Looking Into the Light: the Creativity Book

Peter's cover.jpg

Work on the Second Edition

Creativity is a state, something we are, not something we do from time to time.

This book offers a way to go looking for it by doing things, instead of hoping it might turn up.

The book grew out of the exploratory workshops that I have conducted for many years across the world. When I began, they were mainly about photography, but over time the focus has broadened naturally to creativity itself and how to get at it when you want to. I have done workshops and presentations for groups of artists in other media, for medical school personnel, for psychiatrists, corporate creative departments, designers, teachers — even former child soldiers in Africa.

The way outlined in it works to enliven anyone at all who is interested in opening their mind's eye; artists, creators — and humans of all kinds. It presents a way of working that looks far beyond "technique" to what happens before the click, which is where the best arises.

The work begins with setting aside what we know and think we know and returning to a childlike state of awareness. The process is for people at every level, from wide-eyed beginner to the professional who needs a reminder of his or her early enchantment with creativity. (And everything we set aside will be happily waiting for us.)

As I begin work on this new edition I'm taking the opportunity to look beyond photography to other possible vehicles. Still, because of its relative ease and ubiquity, it will remain somewhat near the center of the working process.

Below is the introduction to Looking Into the Light. It does not promise to bring your artistic process under greater control. Instead, it suggests that you turn your mind's eye loose and follow it rather than training it to follow you.

As I work through making the second edition I will be adding chapters, some revised, some entirely new, here on my website.

Chapter 1: How this book works, and Why

Wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

Antonio Machado

This book is for people who have looked through a camera and been changed, as I was.

It is for you if you have been making pictures for a long time or have just begun. It is for you if you work with a camera or paint, words on a page or notes in the air. It is for professionals who make artworks that fulfill other’s visions and would like to regain the magic of finding their own.

It is for people who sense that there’s more to be had from all this than the concrete results.

And it is for teachers to use, alter, and pass along.

The book started to form when I began teaching photography, but over time I’ve seen the thoughts and exercises in it work for artists of every kind. Doing them brings out the unprdicted things that make our art live — the light, relationships, poetry, musicality, and pure emotion. They bring alive the thrill and revelation of working beyond what you know.

If art works like a mirror, this book is about the mirror itself, not the reflections. The thoughts and tasks send us out beyond the making to the deep roots of our creativity that are there in us long before we click ... or paint or write or do anything at all. Talking, reading and thinking can point to where to dig, but to reach the awareness from which art arises we need to move around, to act, to do things.

How the book works

It begins from this thought: creativity is not so much what we make as it is the state in which we make it. In it we grasp things that don’t yield to thinking. And we don’t haveto produce anything while we’re in it. Just being there fulfills.

I realize that that may be an unusual view, so to begin I’ll explain the notion a bit, and after that we’ll try it out. I’ll also give a short glimpse of how the brain acquires perceptions and what it does with them.

After that the book will mostly be exercises that give us a direct experience of our own creativity and a chance to actually see it at work in us. Done with focus and commitment, the exercises provoke us to work that surprises us and grows us.

I’d been doing creative pursuits from childhood through my schooling and early working years — writing at first, then theater. One day in the theater I picked up a camera with nothing much in mind and stunned myself by taking some pictures that were somehow larger than I was, clearer and more resonant. They weren’t great, but the outcome felt like a miracle ... or a mistake. Within months I’d left theater and taken to the camera, and after a few years I began to teach college students to take pictures. But I sensed something was ticking just below the surface. So I began picking the phenomenon apart, hoping I wouldn’t kill it in the process.

One surprise was that this creativity was present in so many non-artistic disciplines — science, engineering, medicine, history. It seemed to be a part of everything we did, and was both very profound and completely quotidian.

And innate.

It actually seemed that creativity might be a way that we learned things, that it began when awareness began in the womb and really started to blossom at birth.

The Chihuahua’s Visit

Join me in a thought experiment here and imagine a newborn infant in a hospital room. To those gathered — enfolding mother, solicitous father, and murmuring visitors — everything might seem hushed and tranquil, but the child surely feels it’s been ejected into a raging world of light and sound. After the amniotic world the baby has just come left, this place is a screaming hell.

The baby can’t come to the hell metaphor, of course. It has never heard of hell, has no experience, makes no constructs.

But what it does have is awareness.

And that is everything it needs to start right in on the great labor of becoming itself. and grasping the world. With awareness, with simple seeing, the child can begin to make its world and its meaning.

Here’s how I think this might work: the infant brain is primed to notice whatever it has not encountered before, which for a newborn is everything. It can’t integrate the data because it has none, but it can notice.

Now imagine that baby a month or so later, at home and beginning to focus on things around it. One day an aunt comes to admire and brings ... a dog, a Chihuahua, energetic, expressive, and yappy!

The baby stares and stares. And somewhere inside its baby brain synapses respond to this new input by swaying and pointing toward each other and finally knitting together to make a place, a little neural nest, for this furry yapper.

Then the dog goes away and the child’s brain settles down.

But not all the way down. Because of the encounter there is now impressed on it an image of this new creature. The child’s brain is different! Its mind has been changed ... literally! No idea yet, just a perception.

This is a transformative event, and it is the kind of thing that goes on all day, day after day, for babies. No wonder they need to sleep so much.

Of course none of this is my idea. I got it from the pioneering neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, who was one of the first to use fMRI imaging to map what happens in the brain during different kinds of events. He describes it very simply in his book, The Feeling of What Happens (Yale University Press, 2009).

Events change us, he says, and “we become conscious when the organism’s representation devices exhibit a specific kind of wordless knowledge — the knowledge that the organism’s own state has been changed by an object.”

Wordless knowledge! Of course. We sense a difference that we can’t articulate, but we somehow know that something has changed!

Notice that he is not talking about encounters with things that are momentous or artistic or even interesting, just things that are new. And he’s not talking about understandingthem.

And certainly he’s not talking just about infants. This transformative effect continues throughout our lives.

I may be getting out ahead of Damasio’s intention here, but I think he points to a kind of knowing that is different from understanding, though not inferior to it. The ignition of art in us doesn’t come from understanding, from art history, from parsing what other artists have done, or from technique ... not even from talent, for that matter. Those things can prompt or shape it as it manifests, but artwork starts with awareness, with perceiving in some new way and then looking for ways to make that awareness come alive in others.

Is this transformative awareness artistic? Not necessarily. After all, it produces no concrete result — nothing on paper, no songs or colors or words. Still, we’ve had that change of brain/mind. We are enlarged. The view through us is wider, deeper. And if we make art in this condition, there’s a chance it will be wide and deep. The same thing can happen if we engineer a new kind of airplane wing or a theory of economics.

All right, back to our little infant, who has been rocked by its meeting with the dog. A perception has arisen in its brain’s right hemisphere, then it is handed over to the child’s left hemisphere, whose job it is to decide what shelf it belongs on. (More about this hemisphere business in a moment.)

The child can now begin to fit the dog into the matrix of meaning it is starting to weave. (“It doesn’t feed me, so not Mother. Looks kind of like that other furry thing I see around here. So maybe this ‘dog’ thing is a kind of Cat.”) So a stab at conceptualization, though not perfect. But that’s the way we use our other hemisphere, the left, to find meaning out of what the right hemisphere apprehends. (Or do we make it up? Interesting question.)

As children get older they get more focused on this structuring project, and more adept. And most of our education serves that process. We analyze things, see where they fit into other things. We test our structures against other’s, and we knot them into the vast web of structures that is our world. We call this understanding, and it’s part of what makes us human, or so we think.

And there’s no question that it’s really the best way to build and understand structures and systems.

But as a hammer needs nails, the left hemisphere needs input to make structure of. And that comes from the wide-field holistic awareness of the right hemisphere as it perceives.

(A fascinating aside here: it has been observed that when people have suffered damage to their right hemisphere, the left continues to work without any input, cranking out absurd tautologies.)

Into the Hemispheres

We need to spend a moment here on brain lateralization. The notion that different cognitive functions are seated in the two hemispheres of the brain (lateralization) has been around since the 1860s. As it developed it was shorthanded to say that the right hemisphere was visionary and creative while the left managed the analytic, structural and conceptual tasks. So:

Statistics on the left. Poetry on the right

Facts on the left. Feelings on the right.

Reality on the left. Mindless fantasy on the right.

In his book his book, The Master and His Emissary(2009), neuroscientist and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist lays out a more complex and complete model of how the brain accrues things and what it does with them.

Then it is handed off to the left hemisphere, where it can be named, analyzed, compared to what we already know, categorized. And now we can speak (or think) about the thing, describe it, metaphorize it, fit it into the world that we know, have opinions about it. Now we say we “know” it. (There’s an interesting notion out there that we don’t experience things directly, only the ideas that we construct about them.)

McGilchrist says that the hemispheres communicate and cooperate all along, as becomes evident in the strangeness that results when they are occasionally separated surgically.

So what does this tell us about how art work bears fruit? Here's my semi-informed guess.

A stimulus is first apprehended in the right hemisphere. It is a raw impression, very real, but we can't describe it, say its name, compare it to anything.

Then it is handed off to the left hemisphere, where it can be named, analyzed, compared to what we already know, categorized. And now we can speak (or think) about the thing, describe it, metaphorize it, fit it into the world that we know, have opinions about it. Now we say we “know” it. (There’s an interesting notion out there that we don’t experience things directly, only the ideas that we construct about them.)

McGilchrist laments oversimplification, and he is adamant that the hemispheres collaborate to the extent that they really are functionally one entity.

So what does this tell us about how art work bears fruit? Here's my semi-informed guess.

First we perceive something, an empty room or a splash of light, a litter of kittens or Yosemite Valley, the shadow of branches on the snow, the sound of wind — in other words, anything at all.

Let’s say we hike up a hill in Fall and come across a maple tree glowing a fiery red in the valley below. Our first response is … wordless. Or maybe Ah!In our brain it is a perception floating in our right hemisphere, real but unexpressed.

Our next response might be Beautiful. Then perhaps, Tree.

Then, Maple. Then, Sugar…or Norway?

And as we compare and construct, the experience becomes something we can think about and communicate. We can be taxonomic or we can be poetic and express what the sight feels like.

But if we’re artists it can be best just to hold it in awareness for a while before we do anything. We might just stare, or we might move closer, view it from different angles. If it is Yosemite Valley, we might move around and watch the visual elements change in relation to each other until some harmony arises.

If we were a poet and wanted to express the “oceanic feeling” that can arise at such a moment we might do well to follow the advice of poet Charles Wright and just let the impression float as long as possible without trying to pull it down and onto the page, let its subtleties and resonances establish. This allows our creative aspect time to fully soak before it starts to talk.

So there you have my home-brewed notion of how the mind/brain works when it is in the creative state. This idea underlies much of this book, and the chapters that follow leverage it to make us more trusting of the phenomenon.

By now it should be clear that this book doesn’t aspire teach you Creativity ... and that it doesn’t need to. But the exercises and the thoughts in it can lead you to new experiences and view 0ver the world and the self, and they can perhaps stir up some “wordless knowledge” that will sign a change in you. You can then work with that experience, in photography or anything else, or you can just walk around with your mind’s eye open and glory in seeing.

When Art takes you over — let it.

There are things I like to do and things I ought to do, and all of them get flung aside when I am making photos and, lately, films.

Why am I so overcome by the sudden onset of creative action? Is it the dopamine? Is it the hope that I might be carried once again beyond my ideas? Or is it the way that making really new work stretches me into a new shape? Or all of that?

Whatever the reason, I try to grasp the workings that underlie this compulsion. This brings me to trust more and to put my weight on this invisible process.

Our best results seem to be ones that we can only get to by doing. And the doing may involve some undoing, some setting aside of what we think we know.

The finished result of a creative act, the piece itself, can seem ordered, but we all know that the experience of wandering, getting lost, getting found, and finally emerging with something new is an unpredictable process. The tracery of a creative outworking seen from above would look more like a maze than a road. Yet one outcome of wandering through this maze is that you emerge as someone else, more awake, more aware.

What does the creative state feel like?

Being in the state is not necessarily comfortable or serene, not for me, especially when something gets going. Nervous, excited, confused, and insecure are more like it. I may be aware that something is happening, but I’m not conscious of it in any detail. If a good photo comes out of it, it surprises me every time.

That picture is the sign of a mystery that is present in us all the time. It reminds me of the way a cloud chamber deep in a salt mine reveals the passage of invisible neutrinos by the vapor trails they leave. When a creative event flashes through us, the image we make is the visible sign.

The phrase empty cognizancedescribes the state perfectly. It is a term used in Buddhist psychology, and it suggests an emptiness which holds all possibilities, any of which we can manifest.

We are so trained to analysis and structure that it is hard to imagine something so central to our being as creativity doesn’t start with thinking. But as a medical researcher friend pointed out, there are any number of functions that pass entirely around our brain. Like what, I asked. He told me that the next time I put my hand on a hot stove I should see how long I took to decide what to do.

Nothing to learn

As we grow up, it is the left hemisphere that becomes the focus of most of our education, while the right hemisphere is more or less left to take care of itself.

Which is fine. You can’t tell it anything anyway. But if we don’t exercise creativity’s role in our whole being, it can seem to atrophy. Still, at any point we can revive it, stand it up, and right back to work it goes.

And when it does resume, the “dark matter” that makes up so much our art and our lives comes back to us again.

We all travel on two legs, conceptual thinking and nonconceptual awareness. And if we ignore either one, we limp.

Making your way through the book

This book is not necessarily something you work straight through, although you could. It’s stochastic, i.e., randomly determined, having a random probability distribution or pattern. Its job is to coax your creative functioning out into the open where you can see it. It gets things to happen, creative manifestations. It makes us like children again, floating in a state of not-knowing.

At this point your left hemisphere might be jumping up and down and saying, “Hey, what’s wrong with analysis, structure, understanding?”

Not a thing in the world. I want my cardiologist to know everything there is to know about hearts, to be deeply knowledgeable about my problem and to have solved it dozens of times. Improvisation in the arts is great, but not in surgery. But if my doctor finds an anomaly, I do want him to be able to start thinking, What else?

In fact I had just such a cardiologist in a workshop. His specialty was to take on the outlier cases that colleagues couldn’t crack. With these cases he used a kind of broadened awareness to discover what might be causing the anomaly.

Lately I’ve done presentations for several medical organizations that are interested in coaxing young medical school students who have been trained toward certainty to allow openness to linger for a little longer so that unexpected possibilities can occur. The problem seems to be that younger doctors rely on technology so much that their subtler powers of observation lie unused.

I see something similar in photography. Since the introduction of digital technology, people have begun to think that creative work starts when a file is brought into a program. And given the incredible polish that digital tools bring to the process, it is easier than ever to make something that is all surface with no center, no heart. The technology tempts one to leap to solutions based on what a computer can do. But when we’re making art, polishing is not the first step. Creative work begins when we encounter anything that calls us out beyond what we know, and we go to it in a state of awareness and let it work on and in us.

Breakthroughs can begin before you touch the camera, and they can look like nothing you’ve ever seen … and should, if you’re doing it right.

Don’t take my word for any of this. Start to work it all out for yourself.

Be aware that the creative process is like a long hallway of doors, any of which will open out into a new space with more doors. If you feel a little lost ... you should.

That’s how I’ve structured this book.

Introduction: This book ...

  • ... is about waking up. And seeing.
  • Not just seeing pictures.
  • Seeing what is all around us and inside us.
  • It is about letting our minds be quiet and spacious, moving out beyond what we think. It is about asking What else?
  • Whatever you might learn from it is already there in you.
  • It is a basis for a creative practice, for making photographs or anything else … although it is not actually necessary to make anything.
  • I looked for a book like this for years but was unable to find one. So I’ve had to write it.
  • Creativity is much, much more than making a new arrangement of things you know, it’s how you come to know them. It’s a way to secure and enlarge an understanding of what’s in your awareness and of the awareness itself. When you face something you think you can’t possibly do, and then go ahead and do it anyway, creativity is the tool you use. It is how you can get far beyond the self that you have constructed at all ages in your daily practice of being you.
  • No one has to teach you how to use your creativity. It was intact and functioning when you were born, and you started using it as you lay in your cradle, wiggled your toes and wondered about it. It got you from helpless and empty to where you are today, an upright, walking, speaking and thinking human being.
  • This is a very far-reaching statement, I know, and I will clarify it as we go along, but a thing to realize is this: you’re not done with growing and becoming yet. You never will be.
  • Creativity is what lets me make my very best photographs, the ones that surprise me, that draw me on to make more. It does exactly the same thing for writers, musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, and everyone who produces work that somehow seems to emerge from them larger than the vessel they think they are.
  • The book uses a lot of photography as a vehicle for exploring this phenomenon, but the exercises and insights in it work in other areas of art–and life–not just picture-taking. They develop awareness and seeing, whether you use a camera, a brush or pen, a computer or toe shoes to capture and express your experience. No matter what medium you work in, you can use the exercises in this book to wake yourself up and be a better artist, or scientist or anything else.
  • But if I talk about photography, it is because that’s what I know most securely.
  • Sometimes I call the workshops I teach Setting the Photographer Aside. Here’s why: when most of us photographers see something exciting, just at the moment that we should be allowing the unknown to enter us, we put a machine in front of our faces. At that moment the camera, and photography itself, can get in the way, and we are no longer apprehending what lies outside the frame, or listening, or feeling the air. We give up a full sense of the space we’re in and we ignore atmospheres, resonances, and things that haven’t happened yet but could — all the stuff of poetry. We stop the flow, as opposed to slipping into it.
  • It is a wide awareness that makes our good work good, but too often we cut that off off, scaling our vision down to the already-thought. We don’t have to do that. We can learn to enter that wider state at will, first by assuring ourselves that it is there, trying it, and practicing.
  • Creativity operates beyond our immediate consciousness, and the proof is that very occasionally we find an image we’ve made that is transcendent. It is as though a tall man in a black cape had slipped up to us when we were making photos and said, “Excuse me, may I borrow your camera? (Click.) Thank you,” and handed it back. And when we look later, we find an image that goes beyond anything we thought we could ever make. Yet we did.
  • “Well...it’s an accident,” we say. And then we hope for another.
  • But what if it was not an accident? And what if we didn’t wait and hope for it but went out looking?
  • Well, we can...not merely to find our art, but for all the rewards of just being in that creative state.
  • Here’s a way to think about unencumbered vision. Imagine a function room in a hotel ballroom where a political candidate will speak in an hour. And imagine a photographer walking into it, saying, “Where are the photographs here?” He sees one version of the room.
  • Good, now imagine a Secret Service agent walking into the same room. He looks around and asks, “Where could someone sneak in here? Where could someone hide, how could he escape?” He sees quite a different room.
  • Both photographer and Secret Service agent are full of intention. They are there to see what they are looking for.
  • Now imagine a two-year-old child wandering in. No intention, nothing at all to get done. He looks around, but not foranything. There’s a kind of spaciousness in him that lets him take in sounds, smells, light, other people, the whole feeling of the place. He is not naming, not analyzing, not seeking meaning. He is just...apprehending. Everything.
  • And that’s the seeing we’re after.
  • The tasks and assignments that this book sets out are designed to take you back to that childlike state, one in which you could come home sated by a long summer afternoon bike ride and, when your mother asked you what you’d been doing, you’d look her in the eye and answer, “Nothing.”
  • It wasn’t an evasion. That ride was about soaking in the state that you were in.
  • That’s the state we are going to look for again.
  • How might we get to it? Well, by first acknowledging that it exists. Then we look at a few ideas, do some exercises designed to take us to it, and practice. And once we’ve had a taste of it, we can secure it by practicing.
  • We’ll begin with the ideas, so we can clarify what underlies the active heart of this book, and also to give the process some intellectual respectability for the part of us that wants that affirmation. Then we’ll try out this unusual set of exercises I have gathered over the past 35 years. They are surprisingly simple, and surprising in their outcomes. Some of them are photographic, others are something like kinetic Zen koans, the Zen exercises designed to release you from your reason and into another way of grasping. And they all begin with simple tasks that you already know how to do, nothing esoteric.
  • The exercises work to take you to awareness in ways that explanations don’t. If you try to describe sweetness it is nearly impossible, but if you give someone a dab of honey, you don’t need words. They know.
  • There is some tendency with a book like this to read it, think, How true...and stop at that. I know because I’ve done it, and I know it has value. But nothing changes us more than doing.
  • So, best to try them and watch closely what happens in your mind and your results. If the results surprise you, that’s a good sign that you something happened.
  • Over time you’ll recognize these exercises as natural steps in creating that have been there all along. The difference is that you’ll know them consciously.
  • Creativity is stochastic, not linear. I have wrangled the exercises into a line, with each building on the ones before, but in the end the line turns out to be more like a rising spiral, and at any point you can jump ahead or else return to those exercises that you think were most productive, that most surprised you...or scared you.
  • This is not a book about a personal philosophy. It is not my construct of What Things Mean. It is just a few tools you can use to provoke experiences, and from them you can draw conclusions of your own. Overall, they should certainly help get you someplace new in your work and your thinking.
  • At any point in the working process you might start to take livelier pictures, but these will be like footprints. It’s quite possible that the feeling of extending may be more exciting to you than the photographs. Still, photographs or whatever works you may make will be what others see of your journey, and can even send them on journeys of their own.
  • The exercises in this book work by getting you out past your habitual self, provoking new and wider awareness, and giving you a concrete experience of the creative state.
  • Once you’re in that state, that’s when you begin to make the work that is truly alive and truly your own.


Looking into the Light has more than 30 chapters of exercises and insights, and it is illustrated with works by John Paul Caponigro, Greg Heisler, Paul Cezanne, William Kentridge, Sol LeWitt, Al Held, Cig Harvey, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

You can find out more about the book here, and at the website www.lookingintothelight.com you'll find chapters from the book, galleries of work by students responding to the exercises, a blog of new ideas, and more.