Simplicity as a Creative Imperative

 This was originally published at Ditchitall.com, a blog about creativity.

Paris 2004Ockham’s Razor is a philosophical maxim attributed to the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” which, translated literally means “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” In simple terms, it means this: The simplest solution is almost always the best. The truth of Ockham’s maxim spans disciplines and endeavors. Simplicity possesses an elegance which is a proof of its truthfulness.

Simplicity is also a powerful spur to creativity. Simplifying counters the endless psychic demands placed on us, demands that take us away from the free and open consciousness that is needed for any creative activity. Why? because simplicity encourages focused attention. Simone Weil called attention prayer, and attention is the faculty that pulls us out of habitual ways of thinking and seeing and joins us to the infinite potential of the world.

Creativity is an inquiry. It requires sustained concentration. Form in art is how we bring that attention to life. For Weil, it is the answer to our creative prayer. Attention is necessary to any formal creative act, as important as the time we have, but it is rapidly depleted by modern technologies originally meant to expand creative possibilities but which have grown new, unexpected, hydra-like complexities.

To simplify doesn’t mean to reflexively give over to automated processes that we can do ourselves. In fact, it is the opposite. Simplicity creates a virtuous circle: it promotes attention, attention then demands creative processes at odds with automation, which in turn reinforces simplicity. To automate a creative process short circuits the relationship with our creative muse. It does so because it subtracts the tangible, the need of the creative impulse to interact with something palpable, something it can feel, hold, manipulate and transform. What neurobiology and common sense teach us is that it’s difficult to penetrate to the sense of things without taking them in hand. Tangibility, the feel of a thing, provides us a sense of agency and mastery by allowing attention that is coherent and concentrated.

Simplicity and tangibility are both means to attention, attention to understanding, and understanding to the coherence of our creative endeavors. It is by attending to and manipulating things that we understand the world, and it is only with understanding that our creations are true.

Bluebird, 2006, Acrylic on Canvas

Bluebird, 2066, Acrylic on Canvas

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I am a painter and a photographer, although these days the bulk of my creative pursuits involve photography, both as a documentarian and a publisher of the blog Leicaphilia. What I’ve learned in pursuing creativity for over 40 years is the value of simplicity: simple ideas and simple tools to craft them. Simplicity unclutters your creative pallet. You don’t need exotic places to create meaningful photographs; in fact, I would argue that your best photographs will be of those things close to you and intimate to your understanding. Likewise, fixation on better gear will not make your photographs “better.” Over-investment in technology for creative pursuits is a dead end. I’ve long ago lost any interest in artisty that depends on technical advantages.

What I’m not arguing for is an enforced simplicity taken to its extreme. Rather, I’m advocating a simplicity within the context of your creative endeavors, in order to free your creative impulse. If you merely want to photograph something as a means to record its existence, a completely automated camera phone will do fine. When I need to record something quick and easy, without ultimate archival concerns, my method of choice, often as not, is digital capture, usually with recourse to many of its automated features. But I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the art of photography. I like the distinction Robert Hass makes: a snapshot is the picture of a thing; a photograph is the picture of a mind perceiving a thing. My preferred means of practicing photography as a creative activity is with a simple all-mechanical film camera.

At base, photography is simple. All you need is a light tight box, a means to focus and control the flow of light, and a light sensitive material. It can be done with a cardboard box sporting a needle hole. When you use an old film camera, you can see how the lens opens, how the film moves across the focal plane, how adjusting aperture and shutter physically effects the operation of the camera and ultimately the production of the photo. You learn how to manipulate these variables to your own ends.

Today’s photographers press buttons and things happen but they often never acquire real mastery over the world of things. They activate options from nested menus that intitiate incoherent processes. The results are a pattern of disembodied zeroes and ones. Formerly a tangible thing – a celluoid strip of negative imprinted with light – is now only a neural memory stored in silicon, without heft or substance. Photographers have become symbol manipulators, and what is in danger of becoming lost is a fundamental knowledge of the tangible, replaced by the mysteriousness of virtual reality.

Digital cameras are opaque to mechanical understanding, designed not to betray the physical nature of their workings. That is a shame, because understanding how our tools work is important in helping us understand our craft and to understand our world. Using a fully mechanical device doesn’t allow you to have that technical detachment. If it doesn’t work, if your photos aren’t successful, your failure is obvious and you know who is responsible. One of the most important things in any craft is learning from your mistakes, and ultimately enhancing and controlling errors. When cause and effect isn’t hidden by the complexities of your tools, creative acts can provide a kind of moral education which also benefits intellectual creativity.

Ironically, the technologies that have promised to simplify photography too often radically complicate it. Lets not speak here of the ongoing archival conundrums posed by digital technologies – I’m speaking here the efficacy of different tools to human creativity. Simple tools- a mechanical camera, say – give us enduring satisfactions because they become, in their simplicity, transparent as creative mediums, while creative “technologies” – let’s use Adobe Photoshop as an example – become an end in themselves, and too often create an obsessive, insatiable craving for the next version, the 2.0 that will finally deliver what they’ve promised. Of course, the “updates” never end. The ironic and toxic result of the technologies saturating our environment is they flatter us with delusions of our autonomy and agency, when in fact we are their slaves. Creative technology is at its best when it is invisible, invisible when its simple and thus capable of our full attention. Only then can we truly attend to creativity.