In recent years, creativity has been the subject of much research. Still, as new results come to light, the nature of it still remains largely unknown. As of the time of this writing, nobody knows for certain where new ideas come from. Popular pseudo-science proposes that some people are inherently more creative than others, having to do with being ‘right brained’ or ‘left brained.’ This simplistic view, however, does not quite align with the complex brain activities (occurring in multiple regions) leading to creative revelations.
One of the most important discoveries of the last century was the fact that the human brain is not static in terms of its cognitive abilities. In fact, it changes and adapts constantly. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, and one of its more important implications is that the brain can be trained to excel at specific functions. In this sense, cognitive abilities are a lot like physical ones. Think of creativity as a muscle that can be trained to achieve peak performance. Like a muscle, training can be accomplished by repetition of certain tasks.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find that some photographers are more prolific than others in producing creative work and novel concepts; and that the most prolific are also the ones who exercise their creative muscles most often and most effectively; who are prepared to take risks, to not conform with dominant public opinion, and to break conventions.
In a typical situation, a photographer will wait until an obvious composition, a striking feat of light or an interesting subject matter present themselves before thinking about making a photograph. In my workshops, I suggest a somewhat different approach – one of acknowledging the potential for a photograph before an obvious one is identified. I urge my students to make “visual inventories,” focusing their attention on enumerating all the visual elements in their surroundings before deciding which to use, and how to arrange them into a composition. This exercise is useful even when not resulting in a captured image. It is a form of exercise; it tells your brain that you want to spend attention on being aware of all the elements around you and to consider their photographic potential. The idea is not that a great image can be made in all situations, but that your brain is being trained to notice more and to consider more, to constantly attempt to identify possible compositions that may evade the casual observer, or someone distracted by other things.
It is worth keeping in mind that the brain can be trained in favorable ways and in not so favorable ones, as well. Repetition of counter-creative practices, such as persistently replicating other people’s images, placing too high a value on the judgment of others, or always pursuing the same styles, conditions, visual effects, etc., may limit your creativity. Make an effort to consider multiple alternatives, to explore beyond the obvious, to take risks and to break from conventions. These lead to what is known to Psychologists as ‘divergent thinking’ – the means by which creative ideas are generated. Train yourself to be creative.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 36 of Landscape Photography Magazine.