Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Experiential "Flow" in Photography

I am often asked, "What do you think about when you do photography?" To which I typically respond with something like, "the less the better." An answer which, unfortunately - more often than not - only leads to a protracted discussion (that my deliberately "short" reply is usually meant to avoid).

However, the truth is that while my reply is curt, it is far from flippant. Indeed, it conveys the very essence of what I love about photography. Apart from the signature theme of my blog ("Tao" / photography), and my lifelong predilection toward mysticism and spirituality, the one word - the one idea - that best describes what the "I" that the external world calls "Andy Ilachinski the photographer" experiences during (the most memorable moments of doing) photography is flow.

Here I am thinking of the word "flow" as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Claremon Graduate University, and author of (among many other books), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In this book (and in his multi-decade long examination of the subject), Csíkszentmihályi describes the supra-conscious state (sometimes called the "groove" by musicians, or the "zone" by basketball players) that people "awaken" to and experience when completely absorbed and immersed in an activity. For me, of course, that "activity" is doing photography; or, more precisely, when I am out "shooting with my camera" (and eye/I).

When I write, as I do in some of my blog entries and Blurb books, that my best moments as an artist - as a human being - are those when I entirely lose a sense of self, I do not mean this to be interpreted as poetry or metaphor; I mean this literally. If I come home from a day's worth of a photo-safari, armed with 10 or more GBs of RAW files, and know that I was totally aware of what I was doing the entire time (consciously thinking of f-stops, filters, and compositions), I will also know that there will be little chance of finding any soulful art in that huge digital pile. I was not in the flow. On the other hand, if I go out for a walk with my dog and camera, and come back with but one shot of I know not what because my mind was lost while I was taking it, I stand a good chance of savoring that precious gem of an image that is likely to emerge on my computer screen. Not always, of course, but the chances are usually good, if I lost myself in the process of capture.

This experience, and my interpretation of it, is far from unique. It is experienced by everyone, at some point in time, though not everyone is always attuned to when (or why and how) it happens, nor appreciates what needs to be done to maximize the chances of it happening again. This is where Csíkszentmihályi's books come in handy, as they describe the nature of this experiential flow; how it comes about, what the tell-tale signs are, and how one might better prepare for the "ride."

Hereis a wonderful 20 min long TED presentation by Csíkszentmihályi. A short excerpt from his book is available here.

Csíkszentmihályi identifies 8 conditions / dimensions of the flow experience: (1) clear goals every step of the way; (2) immediate feedback to one's action; (3) balance between challenges and skills; (4) focused concentration; (5) sense of potential control; (6) loss of self-consciousness; (7) time distortion; and (8) autotelic or self-rewarding experience. Critically, in order to maximize the potential for experiencing flow, one must eliminate (as much as possible) any anxiety or boredom, and strike a delicate (and typically dynamic) balance between the challenge of the activity and the available skills that one brings to bear on the required tasks. The purest - or deepest - states of flow are achieved when one is able to apply a maximal skill set (which can itself, of course, be achieved only through long study and practice; i.e., a total immersion to craft) to the most highly challenging activity. This is rare, but is a spiritual prize well worth pursuing.

Among the several wonderful quotes that Csíkszentmihályi includes in a 2007 presentation ("Flow and Education") are these three: one from an anonymous rock climber...

“You’re so involved in what you’re doing, you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

...one from a surgeon:

“You are not aware of the body except your hands...not aware of self or personal problems….If involved, you are not aware of aching feet, not aware of self.”

...and one from poet Mark Strand:

“You're right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you're completely enraptured, you're completely caught up in what you're doing…. there's no future or past, it's just an extended present in which you're making meaning…”

These sentiments pretty much express my own experience of flow in photography. When in the flow, I do not know my name, I do not know where I am except for the "feel" of my immediate surroundings, I do not reflect on my problems or station in life, I do not worry about what "I need to do" after I've finished my photography. I am one with my camera, I am one with what my camera is pointed at, I have no conscious sense of self or awareness of being, apart from a pure primal joy in experiencing total immersion in what I am doing. I am focused, strongly and deeply, but not at all actively engaged in thinking about anything. There is no sense of time, not even as I press the shutter repeatedly or take long exposures and somehow, though only mechanically and utterly devoid of conscious reflection, tick off the required seconds. I know the flow has vanished when I hear myself ask, "What now?"

Interestingly, Csíkszentmihályi's research suggests that it is highly unlikely that individuals will attain a sense of flow - in any field or endeavor - unless they've immersed themselves in it for at least 10 years. I can attest to this being true in my case, though (being a bit slow perhaps;-) it took me nearly twenty to reach this state. But, oh how I look forward to that precious, wondrous experience when it comes! Alas, when I am one of those (much, much more frequent) non-flow states, the best I can do is recall having the flow experience, not the flow itself. But I know it will come...

So, "What do you think about when you do photography?"


katie said...

don't you think that being in the flow is literally beyond ones control; it just literally happens when higher power speaks, takes pictures from above or from inside...

Andy Ilachinski said...

Yes and no. You are right in that whether flow appears or not depends on many more factors than those under your immediate "control"; however, since you strongly influence the degree to which you immerse yourself in a field (be it art, sports, chess, or whatever), and immersion is a critical driver, you have a great of control over the likelihood of achieving "flow". There are no givens, of course. And even when it happens, it may be so quick as to be over before you know it ;-) But it will *never* happen unless you are willing to devote yourself to your craft, completely, in dedicated fashion, over a long period of time.

Mike Nelson Pedde said...

I think the best way I can answer this is that to me there's a difference between walking through the woods and walking in the woods. Most people that I meet out on the trail are walking through the woods. They're peripherally aware of the world around them, but they're also caught up in all that's going on in their lives at the time as well as what's been happening and what they're afraid is coming for them. They're living anywhere and everywhere but 'now'. And for myself, I can tell when my photographs are made from this perspective as well. They're flat, they need a lot of post-processing to make them interesting. But when I simply allow myself to be where I am in that moment, to allow what's surrounding me to consume my attention, then my photographs become more than simple documentaries. I still have an old double lens reflex camera for similar reasons. With zoom lenses and with digital the 'shotgun approach' to photography is very easy. This is great for basketball games, but not for landscapes. With a 6x6cm image frame, and only one lens, I really have to give more attention to where I am and what this image is attempting to say for me.


Anonymous said...

To the extent I can even say afterward, I'm mainly aware of subject. I almost never remember things I had told myself I should be aware of. If they do occur to me, I almost always reject them in favor of what seems right at the moment (not sure this is always for the best, despite the flow theory). I do occasionally remember to check exposure or f-stop, though I've blown this at times (pun unintended, but not rejected--in the flow, you know).

rebekah younger said...

Hi Andy,
I just happened on your blog as I am working on my MFA thesis and was hunting for Minor White images. My thesis is very much about the topics of your blog. As such you might want to look at it, www.rty.blogspot.com
This is a growing movement with many contemplative photographers at work, both Tibetan Buddhists, Miksang practitioners, Christian Contempatives, Zen and Taoists. Personally the writings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche are at the heart of my practice (Shambhala or Dharma Art)as he directly addresses the role of consciousness and egolessness in the act of creation. I am going to bookmark your site to stay tuned to your musings. Once this paper is done I will be posting segments on my blog too.

Anonymous said...

great blog. I love it

Anonymous said...

I believe that you are quite correct about the flow state as a first principle to doing serious photography. To some extent, one can train one's self to enter into a visually alert and sensitive flow state. My own personal sense is that flow states can have a direct correspondence with Stieglitz's equivalents concept, Adams's visualizations, and with Minor White's general approach.

The strongest photographs made in this tradition have a clear affinity with haiku, distilling the essense of the ocean into a few drops of water. As an example, there's Weston's famous pepper and artichoke photographs.

Currently vogue theories of academic photography and criticism date to our "cultural revolution" of the late 60s and the 1970s and seem to have lost sight of some worthy classical approaches to photography. In reaction, the current photographic "Academy" is over-burdened by too heavy a load of consciously constructed symbolism, in the process becoming labored and the antithesis of flow state spontaneous seeing. Such photography seems to lose much of its emotional vitality and visual spontaneity in the process.

Disclosure: I studied under Minor White at MIT for a bit sometime in the late 60s/early 70s but went on to an entirely different professional career. At the time, I thought that he overdid the mysticism but now realize that I just didn't get it at the time.

Anonymous said...

"And what happened next? Well, for you young people it was probably no different from what you experience every day of your life. For me it was like…. How can I say? When I'm engaged in some particularly profound piece of mathematics I'm no longer present to it. It is as if I, the me inside, had vanished and the mathematics was expressing itself, flowing freely through me. That's how it began. As something exceptionally beautiful. It seemed to be utterly perfect. It was as if it could not have existed in any other way. It seemed born out of a faultless logic. But it was not a rigorous and compelling logic but something altogether different, something light and joyful, playful almost, as if it were exploring the boundaries of thought.
No, I still can't capture it for you. I speak of thought and logic but it was not like any form of thought at all. When you are at your most creative you don't even feel yourself thinking. It just happens. It takes place without any movement of thought."
F. David Peat. "Alien Variations".

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog. I have studied asian religions quite a bit and could never understand the void or losing the ego. I never realized until I experienced it during photography that indeed the ego could be lost and yet I could still exist even if not self aware. I think of the photographs taken while in this state as "gifts" since I have little to do with their creation. Thanks

katie said...

Rereading your blog again I have the following comment:When you find yourself in the flow you are not you anymore you are a conduit of a higher power who works through you; and when you think, remember,etc the higher power can not flow thru' you too much interference. When you are in a flow you are extension of this higher power and may be you see what this higher power sees...mamuulia