Looking Into the Light: the Creativity Book

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 taken every chance to look beyond photography as the main vehicle. 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.

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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.

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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.