Limiting creativity

Most people believe that creative people need lots of space to create – lots of blue sky or a blank wall and especially no limitations whatsoever.


While a creative person does need a certain amount of “room” to maneuver, the opposite is actually true. When one – and this isn’t limited to just creative situations – has constraints imposed on one’s work, that’s when the creativity begins. Rules or limited resources or not enough time or other limitations imposed on the situation are what bring out creative solutions.

An unusual example perhaps, but there was a couple in East Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall who wanted to escape to the West, but had no possibility to do so – no compelling reason for asylum, no visas, nothing. Their solution was to take their Trabant (the tiny East German-made auto) and cut off the top and the windshield. As they approached the barricade at the border, acting as if they had the papers to cross over, instead of stopping before the arm of the gate, they laid down on the front seats and let the now-much-lower car simply roll under the gate’s arm to freedom in the West. Brilliant.
Constraints of all kinds forced them to focus and find a solution that worked right then, right there to meet their objective.

We continually need to ask ourselves: How can I accomplish what I want to do given my limitations? What possibilities do the limitations open for me?

In photography, the creativity that comes from being limited is refreshing. My catalyst: the Diana camera – a carnival-prize camera from the 1960s. It has a fixed plastic lens (no zoom here but there is distortion!), a fixed shutter speed, nearly fixed aperture and three options for focus that don’t really make a difference. And it leaks light fogging some images if one doesn’t seal the cracks. Its design restricts what one can do in this age of high-speed-digital-zoom-red-eye-reduction-automatic-everything photography. But those constraints are just a jumping off point for where the creativity begins. The camera, buy its very design, forces one to think differently about which images can be made effectively. 

The camera is obviously not suited for certain kinds of photography however what the Diana does perfectly is open up a semi-dream land in this crisp HD world we live in. A land of soft images, slightly out of focus… and square! (the camera makes 16 6x6cm images on 120 roll film.)

It’s wonderful.

The next time you feel you have too many limits that are holding back your creativity, think again. Limitations – whether they are not having the right paperwork or being stuck with a fixed lens and shutter speed (or no time, no money, no people, no whatever…) – force one to open up and find a solution.

To get creative actually.

Overcoming inertia

Woke up Saturday to about 6" (15cm) of new snow that
rapidly grew to 12" (30cm). After much debate, I convinced myself that the
weather presented a rare opportunity for photography and I should capitalize
on it.

So, I grabbed my cameras and headed to a specific location –
“Varosliget”, or City Park – in Budapest, a good half-hour across town in good
weather. It was nuts to venture out, but I knew the snow was perfect and guessed
that few would be out and about.

There's a sculpture in the park that's one of my favorites here. It's a statue to "Anonymous" – a hooded figure
slouched in his chair, a hood obscuring his face with pen in hand. (The tongue-in-cheek humor that accompanies this
monument has always made me smile.) I've wanted to shoot this sculpture with
snow on it, thinking the shape of the statue, its setting and the resulting
contrast of dark bronze and snow would be cool.

I've had this image preconceived for several years, yet I
always talk myself out of going when it’s snowing – and about did again this
time – believing that it was dangerous out, lots of accidents, idiots with bald
tires, I was tired, it was cold, whine, whine, lame excuse, etc. But my desire to
shoot it prevailed this time; I knew if I didn't go right then I'd stay
inside, nice and warm, settle in and not leave the house. Worse, I’d miss the prime
opportunity to capture the image I wanted before someone cleared the snow or it
melted or blew away. The clincher was that one doesn’t know if or when it will
snow again and if I didn’t go then, I might have to wait until next
winter and work through the whole go/no go decision yet again as I’ve done so
many times in the past.

As hoped, the streets were pretty empty although the park
was surprisingly full of families, couples and friends taking walks in the
snow. I got to the sculpture and while folks had visited it to touch the pen
(for good luck of course), they had left it alone otherwise. I got the images I
had envisioned – digital as well as film (with my “Diana” camera). The trip was
worth the drive, was worth the venture – the risk – in less than stellar

Inertia is a powerful force to overcome yet the whole
experience – as easy as it was ultimately to accomplish and as enjoyable as it
was – really makes me wonder why I debated making this excursion for as long as
I did. All I really needed to do was just go for it.


Either you let your life
slip away by not doing the things you want to do, or you get up and do them

 – Carl Ally


I’m often asked what equipment I use. To twist the old male adage: it’s not the brand of the equipment that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. Now clearly, if you want to capture high-speed sports action or microscopic images you need equipment capable of delivering those images. But for most situations it’s really not the quality of the equipment that matters, but rather it’s what you see that matters.



I remember my mentor, Howard Stephens, retelling a story where he went to a Nikon workshop. The workshop was designed to help one further develop his or her eye using discussions and examples. All of the class showed up with a pad and pen except for one individual who showed up with two Halliburton cases full of brand new Nikon equipment – bodies, lenses, filters, the works. This fellow had all the gear but no ideas and was looking for someone to tell him what to take pictures of. It just doesn’t work that way.



For my part, I most always have a camera with me as the right time for a photo is that precise moment – the decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson is credited with coining – and later simply won’t do; if no camera, then no image. As a result, many of my images are captured by a basic Nikon point-and-shoot simply because this camera fits in my pocket and consequently is with me a lot of the time. And it produces some great images – not because it’s a great camera (it’s adequate) but because there was an image that I saw, that I wanted to capture and I had a tool with me that would allow me to capture what I saw at that moment.



When I am on holiday or go out deliberately to shoot, I generally carry three cameras with me. One is my Nikon digital SLR, one is a Leica point-and-shoot loaded with slide film (to be later transformed into Polaroid emulsion transfers) and the last is the plastic Diana, loaded with 120 black and white film for those certain unique images.



Nicely, the vast array of digital cameras available today are of surprisingly high quality, so one has access to reasonable equipment that will allow him or her to capture that image. Still, it’s not as important that you have the best equipment money can buy, but rather more important that you see something visually interesting that you want to record.

The allure of various media, Part I

I have spent most of my life shooting in black and white. Besides being accessible and affordable when I was starting out, I discovered that black and white forces one to fully appreciate the essentials of composition – relying on lighting and textures to make the image versus leveraging the color inherent in a color photo. Don’t get me wrong – a good color image has to have the elements of composition present, but often color is relied on to make up for composition.



Up until a few years ago I was still shooting my reliable Pentax Spotmatic F that I bought when I was 15. Despite the fact I had been seeing my camera for a number of years on more than one photo shop’s antique shelf it still worked and met my needs. But, it was time to move ahead and catch up with the times, if for no other reason than to reduce the weight of my load as the Pentax was made in the days of brass and steel, as were the lenses.



I enjoy experimenting with photography – trying new techniques and methods to generate interesting works of art. Today, I work in three main media – so-called “analog”, or film, Polaroid transfer and digital. I liken it to how other artists choose oils or pastels or pen and ink for certain works of art. Certain images are meant for certain media.



Yes, I still shoot “analog” black and white images, primarily with my Diana camera. The Diana came out of China in the 1960s and was frequently used as a carnival prize. Every bit of it is plastic including the body and the lens, resulting in light leaks and not-so-clear images. In these days of automatic everything, digital and instantaneous imaging, it’s refreshing to pull the Diana from my bag and shoot with it. The loud snap of the shutter followed by the grinding click as I wind the film to the next image always generates a number of pathetic looks from folks around me. Still, being forced to frame an image (square, no less, as it takes 120 roll film) and shoot with a single shutter speed and effectively a single aperture (it has three but it’s hard to tell much difference between them) is a refreshing challenge. Certain images ask to be shot with this camera and I’m having difficulty in telling you specifically which ones as there’s such a “feel” to it. The images are ones that don’t require a great deal of detail and in fact are better viewed if the detail is less pronounced. The distortion that the lens creates gives images the “edge” they need. The results are always interesting – slightly out of focus, dream-like and grainy – perfect for the feeling I wanted to convey.



Void of a darkroom (more on that later) I develop the film at home and then scan the negatives into Photoshop for printing.

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