Insight: Unlocking the Secrets of the Creative Process, Part 2

By Eric Meola   Tuesday September 16, 2014

What is the process that leads to creativity? “Art arises out of a life lived—it’s an extension of ourselves, our creative process grows and changes as we do,” says photographer John Paul Caponigro, author of a new e-book about creativity called Process. Prior to the opening of a major exhibition of his work at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, VA, Caponigro engaged with photographer and PPD contributor Eric Meola in what Meola calls “a dialog between two photographers about the things that shape our minds which lead to creativity.” We recently published part one of the intriguing conversation, which took place via email while Caponigro was in Italy. In that discussion, he revealed what he learned growing up around famous artists like Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. Today we present part two, in which the photographers talk about everything from  favorite poets to the hard work it takes to arrive at a decisive moment.


EM: Who are your favorite poets?

JP: Homer, Dante, Milton, Blake, Shakespeare, Whitman, Neruda, Eliot, Basho, ee cummings, Michael Alpert … let’s stop there.

Austin Kleon is poet who is currently influential to me in an entirely different way, not because of his content but because of the form his poetry takes, the virtual communities he has stimulated, and his creativity lectures and books—Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work!

Who are your favorite poets?

EM: Yeats, Eliot, Ginsberg, ee cummings, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound.

JP: We share a few favorites. A few of your favorites almost made my list—Yeats, Crane and Pound.

EM: How long have you collected quotes? You seem to have hundreds if not thousands at your site.

JP: At an early age, I started noticing that most of us use quotes in our daily conversation and even in our internal dialogs. I really want to know what’s influencing my thinking and why. Sometimes we know who to attribute them to, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes they really are unattributable or anonymous. Often we paraphrase them, less frequently we use them precisely. I still marvel at people who can quote paragraphs and even pages, word for word. I haven’t learned that skill. Currently, I’m limited to a few phrases. But that’s OK. I prefer quotes that are short and sweet. Like haiku poetry, short quotes can almost instantaneously create a powerful impression with just a few words. These highly distilled packets are both impactful and memorable.

Often the idea behind the quote is linked with its author. Proper attribution is important. It’s good form to give credit where credit is due. It helps you understand what, when, and why something has been said. It helps you clarify sources, including yourself.

Sometimes these ideas become so common that sources are forgotten and we hear them paraphrased. Have ideas like this been repeated so frequently that they’ve become a part of the fabric of our minds? More recently, I’ve also become interested in how these ideas echo through the ages. Here’s one example. “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Is this Confucius, The Talmud, or Anais Nin? Do we default to the earliest source? Or are there some ideas that are pan-cultural or even inevitable?

There are so many great books to read that I figure no book is worth reading if I’m not interested in making marks in the margins; one mark indicates a quote I want to be able to retrieve.

I used to collect my favorite quotes in folders filled with photocopies. Now I collect them digitally. Sharing quotes in social networks has further stimulated my activity—it’s interesting to see who reacts to what and how, and even what people don’t react to. You can find more quotes, almost daily, in my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I wish I had a photographic memory. I’d love to remember them all—precisely.

EM: What are some of your favorite quotes?

JP: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” That’s from Marcel Proust.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” — Rumi

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Here’s a link to a fuller set of my favorite quotes.

And here’s a link to a set of your favorite quotes.

Also, here’s a link to sets of other photographer’s favorite quotes.

A Japanese proverb says, “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” I think of the quotes we remember as the mental company we keep.

EM: Is self-doubt an important part of the creative process?

JP: Awareness of our limitations is important. Self-review is important. Clear thinking about our goals and the results we produce is important. Be careful with self-doubt. If taken too far it can erode confidence, reduce satisfaction, place us in overly critical mindsets, and even paralyze us. Self-doubt is not the only antidote for ego-inflation.

EM: Your father said that “one needs to be…observant enough…to ‘hear through the eyes.’” Can you elaborate on what he was saying?

JP: First, let’s make sure to always be aware of the nature of the source. Because dad is an accomplished classical pianist, he’s predisposed to using a musical metaphor. Many parallels have been drawn between the different tonal scales of music and of black-and-white photography. I heard dad and Ansel [Adams] play with this many times. And they’re not the only ones. It’s surprising how many photographers play a musical instrument.

        "Illumination II," by John Paul Caponigro

EM: Actually, I had done a bit of research on your dad and was aware of his background as a pianist. But I also had this quote (one of your favorites) in mind. It’s from Robert Frank: “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” So, are Robert Frank and your father saying the same thing here, and if so, what are they saying? What is the metaphor driving at?

JP: I think dad and Robert Frank are saying the same thing. (The quotes are so close that I wonder if one heard the other say it first, or if they both heard someone else say it first.) I think dad is talking about the difference between looking (casually) and seeing (deeply). Furthermore, his use of a musical metaphor suggests a heightened emotional response. Intuition and emotion are his primary ways of orienting himself artistically.

The poetic mystery of his statement increases our engagement with it. One of the marvelous things about poetry is that it leaves itself open for further interpretation.  Shakespeare’s use of ambiguity is profound. There is a sense in artistic works that even the author doesn’t know everything about a work—it transcends him or her, and so there’s often more to be discovered through further reflection both on the part of the artist and their “community.” What we’re doing here together in this conversation is part of that.

EM: You and I have discussed the work of Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach. Who are some of your favorite photographers?

JP: Early influences include my father, Eliot Porter, and Ansel Adams. Alfred Steiglitz and Minor White have influenced my thinking. Photographers who challenge my current thinking in stimulating ways include Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky, Chris Jordan and Joel-Peter Witkin. Many of my most important artistic influences come from people working in media other than photography—painters, filmmakers, sculptors, writers and even composers/musicians.

I’ve written quite a bit about my influences on my blog. Read my posts on influences here.

EM: Do you collect photography books? What are your favorites?

JP: I do collect photography books. I don’t have as extensive a collection as some other photographers I know and certainly not as extensive as many serious photography book collectors have. I collect them for purely personal reasons. (I also collect photographs for purely personal reasons.) Recently, I haven’t been collecting photography books as actively as I’d like to.

Some of my favorite books include my father’s Megaliths, Eliot Porter’s Intimate Landscapes, and Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz. (I watched my mother design and oversee the production of all of these.) Richard Misrach’s The Sky Book, Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes, and Joel-Peter Witkin: A Retrospective. I’d love to know which photography books are on your shelf of favorites, because I’d like to know you even better. I’m sure I’d be personally inspired by something in all of them, especially if I heard from you about why you liked them so much, almost like seeing them through your eyes.

EM: Misrach’s Desert Cantos, Walker Evans’ First and Last, David Plowden’s Commonplace, Irving Penn’s Moments Preserved and Worlds in a Small Room, Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes, Avedon’s In the American West, Frank’s The Americans, Steve Fitch’s Gone, Stephen Wilkes’s Ellis Island, and Steichen’s Legacy by Joanna Steichen … I have a reasonably insane collection of books on photography.

JP: That you have a reasonably insane photography book collection doesn’t surprise me. Some of our favorite photography books are the same; some of the books you mentioned almost made my favorites list; some of them I am unfamiliar with.

EM:  You mention Joel-Peter Witkin. Why him and not Diane Arbus? And is “shock value” a relevant input to creativity? Or is it a distraction, a way of bluffing yourself into a footnote on creativity?

JP: I find Arbus complicated but not disturbing. Witkin’s work truly disturbs me. I start paying close attention when something exerts a magnetic pull or push on me. Witkin’s work is beautifully crafted and very clever, both socially and art-historically; that earns my respect but it isn’t what fascinates me. In my opinion, few artists have looked into the darker sides of humanity as unflinchingly and as deeply; I respect his courage. I find some of his works to be raw and emotionally insightful without being self-indulgent. I find other works of his to be affected, more pose than substance, at best more idea than discovery, powerful but not wise. I find the challenges of understanding the difference and going through the processes of asking how do we know the difference to be profoundly challenging. He’s contributed to my growth.

Sensationalism can be good for marketing; it may or may not lead to a state of art. Shock for shock’s sake is boring. It offers a quick adrenaline fix and then fades equally quickly. For shock to have lasting value you have be going somewhere with it. That’s when shock becomes truly haunting, like Goya’s “Saturn” or Bosch’s “Temptation of St Anthony.” When I look at art, I’m not looking to be temporarily manipulated; I’m looking for the enduring transformation that genuine insight brings.

EM: I love watching you photograph.

JP: Thank you. What do you see when you observe me?

EM: Someone looking “the other way”—literally. If everyone else is looking down, you are looking up, and that’s always intriguing, insightful, and a lesson learned. I think you have learned that what’s in front of you is only there because you happen to be facing that way. The most incredible tornado I ever saw happened to be a mile behind me—but everyone in the group was fixated on what was in front of us. What I come away with from Haas’s work is that he did an extraordinary amount of close-up work. Droplets of water, leaves, textures of light and form and shadow. He was always searching for the “Galaxy Apple” of the universe in the commonplace.

JP: He had a poetic nature.

EM: Do you think most photographers have a predetermined set of criteria and rules that cuts them off from exploring alternative compositions?

JP: In my opinion, some photographers do have rules and routines that are too set. Some haven’t even asked themselves what kind of photography they want to practice, while others don’t have a clear enough plan. Some don’t even have a plan—and then what do they have? Habit. Instinct, if they’re lucky. It’s quite possible we all fall into both positions from one moment to another. I think it’s a question of striking an optimum balance. Have we clarified our thinking enough to move in the direction that is right for us, and do we maintain a flexible mindset so that we can see and do more things to expand our horizons?

EM: In the chapter of your e-book called “Tracings,” you talk about learning to, in effect, “reverse engineer” masterworks, and talk about being obsessed with straight lines. Is that because they’re the shortest distance between two points?

JP: You’re funny. Actually, yes. And doing the most with the least is one dimension. Surrounding every image with four straight lines—the frame—is another dimension. The psychological power of dividing the frame is another dimension. My relationship with grids—at first uneasy and now obsessive—is another dimension. There are many dimensions both objective and subjective at work here.

Tracing the essential elements or flow-dynamics at work within images is practiced in many drawing and painting curricula. It’s a way of researching images and scenes. I recommend “air drawing” to viscerally and kinetically understand scenes.

EM: One of my favorite sets of images was done by David Douglas Duncan, who had Picasso draw with a small flashlight while he did a time exposure and then lit Picasso with flash. Your “Air Drawing” chapter reminded me of this. Have you ever tried drawing with light and photographing it?

JP: Those are wonderful photographs. I have tried drawing with light in photographs. I’ve been actively exploring this for quite some time. I do it both physically and virtually with software. To date I prefer the results I achieve in post-processing to the ones I achieve in camera. But I’m open to the possibility that that could change.

        "Refraction LXXIV," by John Paul Caponigro

EM: Is there room for “decisive moments” within the creative process?

JP:  Absolutely. There are at least two kinds of decisive moments: an external decisive moment where many elements moving in time (including the physical observer) coalesce and synchronize; and an internal one where perception becomes exceptionally clear and is deeply internalized. “Decisive moments” are “Aha!” moments. Decisive moments are hard to sustain for long periods of time, but this is possible. Decisive moments can happen in a flash, but it often takes a lot of work to get there. Doing that work is a process. Process is a way of getting there. There is no one way; instead, there are many ways. The more aware (self-aware but not self-conscious) you are of process (both yours and others) the more options you have at your disposal, the more personally invested you are in the choices you make, the more likely you are to make better choices. What does it take to for you to achieve flow?

EM: Actually, I was thinking more of “decisive moments” in the traditional Henri Cartier-Bresson definition, which I’m terrible at—I don’t have the reflexes for it and hesitate because I’ve grown up in the era of motor drives where a “burst” may or may not result in capturing “the moment.” It’s interesting to me how someone with relatively primitive equipment—a simple rangefinder—was often so much more in tune with getting the precise moment on film. The one thing I need to make images is light—spectacular light. Everything else flows from light for me, and it’s why I’ve been drawn to photographing on the Great Plains.

JP: I suspect you’re better at “decisive moments” than you give yourself credit for.  Watching you work in the field, I always appreciated how good your instincts are. I think if we didn’t recognize the differences you’re pointing out it would indicate we weren’t actively engaged with that aspect of the process—and growing. Somehow I think this quality of growth gets into the works produced.

EM: Malcolm Cowley, in describing how the poet Hart Crane worked, describes a chaotic scene of drinking, playing music, and writing quick, rambling lines of verse. Yet he goes on to say that Crane was perhaps the most disciplined artist he ever met—agonizing for days about a single word, and searching for hours on end through dictionaries. We think of art as chaotic, as coming from the canvas of Jackson Pollack or the mind of Rimbaud or William S. Burroughs. Where does art come from—from chaos or from discipline, or from both?

JP:  You know how much I like to rephrase “either/or” questions as “both/and” questions, rephrasing the question as “What happens when?” and start generating not one but many answers.

What happens when an artist works in a chaotic environment or way? Chaotic scenarios and modes are great for bypassing the conventional mind and for generating random combinations, leading more frequently to surprise, but only a few of those surprises are useful and fewer still relevant. What happens when an artist works in a structured environment or way? Structured scenarios and modes are great for producing predictable, repeatable results, but less likely to produce surprises and less likely to find missing combinations.

I think one of the most important parts of a creative process is evaluating results to learn the most from both—we can do this with both successes and failures. For this and many other reasons, I stress self-awareness. You’ll learn a lot if you simply watch your creative process—evaluatively but non-judgmentally. 

At the heart of your question lies a cultural fantasy that a perfect art just magically tumbles out of us, but mostly we’re mortal and need many forms of nurture over a long period of time to grow our art. Somehow, in the arts, we’ve been led to celebrate spontaneous breakthroughs more than hard work. They’re both necessary.

Discipline is a substantially different matter. To produce you have to work. If you work inconsistently, you produce less work. But quantity doesn’t necessarily breed quality.  Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. (Actually there’s no such thing as perfect. Practice makes better. Good practices lead to improvement.)

Let’s be cautious of clichés of artist’s being chaotic, neurotic, and destitute. These self-fulfilling prophecies are great for publicity, and creating entertaining dramas with great headlines, but they serve very few people well.

EM: Every photographer I have ever talked with about their love of photography describes the moment in a darkroom when they saw their first print "come up" in the developer. What's the equivalent of that visceral moment in the digital universe?

JP: Good question. The development of a silver print in the analog darkroom where you see an image slowly come into being is indeed a magical moment. It’s like a memory being reclaimed. I’m not sure there is a digital equivalent.

Seeing an inkjet print come out line-by-line is different. Instant replay is magical in entirely different ways. It can change interpersonal dynamics with your subject. It did for me and a group of children in a Himba village along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. It may well change inner-personal dynamics when photographing subjects that don’t talk back.

EM: One day, at the age of 12, I began thinking of myself as a photographer ... but it took a while before I called myself one. I was interested in photography, but I wasn't a photographer. And then, at some point, I thought of myself as a photographer, and gave myself that title, even though I had no formal training and no degree in photography. Process is, for me, something I realized was always there, but never described—it’s about the totality of the thought process, the process of creativity. I also think that process is different for each person—that it can involve both introspection and come from places we don't understand ourselves. So reading about your process has made me examine my own.

JP: And you’ve been observing other people’s creative processes, including mine. Perfect. That’s the point. The point is not that our creative processes are or should be the same as each other’s all of the time. The point is that we understand a lot more and a lot more happens when we’re actively engaged with our creative processes.


The exhibition “Paul Caponigro and John Paul Caponigro: Generations” will be on view at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, Virginia from September 27 through March 28, 2015.

Photographer Eric Meola is a recipient of the 2014 George Eastman “Power of the Image Award.” His latest book is “India: In Word and Image” (Revised and Updated, 2013).






Pro Photo Daily