Insight: Unlocking the Secrets of Creativity, Part 3

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 23, 2014

“If I’m in a productive groove I try to intensify the flow. If I’m in a rut, producing the same kinds of work with no significant variation on a theme, I try something different, disrupting my process productively,” says photographer John Paul Caponigro. It was the arrival of an e-book by Caponigro, called Process, that prompted photographer and Pro Photo Daily contributor Eric Meola to reach out to his friend and start a wide-ranging discussion about creativity and where it comes from. Over the past several days we have published parts one and two of the email conversation, in which the photographers talked about artistic influences and finding images by “looking the other way,” rather than facing straight ahead. Today we conclude the series, as the two photographers talk about metaphor, method, and the role of chance in the creative process.


EM: In describing how he wrote "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan said that he found himself writing what he called "this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long.”

“[A]nd out of it,” he recalled, “I took 'Like a Rolling Stone' and made it as a single. And I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me." 

If nothing else, Dylan has always been incredibly prolific. "Practice, practice, practice," says Bruce Springsteen. And then one day there's your father's image “Galaxy Apple.” Is that part of what process is about … the yin and yang between chaos and discipline?

JP: Process is how you get there. It doesn’t just happen. And it unfolds through time. The final results may have come quickly, but it took a long time for Dylan to get into the specific state of flow that would produce his song. The same is true for everyone, including photographers.

This reminds me of a time when I introduced a friend of mine to my father. He said, “Oh, you’re that photographer. Gosh I’d like to have your career. All those 1/125ths of a second. What’s that add up to? A 20-minute career?”

Dylan’s statement, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” seems related to Picasso’s “It takes a long time to grow young.”

EM: And Dylan as a teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota, used to listen all night to Hank Williams and Little Richard on the radio—it was all part of the “process” of gearing up for “Bringin’ It All Back Home.”

You mention using a Spirograph as a child to make circles, ellipses and various radiating designs. And some of these patterns continue to show up in your latest imagery. How important is a sense of wonder to photography, or any art form?

JP: How important is a sense of wonder to a life well lived? I think it’s essential. Keeping our sense of wonder alive and well increases our openness, curiosity, sensitivity, perception, playfulness, passion, pleasure, and many other positive benefits. This is related to keeping our inner child or the childlike (not childish) aspects of ourselves active and vibrant.

EM: We’ve discussed chaos versus discipline in art. What about a happy accident—serendipity? What role does “chance” play in process? In the film Pollock, Ed Harris shows Jackson Pollock stumbling onto the process for his drip paintings. Do you ever look at something you’ve done or have been thinking about and suddenly make a leap to a concept that had not occurred to you before? I’m also thinking of Kubrick’s famous visual metaphor early in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the ape throws a bone that morphs into a rotating space station.

JP: There are two questions here. My answer to both is yes.

Let me celebrate chance. If  “chance favors the prepared mind,” as the saying goes, then the prepared mind also remains sensitive to the power of chance. How many ways can we use chance in our creative processes? We’d all do well to count the ways. Then ask “When?” and “Why?”

I’ve found it both useful and fulfilling to change my attitude from resisting surprise to embracing it. I’m always on the alert for surprises, especially the breakthroughs—the surprises that introduce something relevant, add depth, and take work up to the next level. I approach life with a mantra, “This or something better.” When I encounter a surprise, I ask, “Is this a breakthrough or a distraction?” If I think it’s a breakthrough I pursue it then and there while it’s fresh, trying to understand as much of it as I can. If I think it’s a distraction I make a note of it and revisit it later to explore what possibilities it offers. I ask myself, “Am I in a rut or a groove?” If I’m in a productive groove I try to intensify the flow. If I’m in a rut, producing the same kinds of work with no significant variation on a theme, I try something different, disrupting my process productively, hopefully in a targeted rather than a random way. I keep a list of possible experiments to make, which is so long now I can’t imagine encountering writer’s block; only my expectations and standards can lead to creative paralysis.

Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” In my mind, I pair this with Picasso’s statement, “An artist knows more than he thinks he knows.” So I constantly ask, “How can we uncover that?”

Interestingly, one of the things that comes up consistently during my many conversations with artists is that the works that surprise them often ends up being their favorite images—sometimes leading to new directions—and the ones that are celebrated most publicly.

Now let me address your other question—and I realize they’re very much related. There are many times when we can see new possibilities by looking at a single finished work or a relationship between separate finished works—either through our own work or other people’s work. There are many times when we can see new possibilities while producing a finished work; sometimes these possibilities become clear when things don’t go as planned or we make mistakes (“happy accidents”). Every mistake presents an opportunity to learn something; the challenge is to not repeat the same mistake twice; the question is, “Is what’s learned useful in advancing a goal, now or in the future?” Some artists deliberately introduce chance and randomness to facilitate discovery, among other things. (I do this less frequently and usually in a controlled manner.) Some artists collaborate.

EM: Does process allow for disruption, for innovation, for a leap of faith?

JP: If a creative process doesn’t allow for and even plan for surprises, it soon will. It won’t survive if it doesn’t. If we don’t make room for surprise in our creative processes, we may miss some of our best work.

EM: Is there a process outside of process?

JP: That’s a fabulous question! You know how much I like good questions. Good questions are keys to unlocking a clearer, stronger, deeper, more fulfilling creative process.

I’m tempted to say that identifying a process outside of process is only matter of perspective. Because process is so holistic it can be seen as including everything. In a creative process there are many processes. But the riddle your question poses and the possible perspectives it offers could be very useful. This is such a good question, I want to consider it more before attempting to create a fuller, but certainly not a final, definitive, or closed answer. The great questions keep on giving. And I have a feeling this is one of the great questions. Thank you for asking it!

 EM: Henry Moore, the sculptor, has said, “It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work. By trying to express his aims with rounded-off logical exactness, he can easily become a theorist.” I think you would disagree with that. The core of your book Process is, I think, to teach a methodology that encompasses various disciplines—writing, drawing, reading, music—all as part of an approach to creativity. Ultimately, I think we all engage in process to varying degrees. Why is teaching it such an important part of your own evolution as an artist?

JP: I love Henry Moore’s sculpture. I disagree with his statement. I understand where it’s coming from. You can’t just talk a good game of art; you have to live it. There is a danger in talking when doing is more useful. Certain insights come only from doing. Sometimes things sound good but don’t deliver. Good ideas are tested through practice and application. I find myself constantly moving back and forth between the two, almost like breathing in and out.

The creative process and works of art have many more dimensions than are easily described by words. One of the problems that arises when talking about art and creativity is a lack of words. The struggle to put ideas into words and describe works of art with words can lead to new words and new ways of thinking. Creative processes are rarely structured linearly, which our presentation formats for words has favored. That could change with other forms of presentation, particularly new digital ones. This is one of the reasons we’re circling around and double-backing on ideas throughout our conversation.

The core of my e-book Process and what I teach about the creative process (through writing, video, seminars, and workshops) is to unveil possibilities to give people tools to help them think more clearly, structure more productively, and engage more passionately their own dynamic creative processes in ways that are most authentic for them.

I like to think about principles or forces that function consistently but can be applied flexibly and contextually, rather than laws that appear static and absolute. Awareness of processes offers greater understanding of and ways of shaping them for a conscious intentional effect.

Teaching is an important part of my fulfillment as a human being. When I contribute to another person’s fulfillment, I know I’ve made a difference. I know I’m not just taking up space. I don’t want to just be a contender. I also want to be a contributor. Writing and teaching are important parts of my creative process. Both help me to understand what’s possible, how things really work, how I work, how others work, why I work, why others work, what actually happens and how the world responds. Writing is the review, research, and theory. Teaching is the practice. It has been recommended by many great authorities of the past, that if you want to become an expert, write, and if you want to become a master, teach. Writing and teaching offer different methods of discovery. Because of writing and teaching, my understanding of my creative process and the creative process in general is less imbalanced and more clear, thorough, accomplished, productive, flexible, versatile, dynamic, fulfilling, transformative, resonant, and deep. Every moment offers an opportunity to learn something new.

        "Procession II," by John Paul Caponigro

EM: How important is the idea of recharging your batteries—getting away with family, or taking time to play chess, or swim, or hike?

JP: Important for what? What’s the goal?

Should I spend all my time producing and perfecting my craft? We have a finite amount of time and energy. How are they best spent—now? We all strike different balances at different times.

You’re asking me this at a time when I really need to unwind and recharge. I’m no expert at this. I generally have a lot of energy. I’m keenly aware of how little time I have—or may have.

For a very long time (I’ve been a very slow study in this area) I’ve had to challenge my mindset because I expect every moment to count, often thinking that I need to be developing ideas or skills or producing something to make them count. Meditation is one answer, but it isn’t the only answer. I’ve got so much to learn.

Being a part of a family is a commitment that isn’t always compatible with artistic accomplishment. But it has many other benefits, and it can influence our art for the better. Love is an important force, perhaps the most important force, in the world—in spirituality and in art—and I can learn about and practice love best with my family.

This is just one of the reasons I’m interrupting my activity during our conversation to go swimming with my son. We’re only in Italy once a year. He’s only 12 once. Why is it so uncommon to say, “I’m only 49 once?”

(By the way, the swim, pizza, and gelato with my family were really nice.)

EM: For Jay Maisel, a photograph can’t be made if you don’t have your camera with you. Do you always carry a camera?

JP: Jay’s statement wasn't true for Man Ray and it’s not true for Adam Fuss. I don’t always carry a camera with me. I appreciate Jay’s advice. One of his favorite quotes is by Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” That points to why he recommends this practice. It’s related to Jerry Uelsmann’s favorite quote by Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared.” Another benefit of always carrying a camera is that you’re constantly practicing. It’s also related to Chris Orwig’s favorite quote by Marc Riboud, “Photography is savoring life at 1/100th of a second.”

More recently, because of my iPhone, I usually do have a camera with me, but I use it differently than I do my DSLR. My iPhone is a kind of sketchbook; it’s an invitation to experiment.

By not carrying a camera, on occasion I miss shots that I could have used for my finished images. I’m actually surprised how infrequently that happens. My finished work is very…focused. I watch my mindset change when I have my camera—what photographer Julianne Kost calls her “big boy camera”—in my hands. I think there are times to be off and times to be on. It can be helpful to know the difference.

This discussion is related to the practice of making a photograph every day. Again, practice makes better. The more you roll the dice, the more likely you are to get lucky. But will you get lucky in the ways and areas that are best for you? I like to stack the deck in my favor. I prefer reflection and preparation. Jay’s approach works well for making certain types of photographs; it can work to varying degrees for all photographers. To make other types of photographs, other types of photographers will need other ways. Jay Maisel’s way wouldn’t work well for Yousuf Karsh. We’re back to process. It’s not a one-size-fits-all world. What’s your way? Why?

EM: For me, not everything is a photograph. And besides, one of Jay’s most famous statements is that his best photographs are the ones he missed—perhaps not for trying, and not because he didn’t have his camera with him. But I don’t want to be “on” all the time. I need moments of reflection, moments to think about the next project, the next idea.

By its nature, much of your work is deliberate, thought out, contemplative, and often the result of layering or other Photoshop techniques. Yet Jay Maisel’s process involves much of the same methodology—reading quotes, studying different techniques of composition, immersing oneself in the work of masters, and perhaps most importantly, experimenting and trying something new and different. If you had to summarize the idea of process in a paragraph, what would you say?

JP: Let’s try one sentence.

Simply stated, process is how you get there.

OK, how about a paragraph?

A combination of thinking, feeling, and doing, the process of making images includes everything it took to make them, including preparation (both internal and external), travel, creating an event, tools/mediums, technique, editing, processing, presentation, and response. Like a story, process has a beginning, middle, and end—though it’s hard to identify the true beginnings and ends, and these decisions are often partially arbitrary. Once you’ve answered the question, “What influences a work of art?” the question arises, “How, how strongly, and when does something influence the final outcome?” Asking good questions well is the prime mover in an artistic process; it is in any process of discovery.

So, to follow up …

A greater awareness of process requires more interpretation and further reflection. Discussing what process is, is part of the process. You could say our entire conversation (which started before the creation of this text and will continue after we release it) is an expansion on the definition of process.

        "Exhalation IV," by John Paul Caponigro

EM: Edward Weston said, “…to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.” In your book Process, you’re not setting up rules, but rather a “zen-and-the art-of-photography” curriculum. So chaos, discipline, chance, failure and reflection. How important is reflection to process, and would you elaborate?

JP: Reflection is critical in a creative process. Reflection takes us out of autopilot and offers us an opportunity to see and feel more fully and deeply. Reflection brings about a holistic awareness, which is simultaneously mental, emotional and physical. Reflection is possible during any stage of the creative process and is an essential aspect of photography. Much more than a record of light reflecting off objects, photography reflects both the world and our selves; it can be both a window and a mirror. A work of art’s ability to produce reflection is a measure of its greatness; rather than the product produced, the reflection produced by the product may be the actual art.

EM: D. H. Lawrence said, “[I used to assert]…the visual arts are at a dead end.” But Lawrence went on to say, “Then, suddenly, at the age of forty, I begin painting…and [I] am fascinated.” We’ve discussed chaos, discipline and chance as parts of the creative process. What about failure? Is failure the most important aspect of all creating? Is failure the key to the process of arriving at art?

JP: “It’s all been said and done before” (Anonymous). I disagree. I object. This statement   does disservice to the human spirit and serves no good end. What’s more, the statement is inaccurate. There has never been another moment in history like this. There has never been another you or me. Success in achieving or failure to achieve something authentic rests squarely on our shoulders. (So this statement may even be lazy.)

Failure is another matter. Failure is a natural part of any process. “To err is human” (Alexander Pope). It’s also human to “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat” (Anonymous). So can we learn to fail well? Can we help others fail well? Failure offers opportunities to learn, often more than one thing; proving or disproving theories; testing resolve and tempering commitment; etc. Ironically, we succeed if we fail well.

We can use failure to drive innovation. “Happy accidents” are often positive byproducts of failures. Without them we’d have no penicillin or Post-Its. The reason we have those things and many others is that the people who invented them learned from their failures. Thomas Edison made failure an integral part of his process. He tried to productively apply what he learned from both the successes and the failures in one project to others. He set a quota for failures. He felt he wasn’t pushing the envelope enough if he didn’t make a certain number of failures a month. This helped him achieve a goal of one small invention every week and one major invention every six months. To date, Edison still holds the world record for most patents—1,093. Thomas Edison was one of the most creative people on the planet—ever.

EM: Ernst Haas famously stated: “Learn by doing or even better unlearn by doing.” Process never ends, does it? Or, as T.S. Eliot said, “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” How can we reconcile the immediacy of Instagram with the process of exploration…aren’t they two different things?

JP: Interesting question!

I’ve found smartphone photography to be a very useful stimulus for creativity and reflection on making images. For many, smartphone photography helps people experience the positive benefits of that state Jay Maisel achieves by always carrying a camera. One of my main goals for smartphone photographs is to try new ways of seeing. Working with a smartphone offers me many opportunities to recognize my previous tendencies and habits, and I find myself developing new habits. I challenge myself to stick with lines of inquiry or ways of thinking long enough to understand them well.

It’s challenging to be spontaneous in a medium you’ve acquired a great deal of skill in. Changing the tools we use can help us see and be in new ways.

I consider a smartphone an addition to, rather than a substitute, for my DSLR. (Notice that I can’t say my professional camera, because I’ve begun selling my sketches, which include images made with an iPhone, some of which are in the Smithsonian’s collection along with my first iPhone.)

The impacts of social networks on visual culture, especially photography, are fascinating.

There is a downside: Technology sometimes distracts us and disrupts our personal interactions. A lot of imagery we see in social networks is poorly considered. We’re creating a new kind and level of visual noise. The volume of images we see online visual overload and visual fatigue.

There is an upside: Technology sometimes fosters new personal interactions. Visual literacy is increasing—we’re using images made in new ways, to communicate in new ways. The World Wide Web is a new kind of neural network, an extension of our minds, ourselves, and our cultures—and photography plays an essential role in its development.

EM: If I had to live with one quote, it would be this one by Ernst Haas:

“I prefer to be noticed some day, first for my ideas and second for my good eye.” That’s a hard thing to say and to believe, isn’t it? If you had to live with only one image you have created, what would it be?

JP: I feel similarly. And for the record, being remembered for and living with, are two different things.

From a purely personal standpoint, the image I’ve made that means the most to me is Exhalation I. I originally called it Avra, which is the Sankrit word for breath. The working title for the series was Heaven’s Breath—a nod to biologist Lyle Watson’s marvelous book on the sky. Many of the titles for other images in the series were drawn from a beautiful passage in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which recounted the names of the Arabic words for special winds and the stories they told about them.

EM: We’ve talked about so many authors, I’m not going to bring up Herodotus and the passage in that movie where Ralph Fiennes quotes him: “…he writes about a wind, the Simoon, which a nation thought was so evil they declared war on it and marched out against it in full battle dress.” But then, I just have. It’s a favorite movie of mine.

JP: I love that movie too; it got me to read the book and to put Morocco on my bucket list. And “Simoon” was one of the working titles for my series. After some time had passed, I felt the series title led the viewer too much. I feel the best work gets out ahead of us and we don’t fully understand it. When work is really good, there’s always another dimension or lead to explore. After works are made there’s often a little catching up to do, sometimes more than a little. I’m not sure we ever fully understand great works of art, but continued reflection can reveal more. I find that process is rewarding; it may be one of the fundamental reasons for making and enjoying works of art.

I realized I was photographing processes more than things, and so I thought my titles should reflect this. (You can read more on this in my Statements online. I changed the series and image title to "Exhalation," which linked it to a related series of work, "Inhalation." I've collected the two series in a single book, Respiration.

You can preview the book online as well as read the introduction to that book online. Currently, the two series are complete but not finished—most of my series are ongoing. I think f them as "to be continued," rather than "the end."

I’ve collected more responses on Exhalation I than any other image. People’s responses are not identical, but they often share qualities centering around breath and a beatific presence. Some of the stories diverge wildly from these qualities.

I consider the responses of two children to be some of the highest complements I’ve ever received. A little boy stopped in his tracks and held his breath, before jumping closer, gesturing wildly, and sputtering out his interpretation, “It’s a giant sneeze!” That’s now the alias for the image in my studio. I didn’t witness, but was told the other response. When being tucked into bed a little girl told her mother, “Mom, his pictures were so beautiful tonight, that man almost killed me.” I’m deeply touched by both of those responses.

For these and many other reasons, I think the process of art starts long before and goes on long after works are finished, and persists as long as those works, or reproductions of them, survive.

JP: Do you find it as interesting as I do that while we study our tools and sometimes the history of our medium, artists rarely feel the need to study creativity?

EM: I’m not sure I’d call it “interesting” as much as unfortunate. I think it comes back to how easy it is to hold a box in your hands and expose light onto film or a sensor, and another thing altogether to make a lasting image that resonates. Ansel Adams said it in at least two different ways: “A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.” And, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."


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).



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