Artist are known for their creativity, not that they are the only ones who are creative, but this is key to their practice. Csikszentmihalyi, who has made a lifelong study of creativity and built on the work of Maslow, defines creativity as follows: “…creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovations.” So as he puts it creativity is something that happens between one’s internal thoughts and the sociocultural context in which one lives. The net result of this interchange is “any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. ” One could characterize this interchange as a “dialectic” where the artist initiates a conversation between his novel idea and the cultural symbiotic rules.
I believe this definition of creativity is a good description of what occurs in the world of “experimental photography.” Csikszentmihalyi’s definition reflects Ludimilla Caravalho’s suggestion that experimental photography is: “A series of practices, aesthetics, and methodologies that diversify contemporary photography, in works that belong to the field we call experimental. These are works made through the unconventional use of technologies and challenge the attempts of quick and precise classification. Hybrid, irregular and unpredictable images that rewrite the history of the photographic medium.” The net result of this experimentation or artistic dialectic with cultural norms is a shift in the domain or perhaps a continual shift.
Experimental photographs are constantly testing and seeking to expand the media by combining or altering historical and modern techniques and in the process constantly challenging the notion that there is a right way to make a photograph. As Jerry Uelsmann suggested in 1967, “the contemporary artist, in all other areas, is no longer restricted to the traditional use of his materials or to the exclusive use of traditional materials. In addition, he is not bound to a fully conceived, pre-visioned end.” Or as Edward Weston puts it, “I never try to limit myself by theories. I do not question the right or wrong approach when I am interested or amazed, – compelled to work. I do not fear logic; I dare to be irrational, or really never consider whether I am or not. This keeps me fluid, open to fresh impulse, free from formulae.” He further states, “I would say to any artist—don’t be repressed in your work- dare to experiment—consider an urge—if in a new direction, all the better.” Marc Lenot’s phrase “play against the apparatus” describes the essence of creativity, that is described in Csikszentmihalyi’s work and the thoughts of Uelsman. In other words, the experimental photographer’s journey is on the same path as an artist.
Experimental photographers, as a result of this artistic play, are creating a renaissance in the analog and digital worlds. An explosion of new ideas and methods through which traditional photography concepts are constantly being rewritten. So, as Jean-Claude Lemagny, Michel Poivert and James Elkins suggest, these photographers are no longer trying to reflect the world around us accurately but creating images more akin to abstraction as they often lack an accurate representation quality. So today, the initial steps taken by the pictorialists to see photography as an art form through simple manipulations of the process seem so limited compared to what is occurring today.
Cyclical Nature of Experimentation
One of the issues that frequently emerges with experimental photographers is when experimentation ends, as experimentation results in discovering new techniques that can be codified and are, therefore, repeatable. So when the latest practices begin to be repeated, as one might do when working on a series, can the approach still be considered experimental?
Vilém Flusser has suggested that experimental photography deliberately refuses to comply with the established rules or parameters of the photographic process., but experimentation often leads to the formulation of methods and techniques that are replicated; thus moving away from pure experimentation. This leads to diminished investigation as precision increases. This often occurs when an experimental technique is applied to a series by an artist. This could described as plateauing. Once the series has been completed and perhaps exhibited, an entropic state often sets in. Once in an entropic state, the experimental photographer gets increasingly concerned with the homogeneity of the outcome. Consequently, new bursts of energy usually begin to move the experimenter towards new ideas for experimentation. In other words, when entropy sets in there, it also stimulates a sense of restlessness against the precision. The experimenter then considers where the technique can be stretched, broken or rethought to overcome the entropic state. Thus, there is an ebb and flow to experimentation.
Whether or not it is possible to experiment with digital photography is often raised, as rigid algorithms are often cited as confining this medium. Algorithms often can make specific outcomes highly repeatable, and thus arrest experimentation. However, other algorithmic interventions can modify algorithms, and the photographer is experimenting initially with unpredictable outcomes. Algorithmic systems also interact with artificial intelligence, opening up further experimental worlds. In addition, experimental analog images and other artistic mediums can now be integrated into the digital world. So, this melding of images dispels the notion that experimentation within the digital world might be restricted. Moving back and forth between digital and analog photographic processes is also possible. This creates an intersection where the artist can move back and forth between analog and digital experimentation. This ability puts to rest the thought that the experimental photographic digital world is any more restrictive than analog experimentation.
Stages of Photo-Based Experimentation
I would suggest there are four areas in which photographic experimentation may occur. There is the conceptual stage, where they are considering how to extract themselves from the entropy that has set in. Then there is the recording stage, where images are made, and this is quickly followed by or sometimes occurs at the same time as the manipulation stage. The manipulation may involve moving the image through various different techniques to achieve a unique outcome. The final stage in which experimentation can occur is the presentation stage, an audience is invited to engage with images that have been created. This stage may involve attempting with unique printing methods or unique methods of presentation.
In all of these stages, experimentation flows more freely where the artist’s skills are balanced against the challenges there vision creates when trying to overcoming the entropic state. When this occures it is likely that all four stages flow together as if they were one.
Photographers and those experimenting with photography when creating an image often have an outcome in mind before any apparatus is used to create the image. As Ansel Adams infers, this might include “detail, movement, proportion… exposure….” So, the first stage of creation is fundamentally experimental as it is conceptual, and the apparatus decisions to bring it to fruition still need to be developed.
The second stage is the apparatus stage, in which the photographer chooses a creation method, sometimes including the manipulation stage. This can sometimes mean multiple recording methods or manipulations of the image.
The manipulation stage can be as extensive as the recording stage, where the image-creating moves through, various experimental techniques.
The final stage involves others viewing the work. This could include framing or mounting an image, or presenting it in another medium such as websites or projection.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.
- Carvalho, Ludimilla. Desarranjo Maquínicos: ruído, tecnologia, image.
- Uelsmann, Jerry. Post-Visualization, Florida Quarterly, (Summer) 1967.
- Demachy, Robert. On the Straight Print, Camera Work, 19, July: 21:24
- Finding a Visual Identity in the Digital Age, Ralph Gibson, TEDx Fullbright Santa Monica
- A-Z of Modernist Photography, Tate.
Photography and Artistic-Photography
De Zayas, Marius. 1913, Camera Work, 42/43 (April/July): 13-14.
Photography is not Art, but photographs can be made to be Art. When man uses the camera without any preconceived idea of final results, when he uses the camera as a means to penetrate the objective reality of facts, to acquire a truth, which he tries to represent by itself and not by adapting it to any system of emotional representation, then, man is doing Photography.
Photography, pure photography, is not a new system for the representation of Form, but rather the negation of all representative systems, it is the means by which the man of instinct, reason and experience approaches nature in order to attain the evidence of reality.
Photography is the experimental science of Form. Its aim is to find and determine the objectivity of Form; that is, to obtain the condition of the initial phenomenon of Form, phenomenon which under the dominion of the mind of man creates emotions, sensations and ideas.
The difference between Photography and Artistic-Photography is that, in the former, man tries to get at that objectivity of Form which generates the different conceptions that man has of Form, while the second uses the objectivity of Form to express a preconceived idea in order to convey an emotion. The first is the fixing of an actual state of Form, the other is the representation of the objectivity of Form, subordinated to a system of representation. The first is a process of indigitation, the second a means of expression. In the first, man tries to represent something that is outside of himself; in the second he tries to represent something that is in himself. The first is a free and impersonal research, the second is a systematic and personal representation.
The artist photographer uses nature to express his individuality, the photographer puts himself in front of nature, and without preconceptions, with the free mind of an investigator, with the method of an experimentalist, tries to get out of her a true state of conditions.
The artist photographer in his work envelops objectivity with an idea, veils the object with the subject. The photographer expresses, so far as he is able to, pure objectivity. The aim of the first is pleasure; the aim of the second, knowledge. The one does not destroy the other.
Subjectivity is a natural characteristic of man. Representation began by the simple expression of the subject. In the development of the evolution of representation, man has been slowly approaching the object. The History of Art proves this statement.
In subjectivity man has exhausted the representation of all the emotions that are peculiar to humanity. When man began to be inductive instead of deductive in his represented expressions, objectivity began to take the place of subjectivity. The more analytical man is, the more he separates himself from the subject and the nearer he gets to the comprehension of the object.
It has been observed that Nature to the majority of people is amorphic. Great periods of civilization have been necessary to make man conceive the objectivity of Form. So long as man endeavors to represent his emotions or ideas in order to convey them to others, he has to subject his representation of Form to the expression of his idea. With subjectivity man tried to represent his feeling of the primary causes. That is the reason why Art has always been subjective and dependent on the religious idea.
Science convinced man that the comprehension of the primary causes is beyond the human mind; but science made him arrive at the cognition of the condition of the phenomenon.
Photography, and only Photography, started man on the road of the cognition of the condition of the phenomena of Form.
Up to the present, the highest point of these two sides of Photography has been reached by Steichen as an artist and by Stieglitz as an experimentalist.
The work of Steichen brought to its highest expression the aim of the realistic painting of Form. In his photographs he has succeeded in expressing the perfect fusion of the subject and the object. He has carried to its highest point the expression of a system of representation: the realistic one.
Stieglitz has begun with the elimination of the subject in represented Form to search for the pure expression of the object. He is trying to do synthetically, with the means of a mechanical process, what some of the most advanced artists of the modern movement are trying to do analytically with the means of Art.
It would be difficult to say which of these two sides of Photography is the more important. For one is the means by which man fuses his idea with the natural expression of Form, while the other is the means by which man tries to bring the natural expression of Form to the cognition of his mind.
Marius de Zayas