Early Philosophers on the Two Basics of the Creative Photographic Process

A thought fun pondering is how the old philosophers, thinkers and artists would have dealt with the onslaught of the digital revolution. How people whose only means of expression was the pen and brush would have made use of new communication technologies. Imagine Salvador Dali with a digital camera and image manipulation — right, he’d despise it, because it’s all there in the human mind he’d say. Or Andy Warhol, in a way he invented Photoshop before it even existed. Or famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, well he got himself a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, the revolutionary, first commercially sold typewriter ever. Would there have been digital technology, Nietzsche sure would have made use of it. His vision was failing, with the writing machine he could type away. And guess what, something very subtle happened. His writing style changed.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844 - 1900
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher, 1844 – 1900
Good photographer friend Olivier Duong of photography magazine Inspired Eye wrote about exactly this, how the creative tools we use affect us, and how Nietzsche was affected.

In his brilliant piece Gleanings: Friedrich Nietzsche, His Typrewriter, Cameras and the Creative Process, Duong outlines what was valid back then and still is today: the tools we use shape us, influence us, determine us.

1. The Right Tool

My Nokia Lumia, the Nikon Dƒ, or be it a Leica, Olympus, Canon M mirrorless or whatever “tool,” each camera makes me a different photographer. The relationship between camera and photographer is undeniable and essential. Same happened to Nietzsche, one of the freest spirits ever, after he got his typewriter:

One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed that change. His stiff prose became even more so. He himself admits that, ”Thoughts in music and language often depend on the quality and paper.” Nietzsche agreed and replied, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” A German scholar noted that the philosopher’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

Friedrich Nietzsche's typewriter, a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, model 1878. | The Goethe and Schiller Archive, Weimar, Germany
Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter, a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, model 1878. | The Goethe and Schiller Archive, Weimar, Germany
We depend on the tools we use and they reflect on us. The camera, its operation, ergonomics and haptics, it all affects us and influences the creative process. We are limited and empowered by the tools we use. And how much more rewarding it is to work with a tool that is pleasing to the eye, I mean: looks probably sell more cameras than specs.

Anaïs Nin, femme fatale, 1903 - 1977
Anaïs Nin, femme fatale, 1903 – 1977
This relationship between subject and object, photographer and tools (or the other way round) is fundamental to the creative process. Give me a yellow Pentax K-01 and there goes all the enthusiasm and inspiration. Not the right tool? The camera will own you and dictate the relationship — which, by all means, can affect in a positive way. But more importantly, the right tool can free up resources, facilitate processes and, yes, strengthen confidence.

Because cameras — and lenses and their focal lengths for that — affect us. The ideal camera would certainly be the one that enhances the creative process, but there are limits and one can blame only so much on the technology used. Which brings us to part two of the basics of the creative process: emotional excess. And whom else to quote than grande femme fatale Anaïs Nin, an author-philosopher of life.

The camera itself doesn't matter that much. It's the relationship between tool, subject and object that matters. | Nokia Lumia 830 / Daniel Kestenholz
Street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand — The camera itself doesn’t matter that much. It’s the relationship between the “tool,” subject and object that matters. | Nokia Lumia 830 / Daniel Kestenholz

2. Emotional Excess

Emotional excess is essential to creativity because a nice and easy life leads nowhere. A nice and easy life produces nice and easy art. Profound creativity, however, is rooted in emotions. Anaïs Nin herself had an ambiguous relationship to cameras and photography. “The camera can be a lover, or a hater, or a sadist, or a defamer… It lies,” she wrote in her Diaries.

For Anaïs Nin, emotional excess is essential to the creative process:

Older people fall into rigid patterns. Curiosity, risk, exploration are forgotten by them (…) You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.

Each and everyone of us has a lot to give, and the more we give the more riches we will probably find.

But as long as we stick to certitudes, as long as we believe in specs and suppress emotions, what mysteries are there to discover?!

  • Omer

    Good post.

    My own photography has become more formal since my shift to digital gear. I believe the exacting quality of digital is like a siren promising clarity but bearing no gifts. Mind you I am happy with some of my digital photography but I am also keenly aware that I no longer take the kind of chances I did with film. But if Gear Acquisition Syndrome gets the better of me, there will be problems.

    • Appreciate Omer. Good thought that digital points out sore wounds where actually everything’s intact, it just depends on what we want to see. You mean, you felt freer in the analog days?

      • Omer

        Yes. With film, technique was necessary (not always,) but with digital it is mandatory, or so it seems. With digital we worry endlessly about accuracy. Focus, color, sharpness, all minutely monitored for exactitude. It is an exhausting Sisyphean quest. It’s no accident that film emulation filters are so popular.