Can something be beautiful and ugly at the same time? Well, a brief 1-week tourist raid in Egypt was enough to radically change my feelings about the aesthetics of local dwellings from the cultural shock experienced on arrival.
To a pampered Westerner’s eye, urban scenes in the larger cities can feel like a bit like war zone, with homes without windows or roofs, metal spikes sticking out of walls and paint jobs duller than many a politician’s intellect.
Stick around a couple of days, though, and the logic of it all, swayed by the local climate and taxation rules begins to make perfect sense. More importantly, as chaotic and noisy as urban Egypt is, it can also be very harmonious, both in human interaction and in design (more on this in a coming post).
This contrast between the seemingly random close up and the pulchritudinous whole beautifully illustrates the differences between plans and guidelines in creative activities, which is the topic of today’s post.
A plan provides detailed instructions on how to build something. It reflects the thoughts and work of a design team or architect and leaves precisely zero latitude as to how to assemble the final product. Any creativity in the building phase is in service of efficiency and quality, not aesthetics.
Guidelines are a set of constraints that have to be met during design and assembly but offer total liberty as to how that is achieved.
The two approaches lead to profoundly different results. One is completely top-down, while the other offers some bottom-up freedom to introduce some personal vision in the details.
One is the creation of single person or team (builders might as well be robots), the other blends the DNA and global homogeneity of a place/culture/company/… with collective creativity.
One is better suited to industrial production, the other to collective art (art being used in a broader sense than painting and sculpture), whether you like the results or not being irrelevant.
Neither is inherently better than the other, both can lead to fantastic creations or terrible fiascos. Apple products are (were?) flag bearers of the plan. They show how good a plan can be when a hard working team of clever individuals spend years eliminating the superfluous and polishing what remains. But plans can also create what architect Rem Koolhaas describes as junk spaces, places of artificial grandeur which feel dry and soulless to most visitors, dehumanized places such as Brazilia or La Defense. Big, expensive and ideological rather than centered on the well-being of humans.
Conversely, the mind boggles at the thought of an airport co-designed by non professionals! And, judging by the industrialisation problems encountered by Tesla, I’m guessing a bunch of togs with a retro infatuation for the Jaguar E-type would make a right old mess of designing the F-type or the I-pace 😉
But the whole tourist world flocks to sites such as the English countryside, French and Italian stone villages or other places where individual creativity has been allowed to express itself within the boundaries of rules and guidelines.
In photography (and art, in general) the distinction is important as well and can be used to your advantage.
Competitions and challenges are often rule based. For the Wabi Wabi challenge, I’m looking for images that create a longing for simplicity, an admiration of gracefully decay, patina … no mention of gear, subject, time of day, location … is made.
But an assignment given by a tutor or invented by yourself for yourself could be much more specific: send in a photograph of the green flash made looking out at sea, using a 400 mm lens on an m4/3 camera, in landscape format, with the horizon smack in the middle. Chances are the contributions would look much more similar to one another and evaluation would be based on adherence to specs more than artistic merit, because the creative process is already present in the specifications.
Challenges are fun and thought-provoking. Assignments are (can be) technically educational.
Where you place the cursor on the plan – guideline spectrum largely helps define who you are as a photographer.
You need assignments to learn the craft. You need challenges to learn the vision. Most of all, you need to understand and fine tune the set of rules that create the boundaries of your photography: what you photograph and why. What it all means to you. In other words, and some will recoil at the very word, an artist’s statement. Ouch 😉
Too many photographers blindly follow the plans of others (rules of thirds, ETTR, Instagramable format, egotistical or Like-able content matter …) without working really hard on setting guidelines for themselves. But you need to consider your photography over time as a collection of photographic moments lived in various conditions, locations and mindsets, which can only be turned into a consistent and meaningful whole though this bedrock work. It’s never too late. Have you started ?
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.