Disciplined eye, wild mind: creative photography

Adrian Hatwell talks to three award-winning creative photographers — Kevin Gilbert, Catherine Cattanach, and Janyne Fletcher — about mastering the art of creativity


It is one of humanity’s most valued attributes, though perplexingly troublesome to pin down — creativity. A way of thinking, a kind of energy, an expression of passion. For many an artistic soul, creativity is the stuff of a life well lived. But exactly what it is, how it can be recognized, and whether or not it can be learned are questions without easy answers. Luckily, when it comes to bringing creativity to bear in the photographic process, we have three of the country’s leading creative shooters willing to help us wrestle with these important, if elusive, concepts.

Resisting definition

Trying to put a definition to creativity is something of a self-defeating exercise, but most people will have an innate feeling for it. It may not be an easy thing to put into words, but asking those who peddle in it professionally to give it a stab can be illuminating.

For commercial photographer Kelvin Gilbert, creativity is a matter of constantly challenging himself to push against technical boundaries, while giving himself the freedom to pursue the things he is passionate and inspired by.

“It’s more than just simply taking a photo, it’s about seeing the world in a different light and knowing how you want to show it to the viewer,” Gilbert explains. “Whether it be a single in-camera image that has been planned out and shot in a way that makes it unique, or a multiple-image composite that takes many hours of processing to complete to show your own view of the world.”

Often the idea of creating something original, shooting something in a way that has never been seen before, is conflated with the notion of creativity. But photographer Catherine Cattanach has learned to push past this limiting notion of creativity, after the quest to make something 100-per-cent original became paralyzing.

“Now I’m a bit easier on myself, and I think creativity simply means moving beyond the obvious, and allowing yourself to have a play,” Cattanach elaborates. “It means accumulating a whole heap of inspiring things that speak to your soul, whether those be photographs or photographic techniques, paintings, music, films, or aspects of nature, and then letting your brain remix those influences to come up with something authentic.”

Photographer Janyne Fletcher finds it helpful to not be overly precious about what is or is not considered ‘creative’, and instead focuses on investing a sense of herself into her work. Often times she finds creative work will provoke something more in the viewer, beyond what is on the surface, but she warns against using that as a yardstick for creativity.

“There’s nothing wrong with something that just has really strong graphics, where there’s nothing more to it than being a very strong visual,” Fletcher says. “It’s not telling a massive long story or anything like that. I’ve done plenty of those, I understand it can be — for want of a better word — decorative.”

Finding inspiration

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the result of our lived experiences, the things we have consumed in our daily life, and the way we interpret these interactions, both consciously and subconsciously. But while we all have the capacity for creativity, tapping into that energy isn’t always a straightforward process. Inspiration is often talked about like lightning, striking suddenly and wildly, unable to be anticipated. But our photographers reveal there are certain conditions which make summoning the lightning more likely.

For Gilbert, inspiration is often found in dreams, nature, architecture, and he keeps a sharp eye out for unusual faces. But in order for such things to spark a creative fire, he needs to be in the right headspace, and he’s found an unusual way of getting there — not sleeping.

“Sleep deprivation, for me, is the key to letting go of everything and being able to let my mind wander off into a place of creativity. I also find that music, sketching, looking at bizarre and unusual imagery all play a role in finding my way to the ‘astral plane’, as I like to call it.”

Cattanach links creativity to sleep, too, but at the other end of the spectrum, saying she often has her best flashes of creativity in bed after a good night’s sleep, while taking a morning shower, or out walking before breakfast. She also keeps both physical and digital collections of things that inspire her, filled with drawings, notes, and screenshots. These, along with her shelves of photography books, provide fodder for creative alchemy.

“I give myself the material for my brain to bring together later into something that’s my own. When you collect enough material, eventually it adds up to fresh insight.”

Fletcher, who resides in the gorgeous Maniototo region, is surrounded by plenty of natural splendour for inspiration, but finds she often doesn’t notice the forest for the trees. She advises that taking a break, as well as exposing yourself to different kinds of art, can help foster a way of seeing the everyday in a new light. She’s familiar with creativity striking in its own time: sometimes ideas come to her while she is relaxed, other times it’s the stress of a deadline that provides the spark.

“I’m not really a routine sort of person. Other than plenty of coffee.”

Creativity in action

Inspiration is important, but it amounts to nothing if not put into practice. By the same token, practice without inspiration can lead to a rut — shooting similar subjects in familiar styles with predictable results. Creativity requires time and experience, both with and without a camera, to flourish.

Busy professional photographers can often find it difficult to make time to shoot work that isn’t necessarily paying the bills, but Cattanach says making the effort is an essential part of keeping her creativity ablaze.

“Every time I make the time to do a shoot just for me, I get so fired up and I have a brilliant time. It feeds my creative soul, and I think, this is awesome — I should do more of this”

But it is not necessarily the times when she is completely free to do her own thing that impart the best results. A few limitations or challenges can provoke the creative brain into exploring fresh terrain or discovering a new angle.

“Problem-solving also often leads me into creativity, there’s nothing like few limitations and constraints to make you really focus,” Cattanach says.

In the age of digital photography, the ability to perform digital post-production has made a huge impact on the creative possibilities in photography. While some traditionalists lament the intrusion of digital editing on the craft, other artists have fully embraced the new creative possibilities afforded through technology. Gilbert is one such digital adherent, frequently creating beguiling imagery that would be impossible with just a camera alone.

“There are no longer any limits or boundaries thanks to digital post-production, it’s like they say: the only limitation is your own imagination,” he explains. “Digital editing gives you the ability to enhance or even create moods and emotions, vital to today’s creative photography.”

For those about to begin exploring digital editing, he recommends starting with Adobe Photoshop and coming to grips with high-frequency separation, colour grading, non-destructive editing workflow, clear-cutting, and compositing techniques.

Fletcher is also an advocate for the creative power of digital editing — she thinks she might actually be a frustrated painter, the way she enjoys playing with her images in Photoshop. Without any specific workflow, she will begin with an idea in mind and experiment in post-production until she has achieved it. Or created a disaster.

“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and really taking it to the limit, having a few complete stuff-ups,” Fletcher says. “Because that’s how you learn how to push those boundaries.”

In fact, having the courage to fail is a theme echoed by all three photographers when it comes to being creative. Seeking out constructive feedback, specifically from people you respect and trust, can be invaluable in artistic development, but creativity is ultimately an expression of self. Or, as Cattanach puts it: “Give yourself licence to experiment, and stand by your convictions — if a photograph is working for you, it’s a success.”

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 78 June-July 2017