PHOTOGRAPHY AS A FLOW EXPERIENCE

December 10, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

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I just finished reading the book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  This book was first published in 1990, which both seems like a lifetime ago, and like it all just happened yesterday! 

It’s advertised as a national bestseller but I have to say it’s not one of the easiest books I’ve ever read, and I read a lot of nonfiction.  It’s 240 pages of tight, 8-point font, not including over 40 pages of notes and references, information about the author, and an excerpt from another one of his books about Flow and Creativity.  When it’s all said and done, there’s over 300 pages of very dense information in this book.  It’s something that I had to read, and then let it swirl around in my brain for a while to see how it settled. 

So, you may be wondering, how did I come to read such a book?  Well, I’m currently a student working on my second master’s degree; this one in Consciousness Studies.  And as I mentioned earlier, I do a lot of reading on my own as well.  A couple years ago I made a pretty extensive reading list.  Now that I’m retired from the 9 to 5, I started working my way through it in my copious spare time. (really?)

Well anyway, when I started my studies this year, one of the first books I read referenced this book “Flow.”  Now I had this book on my shelf at my old house for almost 15 years and never read it.  I thought it was one of my husband’s books, but it’s possible I had purchased it at a used book sale or something.  Anyway, it was on the bookshelf in my living room for almost 15 years.  I walked past it every morning and evening and could see the word “Flow” on the spine of its bright, blue cover, but I never had the time to pick it up and read it.  When I was packing up to move to the western slope in 2017, I decided to “cull the book herd” a little bit, and thinned it out by about 20%, giving many books to charity.  “Flow” was one of those books.  I figured that if I hadn’t read it by then, I probably wasn’t going to. 

So, then I picked up the next book on my list for this year.  It also referenced the book “Flow.”  Then, lo and behold, the next book also referenced the book “Flow.”  I try to be open to these synchronistic nudges and I decided it must be time to read the book. So, I bought another copy and I finally got around to reading it this fall.   

Now, in photography we hear a lot about defining a workflow.  I do in fact have a photography workflow when it comes to processing my photos.  It is easier to define what you want to do, learn your process, and then stick with it.  Most photographers do this and It’s different for everyone.  I know some photographers who do batch processing for instance.  They know how they like their photos processed, and they want them all to come out with the same look.  They also don’t want to spend a long time in post-processing.  For others, the joy is in the processing and creation of art, and they spend the majority of their time in Photoshop and Lightroom, perfecting their images and creating fine photo art. 

I would place my workflow somewhere in between these two extremes.  I like giving my photos individual attention and deciding how I want them to look individually, while at the same time making any adjustments I want to make to the photo itself, eliminating spots and “eye grabbers” for instance, but I don’t make major changes to my photos in photoshop.  I’m able to do this while listening to music or watching TV and I find myself “in the flow” doing this more often than not, much as some people can knit a complex sweater with different patterns, while watching TV or attending a meeting. 

According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, there are nine steps that create the sense of flow with any activity.  They are: 

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Dimensions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes autotelic. 

Now the book “Flow” goes into a lot of detail about different activities that one can do that may bring you into feeling a sense of flow in your life.  He doesn’t mention photography specifically, but then, photography has changed quite a bit since 1990.  Digital photo processing has become the norm in the intervening years.  Even in 1990, you needed to have access to a dark room to be able to create the kind of photo art that is easily accessible to most people now.  When I was taking photography classes at the local community college back in the mid-1990’s we were still processing photos in the darkroom and learning those techniques.  Of course, that knowledge is transferrable to digital work, but it does take some time to make those intellectual connections and figure out what’s the same and what’s different about it all. 

And that is one of the things that creates flow in the art and practice of photography.  There’s a pretty steep learning curve in the beginning, and then, depending upon what your photographic goals are, the learning curve continues over time, either as a gentle upward climb in complexity, or you can take it faster if you like. Whether you decide to take it faster or slower, it’s the element of complexity that keeps the sense of flow going.  Many people think that relaxing is the key to happiness.  They just want to get off work and veg out in front of the TV or something. But the truth is, it’s the complexity of learning new things, making new discoveries, and accomplishing goals that really creates the sense of flow in one’s life.

When you’re in the flow you know it, and most people don’t get a sense of flow from watching TV or even from watching sports. You’re more likely to experience flow when you’re actively doing something yourself, whether it’s photography, yoga, golf, or some other kind of physical or mental activity. 

I would say, take a look at how you’ve been spending your time and see if the nine steps that create a sense of Flow are present.  If not, you might want to make some adjustments in how you spend your time so that more of your time is spent in activities that create a sense of flow. 

One possible thing to consider might be a photography workshop!  If you take a look at my workshop page, you’ll notice I have several on offer for 2022.  During these workshops, you’ll get the opportunity to learn how I process my photos, but also to spend time with other like-minded photographers, and actually feel that sense of flow that one gets from exploring a new place and spending time in nature.  Everything about photography is a flow experience from start to finish!

Enjoy the photo of rock formations glowing at sunrise in Bryce Canyon National Park!

 


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