This month’s Story Behind Every Photograph has for this month only morphed into The Story Behind Steve Sherman’s Quest to understand the Mystery of the Creative Process. What I learned was quite a surprise to me and has resulted in an even greater excitement about what my Photography future holds.
The narrative which follows is a lengthy and in depth look complete with visual comparisons and historical facts illustrating the Creative Thought process is attainable to all once we understand how to access the Creative Network hidden in everyone’s brain. Let’s get started !!
Early back in 2016 I was asked by the steering committee of the New Haven Photo Arts Collective to give a program on whatever I wanted. I said sure and put it on the back burner, I had always thought someday I wanted to do a talk on the Creative Process more as a means for personal growth as a communicator and teacher. As my commitment played out the June 1st meeting was to be the Photo Arts Collective final meeting, they were retiring after 21 years following my program, what an incredible honor to be charged with. I wanted to return all the inspiration I had gained over the years from the Photo Arts Collective and saw it as a means to go outside of my “Comfort Zone”. It is common knowledge that pursuing unexplored and therefore unknown areas related to your craft can lead to growth as an individual and an artist. There is a link at the end of the article that will take you to a video of that live presentation.
The Black and White Silver process wasn’t presenting any new challenges for me so I decided the Mystery of the Creative Process would be my charge to grow as an artist and bring another dimension to my B & W large film photography pursuits. I must confess at the outset of this quest my general belief was that Creativity was by in large a quality that was heaven sent, just in your genes if you were so fortunate to have the mind of Springsteen, Lennon or Robin Williams. So, I set out to sequence my thoughts and research and use that narrative as the foundation for my Photo Arts Collective presentation on June 1st of this year. As it happens, the opening photograph are the last visual images I see before I enter my darkroom, a portrait of my Dad, Edward Weston’s famous Pepper # 30, Springsteen’s iconic Born to Run album cover and a poster of a John Lennon concert, these men have inspired me throughout my life and in my photographic pursuits !
Frist, some background on my entry into Photography is in order. I was married in ‘74 @ 22 yrs. old. We left for a honeymoon in Bermuda; I took my brother’s camera to take some honeymoon shots, I shot about 200 exposures, less than a dozen with my wife in the photograph. I realized even back then something was going on I hadn’t foreseen but didn’t think much more about it. The later ‘70’s we were busy raising 3 young children and along about 1980 I met someone I became friendly with because of his interest in car racing, an interest I was pretty passionate about myself in the ‘70’s. We became friends and as it happened he was a Professional Photographer by trade. Around the beginning of 1981 he invited me to a Connecticut Professional Photography monthly meeting and I accepted, I went to a few more meetings and little by little I became friends with some others, one in particular Tm Jones who had begun attending meetings at about the same time. Tim and I shared a lot of common interests in our lives, we were raising small children, he loved baseball and photography, he is to this day one of the three closest friends I have, we even own adjoining retirement property in New Hampshire.
I’ve never thought of myself as a deep thinker, but I have realized over the years if I become interested in something there is no middle ground, I am all in, look out I’m on a mission !! In my 65 years like most of us I have the benefit of a lifetime of wisdom to not only draw upon but to look back and see core themes to those passions. Essentially I’ve had 2 passions in my life outside of my Family and Friends. B&W Photography, and Baseball, specifically high school age student athletes playing in competitive summer leagues were central in my non-family life. For years I balanced the two nicely, photography would dominate my free time from the beginning of August until mid May when photography gave way to organizing practices and traveling to games for summer baseball. Soon, the passion for each was simply too great for them to co-exist, about 10 years ago I gave up the baseball to devote year round energies to my B & W photography. Interestingly a young person who worked for me during my day job had an interest in his own art form of creating etchings on polished stone once asked me how many nights a week do you work on your photography, when I told him most every night and always on weekends he was shocked, I don’t think he expected to hear of that level of commitment or passion.
I remember from my baseball coaching days, I would tell players there are 5 keys to success in the game; I called them the 5 P’s, Persistence, Perseverance, Pursuit, Performance and Passion. I remember sending the kids home from practice one afternoon by telling them “tell your parents tonight the Coach told you there is ONE secret to success in the adult world…”PASSION”…that’s all you need in life”. I cautioned them however, Passion had nothing to do with driving a fancy car and a lot of money in the bank, it had everything to do if you’re passionate about something you will find a way to be SUCCESSFUL…caution, likely you may never be satisfied, that simply is how Passion works, at least that is how it works with me. Clearly life is a bit more complicated than that one concept but it drove home my point to pursuing success. I would tell players all the time, it’s all about competing, work hard to put yourself in a position to succeed and if you don’t succeed you’ll have no regrets, you’ve given the best you can and from that you can rest easy. I only tell this story because many times in the darkroom with Springsteen blasting away if I’m not able to get the print to look the way I want, I’d end up shutting down the music and actually go have a mental pep talk with myself all alone in the Darkroom, “come-on Steve you’ve told hundred’s of kids to just compete, well that’s exactly what ya gotta do here, you know what you want in this print, now find a way to rise to the occasion and win the battle” !
The Black & White Silver process came fairly easy to me, in 1985 less than 4 years removed from developing my first roll of 35mm B&W film I made an appointment and brought a portfolio of 20 or so prints to the prestigious Robert Klein Gallery in Boston. Klein looked through the entire portfolio and chose to keep 8-10 prints and freely told me, your work is an affordable answer to Ansel Adams style of work, I wasn’t then, nor am I now comfortable being named in the same sentence as Adams. Nevertheless my meeting with Robert Klein in his Boston gallery was a real eye opener, I had maybe a year’s work into making the finished prints I brought in, I remember he had me sign a contract with 50% going to the Gallery, he placed my work in some file draws with Harry Callahan and a few other famous photographer’s, all of which had a somewhat numbing effect on me barely 4 years into making B&W photographs. I was with my friend and mentor Jack Holowitz and as we walked outside reality set in, I had just left half my portfolio and nearly a year’s work with a gallery on speculation and no guarantee of any monetary return, and now left with a half empty portfolio case that needed to be replenished ! Klein especially loved the image in Fig # 1 titled Summer House. It’s a simple composition which takes advantage of a powerful compositional placement in the rule of thirds, the sunlight face and shadowed side of the house provide a sense of depth and scale while the sky just accentuates the power of the stately summer cottage high on a hill. The tiny strip of land goes against the rule of thirds and further casts the cottage as something grand, almost larger than life.
My interest in researching the Mystery of the Creative Process began several years ago when good friend Tim Jones suggested the FlipBoard mobile device app where you would choose 5 topics and the app would supply short lunchtime length articles on given topics. One of the topics I chose was Creativity and one of the first articles I read was by Ken Robinson PhD, he offered a quote that hit me right between the eyes, “the real driver of Creativity is an appetite for Discovery and a Passion for the work itself !” In an instant I knew that quote described me perfectly, and with that I began to think that real Creative Thinking was in my grasp. I’ve always been a big believer in Quotes and Metaphors, someone else has done the heavy lifting and I’m left to simply apply the message to my situation. My Dad, left me with several quotes that I still remember and adhere too even today, “Can’t died in the Corn Field” & “It’s not the Arrow, it’s the Indian”. He would also constantly admonished me to “Pay Attention,” albeit in a much different tone of voice, seems I could not stay on task as he wished, I’ve learned through this article that might be a good thing when it comes to Creative Thinking. I’m a huge Springsteen fan and I easily relate to a lyric that resonates with my quest to understand the Creative Process, “I’ll teach my eyes to see, through these walls in front of me” from the song Trapped.
There are several resources I’ve used for this article and they are, “Art & Fear”, by Orland & Bayles, “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp and “The Net and the Butterfly” by Olivia Fox & Judah Pollack. See Fig # 2 for My Resources.
The book Art & Fear tells of a College Ceramics class being divided into two groups, one group charged to produce only one magnificent work of art while the other half of the class was directed to make as many different pieces of art as possible. When the semester was complete it was clear the Best and most Creative work came from the group charged with producing as much work as possible, obviously their minds free of focusing on how to make one grandiose piece of work in favor of creating and exercising their minds to create as much Art as possible in a given time frame. There are many take aways from Art & Fear, one that sticks out is Quitting happens once, while Stopping happens all the time to Artists.
The last sentence in the above paragraph leads right into the area of Creative Thinking I learned from the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Tharp suggests that artists have a group of “boxes” where ideas and concepts are stored to be accessed at an appropriate time. I’ve heard Springsteen say he has songs that he likes and has recorded them, but never released them saying he returns to them every so often to see if there is still something there of interest. I have begun writing down ideas and goals that pop into my head so as to first and foremost remember them but also to act on them when the right time presents itself. See Fig. # 3 My Boxes
Another take away from the Tharp book, she is a professional dancer by profession and she has learned the older she gets the more physically demanding her routines become and therefore has to devote more energy to keeping herself limber and in shape so that she can remain creative in her dance routines. That is essentially refining her technique to stay fresh and free of the physical challenges she faces while performing. Lastly Tharp suggests, think back to the very first conscious decision you made to be Creative, below is a photograph that goes back to 2004, where I setup a 7×17 camera in the balcony of an abandoned opera house. The first composition was with only the railing in the photograph and before I had even turned the 1st film holder around I thought if I were to include just a slight portion of the seat backs it would offer another layer of interest and equally important would provide some insight into the building at one time was intended for great numbers of people to sit and enjoy a performance of some sort. Back in 2004 I was borrowing a 7×17 camera from another good friend Peter Bosco. The composition of Fig # 4 Ansonia Opera House with only the railing suggests that I was more in tune with the mechanics of the camera and focus as opposed to the stronger and more creative composition with just a hint of seat backs in a second rendering seen in Fig # 5 Ansonia Opera House
Please take a moment to access a short You Tube clip of what many consider to be one of the funniest comedy routines of all time, Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First here:
I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say his style of humor is a variation of Abbott and Costello’s technique. I saw an interview with Seinfeld where he described the genius behind Who’s on First was a result of rapid-fire responses from both characters with little regard to understand each other’s return comment.
Another short You Tube clip from Robin Williams here:
Clearly these two performances are flawlessly performed, but when you look closer you find that each are rooted in of hours of rehearsal, perfectly scripted words and flawless timing, I believe each of their performances are akin to our photographs hanging on a gallery wall. The gallery viewer has no idea of the years of cultivating our craft that has gone into that one photograph on the wall, they simply see our final performance much the same way the audience does with the You Tube videos I’ve directed your attention too.
So it has become clear to me the Creative Process with regard to photographers and performers alike has a lot to do with a 2nd nature understanding of the given Art Form and it’s challenges so that your mind is free to explore what you’d like to say and convey with each image and hopefully how you can do it in a different way that may have already been done. The greats do this all the time, guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen’s E Street Band on their last world tour and told of a typical big name touring rock band would have a set list and variations of music numbering around 60. Morello told of Springsteen’s last tour lasting nearly a year where the set list grew in excess of 250, which has everything to do with such command of one’s technique and drive to bring Creativity into their perfomrances !
The following two photographs resulted in a trip down to Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s interesting to note that Tim Jones and I drove 2 hours, took decidedly different vantage points, waited around during 20 – 30 minute exposures and then drove another 2 hours on the trip home and never once spoke of our compositions or choices we made in the image we chose to make. I would suggest, two accomplished LF photographers completely comfortable with their technique and execution, Tim Jones rendering of the Manhattan Skyline is seen first below here while the author’s rendition of Manhattan Skyline is seen following Tim’s vertical rendering. Neither rendition is superior to the other, simply different impressions of the same area by photographers of equal abilities and therein lies the beauty of Art, it can be whatever the artist chooses.
I was fortunate to see a talk given by a well known west coast illustration photographer named Dean Collins, in his talk he offered a quote I think of every time the thought of making a photograph of kicks in, “We photographers are charged with capturing a 3 Dimensional world and presenting it in a 2 Dimensional medium.” With that quote in mind I’ll offer some thoughts about the photograph in Fig. # 8 titled Manhattan Bridge 2005.
I’ve been making photographs for years down around the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge area and was joined by Tim Jones back on New Year’s Eve day 2005, this photograph was exposed in later afternoon a half hour before snow began to fall to give some idea on the overcast light I was dealing with. The juxtaposition of the random planks in the foreground contrasts the angles created by the bridge itself, there is an area of water in between the planks and the base of the bridge which provides a sense of space and depth and of course there is the distant land mass of Manhattan across the river which subliminally conveys the idea of near and far and a sense of dimension that results from how the composition is constructed.
Some of the techniques I use that can be interpreted as Creativity follow here:
Creating a sense of Depth and Dimension, Spatial Relationships, Symmetry, Directional Light, Diagonals, Triangles, Textures, Tonality Contrasts and Unnatural Perspective.
Just last month I taught a TWO on ONE workshop with two gentlemen from New Jersey, one told me of a new book he was reading titled The Net and the Butterfly. Before the sun set on that day I knew I’d have to rewrite much of this article based on the few excerpts the student shared with me. I quickly got the book the next day and read how the brain works during it’s day to day function. The book details the Executive Network (EN) and a second function known as the Default Network (DN) and how the two rely on one another to provide stability to productive brain function. A short description of the EN is all that is necessary for this article, the is EN described as the frontal part of the brain that gets things accomplished, stays on task and achieves goals that have been laid out in our day to day lives including expectations at work and the day to day tasks of functioning as a productive adult. The DN part of the brain is where all Creative thought originates and becomes active when the EN disengages, many times as we drift off day dreaming or doing mindless tasks (in my reasoning 2nd nature tasks) such as taking a shower, going for long walks where the mind is free to just drift with ideas popping in and out of our heads, sometimes of no real value and ocasionally something called Breakthroughs can happen. The book describes four types of breakthroughs, hence the 4 wings of the Butterfly. They are Eureka, Metaphorical, Intuitive and Paradigm Breakthroughs. The book goes onto site scores of examples during history where this type of brain function has had historic results; Einstein’s Theory of Relativity resulted from a long walk alone. Aristotle started a walking club where scholars would gather to take long walks but rarely spoke to one another. Steve Jobs was famous for taking long walks. The book tells a story of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, then in his twenties staying in a run down motel in Florida in 1965 with the band floundering and on the brink of anonymity. Richards regularly turned a cassette tape recorder on to record music ideas and went to bed one night after drinking for much of the night. He forgot to turn off the cassette recorder, when Richards woke the next morning the tape recorder had run to the end and shutoff. Richards rewound the recorder to listen to long periods of him snoring but then came upon a 30 second cut of the simple chord which opens the Stones iconic song (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Richards had no memory of waking in the middle of the night and picking up the guitar, yet that event may well have been the turning point for the Rolling Stones. That simple guitar riff is considered to be in the top 5 best guitar riffs of all time! The authors of the book describe similar examples when gathering information on some of the greatest discoveries in history. How the period of time when the brain disengages from normal function, such as taking long walks, taking a shower or beginning to drift asleep where the brain shifts to the Default Network where Creative Breakthroughs can be unleashed. Salvador Dali would sit in a chair with a silver spoon in his fingers with a metal plate below on the floor, as he drifted off to sleep the spoon would drop sometime after the EN part of his brain disengages, the noise would wake him up and he immediately took to a pad to write down or draw what was going through his head. Adam Cheyer the designer of Apples virtual assistant Siri explained the programming was so incredibly complex to bring to functionality, Cheyer would purposely try to fall asleep with the problems and challenges of Siri on his mind and credits many nights when the brain would begin to shift from the EN to the DN to actually solving many of the programing hurdles necessary to bring Siri to life.
During the last 15 years I have been fortunate to make several discoveries, specifically in Minimal Agitation forms of Film processing and a Silver Gelatin Flashing technique I use in concert with Multi-Contrast papers. Now, having the benefit of the descriptions of the types of Creative Breakthroughs I would describe the first as a Eureka Breakthrough while the latter more in line with an Intuitive Breakthrough. Each of these techniques has produced significant gains in Mid Tone contrast, the area of the negative and Silver print I am most concerned with. The point being, this complete understanding has allowed me to think more Creatively to a far greater degree than I could hope expect without the B&W Process becoming 2nd nature. So, I believe in my case the complete understanding of the Black and White Silver process is what allows me to explore differing “Performances or Challenges” just as Springsteen, Lennon and Edward Weston have in their careers. I’m not for a minute suggesting my talents are on par with any of my so-called inspirational hero’s but I do think my Passion approaches theirs !! I most closely aligned my vision and aesthetic with the work of Edward Weston and Berenice Abbott and they may well be the impetus for another article in the future, for right now I look forward to completing the book The Net and the Butterfly and applying their findings.
I really don’t have any gifted knowledge of B&W film and the wet Silver process that wasn’t born out of hard work, perseverance and ultimately Passion. What I do have is a lifetime of mistakes and wisdom gained from an Uncommon Drive. The end gain has resulted in an innate understanding on how the Film and Silver Process can be exploited in concert with one another so that the process has truly become 2nd nature. From my earliest days in B & W Silver printing I would design negatives to be printed on a higher contrast paper, usually grades 3 & 4. The mid tone contrast or the transition of contrast from dissimilar tonalities that resulted from the harder contrast papers simply could not be replicated by increasing negative density alone. I have carried that same thinking over into the darkroom and printing of modern Multi-Contrast products and have exaggerated that concept in a direction I have not heard most silver printers speak of.
So in summation, I can loosely tie all this documented information into the idea that was originally the impetus for me to take on writing an article on the Mystery of the Creative Thought Process. The acts of walking, taking a shower, or falling asleep and in Richards case playing a guitar are all acts of 2nd nature and therefore the mind is free to drift into the DN mode, at least for a period of time. Writing and research have dominated the last several weeks leading up to my June 1st deadline and most nights I would go to bed by 10pm so I could be up at 5 am to continue the projects, several nights I’ve awoke with thoughts about the projects and actually got out of bed one night to get a pad and write down what I was thinking. Most of those thoughts had to do with how to best sequence the information whether it is here in this article or the slide presentation for the Photo Arts Collective in New Haven, CT. It should be clear now to everyone there are steps we all can take to best position our minds to take advantage of the Creativity that lives in each of us but for so many may go untapped. You may click the live link below to see / hear the video of my June 1st presentation, with apologies on the # of “ums”.
I’ll close and share a short story. Several years ago a gentleman brought me to Denver to give a weekend Pyro Workshop, on Monday I wandered around waiting to go back to the airport and walked into a shop and came upon a T-Shirt with these words printed on the back,
“Eliminate the thought of being Ordinary, it will Rob you of becoming Extraordinary !” author unknown.