On The Pitfalls of Process and the Creative Need for Iteration

Since I began working in the darkroom the aspect that captured my imagination and spoke to me as an artist was this sudden ability to experiment and have creative accidents that the physical process now afforded me.  It wasn’t just about being able to produce the photos myself from start to finish, independent of any person or lab, and as I have never ever made more than 5 copies of any particular image (even that seems to border on the excessive to me) neither was it about process for the sake of it.  In a sense, the darkroom gave back to me a certain creative liberty that photography had originally taken, which seemed to be at the heart of a uneasy feeling I have always had around the medium. 

Recently however, I realised that as the processes became more complex and drawn out in order to serve certain aesthetic purposes  and because of the handmade nature of producing a carbon print, any sense of progress had slowed to a near crawl.  The inherent labour demands at each step of the way mean that between starting and finishing a print is always a matter of days, so if we consider each piece to be a proposal, hypothesis, test or simply a sketch, there is a significant delay between the input and the output.  Without having timely feedback, or worse, having no feedback at all, it makes adjusting the process, reformulating the question and sketching something entirely new painfully slow.  It’s this relative speed that I believe negatively impacts our ability to make creative progress.

For the purposes of understanding why I think that working slowly is counterproductive to creativity, let me first describe how I think at least, my own process works.

I feel that creation is largely a combination of two separate states of production: brainstorming and refinement.  I like to use the term brainstorming because it aptly captures the messy, scary, exciting and surprising aspects of the idea process, along with the sensation of speed that are often characteristic of the initial stages, although this may take place anytime. In this beginning state there is no intended direction, because the intention is to simply put out as many ideas as possible and to use the process to help define that direction.  In a traditional brainstorming session we write our ideas down on paper and make connections and progressions via branches that largely map our thought process, but in a non-written form this often entails throwing the materials in a heap and then arranging them only the fly, only to stand back and evaluate things later on.  This part of the process is necessarily driven by instinct and improvisation, because analysis at this stage will ultimately prevent the project from going anywhere new or interesting before it has even had a chance to begin.  The goal is to be able to work fast enough to match the speed of our stream of consciousness, to express the ideas and connections as they happen, to give them life rather than attempt to question or analyse them.

The refinement part of the process comes naturally once we have identified areas that we wish to explore further, when we begin to become more analytical about what was defined in the previous stage.  We note the elements we liked and those we didn’t, and continue the process, but this time with a rough idea of a direction that has been informed by the first round of brainstorming.

What is present in the beginning and early stages is this idea and sensation of there being unknown territory that we are in the process of exploring, so although we may have a vague direction in mind, we don’t actually know what the destination will be, nor what terrain we will cover on the way. The open-endedness of the process is what gives it flexibility, and the possibility to generate new ideas and ways of seeing and working. Once we know exactly what we are doing and how we are going to achieve it, the process is simply a matter of material production and execution.  This is also a fitting way of describing this stage, because execution is where the creative process ends.

Iteration – rapid repetition seems like a necessary path to progress because the sooner we put our ideas to the test, the sooner we get to evaluate how our expectations measure up to reality, and the sooner we can do something about bridging that gap.  We get to explore those different branches that were generated during our brainstorm, and discover sooner rather than later, which are dead ends and which will bear fruit.  The goal is to keep the ideas moving and to ultimately develop a flow where instead of remaining in my head and being analysed and written off or approved there, they make the journey from my mind, into reality, into refinement and execution in one seamless and continuous movement.  So when the analysis is allowed to take precedence at the wrong stage of production, or when the fast and messy parts are forced to be slow and orderly, the system as a whole becomes dysfunctional.  It remains an open question though, whether or not lack of refinement or analysis make for a dysfunctional system.

If you practice photography, or any other medium for that matter, as a craft; as a predefined sequence of steps in order to achieve a known goal, then there’s nothing wrong with working slowly.  In fact, working slowly will probably produce the highest quality work in this case because you can focus on the minute details, without having to consider creative elements.  In my experience because of its nature, darkroom photography tends to attract people interested in craft, and photography in general seems suited to producing works of craft, so attempting to get a darkroom-based photographic process to conform to artistic demands will always be an uphill struggle.  

Therein lies both the challenge, and the possibility for great reward.

Tri Colour Carbon Transfer Print, 2020-11-05, Print Size 24x28cm

This print so far has been the apex of my journey into extremely elaborate and laborious processes, and was completed over the course of a week or two. As described in a previous post, if I want two brushstrokes to sit next to each other in close proximity or to overlap, each must be adhered to the print at a separate stage, on a separate layer so to speak. So in order to create this print in which there are multiple examples of overlap, I had to stagger the collage process, each time allowing the print to dry completely before removing the backing plastic from each newly-placed brushstroke, and then repeating the steps again until completion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s