Is Creativity Theft?

Here is a provocative quote on the nature of creativity by the American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.
Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.’"

What might make you bristle when you read this is his use of the word "steal" - which of course is something we have all been trained to recoil from and think of as wrong and sinful.

But Jarmusch is not telling people it's OK to rip off one particular idea or image from a fellow creator. He is talking about the true essence of creativity - in which we amalgamate all our influences and what I call our "visual vocabulary" (the sum total of all the images we have processed in our memory) into our new creations ( or, as I often tell my students "Use everything at your disposal"). Art is not created in a vacuum of ideas..

Of course, the last quote from Godard is a key qualifier "It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to.

left -” Pietà” by Sofonisba Anguissola , right - “Pieta in Gangland” by Thomas Dodd

left -” Pietà” by Sofonisba Anguissola , right - “Pieta in Gangland” by Thomas Dodd

The Spirituality of Imperfection - Punk Rock and Julia Margaret Cameron

I will never forget the cathartic “Eureka!” moment that led to me being a musician (and consequently - a visual artist decades later).
This was the moment that propelled me down a path that I still am on today - where expressing the depths of the human condition has been a mission and calling, as well as a career and a means to (hopefully) inspire others.

It was back during my teen-aged years (1977) in Orlando while listening to FM radio (WDIZ) that I first heard the music of the Sex Pistols (the song "Sub-Mission" played by a DJ/program director named Craig Michaels : who I heard was later fired for that very bold and forward-thinking decision) and was immediately inspired to start playing guitar as a result of hearing that aural onslaught of anger and bravado. 

It wasn't only that the Pistols’ (and other bands like the Ramones, Clash, Stranglers and the Damned) music encapsulated  my teen-aged rage and angst, it was the overwhelming feeling of "I can do that too! " that the primitive sounds of late 70s Punk inspired in me.

I had listened to bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin before then, but never imagined myself playing that music. It all seemed so perfect and polished - as if it was being manifested by unearthly gods that had deigned to bestow it upon us mere mortals as a soundtrack to our insignificant existences..

But Punk Rock seemed so raw and vital to me - as if I was participating in it with the "performers" ( and Punk definitely sought to break down the barriers between audience and stage ). It was commanding me to shun the norms and conventions of the routine existence that the aforementioned Rock Gods had been merely an escape from and soundtrack to. 

I  almost immediately went out and got a guitar and began writing songs, starting bands and embarked upon a  music career that lasted damn near twenty years (eventually ending with me playing Celtic harp in a band called Trio Nocturna , that put out 3 albums and developed a fan base in the Gothic and Celtic scenes), so when I switched to photography I already had that experience of being a freelance artist and I never forgot the lessons that Punk Rock taught me : Do It Yourself - don’t wait for anyone to “discover” you or tell you what to do. Just get out there and do it, and it doesn't matter if you aren't technically polished, or even proficient.. What matters is that you have something to say and that you are never ever boring and/or following mainstream thought programming.

In my 30s I began reading the writings of Joseph Campbell - he postulated that the main two forces in Art are best represented by the the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represents skill, order, mastery and left- brained logic. Dionysus represent passion, revelry and the right-brained principles of improvisation and intoxication through immersion in pure passion.

The balanced artist harnesses both - although there are extremes on both sides. There is the virtuoso player with no passion or “feel” (as comically represented by Yngie Mamnsteen and other "shredder” guitarists popular in the 1980s) as opposed to a primitive punk band or bluesman with a modicum of technique and lots of “feel” (I would rather listen to John Lee Hooker banging away on one chord  about a woman who done him wrong over the the showy “look at me" riffing of a Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eddie Van Halen any day)

To this day I still listen to raw and unpolished bands with very little technical prowess but I still can not listen to purely virtuoso type music, unless maybe you categorize the Baroque music of Bach and Telemann in the latter..

I have found a similar dynamic when I look at the work (and biography) of Photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron - whose portraits encompassed "mistakes" such as blur, scratches and even fingerprints on her plates. These “flaws” made many of her more Apollonian peers ridicule her work, but the last laugh is hers, for her work has stood the test of time and today is considered a pinnacle of "Fine Art Photography".
Cameron's subjects transcended mere portraiture - she used Mythology in her themes and thought more like a painter than a documenter of realism.
The rawness combined with the imagination of her work has weathered well as we have moved from realism back to a more esoteric style whereas the more polished and staid work of her “realist” contemporaries has faded into obscurity.

The lesson here is: Passion should always be the driving force. Having something to say is paramount. Technique and technical mastery should always serve the idea and the creative impulse. It is a life-long journey and we should never be afraid to improve our skills and technical mastery , but above all - we should communicate emotion and the human experience with these skills...

What Makes an Image "Good"?

I tend to think that everyone who is posting pictures they took or created thinks their stuff is good. But I think the way we grow as creatives is to detach from our connection to the image (especially the ego part ) and be able to objectively judge whether it works or not – whether it “grabs you” in some way… (For me, I can't really objectively assess an image until I have worked on at least two more after it . Only then am I able to critique that work without the veil of "I worked hard on this" wrapped around it).

I think there are three kinds of images ultimately:

Ones that have the “Wow factor”: These are images that are visually stunning and command your attention. They may just be “eye candy”, but you simply can not ignore them when they present themselves to your eyes. This can be attributed to a few different things - a stunning subject (be it model or landscape), spectacular lighting and composition and a unique perspective that forces you to look.

Then there are ones with “the Ponder Further factor”: that make you think, provoke emotions or ask you questions about the intent of the artist. These are images you can spend hours with and return to again and again.

And then there are the “Ho Hum” pictures: which neither dazzle nor captivate the imagination of the viewer. Usually what makes them boring is a lack of either of the first two components.

The best images in my opinion are a combination of the first two in some way.

Most images are in the third category and I have begun to analyze more and more what makes some images exceptional and others boring. It is more than just elements of composition, lighting, and perspective – it is ultimately the subject itself and the way it is captured and manipulated by the mind of the artist that either draws you in or doesn’t.

I try and learn from them all – what to avoid and what works.

Or, as the late great Robert Mapplethorpe said “The more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer”.

“Cloud of Unknowing” by Thomas Dodd

“Cloud of Unknowing” by Thomas Dodd

Advice to Artists - thought must come first!

"What kind of advice would you give to artists who want to develop their skills in digital photography in order to be considered fine art?" 

The great Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum said that "thought has to come first" and I wholeheartedly agree. 
You can imitate whatever is currently popular or even the Old Masters and you will still be missing something vital in your art. 

Being an artist means that you are using a medium to express something that is essentially inexpressible through language, something that enters the realm of archetypes and spirit. I feel that the more acquainted you are with the history of art, literature and human thought - the more concepts you will have to draw from and learn from and filter into your work.

And perhaps most important of all, I think anyone who wants to create "art" should listen to their inner voice, pay attention to their dreams and deepest thoughts. Draw your inspiration from within you and you will never be in danger of being a copycat or imitator of someone else's vision.. 

Odd Nerdrum.jpg

An Interview with Thomas Dodd - by Combustus Magazine

Combustus: Folklore and myths figure quite prominently in your work. Can you tell me what draws you into these stories? If you were ever moved to do an autobiographical piece, which folktale figure would you invoke? Or are these all aspects of yourself already?

Thomas Dodd: I have always been fascinated with myths and fairy tales. I think because they elicit such a strong response from the subconscious mind because at their core they deal with archetypal forces and facets of human nature that we all share.
These ancient stories were how our ancestors codified human psychology through representing forces of the self and the universe as Gods, Goddesses and supernatural events.
I have been told more than once that all of these images are just different facets of my own being and I have to agree with that assessment, although I am not ruling out making an appearance in my own work as a mythic creature at some point in the future. . The one time I portrayed myself as a transformed being, it was as the crucified Christ. This was not only a link to my Catholic upbringing, but my way of showing that the Christ metaphor remains so strong in our culture because all of us have felt the death/rebirth experience many many times in our lives.

Combustus: What kind of response did you get to this piece, Thomas? Were you at all surprised?

Thomas Dodd: People seemed to really like it and wanted to see more self portraits. I was mildly surprised by that because I think the models I work with are infinitely more photogenic and interesting than I am!

Combustus: What we love is intimacy and authenticity and vulnerability. And courage. That is what connects us, one to the other.

Thomas Dodd: Yes, and I do try to infuse every fiber of my being into my work, whether it is a picture of a model or myself. I see what you mean though, that self-portraits are particularly “revealing” of the true essence of the person.

Combustus: Yes, I am intrigued with where Thomas Dodd fits into these stories. By photographing The Feminine in others, are you able to access this part of yourself? Is this one of the gifts being an artist affords you?

Thomas Dodd: I think that my art is a way I integrate both my masculine and feminine selves. It certainly allows my anima to be portrayed. I depict masculine energy in a completely different way than my portrayals of femininity. I view the masculine side as the voyeuristic half, beholding the beauty of the feminine side.

Combustus: Please tell me about “The Inquisitor.” It is decidedly different from the rest of your work and elicits very strong reactions, doesn’t it?

Thomas Dodd: The few times I have used males in my work, I’ve looked for older and more interesting faces. “The Inquisitor” came about when the female model told me she was willing to shave her head on camera. I instantly thought of the Spanish Inquisition and how the Inquisitors shaved the heads of the women who were accused of being heretics, to humiliate them and make them vulnerable and truly “naked”. So that is what this is depicting. I think the male has a face that tells a story; there is a malevolence and piousness about his look. And the female prostrated in front of him also speaks volumes as well.

Combustus: Thomas, how would you like to affect changes in the art world?

Thomas Dodd: I think my role as a creator in the digital realm is where I can affect change – that I can show people that art created on the computer is just as much fine art as other mediums are.

Combustus: In your video you made reference to the classical painters who have served as inspiration for you.

Thomas Dodd: Yes, I am definitely more influenced by painters than photographers. I love Rembrandt and Caravaggio for the way they rendered light and skin tones, Giuseppe Arcimboldo for his fusion of plant and human forms, the Pre-Raphaelites for their depiction of myth and feminine beauty, and perhaps the biggest influence on me is that of the Symbolists, because they perfectly united the metaphoric and the beautiful in their works.

Combustus: Critics of digital editing will say that there is an intimacy lost with this technique, compared to the days when we were developing our negatives in darkrooms. That hands-on experience of getting the chemicals on your hands, the odor… Yet you find digital editing to be an infinitely intimate experience, yes?

Thomas Dodd: Yes, extremely intimate. Although this is all taking place on a computer, it is definitely an immersive experience for me and I meticulously craft my images, layer upon layer upon layer.
I think some detractors of digital imagery perhaps think that it is a one click process or that there is some filter that is magically applied to the photos to make them look the way they do, but I can assure you that it is a craft like any other that takes years to get good at. I will say that although most of my work is done on the computer, I still think of it as an organic and natural process and I strive for the end result to show that.

Combustus: Are your models ever surprised with where you land when the image is completed? Do they say you have uncovered parts of themselves they didn’t know existed? Or that you have created completely new characters with their forms as simply the starting point?

Thomas Dodd: Some models have told me that I have revealed facets of their personality that they knew existed but hadn’t seen depicted in a tangible form yet. Others have told me that I “idealized” them in some way – made them a bit more beautiful or mythic. I always look for something deeper when I photograph them. A lot of photography is on the surface and yet so much of great art goes deeper than that and reveals the very essence of the subject being depicted. That is the kind of art that intrigues me and that is what I set my sights on achieving in my work.

Combustus: Yes I see this, very much. I imagine you as you walk down the street and make your way through your day seeing the beauty within those you pass, yes? Am I not too far off base?

Thomas Dodd: Yes, definitely, that is the gift of doing this. I have realized that everyone has something beautiful or intriguing about them in some way. My job is to find that and enhance it.

Combustus: A beautiful gift, Thomas. How it must enrich your life. Imagine if we all adopted this practice. How much different the world would be. Instead of looking suspiciously at one another, preparing ourselves to be disappointed, expecting the worse…if instead we could be looking, ever-vigilant, for the beauty that may only be partially hidden.

Thomas Dodd: Yes, and another tragedy is the way that so many people (women in particular) feel ugly or not beautiful enough because of the utterly false and misleading way that beauty is defined in pop culture. People chase after an illusion while failing to see how beautiful they really are.

Combustus: Did someone do this for you, as a child, perhaps? See the beauty, the potential, the magic, within you? Is this your way of expressing gratitude for being given this way of seeing?

Thomas Dodd: I had supportive parents who definitely encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be, but I would say that I too have gone through periods of self-doubt and periods where I felt unattractive or like I was getting old and losing my looks, but photography and particularly the success I have had at it has made me feel more attractive and vital than I ever felt before at any point in my life ...Yet another gift from this journey.