Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Musings on the Creative Process: Left-Brain / Right-Brain Blending

 "It's always seemed like
a big mystery how nature,
seemingly so effortlessly,
manages to produce so much
that seems to us so complex.
Well, I think we found its secret.
It's just sampling what's
out there in the
computational universe."

- Stephen Wolfram (1959 - )

I apologize beforehand for what might seem like a long and bizarre excursion away from photography; but please bear with me as the following musings are very much in the vein of exploring the "creative process" of photography (well, at least, a glimpse of the creative process I've recently been immersed in!). Specifically, those aspects of the creative process that lie at the cusp of traditional left/right brain functions. Leaving aside the reality of such a dichotomy (e.g., see this recent paper), let us posit that left-brain processes focus more on logic and analytic thinking, and that right-brain processes focus on art and intuition more. Of course, all of us continually engage both sides throughout our waking hours, albeit with our own unique rhythms of shifting/combining focus and modulating relative emphasis. In my case, I live in two - usually quite separate - worlds, deliberately broken up into "what I do during my work week" (employed, as I am, as a physicist at a federally funded research & development center) and "what I do during essentially all available off hours" (which, among other things, has resulted in this photography blog and more fun with my cameras, lenses, filters, and tripods than I deserve in the 45+ years I've been doing photography). Occasionally, as I'm about to do here, I combine my two sides; though not always for the better - you, kind reader, can judge whether I've strayed a bit too far in this case.

"Working with mental images activates a different mode
of consciousness which is holistic and intuitive." 
Henri Bortoft (1938 - 2012)

So many ideas come to mind as I ponder this question: Goethe's Holistic Seeing; Bohm's Implicate Order; and Alexander's (opus on fundamental organizing principles of "life forms") Nature of Order, all come to mind. But I will leave the discussion of these approaches for a later entry. For now, these ideas will have to serve merely as backdrops of my explanation of how I've partly fused my "left-brain/right-brain" activities over the last week or so (I promise to keep it short :). 

At its core, my usual "right brain" approach to photography cannot be simpler: I pick up my camera bag and tripod, head out for a walk to a local park (or just go downstairs to a "studio" I've set up for to experiment with color abstracts), and start shooting. If something catches the eye, I shoot. That's about it. And the less ("left-brain") thinking that is involved, the better (though it sometimes leads to thinking about thinking, which I've written about before). The only important - and almost entirely unconscious - action I take is to choose the time I press the shutter (I've assuming that such minutiae as f-stops, exposure times, filters, and the like are "automatic" and add little to the story I'm trying to tell here). OK, so far, so good.

"So the relationship of each moment in the whole to all the others
is implied by its total content: the way in which it
'holds’ all the others enfolded within it." 
David Bohm (1917 - 1992) 

This is where my several-week-old left-brain machinations come in. While looking over a portfolio of recent abstracts (including those "discovered" in marble and crystals), I ran across a number that fell into the "whole contains other wholes" pictures I described above. I was sitting at the same PC that facilitates both my left-brain (Photoshop) and right-brain (Mathematica) activities, and reflected the same basic type of question I normally reserve for my left-brain: "How can I find the 'best' image?" - meaning one that best satisfies my desire to show "interesting parts" of an image, but in such a way that the whole is still implicitly within sight, "just barely out of reach." I had earlier experimented with breaking up images into thirds and looking for "interesting juxtapositions" (e.g., exchanging the 1st and 2nd panel interchanged, but leaving the 3rd panel fixed). And, while that did lead to some interesting variations, it was also a painstakingly long process. These preliminary experiments were akin to a kind of improvisational play,  wherein I manually dissected each image and created select juxtapositions of interest. Noting that something interesting can actually be found by following this method, my left-brain finally clicked into action.

While the process is still "simple" (relatively speaking), and can - and will - easily be improved upon in coming days and weeks, I wrote a Mathematica function that automatically breaks an image into thirds (i.e., my 3-word alphabet of 'panels' to be used in  constructing new triptychs); applies all possible combinations of (1) leaving the orientation of a given panel unchanged (or as 'original = O'), (2) flipping a panel in the horizontal direction ('HF'), (3) flipping a panel in the vertical direction ('VF'), and (4) rotating a panel 180 deg (i.e., perform a vertical rotation = 'VR'); and assembling the new panels into a triptych with a bit of white space between and on the outside perimeter of the whole image. (90 deg rotations are not allowed, because in order to retain the same aspect ratio, the panels would all need to be square.) The Mathematica function is constrained to not create any triptychs in which the original panel order is left unchanged, since my goal is to find combinations of individually interesting images - in this case, panels - in which the whole, or original image, is only implicit and not directly observable. A bit of counting shows that, with this constraint, there are a total of 320 possible 'panel exchange + rotation/flip' combinations. This is significantly more than I can create by hand, but is easily doable in a few seconds by feeding my Mathematica function a starting image of choice. More specifically (since it is hard to visually digest 320 images at once), I had Mathematica display a smaller array of 16 random triptychs out of the complete set that my right-brain can inspect - and select interesting variants of - "at a glance." 

"No pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the
world only to the extent that is supported by other patterns:
the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the
same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns
which are embedded in it."

- Christopher Alexander (1936 - ) 

Two such arrays are displayed at the top of this post, along with - on the right hand side - one of the images I like best. By design, all of the randomly constructed triptychs share the two most important qualities I am searching for: (1) each of the panels is "interesting" (since this cannot be expected to be true of just any image, the starting image must already be specially selected), and (2) the starting image is visible only implicitly, since the viewer is allowed to see only the juxtaposed panels, not in their original order). As for what makes triptych x more/less interesting than triptych y? That's where the right brain jumps back into the process, as it subjectively selects one out of many - just because; though, because of the way my left-brain constructed the samples from which my right-brain is asked to choose (leaving out the "real" image), the right-brain is faced with - what for me, is - an intoxicating aesthetic tension between parts and an implicit whole. Indeed, the pleasure I get from finding and viewing "interesting images" of this sort are a direct analogue of the creative process by which they are spawned. In the same way as (I've just described) my left-brain helps me sort, dissect, operate-on, and create a multiverse of same-but-different sets of images that my right-brain generated the 'starting set' for (by intuitively capturing the original image) - my right-brain now delights in teasing apart the tension between the parts and wholes of images that my left-brain constructed for me (thus revealing "interesting" sets of images otherwise invisible to my own eye). 

Importantly, at least as far as photography - and aesthetics - are concerned, both sides of this creative process are fueled by search, discovery, and selection. That is, a search for a place and time to take a photograph, discovering an image, and selecting how and when to capture it. The only difference between my usual photography and the (admittedly laborious seeming) process described above is the space over which the search, discovery, and selection is conducted: i.e., a meta-space of images constructed out of images already taken vs. the physical world in which an original set of images is captured. The extra delight (I continue to have as I experiment with left-brain / right-brain blending) is that - at least temporarily - both sides of my brains are actively engaged in pursuit of an unchanging goal: to find "interesting images" :)

Here some additional "discoveries" in my left-brain constructed multiverse of meta-images (with more sure to follow)...

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