a blog by knut skjærven

A Movable Feast

The Musician ©. Knut Skjærven.

Just a work note.

I have been struggling to combine the concept of creativity with photography. Can there be creativity at all since we deal with a mechanical reproduction of reality? Photography, even now, is often described as such.

Creativity is defined as the ability and the process of combining already existing things/ideas in a new way. Everything is supposed to be already there, but creative combinations are, in all cases, not there yet. And they never will be.

This definition, here quoted from memory, seems to be the same across branches. It works in science, in business and in the arts. And elsewhere. The structure of creativity does not change even if you shift area.

This could pose a particular problem for photography because in reproduction you can seemingly only render what is already there. How is it possible to combine things/ideas in a new way when you are dependent on what the camera brings back to you?

I can understand that creativity is possible in, for instance, painting since you have paint, brushescanvas and can combine these whatever way you want to get an image to your satisfaction. But in photography? How is something like that possible?

If you study the picture above you will find that elements in it can be isolated and described: the musician with his self made instrument, the photographer in the foreground, the listening young woman, the man in the background, the large trash can.The image can be broken down even further, but in this context this will do. These are the objective elements.

My point is that these elements are already there for everyone too see and to possible fix on film or other media. Since they are there for everyone to see and record there are no new combinations involved in recording. Or are there?

Maybe an argument could go like this: There is another, additional element that is there. Even if it is almost never visible in photographs. That additional element is the photographer. He/she is the active force who makes the elementary difference, so to speak. He/she is the subjective element in any photograph.

Even if the photograph is locked up in a mechanical recording of what is there for the camera, the photographer have to fix the moment in the very split second in which the objective elements make a moveable feast within the frame. They all have to dance together: the subjective element and the objective ones. They have all to participate in the same, moveable feast.

In terms of creativity it is that meeting, recorded at that crucial moment, that makes all the difference. In photography, that moment is when the new combination of already existing elements finds its expression and links to the subjective element, the photographer.

There is not much new in this, is there. Mostly a clarification. For me it links photography to phenomenology, but that is a story is for a rainy day.

When I talk about this as a moveable feast and thereby quote an author once living in Paris with his young wife, is it  because it takes a certain strain and portions of luck and smaller and larger periods of waiting (and some alertness too), to fix a photograph so that all the guests behave as if they participate at the same party. Even the photographer.

In this shot, I think they do. My 2p. You don’t have to agree.

Well, it is only a work note anyway. Hardly a movable anything. Typos will be corrected later.


4 responses

  1. I love that expression “moveable feast”. It’s a good definition, I’ll re-use it (if that doesn’t cost me too much …).
    I also like that you marked the essential involvement of the photographer in his photography. When I look at a photograph, I always wonder where is the photographer inside. What does he say about himself, about his relationship with the world.

    February 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    • Thanks, Jean-Philippe.

      I don’t think that the expression can be protected, since is has been used before :-). Hemingway in Paris, as I am sure that you know.

      There is very good training for me in trying to combine the pleasures of being a sort of photographer, and a sort of academic, as well.

      So I write about things. First of all to remember them, and secondly in the hope that someone else can use the ideas too. Discussions are always good – so thanks.

      You are welcome. Thanks for taking an interest.


      February 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  2. Marco Rodarte-Elias


    Having watched Woddy Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” as recently as a couple of days ago, I just had to take a look at this article. The reference to Hemingway was just too enticing…

    Right, I’ll bite.

    Creativity in photography – “Can there be creativity at all since we deal with a mechanical reproduction of reality?” – you cleverly asked.

    First of all we should, perhaps, define reality. According to the Oxford English Dictionary its definition is:
    “the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”

    But, having established that, what does reality consist of? And more importantly, is the reality that I perceive the same one as you see? Is the reality you see the same one as someone else sees? Reality can be a very different thing depending on one’s perspective, frame of mind and countless other influencing criteria.

    Some people – including some very respectable academics in the field of physics – go as far as theorising that reality only exists at the very moment in which we observe it, that when we look away or forget about it simply ceases to exist. They haven’t yet managed to produce any proof of such theory but nobody could disprove it either. But I digress here.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that there is such an enormous subjectivity in any given photograph that creativity is achieved effortlessly by both the photographer and, most importantly though secondarily, the viewer. It’s an important distinction to make since what the photographer recorded – whether by design or chance – is original, unique and distinct from the aspect of reality it was taken from. Furthermore, the photographer sees one thing; the viewer often sees something different. Creativity in photography (and other media), imho, happens not once but infinitely and is thus a deeply subjective process. A like for like reproduction of anything is harder to achieve than one might initially assume. Plagiarism, it seems, is actually hard work.

    There have been numerous attempts, by many photographers, to reproduce Ansel Adams’s exuberant landscape photography (check http://www.anseladams.com/) – some even using GPS technology to pinpoint the exact spot at Yosemite where Adams stood when pressing the shutter. Though some of them achieved impressive results, none managed the intended effect, namely an exact reproduction of Ansel’s images. Worthy examples include Jack Dykinga (http://www.dykinga.com/Welcome.html) and our friend Royce Rumsey (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150214371239972&set=a.10150214371134972.381687.506204971&type=3&theater ), both of whom prove beyond any doubt that creativity does exist even when photographing the very same thing.

    New combinations, as you suggested, happen every time a new viewer is introduced into the equation. Creativity, though subjectively, is endless.

    Food for thought…

    February 2, 2012 at 1:15 am

    • Marco, many thanks.

      Definitely food for thought. I enjoy reading your comments because they always add positively to a discussion. This time as well.

      I am glad I labeled the post a “work note”, because that is what it is. I need to dig deeper in. And I will.

      At the moment I am trying to clear the ground a little. First and foremost for myself, but with the hope that others may join as you have done here.

      I agree with almost everything you say. And yet not.

      My contexts is street photography, as you know. Your examples are from landscape shooting, which is quite another matter and for me to understand those in terms of creativity I need to adapt particularly to that fine area. The yardstick has to be bent to include both under the same umbrella. I am not sure that is an easy task at all.

      It is true that new combinations are introduced every time a photographers, or a viewer, are exposed to a scene or a shot, but that is more of a description of the human condition than anything else.

      I am quite sure that you don’t mean that every shot made out of a camera at a specific place and in a specific time by a specific photographer, is a stroke of creative genius and deserves nothing less than being hung at the walls of Tate Gallery in London :-). If so, the place would be crowded. Not with visitors, but with images.

      What I am talking about is obviously something very different. I talk about a moveable feast that is recognizable and significant and that springs from a photograph like Barthes’ punctum into the eye and mind and heart of the viewer. Some images have that quality. You don’t have to be a celebrity parisian to join that party. Look at our own On Every Street. Even there are some: https://www.facebook.com/groups/oneverystreet/

      The rest of us must try and try and learn from failures in our shooting. With the constructive feedback from others some might succeed once in a while. With one shot, or even two. What was is again? Robert Frank shot 28.000 images over a period of two years to pick 87 images for his book “The Americans”.

      In creative research you sometimes hear talk about the two Cs. The big C and the little c. The BIG C “require that some socially valuable product be generated before the act or the person is called “creative”. The LITTLE c does not require this … “the act of creativity is enough”. (Explaining Creativity. The Science of Human Innovation, by R. Keith Sawyer, Oxford University Press, 2006).

      I think we need to add “a micro c”, based on your input Marco, because the basic combination of elements that comes with breathing is also a very valid one. I mean that.

      Your comment was very helpful in pointing that out. Thanks.


      February 2, 2012 at 10:38 am

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