done before, independently of the creator, but I would still consider this a ‘new’ output and development if the creator hasn’t seen it (and therefore isn’t plagiarising).

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I’m pretty sure the self-aware are generally more receptive to inspiration, if only because they know what kinds of external inputs trigger them. Knowing what you like and what you don’t tends to make you seek out the former and avoid the latter. It can be good to immerse yourself in an environment that stimulates mental activity through engagement and interest, but also fatiguing, having experienced this myself. As a young watch collector, you might have the chance to see and handle a high end complication perhaps once a year; as a watch photographer, you get handed ten variants on a tray with the brief of ‘front-side-back’ – and no matter how rare those subjects might be in the wild, your tolerance level before hitting ‘I’m interested’ quickly escalates. In other words, the inspiration goes away again. It’s the same reason photographing in one’s home environment  or city is very difficult: you see it all the time, to the point of no longer noticing what’s ‘normal’. Yet the opposite is true when travelling to a foreign city; and the same would be true if a photographer from that city were to come and visit you. It takes a conscious and conscientious effort to force yourself to see beyond this and go out and actually find things that are interesting.

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No escape

Perhaps one solution to subject fatigue is to take a step back. I find that rather than fixating on a subject as the endgame of an idea or image, I try to think instead in terms of overarching concepts – you can have ‘graphic’ or ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ or ‘isolationist’ as a sort of philosophy observation rather than purely ‘human portrait’. I can think of ways of making all of those concepts work with a wide variety of subjects; thus allowing for more direct compositional opportunities. Moreover, being subject agnostic opens up more possibilities of serendipity – i.e. not walking past an interesting scene because it doesn’t fit your particular fixation for flowers on windowsills. This requires some practice to rewire one’s brain, of course – possibly even the necessity of photographing your usual subjects of interest to the point they’re no longer interesting.

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There is always somebody bigger

No matter how open one is – let’s say with conscious interest in multiple concepts, and fully subject agnostic – I don’t believe this means you can make an interesting photograph under any circumstance. There are some situations in which there is simply a paucity of raw material to work with. You might not have more than a small handful of subjects that are both visually and conceptually uninteresting and have no apparent logical links between them, and thus be unable to generate an idea that doesn’t require some extreme leaps of faith to interpret. Or you might fall short on the compositional/ presentation front because the light is flat and the subjects don’t separate from the background. In both cases, I’d move on. And I truly believe that the more photographs you’ve taken, the higher you keep pushing your compositional standards, the more often you’re going to move on – either because you’ve done it before, or the scene to hand doesn’t let you do it better. This is normal diminishing returns, and here we circle back to the opening question: time affects our perception of visual art and food, and more importantly, our memory of it – and the key ideas we retain. We often pick EDC objects out of necessity, but go on to find they fill an indispensable role given sufficient time; they are structural enablers but can also through use and handling prove to be contemplative objects – which in turn inspire inspiration. Moreover, precisely because you see those things day in, day out – finding something visually unique there from a pure object standpoint is both challenging and rewarding. The real challenge is continuing to be inspired and photograph enough such that one doesn’t get rusty and has enough exposure to new situations to make an interesting image now and then…MT


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  1. ‘There is always somebody bigger‘ is amazing!

  2. scott b says:

    Ming forgive my brief reply to you your 4 points that need to be in an image. In school many years ago I made a statement that has stuck with me all my life, being 64 that’s a few years. The statement was “trees are sensual if properly lit”. I gave up, put my cameras away for nearly 20 years all because I could not, as I thought create an emotional statement in my images as the one I felt when the idea “emotion” of the image presented it’s self to me. Wynn Bullock was one of my favorites if that gives you a point of reference.

    I tried digital and now find myself returning to film because it slows you down, not that you can’t slow down with digital but because it’s to easy to shot 100 frames, sit at the computer and go oh well not one usable image. I have always felt that to appreciate the moment of time when you first see a scene (light, texture, balance, relationships between elements, tone, shapes, etc…) is when the idea comes to you “emotion feeling”. All of your points in this article happen in a split second of time and is frozen in time, where in my mind.

    If photography is visual story telling how or why do we need to muddy it with words that only hinder the viewer to explore what they experience when they see it. Is it the same as my response, I hope so. Take Anachronism —An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, or customs from different periods. How does that relate to that image? How many people even know what it means? The art world loves to use big words to describe something why?

    For me this image speaks of texture, shapes & their relationships, tones (all subjects) and personally the ship doesn’t belong, if that was what they were going for great, or else wait ten minutes and have it gone from the image, for me now it is calmer, simpler and the subjects now stand out.



    • The art world likes to make itself inaccessible and sophisticated, but I suspect that’s to keep out anybody they don’t want to be the arbiters of taste (and even more arbitrary financial values) – nothing more.

      Before the structure of the four things, yes, there needs to be some underlying motivation to make you want to take the picture in the first place – whatever that might be. It helps if we recognise it, but doesn’t matter so long as we respond.

  3. Hi Ming,

    Thank you very interesting. For the forth point “idea” I’ve always tried to focus on an “emotion” and then go from there. Still trying to figure out if that’s the best way to define my definition of “idea” but thought I’d share it.

    Smile you’re always on candid camera, Scott


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