Photographic art: purposeful creation or pure happenstance?

Recently I have been thinking about whether photographic art is "created" or if it "happens". The precursor of this train of thought is that sometimes I envision something photographically and realise it with such precision that the likeness of the envisioned and the result is uncanny; at other times—and such times, admittedly, tend to prevail—I go by intuition or play it by ear and get great results that I cannot say I entirely imagined beforehand, or, on occasion, expected at all. Does this imply that in the first instance art is created, while in case of the latter it just happens?

Extending the same notion to other arts, if you think of a painter standing in front of a canvas with nothing to rely upon but his previous training, current state of mind and imagination, you would be inclined to think that art is created from the inner vision of the artist. This is an epitome of pure artistic creation. At the same time, if you think of such photographers as Galen Rowell, who literally chased light (I am referring to his famous photograph "Rainbow over the Potala Palace" and the story behind it), or Henri Cartier–Bresson, who chased decisive moments, you are likely to conclude that art (photographic, at least) largely just happens. Indeed, one could argue that the work of these photographers is a typical example of art as pure happenstance.

Despite the seemingly boundless gap between art as purposeful creation and art as pure happenstance, all art is art, and we need to consider what the common ground between the two is. If you ponder long enough you will realise that in both instances art stems from inner response to a certain stimulus, something that deeply touches us. Sometimes, however, we can have an inner response to what we anticipate to happen, even though we cannot be sure that it will occur. In such instances we invariably leap into action, because what we anticipate to occur has already happened in our mind, and the only remaining question is whether we can capture it with the tool of our choice (i.e., the camera), and, if so, how close the captured image will be to what we visualised in our mind. When Galen saw the rainbow in the vicinity of the Potala Palace he ran a considerable distance to capture the moment that had already happened in his mind, i.e., the rainbow appearing as if emanating from the palace. Was it possible that the rainbow would disappear before he got to the right shooting position? Quite. Yet, he leapt in an attempt to capture on film what was already imprinted in his mind. And, despite the chances, he succeeded.

If you further think of the internal workings of painters or poets, they do not just fish out what they have in store and put it on canvas or paper. They also experience inner responses to certain stimuli, and each response is just a subtle inkling, not something that has a concrete form ready to be transformed into a work of art. They anticipate the inkling to take shape and hope to capture it with the tools of their choice, i.e., paint and words. But the right strokes and rhymes seldom come when you need them, and even though you might think you saw that inkling with absolute clarity, it might easily vanish into thin air.

Despite the outward dissimilarity, on a more fundamental level the creative process in photography and painting or poetry is not all that different. Presuming that the internal response is equally important to both photographers and painters or poets, and that the drive of translating what has already occurred in one's mind into tangible work is equally compulsive, the difference lies only in whether the attempt of realisation is embodied in a physically observable act: while the photographer starts to literally chase light or a decisive moment, the poet begins to mentally hunt rhymes. Both can fail or succeed, and I would venture to say that light and rhymes are equally elusive. In the end of the day, all artists are essentially in the same conceptual boat of creativity, it is just their individual boats happen to have different appearances.

How, then, do we address the instances of when what we come up with was not anticipated even the slightest bit? In my view, in such extreme cases the process of capturing what has happened in our mind is drastically corrected by additional internal responses that occur in the midst of the process, which happens in close collaboration with our aesthetic perception. If the process goes into a territory that we perceive as having no aesthetic value, we simply let go of it; if, however, it continues in a direction that we deem aesthetically fascinating, even though totally unexpected and unpredictable, we play along and see where it leads. Although the creative process might seem to have taken on a life of its own, the artist in us is still very closely controlling and participating in it.

Having established that all art is essentially created in the same manner regardless of the appearances of the outward processes, we still have the question of whether it is intentional creation or pure happenstance. Well, it is neither. Instead, it is a complex, unfolding dance that consists of the initial inner response, subsequent search for its realisation, further inner response(s) to what changes while the initial search for realisation is taking place, subsequently adjusted search for realisation of the previous cumulative inner responses, ad infinitum. On a personal level, the beauty of art and creativity lies in this unpredictable predictability: you can rest assured that the result will be consistent with your inner artistic stance, but you can have no idea where you will be lead and how that stance will be embodied.