Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: ‘recognition’, inspiration and creativity

Inspired by some modest ‘recognition’, I’ve been musing on the way that recognition (of my work) leads directly to inspiration (to make more) and, possibly, to creativity – to ideas for new images.

The old ‘who do we photograph for?’ debate

Of course, this could easily stray off into the much-discussed territory of ‘for whom do we make images?’ My position on that, at this point in time (!) is that I’d make images just for myself, even if no-one else ever saw them; a position which seems to be the default, at least for amateur photographers, and particularly for those who concentrate on landscapes. I freely admit, however, that it’s very pleasing when other people, especially those I’ve never met, like what I’ve produced. Such comments have greater credibility than those from friends and family, with no overlay of the commentator being naturally inclined to be positive. So, to avoid the huge debate around ‘for whom…?’, I’m going to go with ‘for myself and anyone who’s willing to look at them’ for the purposes of this article.

My immediate inspiration

The inspiration for this piece comes from a coincidence. Firstly, Tim Parkin asked me to be interviewed as ‘featured photographer’ in an issue of ‘Great British Landscapes’ magazine (GBL), and that issue has just been published. Secondly, at about the same time, I learnt that one of my favourite images has made it onto the short-list for the Landscape Photographer of the Year 2011 competition (or LPOTY, in case I feel the need to write that again!). For me, as a newcomer to ‘serious’ photography, both those endorsements of my work are very flattering, and I can say with complete certainty that neither was expected.

I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of either instance of recognition; I do realise that many photographs are short-listed for LPOTY, and also that numerous photographers are interviewed. What I’m interested in here, in this article, is the degree to which this twin, external recognition has increased my inspiration to make more images. It’s had a considerably greater effect than I would have predicted, if asked, a couple of weeks ago.

The short-listed image is ‘Zip’, a dawn capture of interlocking spurs which I discussed in my earlier article about the Howgill Fells of Cumbria. That particular image was the original inspiration for what is now a project to make at least twelve shots of this interesting and unusual area. At this point, I have only four ‘keeper’ images, with another three compositions planned and awaiting an opportunity to capture them, and I was losing momentum a little for all sorts of reasons: time of year leading to the ‘wrong’ light; no mist; too much travelling with work; and general lack of time to make what are non-trivial trips to the locations. Now, with that image and another from the Howgill Fells project appearing in GBL, as well as the competition short-list, I suddenly – and it really is sudden – feel thoroughly inspired to do some more planning and get back up to Sedbergh, with its rounded, wall-free fells, to move the project forward.

Does inspiration directly boost creativity?

I can’t fix the mid-summer light, of course, nor the perpetual, featureless, blue skies which we’re ‘enjoying’ when I’m in the country, but that leads to the second element of this recognition-driven inspiration: the simple fact that I now feel [re-]inspired on this project has led to my visualising two further images to add to my list. Neither of them are in any way related to those I’ve made already, other than being of locations in the Howgills, but the sheer fact of the first image from the project being externally recognised seems to have been enough to ignite the creativity which had been somewhat absent for the last few weeks.

Perhaps it’s entirely obvious that recognition – compliments, to use the non-euphemistic term – is inspirational? Expressed at its simplest and most direct – “Hey! That’s good. You should take more” – recognition is naturally something which should, and does, inspire. The more interesting and unexpected revelation, however – to me at least – is the degree of creativity that this type of thing can lead to.

I’m sure this observation could be useful. What I mean by that is that recognition may be actively, even consciously, used as a motivator for inspiration, and hence as a means to enhance creativity. Whatever the reason, prior to writing this, I was busy making notes recording the various ideas I’ve had in the last day for new photographs in the Howgills project – a good result since I had been feeling that I’d somewhat run out of steam and lost enthusiasm for it.

Inspiration may come from repeated comments on a common theme

Lastly, and I think most importantly, one of the explicit reasons why I was interviewed for GBL was the typical ‘look’ of my photographs; they tend to be credible landscape images, but relatively muted and reliant more on shape, texture and form than dramatic, saturated colours. I suspect that the same is true of the selection of ‘Zip’ for the competition short-list. A few people have suggested in the past that I visualise landscapes in a relatively unusual (abnormal?!) way, at least in terms of colour, and this apparent double-confirmation of that idea has made me feel very inspired to show others ‘how I see’, by means of photographs. Whether or not it’s true that my images are atypical is another question, but I intend to work on the basis that it is, and I hope to draw inspiration from that…

As to why we all see things differently: it’s well-established that human vision is a combination of:

  • the manner in which our eyes react to light intensity and colour;
  • our brain’s interpretation of those visual inputs.

I think that this interpretation is experientially determined to some degree. For example, people who have always lived in alpine areas don’t generally react as positively to snow-covered, dramatic mountains as they do to other types of landscape. I’ve spent a very long time in high mountains, and I love being in such places, but I’m accustomed to them and now find that the barrenness and vivid colours of deserts have more conscious impact on me. Put another way, albeit a little strongly: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.

It follows, I think, that everyone, to varying degrees, will notice different aspects of a landscape and react differently to its shapes, colours, textures and juxtapositions, depending on what they’re most used to. If we take the above as true, and combine it with my images being, supposedly, atypical, then I’m very much inspired to create more and hence to attempt to show people what I’m seeing when I look at a landscape. With a bit of luck I may inspire someone to see things in a different manner and themselves be inspired…

And the learning point is?

As I said above, it really is a revelation to me how constructive, in terms of creativity, positive feedback of this sort can be. I’ve not entered any competitions before; maybe I should attempt more? Naturally, I can well imagine that the inverse, negative effect on creativity – when an image falls at the first round hurdle – may also occur; but there’s probably no harm in being optimistic – at least I hope not!

Ambitious, certainly, but I’m going to stick with it as an idea until proven otherwise as I’m finding it a great boost to my creativity!

Thanks to Colin Griffiths for pointing out something I neglected to make clear in the above. I’m not remotely talking here about deliberately making images which I expect people to like, irrespective of whether I like them – I’m sure that would stifle creativity more than engender it. I’m simply suggesting that we should take advantage of the creativity inspired by occasions when people happen to indicate that they like some piece of work and that perhaps increasing the opportunity for those occasions to arise is a good idea.

4 Responses to “Musings on: ‘recognition’, inspiration and creativity”

  1. Colin Griffiths

    Whatever you do, you should stay true to your own personal vision, whether that fits in with what other people want to see, or whether or not it’s what the judges of competitions feel deserve some merit. Your creativity will only bloom by reacting to the things that you personally find emotionally enrich you.

    • Mike Green

      Thanks for the comment, Colin. Wise words!

      I certainly wasn’t suggesting in this post that it would be a good idea to make images that I think people will like, with that as priority. Really what I’m getting at is that it’s useful to use the psychological boost of existing images being appreciated as a means of provoking more creativity. More ‘if it happens, take advantage of it’ than ‘seek endorsement by making popular images’.

  2. rayfids

    Hi Mike,I always find your blog posting interesting and thought provoking as well as a learning tool. In my case I know there is an image to be made when a caption comes into my head looking around my surroundings.
    Your images are stunning and can I congratulate you on your appearences in GBL.

    • Mike Green

      Hi Ray. Thanks for commenting and for the kind words. It’s always, pleasing to hear that people get some value out of this :-) Now that is a very interesting point, that the recognition of a caption indicates that an image is ‘there’….. I rather think you’re right about that – great observation! I shall have a look at your blog too.


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