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New ebook: An Exploration of Creativity

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Hi everyone. I am very happy to announce that after a whole year working on this project, I have finally published my second ebook: An Exploration of Creativity - through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers.

Street photography is an incredible challenge to our creative selves. And that's what makes it so interesting, so addictive in essence. With this book, I wanted to discover how creativity worked, and how, eventually, we come to build a strong personal vision. Using the insights and perspectives from 8 street photographers that I admire a lot, I have compiled our collective thinking on creativity and vision. I very much hope that you will find there something inspiring to keep you going with your art.

And in the meantime, I wish you a fantastic journey.

The ebook is available as a free PDF here, and also available on Issuu.

 

Part 4 | Building a vision: An ongoing revolution

“An artist has a voice, but it’s constantly evolving, it’s a process in the making. It’s always too early to know who we are as an artist. Creativity is not predictability… It’s really the opposite.”

Rohit Vohra

The constancy of change

For human beings, life means change. The constancy of change in an artists’ life is perhaps the only certainty that we are allowed to have. The street photographers interviewed for this project all agree on this: our art is changing, just as we are. It’s a continuous revolution for the artist.

Mike Lee summarizes this process of change this way: “To be brief, I am instinctive. I may often not get it right, but this is part of the learning process. What I saw three years ago, for example, isn’t what I am looking for now, and that — of course — will change in time. I also find images taken over the last past years that now fit with my current vision & narrative.”

Image by Mike Lee

Image by Mike Lee

Letting the door open to change

For some photographers, like Melissa Breyer, their vision has slowly refined over time, but change is always welcome:

“I don’t think I ever stop feeling creative, but I sometimes feel like I want to break out of certain themes I’ve been exploring for fear of becoming formulaic. But finding new ways of seeing is such an organic process; it can’t be forced. I am patient with myself and trust that I will fall into the themes that are natural for my progression. Every little step I take might be creative, but the path is winding and passive. Sometimes I’ll go for very long walks and not take a shot, and that’s fine because the experience was no less meaningful.  I am quite content of where I am today, but I am always hoping for something new – a small change – that will keep me curious and interested.”

Image by Melissa Breyer

Image by Melissa Breyer

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Embracing challenge as a way of life

Earlier in his life, Rohit Vohra was shooting everything. Now he’s thinking about what’s next: “Can I do something differently?” He looks for joy, as he is not self-motivated. He needs to challenge himself by setting new constraints to his creativity. “I don’t like being predictable and I don’t want to be a slave to a style. I like doing new things and experiment a lot, these days I am shooting a lot with flash. It’s an ongoing process... The experience is always unique. Despite working from one style to another, I believe I am able to see unicity in my work, though this is not what I am trying to achieve.”

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Restoring our lost creativity

Rohit Vohra further reveals his own tactics to find inspiration and overcome any creativity blocks: “I read a lot, not just photo books, or essays. I read anything and everything. I am always asking myself questions, this really helps in creating mind maps and that often leads to new ideas and creativity. Yes, we all stop feeling creative at some point especially if one has been shooting for long. Different things work for different people. What works for me is taking a break, travelling, reading a nice book, or going out to shoot without a camera. Shooting without the camera enables us to see more and it’s a great exercise for the brain. One doesn’t feel the pressure of taking pictures when you step out without the camera. Sometimes a movie, a song or just great design will inspire you.”

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Expanding one’s creative horizon

Arek Rataj and Martin U. Waltz have shared their interest in exploring new photography genres, beyond pure street photography. In Arek’s words: “There’s only so much that I can achieve through opportunistic and situational photography. The reality is that I am interested in capturing bigger stories, that are documentary in essence, and that I can orchestrate from start to finish.” For Martin, street photography has clear limitations. It is too reliant on chance, and there’s no certainty of output. “You need to want to love the process more than the result…” He’s currently interested in exploring urban and people photography with more staging and control, as well as documenting big stories but with a street photography vision, raw and authentic. Finally, Rammy Narula has started a new project: it’s no longer about people and places, and it’s all about light and creation of shapes and patterns through light. This is clearly a new direction for Rammy, putting human beings as secondary subjects.

Image by Rammy Narula

Image by Rammy Narula

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Case study: Nima Taradji

Nima Taradji used to be a talented street photographer. But his evolution as a photographer took him beyond the narrow sphere of street photography to focus on intentional storytelling: the major difference, according to him, between pure street and documentary photography. For Nima, street is more of a tactic than a genre itself, and he uses his street photography skills to capture the real people and communities making up our world, especially those at risk of being forgotten. When looking at Nima’s street photography and documentary work, we recognize the same themes and patterns repeating themselves across genres (e.g., focus on hands to express individuality). And yet, his projects – whether political, social or cultural – are as different from one another as the people making them. The people themselves determine the visual feel and style of the series, as does Nima’s point of view, subtly overlaid onto the 15-20 frames that will become his final story.

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Conclusion

  • Photographers and artists experience constant change, giving birth to new artistic directions throughout their life. Their vision and voice change as well with time.
  • Some photographers have narrowed down their vision enough to be content where they are, while others thrive on new sources of challenges or new projects to pursue
  • Finding ongoing inspiration sometimes requires to take a beginner’s mind, looking at the world as if we were seeing for the very first time through reading books or practicing photography without a camera for example
  • Some photographers are also looking beyond pure street photography for their next challenge, looking to explore new visual genres such as documentary photography
  • Change is to be embraced, not feared. It’s always too soon to determine who we are as an artist. Creativity is the contrary of predictability.
Image by Nima Taradji

Image by Nima Taradji

Part 3 | Building a vision: The power of narratives

Narrative in street photography: revealing a paradox

By its own spontaneous and candid nature, street photography doesn’t often lend itself to the creation of intentional narratives. Why? Because narratives assume that several photographs make sense together to tell a particular story, evoke particular feelings, build upon common themes. But if each shot is an unique as our vision of the world in this moment, can narratives ever exist in street photography? Can the lack of planning and premeditation be somewhat overcome to create a piece of work that tells something bigger than each shot on its own?

Rohit Vohra shares: “I rarely take photographs with a series in mind. Sometimes a strong photograph will lead to an idea and that idea will stay in the subconscious mind, patterns emerge and you soon know there is a potential of a series. Most of my series have started with a few existing photographs or at least one strong photograph, but I have never consciously looked for the next shot. It’s only while I am taking a shot, or a little after it that I might feel it fits well in an existing series.”

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

The role of narratives in sharing with the world

Yet, most often than not, published artists and photographers have been able to present their work with a specific angle and narrative, a way to create sense out of an accumulation of images, whether in the context of an exhibition, a publication in a magazine, or the creation of a photobook. Photographers, this is a fact, do not randomly display their images. They think through them carefully, and organize them in ways that create meaning and communicate something unique about their work.

Melissa Breyer shares: “To get published, it’s important to think through narratives and series. Telling the specifics of one’s work is an essential factor in getting seen.”  While she considers most of her work to be an ongoing series, she now enjoys smaller bodies of work. From a street perspective, she’s quite content with where she is. Yet she’s always hoping that there will be something new, a small change that will keep her curious and interested in street photography. Some idea that will flourish and become a whole narrative on their own.

Image by Melissa Breyer

Image by Melissa Breyer

Narratives can be told at portfolio-level, expressing the intent behind an entire body of work, or may be expressed through smaller bodies of work: a defined set of images working together as a series or the output from a project for example.

On the creation of a portfolio

Building a portfolio requires to select images that provide a consistent view of the work. For a portfolio to be remembered, there must be strong unicity in the work being showcased, unicity in places, time, styles, moods or subjects / situations.

Martin U. Waltz has the ambition to move beyond single images to create a narrative more specific to his work – with consistency in places, subjects, location. This is why on his website, he removed all photos not taken in Berlin. Indeed, after showcasing images from all locations for a while, he realized that his travel photographs could never really expressed the same raw feeling that he tries to convey through his work. But Martin doesn’t stop there: he continuously pays attention to the recurrent elements in his photography to refine his style and unique vision – e.g., repetition in moods and situations, and eventually create a “unique narrative between myself and my work”.

Image by Martin U. Waltz

Image by Martin U. Waltz

In photography, Mike Lee believes that you need a style or narrative to go with your own work. Photographers need to define what street photography means to them if they ever wish to create interesting work and get published. A few years ago, Mike published Invisible Mirrors with Corridor Elephant editions. Packaging his images into a narrative was an integral part of the editing process. He asked himself what his best pieces were, then what narrative or thread was connecting each of these images. For him, unicity in his work is more easily achieved because of the short window of time and place that he allows himself to shoot: 8-10am on his way to work. Once Mike had to choose 200 pictures based on his PhotoVogue portfolio – curated by a PhotoVogue editor: “Whether we agree with the curator or not, an external eye can make us see patterns in our work that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This helped me improve my editing skills to be published / accepted.”

Image by Mike Lee

Image by Mike Lee

Intentional series in street photography

CASE STUDY: MELISSA BREYER

Steam Systems

“I think of my whole body of work as one on-going series. Part of that is because I don’t have the chance to photograph outside of NYC very often which defines a theme already, but also because I have narrowed down my style to a pretty streamlined version of what I want to document and express. Within that, more specific themes may emerge as a series. I am definitely drawn to certain themes, and if I find myself collecting a number of photos that I like that share commonalities – and I feel that they have stories to tell as a collection – then I start looking for more with the idea of grouping them together.”

Image by Melissa Breyer

Image by Melissa Breyer

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CASE STUDY: MARTIN U. WALTZ

New Year’s Eve, Backstage

“Themes are preferred subjects, stuff I just care about, lenses through which I see the world. They are created at posteriori through looking at patterns across my work. Unlike themes, my series are quite intentional, but are not always thought conceptually. They are built on unicity in places and moods, and are more documentary than the rest of my work. Eventually, I am inspired by the flow, by the moment. Series will always be an evolving dialogue created from the raw material, not the other way around.”

Image by Martin U. Waltz

Image by Martin U. Waltz

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Conclusion

  • Narratives are what connect images across our work: a way to provide meaning beyond any single image, and to be remembered among many photographers and artists
  • Street photography, by its candid and spontaneous nature, makes it harder to articulate intentional narratives – yet published authors have not chosen their images randomly.
  • We can tell narratives in various ways: broadly, through showcasing a portfolio, or through narrow bodies of work – either themes, series or projects
  • Unicity in places, time, situations, moods or subject matters provide the foundation for presenting images in a meaningful way.
  • Eventually, to prevent against becoming formulaic, many street photographers create series organically, through a combination of intention and improvisation.
Image by Nima Taradji

Image by Nima Taradji

Part 2 | Building a vision: Self-discovery

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image and text by Rohit Vohra

Image and text by Rohit Vohra

The importance of understanding the why

One of the most important insights from this project, for me, was the necessity to question the why we are doing the things we are doing. I had always suspected that without an answer to this question, very little could come out of our work. But seeing that so many photographers agreed, and had slowly resolved to answer this question for themselves, made me realise just how important this was. And indeed, building a vision is a journey to self-discovery. Images tell as much about ourselves as artists as they tell about our subjects. In street photography, where subjectivity is king in contrast with documentary or portrait photography for example, this is even more true and required to succeed.

Image by Martin U. Waltz

Image by Martin U. Waltz

All too often, younger photographers tend to emulate their mentors or idols, trying to impose a style to their work which they believe will attract attention from the audience. But the real work starts after that. The technique, the copying is only there to put the bases in place. After all, no work is purely original, and we all copy someone without intending to because some photographs have marked us and will remain with us. But that is not enough. The difference between talented artists and would-be artists lies in their understanding of themselves and their art. It starts with acknowledging that unless we define what makes us unique, we won’t achieve this level of unicity that is required to have a singular voice in the field.

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Succeeding in this journey

The first step in the process of developing a vision is to acquire the technique. David J. Carol notes in his interview that learning the technique was critical to get him where he was today. He’s now able to take the shot of what he sees, just the way he’s intending to – and by doing so, he has removed a significant barrier and can entirely focus on the story unfolding in front of him. Martin U. Waltz explains that in his extravert mode, where he consciously enter the private sphere of his subjects, a lot of practice was required to take the right shots intuitively, leaving intact the experience of shooting. Both photographers have acknowledged the necessity to take away the need to think about the tool, as a way to more centrally focus on the possible stories instead.

Image by Rammy Narula

Image by Rammy Narula

While many photographers achieve a satisfying level of technicality, we all face the fear of not doing anything relevant. But measures of relevance are hard in the artistic world, and this leads many young photographers to emulate their mentors versus developing their own style. As Rohit Vohra highlights, “As a mentor, your students tend to emulate your work without trying to be themselves. They can see now through social media what works, what’s trending, and that influences them to produce the same images than everyone else. At some point in their career, they will need to learn to make photographs for themselves, and to turn away from their peers and mentors. But that takes courage, because it’s safer to copy the best versus suggesting a different way.”

Knowing the why: photographers’ testimonies

“I am a gatherer of raw material. I am inspired by the flow, by the moment. My work has a clear intent: creating beauty out of the mundane. I then look for patterns emerging from the raw material – an ever changing narrative between myself and my work.”  Martin U. Waltz

“When I shoot, I feel unconstrained and a sense of joyful freedom that allows me to do what I want. I don’t reflect on what I do  – my mind is constantly searching for the next shot. I trust my instincts to lead the way, and I never plan, which is part of the joy I take from the experience.” Mike Lee

“I shoot for myself, it makes me happy. I am not a greedy shooter like a lot of photographers I know. I am happy to step out and come back without a shot. I shoot very little now and only press the shutter when a scene intrigues me, if it moves me or if I see something unusual. The urge is to capture that moment, not necessarily to share it with the world.” Rohit Vohra

“I’ve always been an obsessive maker of things, photography makes a continuation of that possible in a life leaning towards having fewer actual things. At this point, making more stuff seems unsustainable, so making photos is a fabulous way to indulge in creative gluttony. There is also the ineffable pleasure of walking through the streets of New York City. Everyday here is history in the making, and I am so fortunate to be experiencing it.” Melissa Breyer

“As a man who has non sexual fetish for faces, my photographic interests revolves around human micro expressions. I am interested in situational photography, which really is an umbrella term to include candid, social, documentary photographs of people.” Arek Rataj

“A street photographer believes in the power of coincidence. I became a street photographer to bring myself back into the moment”  Rammy Narula

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Case study: Rohit Vohra

In 2004, when Rohit Vohra got his kids, it all came back to him: the joy, the experience, the value of having images for the future. Photography became his break, his “me time” and getting the results had never been the point for him. The camera in fact is a tool against shyness for Rohit - with a camera, he becomes more social, want to travel and discover the world. He becomes another person, more social and extraverted.

For Rohit, finding his voice in street photography is all about creativity – and creativity is the contrary of predictability. In fact, a few years back his mentor commented that his B&W photography was now easily recognizable: “That made me uncomfortable rather than making me happy. I don’t like being predictable and I didn’t want to be a slave to a style and got back to color. I like doing new things and experiment a lot.“ Now a mentor himself, Rohit aims to support younger photographers in their quest to finding themselves artistically, whatever risks they need to take to get there.

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Conclusion

  • A vision is not about how we take pictures, but why we take pictures on the first place.

  • There’s a learning curve for each artist where they’ve got first to learn the technique, send imitate their mentors / peers and finally detach themselves to find their unicity

  • Mastering the technique is critical to allow ourselves to focus exclusively on the elements of the story as it happens, not on how to take the shot

  • Imitating our mentors and peers is oftentimes a necessary step before developing a unique style. However, social media makes it harder to define a unique style, as copying what works appears the safer option

  • Finding a style or voice doesn’t mean that we need to stop searching and challenging oneself. Some photographers thrive on constant challenges of their style

Part 1 | Building a vision: The paradox of unicity

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We’ve already seen in this book that our creativity is driven by internal and external elements that are unique to us – namely our experience, the environment, and critical influences in our lives. All these elements already mean that our vision of a particular scene will be unique to us. As Rohit Vohra said very well: “We are the director of this shot. Should we have taken this shot some milliseconds before, or using a slightly different angle, this would have resulted in a very different shot. Street photography is highly subjective for this reason.”

But moving away from a single shot, what does building a unique vision really mean? Rohit Vohra describes it as “developing a unique voice in street photography capable of influencing others”, while Mike Lee defines this as “developing a unique style combined with a powerful narrative”.  In essence, a vision is a unique way of seeing and capturing the world that transcends every picture one takes, creating a sense of consistency and unicity in one’s work. It means stepping away from imitating others in order to create images that are truly ours: unique in themselves, yet consistent and recognizable as a whole.

Building a vision over time

Building a vision, for a street photographer, can be incredibly difficult at times.  Because a photographer is not planning consciously his shots, it is hard to create an output that shows unicity and consistency. It’s as if trying to take the best shot coming in front of us, all the while making sure that this shot reflects our unique way of seeing the world, not anyone else’s. Not a simple task to achieve, for anyone!

Winogrand used to say that a photographer should take 10,000 images before figuring out who they are and what they do. And indeed, it takes time and practice to reach a level where an artist develop what we call a unique vision – a style, a voice – that is consistent across their work and resonates with others in the street photography world.

•        “I admit I was naïve about what the hell I was doing until one day I was in a café watching and realized I got my eye back. From that point on, the train started rolling.” Mike Lee

•        “My style found me when I stopped trying to have a style. Despite my yearning otherwise, I kept coming home with moody/abstract/pretty photos. So I decided to go out and take whatever I was drawn to.” Melissa Breyer

•        “I found myself slowly, through doing 25 years of assignments. Before that, I was interested in taking important pictures like Robert Frank. Nowadays, the subject doesn’t matter anymore. Only the story does.” David Carol

 

Case study: David J. Carol

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David J. Carol aims to paint the absurdity of the world, a constant theme tying together a 35 year long career as an artist and professional photographer. For David though, his photographs are primarily a reflection of who he is: “all my pictures look the same. I am just being myself.”

When he was younger, David tried to be edgy, to take intelligent shots, to always create something new. He shot with many different formats and lenses with the hope that something new would come out of it. He now understands that ultimately, he takes pictures for himself – pictures that look like him, and he remains the only judge of whether he’s been successful or not. After years of practice, the importance of the subject is no longer relevant to him. He can afford to take the images that he likes, favoring unexpected moments over events with historical significance. The story is all that matters to him nowadays.

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The paradox of unicity

David J. Carol has clearly established a style and a voice in photography, and the thematic homogeneity of his images – across both new or old work – appears clearly to the viewer. However, not all photographers follow a similar approach, and the meaning of unicity and consistency can largely differ based on what drives you as a street photographer.

As an example, here’s what Mike Lee says about style and unicity in his work: “You have to develop your own style, but it doesn’t mean that you have to stick to one style or form of composition for the rest of your life. I like to play across a large sets of styles influenced by Saul Leiter, HCB, Lee Miller, Robert Frank for example. I still see unicity in my work across these different styles – my pictures are still mine.” On the other side of the spectrum, some photographers favor a project-based approach to their work, so consistency and unicity are more easily shown within a project or series, as opposed to the entire portfolio.

Rammy Narula’s vision is a constant exploration for him: he gets drawn to a subject for a while whether he intends it or not – and it becomes central to his work. Now that he’s done with Platform 10, he’s moving on to a very different subject, about patterns in light. His work is no longer about people at a particular location, but about colors and light everywhere. Change is key for him – his creativity is tied to a subject, one at a time. He doesn’t come back to creating the same images over and over again, and keeps evolving with his each new subject.

 

Image by David J. Carol

Image by David J. Carol

Conclusion:

  • A vision means creating a unique voice or style in street photography, that is recognized within the artistic community. In other words, it means creating photographic work that is clearly distinct from others.
  • Building a cohesive vision means achieving a level of consistency and unicity in one’s work, which is often a challenge for emerging street photographers
  • It takes time and self-knowledge to be able to create something truly unique, meaning that the evolution is long and requires a high level of maturity from the photographer
  • Some photographers keep producing the same pictures with high level of consistency in their work, while others display more diverse styles sometimes dependent on the project they are working on.
  • Very often, the work we produced at the beginning of our journey will be greatly influenced by others, while the more we know ourselves, the more we are able to find our style.