They say that art is limitation. I wanted to try that and went on a walk in my home town’s park with my 35mm prime lens. Here is what I found.
Art is limitation
To be honest, I have always felt very sceptical about this sentence. If art was limitation, wouldn’t that mean that you would produce art as soon as you started imposing limitations on yourself? This sounds far too simple. But I get the idea behind it. Limiting the choices in your creative process can be very liberating so that it’s much easier for the artist to make decision, thus enabling to get into a state of flow without conscious thought constantly interfering. It’s like reducing the number of variables in a mathematical formula. It simplifies things – and this is always a good thing. Therefore, even though it may sound paradox at first, imposing limitations upon your self can actually make the creative process easier.
But all theory is grey. I wanted to experience for myself the benefits of limitations in the creative process, so I decided to go for a walk.
The idea was to go for a walk in a place I find utterly boring because I have been there before so very often – the park of my home town… not exactly the most exciting place in the world. Also, I decided to only use my 35mm prime lens. On my Nikon D7100, this would effectively act as a pendant to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera, at least in terms of focal length, but not at all in terms of bokeh/depth of field. On top of that, I decided to only shoot using f/1.8 which is the widest aperture my lens offers.
So, I had three levels of limitation to deal with:
- a well-known and not very exciting place which forced me to look for the interesting in the uninteresting.
- the fixed focal length which among other things forced me to you with my feet
- the wide aperture of f/1.8 which forced me to always keep the shallow depth of field in mind.
I was pretty happy with the results I got on this walk and so I’d like to share some of them with you. Here we go!
My shots can be categorized into four kinds of subjects.
Puddles of rain
It was grey and rainy when I started, but by the time I reached the park, the rain had stopped. The paths were still wet there were (sometimes surprisingly large) puddles everywhere. They were my first subject.
Going out at 3PM on an overcast day in winter – this means moody light at best. Not moody in a warm and cozy way, but in a dreary and somber way. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad for photography. In an earlier post I have expressed my view that there is no such thing as bad light. It just means that this kind of light isn’t suitable for certain kinds of photography. So, you could think of the light as a fourth level of limitation.
For my photos, the conditions helped me to envision my shots as very dark and grainy monochrome shots. While I was photographing the puddles, I had this matte look in mind with their faded blacks that I knew certain VSCO film emulations would give me. And it got a couple of pretty moody shots that I am quite happy with.
To my surprise, however, some of these shots look equally interesting in color. My original thought that color would introduce a degree of cheeriness that would not go well with the somber moody I had in mind were unfounded. On the contrary, a slight change of hue in the colors could add a unique feeling of somberness and decay that is at least on par with the monochrome fading of the dark shadows.
Raindrops and twigs
Even though the rain had stopped, raindrops were still hanging and falling from the branches and twigs. Some twigs still carried some bright orange berries. They were the ideal subjects for my f/1.8 prime lens. All I had to do was focus on one of those droplets or berries and the shallow depth of field would work its magic to isolate the subject from its surroundings and produce a favorable bokeh. Easy!
In post processing, there was no way I could convert the image with the berries to black & white. My old rule of thumb saying that if the story of an image is about color, it shouldn’t be converted to black & white, is true for this image, too.
The other „Raindrops and twigs“ images, however, work nicely either way.
The water castle in the lake
In the park of my home town there is a moated castle in a lake. Today is it is used as a museum. It also houses a restaurant and serves as a venue for seasonal craftwork markets. As you can imagine, neither the lake nor the castle were overly interesting in the given conditions, at least in terms of classical landscape photography. However, I reinterpreted the lake as a giant puddle and simply took an image of the lake surface reflecting the trees above. It turned out quite nicely because of the dead leaves that remained visible at the bottom of lake.
A little further down the path I tried a few ICM shots. As always with this kind of photography it took a couple of tries before I came up with something interesting. Surprisingly enough, including the path itself did the trick for this image.
I don’t consider this image finished though. I plan to add a mother and a child walking down the path. But this is the topic of a different project… and another blog post.
The monument for the victims of World War II
In the park there is another lake, much smaller than the one with the moated castle. Next to it, there is a quite a sizable monument, reminiscent of ancient amphitheaters or triumphal arches. In the middle of this circular structure’s yard there is a statue of a dead person’s head resting upon a military helmet. The monument is dedicated to the honoring of the dead soldiers of World War 2.
Personally, I have always found this monument disgusting. The German soldiers of World War II are either fascist killers or victims of national socialist propaganda, lured into war and forced into dying. The German military committed countless crimes of war. At best, these soldiers should be pitied, but certainly not honored.
It seems that other people shared my opinion because another monument was set up next to the one mentioned above, much smaller and made of stainless steel. Engraved into it is a speech of the former German president Richard von Weizsäcker, urging the reader to remember all the victims of World War 2, most of which were killed in crimes committed by Germans. This is a monument much more to my liking, especially in times like these, when in many countries of the world in the face of countless refugees of war seeking shelter abroad, fear and doubt drive people into thinking along the lines of prejudice and hatred, in some ways not unlike Nazi thinking in its early stages.
This second monument is quite minimalistic in nature and slightly reminiscent of a flame (albeit a very abstract one) in its shape. I took a couple of images of it, utilizing the shallow depth of field to highlight certain of passages of the engraved speech. It was challenging and inspiring to compose the frame solely by moving the camera and thinking in three dimensions (including the depth of field).
How it felt
Given the amount of images posted above it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the whole experiment to me is a big success. It was indeed a very liberating experience to not have to consider so many variables while shooting. I am even tempted to say that it was more like left brain shooting as opposed to the very right brain and analytical approach you have to follow in, for example, macro or long exposure photography. Another way of putting it is that reducing the number of factors to juggle in and behind the camera facilitates juggling with those factors in front of it. It reduces analytical and increases intuitive shooting. Shooting this way made it much easier for me to get into a state of flow which I see as state of unhindered creativity.
I still think that limitation in photography doesn’t automatically guarantee that what you produce is actually art. But I can certainly confirm that it removes (not increases) the barriers of creativity. Therefore, my final conclusion is: Art is not limitation. But limitation is creativity.