Photography and the Creative Life

 South Africa

Nancy Rotenberg’s book, “Photography and The Creative Life”, is one of my most cherished books, a book I refer to often.  It is full of inspiration and passion, Nancy’s passion.  It is not a book about technique, f/stops or shutter speeds. In fact, she does not even caption her magnificent images.  She would rather you decide what they mean to you. Nancy was my mentor, friend and advisor.  She alone is responsible for pushing me kicking and screaming into leading photography workshops.  And while cancer took Nancy much too early, her spirit remains and is ever present in my walk with photography and the creative life.

With the holiday season upon us, might I suggest you pick up a copy of this book and read it.  Don’t read it once, read it twice and then read it again.  For those who have heard my Dream, Believe, Create lecture, you will quickly understand where much of my inspiration comes from.

I’m interested to hear what you have to say about the idea of  “Photography and The Creative LIfe”.   What do you do to tap into your creative side?  What can you share that will help others live a more creative life?

Let me start.  I believe we all have F.U.D., fears, uncertainties and doubts.  We carry these around with us as we try to be creative. Most times they are like big bricks in our camera bags weighing us down.  For me, I did not believe I had a creative bone in my body.  Heck, I couldn’t even draw a stick figure.  How on earth could I be a creative photographer?  As such, I had to look through everyone else’s viewfinder to know what a good image looked like.  I would try to find a good subject, but I never felt like mine was as good as Dan’s or Bill’s or Ferrell’s or Tony’s…..  My breakthrough came in 2004, when I went to South Africa for a workshop with Freeman Patterson.  I went with my friend Ferrell McCollough and learned just before the trip that Nancy was going to be a participant as well!  Can you imagine my excitement?!  As Ferrell and I were exiting the plane in South Africa, he said. “John I have challenge for you.”  What would that be, I asked?  “On this trip, you will not be allowed to look through anyone else’s viewfinder.  I want you to come home believing you are a good photographer and can see worthy images all on your own.”  I’m not going to lie, this scared me to death.  A trip of a lifetime to South Africa with my hero Freeman Patterson and Nancy happens to be on this trip too and I can’t look through her viewfinder to make sure I’m going to get images like hers?!?!  I took Ferrell up on his challenge. It was hard, however, I came home with images that forever changed the course of my journey with photography.  Images that were mine!  Images that I created.  But more importantly, I realized I was creative. I could do this without looking through anyone else’s viewfinder!

The blog image was created on this trip.  It is a montage or “slide sandwich” as we called them in the film days.  One image is of the dancing girl on the rocks in the tiny town of  Nourivier.  The other is a multiple exposure of the wonderful flowers in Freeman’s beloved fields   This creation captures the essence of my journey to South Africa.  I went to be with Freeman to learn about the creative techniques he is so well known for.  Things like slide sandwiches and multiple exposures.  I ended up falling in love with and being taught a valuable lesson by the people in South Africa, especially those from Nourivier. It was in Nouriver that I learned to “dance” as Nancy would say. It seemed natural that I should combine the two images to create a third.  Every time I see this image, I smile. It hangs in my office as a constant reminder of this trip and more importantly, as a reminder that I am creative.

Nancy’a book is hard to find, however, her daughter Marci has some left.  You can contact Marci at


A girl in Nouriver South Africa

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  1. Karl November 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Thanks for your thought provoking post. Being an engineer at heart, I have always had a difficult time moving over to my creative side. Your words, actions, and work consistently stimulate me to move to the creative side of my brain.

    • john8276 November 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

      You’re welcome Karl. I have enjoyed watching your growth as a photographer. You are indeed a creative photographer Karl.

  2. Scott O November 18, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Thought provoking as usual JB. One thing in your humility that you may have missed was your willingness to take advantage of what you were being offered. Many photographers, myself included, don’t always respond to opportunities to grow in their craft. To grow and expand we need to incorporate new ideas and techniques with our existing skill set. This requires that we be open and willing to look at things a bit differently…

    • john8276 November 18, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      Excellent insight Scott. So, lets add to the journey of creativity, being teachable, being open to new ides and then actually DOING something with what we are given. Thanks Scott!

  3. Phyllis Burchett November 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    I came to photography late in life John so I have had to “cultivate” my creative side as well. I have been blessed to have known Nancy thru a good friend, Charles Needle, and thanks to Charles I even stayed in Freeman’s guest house for a week where we drank, ate, laughed and photographed together. I absorbed as much creativity and teachings as I possibly could those few days with Freeman and cherish the time I had with him. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life. I’m so glad we took that girls trip a few years back and got to know you as well John. You are a inspiration, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Follow Your Bliss and photograph what you love, the creativity will come.

    • john8276 November 18, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      I love your last thought Phyllis, “Follow your Bliss and photography what you love, the creativity will come” AMEN! For those reading these comments. GO LOOK at Phyllis’s work now. CRAZY GOOD!!

  4. Lea Gallardo November 18, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Inspiring, John. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • john8276 November 18, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

      You’re welcome. 🙂

  5. Cynthia November 18, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

    Great post John, and I think this is what you have been trying to tell me all along, if only I would stop for a moment, put aside my F.U.D., and listen. I am still chock full of F.U.D., but as I look back, I have images where I was having fun and being creative and I think it shows. When I am not tripping over myself, I can dance too! Thank you John.

    • john8276 November 19, 2013 at 12:15 am #

      Indeed you can dance Cynthia!!

  6. Peggy W November 19, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    John, of all your photographs, this must be my favorite. It is almost a signature photograph. You have added different backgrounds to the sky. The streams of blurred flowers traveling across remind me of streams of stars on a time delayed photo of the night sky. A kind of benevolence. When I see photos that you or Bill Strom or Dan shot at the same location, there are always distinct differences in interpretation. I could say the eye of the photographer, but this comes from the differences in creative spirits. With your thoughts on creativity, you are pointing us in the right direction. Maybe these will someday be in your book!

    • john8276 November 19, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

      Thank you Peggy. Truth be told, this post as well as many others and those to come are being written with a book in mind. A friend, Paul, that you you know suggested I have already written a book on my blog… it was a DUH moment. So now when I write a post such as this, I write it with the ability to add it to a book. 🙂

  7. marty golin November 21, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I’d guess it’s just a matter of taste or subject matter, but how one is creative seems to me to reflect a difference of one’s bias & approach to photography.
    In general, creativity connotes imagination which implies something from within, adding to or altering an image. Also in general (in my experience), the “reason” is usually to capture/emphasize the memory & emotional response to a scene. John’s comments about his image fall in line with this.
    If however, one’s bias is focused on “seeing with clarity” (whether couched neutrally as keen observation or touchy-feely spiritual mindfulness), a direct approach is the goal. IMHO, the best results of this type of photography is a simple portrait of some graphic aspect(s) of the world not normally perceived by others, or myself at first. In this context, creativity/imagination can be viewed as unnecessary filters.
    For the record, I intend none of this to be taken as right/wrong, better/worse, etc. What’s important is choosing “methods” that are true to one’s outlook.

    • john8276 November 21, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      Always interested in your outlook Marty. I think we agree for the most part. What is important to me is that people feel liberated to create as they wish. Or I guess be true to their outlook… So, if this means capturing with clarity or not, it is still indeed being creative. I hope that makes sense.

  8. Diana December 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    I just received Nancy’s book yesterday. I am so excited and look forward to a great read and a ton of inspiration. Thank you for refering it to us and yesterday’s blog was food for thought! I saw myself in almost every line. 🙁

    • john8276 December 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

      Enjoy the book Nancy. It is wonderful. Thanks for your comment.

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