To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science. —Albert Einstein
Once upon a time, I was very open to taking risks while out shooting. I’ve stood on the most narrow of ledges. I’ve allowed myself to be dangled from the tops of high walls and cliffs. I’ve shot in situations where the threads of a safety harness were all that stood between me and certain death. Each of those shoots was thrilling and exhilarating at levels that are difficult to describe. The adrenaline rush one gets from such an experience is almost more exciting than the photograph itself.
Those days, unfortunately, are gone. Taking physical risks takes a toll on one’s body and mine has decided that it no longer wants to participate in that game. If I want thrill and excitement, I’m going to have to find it elsewhere. My risks are going to have to be more creative if I’m going to take them.
Creative risk taking may seem rather benign. After all, mixing disparate media is hardly life-threatening and misusing Photoshop tools to create a different effect is not likely to land one in the hospital unless one gets so excited by the outcome that they spill hot coffee onto bare skin. Yet, to generate the real, new, view-altering creativity that our culture needs to get it kicked off high center, artists of every genre need to take on a level of risk that is going to be uncomfortable.
Being creative, in of itself, is not especially difficult, but rather a matter of changing how one chooses to view their art. There is a quote from the late Steve Jobs that I think fits this situation quite well:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
People who are creative, regardless of medium or genre, are naturally inclined to see things differently, to put together pieces that no one had put together before. We see it perhaps most often in fashion where, just in the past two days, two different designers have put dresses on the outside of other garments. One worked better than the other, but the fact remains that both saw something put together in a way that no one had attempted before, and both were willing to take the risk of putting those looks on the runway.
What is it we’re risking? More than anything, creative people have to be willing to put their reputation on the line. When we do something different, something unexpected, there is always a very high chance that no one else is going to like it. For that matter, we may not like it ourselves once we’ve had a few days to sleep with our work. The risk has grown in this digital culture when we are pushed to put something new and different online several times a day. If one wants to be an Instagram star, one has to actually put material on Instagram. What happens when you put something out there you later regret?
When one is creating something in which one believes, though, it is worth potentially sacrificing one’s reputation in one area in order to build it in another. Consider that 40 years ago the whole of my reputation was in music. After several years of struggling, trying to go back and forth, I finally had to make the difficult decision that if I was going to be committed to photography that I needed to sacrifice what I was doing in music; not that I’ve abandoned music entirely, but I had to let go of my reputation there so that I could more firmly establish one where I am known as a photographer.
Any risk we take, anything we sacrifice for the sake of creativity, is likely a temporary matter. In many cases, a respected artist can creatively shift their work and any hit to their reputation be temporary. For example. Steven Tyler’s latest album is full of country music, not rock. He’s taking a substantial risk both creatively and may yet end up sacrificing a bit of his reputation if the album doesn’t sell well. His risks are mitigated, though, by the depth of his experience and the presence of a fan base that pretty much doesn’t care what he does. Not every artist enjoys having that kind of creative capital to throw around.
The older we get, the more risk-averse we naturally are. We have struggled for what we have and the thought of possibly losing it doesn’t set well because we know we may not have the luxury of time to rebuild what we might potentially lose. Yet, if we are to continue to be creative, if we are going to genuinely do something that makes a lasting difference in our culture, we have to take those risks and be willing to make those sacrifices. Anything less is a creative copout.