Before I changed my college major to something perfectly useless, I was a journalism student. And at least in those days, journalism students were required to study photography. Also in those days, there was no such thing as a digital camera. My photographic experience to date had been with a Kodachrome Instamatic. Film was loaded as a plastic cartridge, and if used indoors, you attached a small plastic cube with tiny one-use flashes to the top. You might get 20 exposures on a film cartridge, which might—might, I’m telling you—later net you one good shot by Instamatic standards, but you wouldn’t know for weeks. First you had to save up the money to pay for processing. Then you had to wait for the drug store to send the film out and get it back. That’s when you realized how many shots you took with your fingertip in the foreground.
I got a fancy Pentax 35mm camera for coursework, which I imagine my parents sprung for since I had barely enough money to make a trip home every couple of months. And for the balance of that semester, I left my professor befuddled that a student in his class could really be so inept as all of that.
I knew everything there was to know about manually adjusting the camera settings. I was quick and efficient in the darkroom and could dodge and burn like nobody’s business. In fact, I considered more than once offering to tag-team with a classmate. He could take all the pictures and I’d do all the processing. Despite taking a lot of notes in class about what makes for good lighting and composition, how to choose black and white or color based on your subject, or how to make use of natural light, I couldn’t take a good photograph to save my life.
Even though the images that came to light as I processed my work in the darkroom were dreadful, I remained fascinated watching each one come to be, something akin to what Claire Burge relates in Spin (absent the dreadful photographs):
I move the roll of film out of the canister and into the dark room, counting as my fingers move from the edge of each slide to the next. From there I move to the developing tank, transferring my own agitation into the activity as I slightly sway the tank ensuring that all air bubbles are gone. I do this a few times before moving to the stop bath, to fixer, to water bath.
I watch with incredulity as each image emerges. Surfacing from the liquid is the object that I captured at a certain angle with a particular slant of light but in equal measure another image materialises, all its own making. This part of film processing always catches me by surprise. I can’t control the outcome; I can navigate it through its watery birth, but ultimately the picture is what it is, not what I want it to be. (Spin, p. 107)
Claire asks the reader in this chapter, “What dark places have developed your creativity?” In essence, what experiences in your life have served as the darkroom, allowing these unexpected images to emerge?
Earlier this year, I gave one morning a week to a writing exercise based loosely on Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” (Loosely in that I don’t want to give credit where credit is probably due, in that they were more like Weekly Pages, and in that I wrote far more than three pages in a sitting.) I began each with a single phrase: I remember. Starting with a small memory from some period, most often childhood, I simply wrote without thinking, going from one memory to the next, until the words ran out.
Some of what “surfaced from the liquid” of those pages was expected. I’m quite familiar with most of the memories I set to paper. (Didn’t I live them?) But the process of writing without giving attention to the writing gave way to patterns, and within those patterns, I saw my story, myself, in ways unlike what I had before. Some of those patterns developed out of a different “slant of light” than expected. Some, in fact, where I had previously seen no light at all.
Claire describes what could be a similar aspect of the photographs she developed as a teenager:
My work is moody, dark and reflective of the shadows that chase teenaged versions of me. I’m interpreting the darkness within, transferring it into ink that forms lines of shadow and light. My favourite days out with my camera are days where the light is flat. I don’t understand why other photographers are always chasing the light. Flat light is also light. It works, just differently. (p. 106)
If those several weeks of extended free writing gave me one thing (they gave me more, but for today, let’s say one), it was the ability to see what can be illuminated by flat light, perhaps best captured by Claire’s observation that “creativity is ultimately allowing the picture to be what it is, not what I want it to be.”
Discuss Your Creativity Process with Us
We’re reading Claire Burge’s new release Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree together this month. Are you reading along? Claire shares delightful, tender stories about her childhood, followed with questions and activities about our creative environment, knowing ourselves, weekly blueprints, master lists, and more.
What activities did you explore? Did you find roots of your own creativity in your childhood experience?
Claire shares about the use of “flat light” in her photography and asks, “What dark places have developed your creativity?” Share a way you’ve seen your creativity flourish in less obvious ways or under less than optimum conditions.
Review “My 5 Earliest Creative Mistakes” (Chapter 21). Tell us something you learned about creativity through making mistakes.
What did you do on the pages of Spin to make the book your own? Perhaps you’ll share your thoughts with us in the comments, or link to a post you’ve written at your own site.
Join us for the full discussion of Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree
Buy Spin: Taking Your Creativity to the Nth Degree now and join us for our book club discussion