Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Annie Leibovitz on Creativity

This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a Graduate Seminar on Creativity hosted by the Corcoran College of Art and Design.  The seminar featured a talk and presentation Annie Leibovitz and was followed by a panel discussion on the topic of creativity.  The seminar lasted for two hours and was filled with a number of points that I found instructive, useful, and interesting.  Here are my unvarnished thoughts.

My epiphany from Annie’s presentation was simple and direct:  It is not always about the photography – it is about the story.  I’m not sure this was the intent of her talk, but it was the lasting impression I walked away with.  Let me explain.

Annie walked on stage in stereotypic form; wild disheveled hair, black jacket over black shirt paired with black cargo pants and boots that looked oversized and had just come from a walk in the garden.  She began her talk by saying she is in the midst of a tour promoting her recent book “Pilgrimage” and her exhibition of 64 photos from the book at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.  She admitted she learned the theme of this seminar was “creativity” just a couple of days prior.

As she went on with her talk, projecting images from the book on the stage’s large screen, I listened to her stories and became perplexed.  This project is far afield from what we have come to expect from Annie.  No precisely lit, posed, and expertly composed portraits.  In fact, only a handful of people found their way into the images.  The photographs were dedicated to places and things.  Many of the images were beautiful, but many were less impressive and even suffered from technical flaws.  All were worlds apart from our expectations from Annie Leibovitz…on several dimensions.

As I continued to listen and watch, what I viewed as flaws in some of the photography became less important.  What became increasingly important was the combination of the photography with the story.  And that’s when it hit me – its not always about the photography – its about the story that builds with the words and the images in combination.  I have always intuitively known this to be true, but this time it was coming from a world renowned photographer stretching her creativity and curiosity beyond her domain of fame and expertise.  It was a powerful statement.

Annie concluded her presentation with several shots of her amazing portraiture featuring Lady Gaga.  These photographs put a punctuation point on my takeaway – the words of the story play an equally important role in telling the tale represented in the photography.

Of course, my personal epiphany is not news.  This is the life of a photojournalist.  However, the manner in which I received and acknowledged this message was profound.  I am very grateful for having the opportunity to hear Annie speak and view the results of her curiosity, it made a lasting impression.

Now on to the second half of the afternoon – the panel assembled to discuss creativity.  I have long been intrigued by what makes creative people creative.  As an undergraduate engineer and a career military officer, creativity was not part of my daily vocabulary – and that is an understatement.  Both engineering and the military profession thrive on rules, repeatability, formulas, minimizing variables, eliminating the unknown and maximizing predictability.  It was not until I began my serious life with photography 10 years ago that I began to consider creativity with any level of importance.

The panel discussion on creativity was interesting and certainly piqued my interest.  However, as a relative neophyte in the domain of creativity (after 10 years it should not feel so new, but alas I feel like a youngster), I found the discussion equally motivating and disconcerting.  I find my impression of the discussion difficult to put to words.  On one hand, I found parts of the discussion particularly ungrounded – a sense of fluffiness with little relevance to reality and pragmatism.  On the other hand, I found some gems helpful in spurring creativity.

The panel members included:

Patrick Gallagher – President and found of Gallagher & Associates, an internationally recognized museum planning and design firm.
David Griffin – Visuals editor of The Washington Post.
Debora Reeve – Executive director of the National Art Education Association.
Irene Chan – A multidisciplinary artist who works conceptually in print media, papermaking, installation, storytelling performance, and book arts.
Mark Regulinski – Partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, an architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firm.

With only minor censoring, here are some of the statements mentioned by the panel in concert with an ongoing discussion with Annie Leibovitz.  I noted the following recommendations to enhance creativity, overcome moments of staleness and ensuing panic, or the use of your circumstances as an advantage to creativity:
  1. When disadvantage is presented, invert it and turn it into advantage.
  2. There is no direct path to the next great idea.  More forced thinking will only induce panic that you have not discovered the next great idea.  Learn to accept movement without direction and let the idea manifest itself without effort…be quiet and listen.
  3. Have the courage to fail.  Creativity is fundamentally bound with risk.
  4. When attempting to encourage your creativity, look to creative fields that are outside your area of expertise.
  5. Collaboration is key component to creativity – if you continue to wait for the moment of independent genius, you may be waiting a long time.
  6. Find a space where you can take risks.  We all have to be productive and meet expectations, yet it is important to balance pragmatism and productivity with the opportunity to embrace unbridled risk.
  7. If you are a creative, look for an environment (job) that embraces risk and creativity.  If you don’t find it, move on.
  8. Show me the version that goes too far…make me say no.  For context, one of the speakers shared a moment early in his career when his boss made this statement.  It was an encouragement to creativity.  In other words, he sent the clear message to be creative and stretch the boundaries…I will tell you when you have gone to far.
  9. When you find your creativity waning, let your curiosity guide you.  Curious people find creativity in unique places.
  10. Don’t let others tell you how things have to be done; creativity is a natural expression of your individual view.
  11. Constraints and limitations not only demand, but when viewed from the right angle, promote creativity.  Don’t look at constraints as confining but as an opportunity to express creativity.
  12. Reinvent yourself.  A number of deep thinkers have spent time on this…the thirds of your life (learning/growing – making money and raising a family – giving back to those who follow), reinventing yourself every decade, and so on.  Bottom line; don’t let your trajectory through life bind you in shackles.
  13. Creativity is more than great ideas.  Skillful execution through painstaking hard work is the necessary precursor to revealing meaningful creativity.
  14. Find creative outlets when faced with non-creative work.  Many people are faced with work, for the sake of survival, that is non-creative.  This does not mean you have to live completely within the constraints of a non-creative environment – find your creative outlets to seek a balance that will likely be valuable to the non-creative part of your life.

Thank you to the Corcoran College of Art and Design for hosting the event.  Follow this link to learn more about Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


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