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A Movable Feast

Published February 1st, 2012

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, brushes, canvas 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.



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Knut Skjærven  almost 6 years ago

Comment made to this blog:


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:

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.


Knut Skjærven  almost 6 years ago

Thanks, Benoit.

I agree, but what I try to investigate is the connection between photography and a more formal definition and attitude to creativity. I find that the term "creativity" is used too much, too loosely by too many people to have any serious meaning left.

Photography suffers from this.

Ask any person who takes pictures and they will all claim that they do creative work. Look at any photo site and find out that this is not so :-). Most of it is very "me too" type of work.

A subjective interpretation of reality, since there are no other way to experience reality, is not enough to honor photography as being creative. Being a good craftsman is not the same as being a creative photographer in the same was as having being schooled as a painter, do not make anybody an artist.

NB: I only use my image as an e x a m p l e. It is a trial, no more :-).

My 2P.

Have a really good day :-).


I look forward to read your blog post. Here are some more of mine:

Benoît Felten  almost 6 years ago

Hey Knut,

I have a different conception of photography. To me, it's not and has never been a mechanical representation of reality. It's an interpretation of reality, and that's where the creativity lies. I intend to write a blog post about this when time allows, but essentially, what it comes down to is all the minute choices you make in the instants before taking the photograph is the (often subconscious) process of interpretation:
- what to include (and not to include) in the frame
- excatly when to press the shutter
- how much light, how much shadow
- depth of field and how it focuses you on certain aspects of the shot

All of these and many more determine your subjective interpretation of reality. That's when you're being creative.