Thursday, June 14, 2007

Do Exercises Have To Be Relevant?

Yesterday I suggested some photographic exercises you might want to try and Ed added the comment that he'd heard about locking yourself in the bathroom till you could fill two rolls of film with different images. Chuck felt that since he isn't a bathroom photographer by inclination or trade, it wasn't all that great an exercise.

So the question of the day is - do we learn enough from doing exercises that don't involve our own area of interest to justify them - are the skills cross applicable?

I remember reading Fred Picker's newsletter in which one assignment was to take formal portraits inside a bus - now most of these people were large format landscape photographers (rocks and roots types) so portraits were hardly their collective 'thing'.

The utility of learning to do portraits inside a bus has to be extremely limited if it doesn't somehow generalize to other kinds of photography. Was such an exercise a waste of time?

Are there examples which we could use to settle the question?

Well, being a painter or drawer or musician certainly seems to be helpful when it comes to learning photography but whether its simply that very creative people can do both well or whether it's the learning of the one that transfers to the other I don't know.

Certainly athletes do lots of training that isn't specific to their sport - basketball players lift weights, cyclists run, etc. but fitness is a long way from photographing - or do I have to start doing pushups?

I guess the question is whether creativity can be trained at all and if so is it specific to certain subjects - ie. if you are very creative at landscapes, are you unlikely to be creative at other subjects you haven't tackled before. My gut instinct is to say that creativity is in fact trainable, that exercises to flex your creative muscles are a good idea and that in fact it does generalize. I'd go further than the bathroom exericse and say that I suspect that practicing creativity in any medium - whether coming up with catchy ads or writing limericks is probably helpful to some degree and that visual creative exercises generalize even more strongly, but I'm not aware of any proof of this.

I wonder if any psychologists amongst us know the answer to that.


Kjell said...

I strongly believe that creativity (whatever that actually means), can be learned. Or maybe should I say, relearned, as we all had the ability when we were kids.
Almost every healthy kid have the ability to think up the most absurd stuff while playing, and they aren't afraid to say it out loud. As an adult, we have to break through the layers of reason to find the childish imagination, which again can be polished up to something we might call artistic creativity.

I have spend some time lately reading a bit on the Radiant Vista web site. Craig Tanner, who is the main author at that site, may be a bit over the top for my taste when it comes to all that new age kind of stuff, like we're all conected through an universal energy field and so on. But he does have some exelent points when it comes to unfold your creativity be getting rid of your inner fear. I too believe that this "fear" is what prevents most of us from performing to our full potential.

At first, it doens't sound that good, but when you think about it, doubt and fear is something you can work on, which again means that creativity and imagination is something contained within you waiting to be released. I know for my own part that it doesn't manifest itself as an actual sensation of fear. There is more like an urge to stop doing this, reject what I have started because I'm sure it won't be any good. My challenge will be to supress this urge and keep on working.

My answere to your open question, "does irrelevant exercises help?", I would most definetely say yes. I would even go further and say it helps more than doing the thing you always do, because it forces you to explore parts of yourself you haven't seen before. Maybe these parts are the ones that will make your "relevant" work soar. If you always walk the known path, you will never know. The point of these exercises, in my oppinion, is to focus on the task so you forget your own limits for a moment. Afterwards, when you look at the result, you will see that it wasn't all that bad, and you may have pushed your comfort zone a bit further in the process.

Well, I'm not the psycologist you asked for. I may be way off for most of you, but it feels right for me.

julie o'donnell said...

It depends what you're looking to get out of the exercise.

I think the point of it is not to produce images that we would present as our finished work. It's more about learning our techniques, after all the tools we use aren't just cameras and lenses - it's about learning about light, shadow, line, form, texture - composition! The subject, in that sense, is irrelevant and so the photographer will get out of the exercises, what they put in in terms of effort to learn about those things, abstracted from the idea of what their actual subject is.

Kjell has an excellent point about how we basically build up resistance to the creativity we are born with, as we learn how to fit into society and bury anything that isn't sensible or 'normal' - and opening up to that uninhibited view of the world is a huge step towards being able to produce art that is really creative.

Ed Z said...

I'm sort of a psychologist (B.A. in cognitive psych) so I'll throw in my .02 as well. just a few random thoughts. pardon me if I tend to wax existential :-)

1. "Creativity" is kind of a nebulous concept, I think maybe what we are talking about here is more "artistic vision"

Art - at least to me (without getting into the whole "what is art" debate) is the projection of the artist's subjective experience of reality
(how's that for psychobabble!) in other words:

we all experience our own existence and the reality around us through the "lens" (heh) of both our senses/perceptions (modalities) *and* our cognitions (frames). Everyone has a tendency toward particular modalities and frames, unique to them -hence phrases like "oh he is a very *visual* person - referring to a primary visual modality. Personally I am a primarily Kinesthetic, secondarily visual (maybe somewhat unusual for a visual artist?) but whatever...
Now I believe that these frames & modes are partly innate, but are also largely formed over time by our experiences, personalities, and sense of identity. This unique "vision" is what shapes an artist's work. Give 10 artists a subject to reproduce, and you will get 10 totally different works of art, even if they are all working in the same medium/style - why? because each artists subjective experience of the subject is different

(bear with me there is a point to all of this!)

anyway - the point is, these "frames" can *definitely* be learned/practiced/refined. A common technique in many cognitive therapies is "reframing" the subjects perceptions - making them "see thing differently" as it were, and there are certainly established techniques for this. So too, in art, one can "reframe" one's artistic vision. Of course, this has a "ripple effect" - reframing in one aspect affects perception in other ways. this, I believe is the point of the so called "irrelevant exercises" - to provide some "reframing" to the artists vision, that will ripple through into their primary frames, expanding and changing them in the process.

2. the exercise analogy is a good one. there is a great deal of evidence that the mind can be exercised, just like a muscle and responds similarly by growing and adapting. (note: this is not talking about intelligence per-se, but about cognition and though processes) - a further "exercise" analogy - when I was in college, I cycled for the schools mountain bike racing team. we did a lot of cross training, including weight lifting and running, why? because cycling had a particualar set of muscles/motions that were used primarily. running actually uses the muscles and body kinesthtics very differently. the end result was that running strengthened the muscles and kinesthetics that were somewhat overlooked in cycling, and in the end improved the cycling, "shoring up it's weaknesses" so to speak.

3. I think the criticism of this kind of exercise (bathroom photography, bus portraiture) is that these things are "not relevant" to the "actual" work - however I think this misses the point. Of course the *technique* is not relevant - no one actually takes portraits on a bus (well maybe someone, but...) the point is that these things are ways of breaking and reframing ones artistic perceptions, which will hopefully affect ones vision when one *does* return to the actual work.

4. I think the point also has to be made that we need to differentiate between a "technical" exerecie and a "creative" exercise. For a exercise to refine technique, I believe the best subject is something intimately familiar that the artist it totally comfortable with - why? so he can concentrate on the technical aspects, wihout having to think about creativity or subject matter. in a creativity exercise, the exact opposite is true. one *should* be uncomfortable, as it means that one is "pushing the envelope" of vision - working outside one's frame, and that will translate to an expanded vision even within one's "comfort zone" (and in the end will hopefully provide a greater comfort zone overall!).

Kjell said...

Julie, as I understand you, we mostly agree, but you are pointing to another aspect of learning than I. I too think it is important to master all the parts of the craft, especially what goes beyond basic camera fiddling. Mastering the tools and the craft is a big help when you try to reach your full creative potential. All arts are limited by the tools and medium that is used, and learning all aspects of those helps you to move to the limits of what is possible.

I think most of what we do when we don't work on assignments (I'm a hobbyist), can be called exercise. After all, every time you repeat a process, you have the potential of getting better at it. So every shoot is an exercise, and every exercise has the potential to produce the work of your life.

Ed, I had to concentrate hard when reading your post (it's 4:45pm, Friday), but I think I agree to most of the things you wrote. Interesting part about the reframing. I have to read at again when I'm not so tired.

Matt said...

The point, and value, of these kinds of exercises are that they are not strictly relevant. They are especially useful when we our work is held back by habit, the too-constrained understanding of what it is we are trying to do.

A related point: I've long believed that we owe most learning to analogies. By giving us a different set of visual analogies, these kind of exercises add to our creative mental tool kits (something push-ups, as useful as they can be to other activities, do not do).

chuck kimmerle said...

It's not so much the relevancy of the subject matter that I take issue with (though I am curious why being irrelevant is so important), rather it's the lack of artistic merit. Why is it that a photo exercise must be of mundane subject matter in order to be useful? Why can't we learn from something that is a bit more interesting? This all seems a bit arbitrary to me.

Ed Z said...

chuck - you raise another interesting point, why should the subject be mundane in a creativity exercise.

to answer I would say I don't think it *has* to be, however think about this:

with a subject that has "artistic meit" as you put it, you probably already have (either consciously or subconsciously) pre-conceived notions about how to represent/approach it. With a "mundane" subject it *forces* you to re-examine your notions and thought processes. plenty of famous art has come about because the artist took something "mundane" or "without artistic merit" and *reframed* it (Duchamp) comes to mind.

now this is not to say that this is the only type, or even the best type of creativity exercise, Merely one of many.

Matt said...

It doesn't have to be mundane to be valuable. Forcing yourself to find a variety of non-obvious (i.e. "creative") shots in a spectacular location is also a great discipline. Indeed, it should be the way we approach great photo opportunities. The "best" image is often the one we didn't initially see, the one we worked to create. Galen Rowell was especially eloquent on this, the work aspect of creativity.

The value of "mundane" exercises is two-fold. First, the mundane is always accessible. I don't know about you, but I don't spend every day in Yosemite. I do spend (at least a part of) every day in my bathroom. If regular practice is valuable, then we ought to consider what valuable practice we can get from mundane subjects.

Second, shooting the mundane with artistic intention trains us to look for what isn't obvious. Trying to take 30 interesting pictures in your bathroom requires stretching one's visual and creative muscles. Just because the "artistic merit" of the bathroom isn't obvious, doesn't mean it isn't there.

Is that practice valuable? I think so. Maybe the creativity developed in your bathroom will help you to come back with something valuable the next time you spend time, effort, and money getting to a spectacular location, and yet the weather or light don't cooperate. Or maybe the next time you're in Yosemite and have taken the obvious shots, the confidence you've developed in your creativity will lead you to an even better and more interesting take on that spectacular and worthwhile subject. Or maybe, improbably, your "Plunger #30" will be the next world-renown masterpiece.

George Barr said...

Plunger # 30 huh? Has a certain ring to it. We'll start the bidding at...