Instructional photographic texts and workshops often attempt to summarize key points into lists of rules, tips or even acronyms and clever sayings, so as to make them easier to memorize. In my own teaching I also offer such information as various perceptions associated with specific visual elements, such as colors and lines, which can be used to affect the viewer’s impression. It might seem that an experienced and effective photographer is one who meticulously and deliberately considers every rule and every bit of knowledge during the process of making an image, but such a conclusion is patently incorrect. In fact, the more experienced the artist, the more he or she will tend to work out of intuition – an innate sense for what works – rather than rely on some memorized stepwise process or other means of recalling information.
To an outsider, such intuition regarding the making of successful photographs – or any other kind of art – may seem the privilege of uniquely gifted individuals, and indeed in some ancient cultures such abilities were attributed to divine origin; but that is actually not the case. Consider such skills as driving a car or forming a proper sentence. Nobody is born knowing how to perform such activities, but in time and with experience they seem almost like second nature, requiring little-to-no deliberate thinking. The key to transitioning conscious skilled work that requires effort and concentration into seemingly effortless intuitions is repetition. The more you perform a function, exercise a skill, or apply a specific process, the less you will need to consciously think about it.
Psychologist and Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman characterized the human brain as two systems: System 1, which operates intuitively and effortlessly; and System 2, which utilizes effort and attention to consciously tackle more complex problems. When an activity becomes intuitive, System 1 handles it automatically, whereas anything requiring deliberate thinking and a methodical approach calls upon System 2 to invest the required effort. However, other than the division of labor between the two systems, one thing that is characteristic of anything handled by System 2 is that it requires attention, and is disrupted when attention is drawn away. This also underlies the great value of investing time and practice in relegating repetitive tasks to System 1, which is automatic. In making the transition from conscious thinking to intuition, attention is freed up to tackle other tasks – tasks that cannot be easily automated, such as studying a scene or a subject in detail, seeking meaning beyond the obvious, and creating visual stories that transcend simple impressions. In other words, it frees the artist to create, to contemplate, to meditate and to experiment.
With that said, it should also be acknowledged that all of us also are perpetual students and learners. At any given time, we may be at a point of having just learned a new tool or technique, exploring new subject matter or new locations, etc. If we find value in such new knowledge and wish to incorporate it into our expressive repertoire, it is well worth spending the time to practice it repeatedly until it becomes intuitive, so that attention is freed to learn yet more, to experiment yet more and to further expand our visual vocabulary.
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