Creative Secret Sauce Part 1

Every artist has one: a creative process that takes a kernel of an idea to a finished photograph.  Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper.

While his wildlife photography doesn’t follow this process because, well, the animals are wild, all of his other images started out as a tiny idea that mushroomed into a full photography expedition.

Stealing from the Greats

Dad often is asked where he comes up with the ideas for his photos.  Does he have a secret sauce for creativity?  Yeah.  He steals them from other great artists.

Renowned artist Pablo Picasso said, “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal.”

The difference between copying and stealing in Picasso’s definition is pretty simple.  Stealing, according to Picasso, is allowing someone else’s work to inspire you to create something unique rather than just copying another artist’s work.   

Dad often gets ideas from TV Westerns, movies, Old West paintings and dime novels.  He pilfers the ideas and then creates his own photograph with a different twist.

“You’ve seen the action some place,” Dad said.  “You read a lot of books, looked at a lot of ancient paintings and seen a lot of movies.  I got the idea for ‘Sedona Stage’ after watching Mel Gibson in ‘Maverick’.  Of course if you do something based on something you saw, it’s going to look totally different than theirs because it’s so hard to shoot this stuff and you want to make it your own.  Coming up with ideas is just part of the problem.” 

Sketching the Nitty Gritty Details

Dad works out a lot of the problems by sketching his ideas.  When I was growing up Dad would often come home from the studio and spend the evening in his own little world.  He’d draw idea after idea on his yellow legal pads or sheets of paper folded into quarters. (I don’t know why it was quarters, but every paper was folded into quarters.  I never asked because I didn’t want to mess with his creative mojo.) The TV was on, but Dad was so engrossed in his sketches, he couldn’t tell you much about the show.  He was a prolific sketcher.

When Mom and I would clean, we’d find discarded sketches under the couch, stuffed into magazines or full yellow legal pads haphazardly piled up near his seat.  We never dared throw them away.  You never knew when he’d need that sketch.

Like Dad most photographers are visual thinkers.  Sketching out a photo idea helps artists to think through and plan for multiple aspects of a shoot.   There are so many pieces to consider.  It would be easy to miss something that will really impact the success of the shoot. 

Some of the things Dad considers while sketching are: the strength of the photo idea, what the photo communicates to the viewer, the best composition, types of lighting, models-both human and animals, additional helpers that might be needed on the set, props, equipment (beyond just the camera and lenses), special effects, possible problems and the price tag for the shoot.

As world famous photographer Ansel Adams said, “To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print.”

Case in Point

The Great Horse Chase Sketch | Beebower Productions

Let’s take a look at one of Dad’s most popular photographs, “The Great Horse Chase”.  He got the idea on a trip to Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.  Then the real work began.  The photo looks like an impromptu action shot, but it required an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes planning to pull it off successfully.   It also involved a crew of about 10 people.

Dad sketched this idea out in detail and came to the following realizations:  A team would be needed to construct the corral and create a path for the horses to run right past the cameras.  One photo assistant would need to run the wind machine and another would need to throw Fullers earth into the wind stream. Wranglers would open and close the corral gates and the cowboy would throw the rope at just the right moment as he sailed past the cameras.  That was a lot of people to coordinate.

Without the visual thought process of sketching his photo shoot, Dad would have missed many important elements required to pull off the shoot.  He also wouldn’t have been prepared for the next step in his creative process.

Consulting the Experts

Once Dad’s idea has been sketched, he moves on to the consulting phase.  He takes the idea to those who can best help him.  In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, he presented the idea to Jim Baker and Pat McGrew at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

The duo advised Dad on whether his idea for the cowboy and horses were true to life and where to find the best horses, cowboys and wranglers.  They supplied the inside knowledge needed to create a great Old West photo.  Dad often finds brainstorming with experts, in this case cowboys and ranchers, takes his photography to a whole new level.  He was very pleased with the outcome.

Sometimes, though, Dad has to bring in the big guns to pull off the image he visualizes.  Big Bass”.  Dad knew enough about bass to realize fish don’t jump out of the water on cue repeatedly. 

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

“Sometimes it takes talking with movie special effects guys and that in itself becomes a real task.  You’re trying to pry out of them how to do things,” Dad said.  “Sometimes they’re reluctant to let you in on their secrets.  But I usually got the information.  I just had to be persistent.  A lot of times the answer meant I needed to build a special set up to pull off the photo.”

Luckily, Dad also happens to be very mechanical and he can build pretty much anything he’d need for a shoot.  That helps in the next part of his creative process, pulling the pieces together.

Coming Next Week

To find out the rest of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity join us next week.  We’ll see how he pulls the pieces together, how Photoshop figures into his artistic vision and what he does when the inspiration dries up.