Module 8: Mental Model & Creativity

0 Posted by - June 17, 2014 - Courses, Photography Appreciation
Edward Burtynsky, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy

Edward Burtynsky, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy

So far in this course we have been studying the nature and language of photography. We’ve explored the particular genius of photography, and how it “changes everything.” And we’ve examined the language of photography in terms of photographic technique, the frame, light, elements of design, and composition. Now we turn our attention to perhaps the most important — and most overlooked — aspect of photography: the photographer’s mental model.

Your Mental Model is your idea of what makes a good photograph – what excites you visually and narratively. When you see something that makes you pull out your camera, that is your mental model at work.

Your mental model is a product of your individual background and experiences, which shape your perceptions and decisions. This is very powerful. It is your unique vision of the world, and the basis for your particular creative contribution.

In this way, your photographs are the sum of who you are at a given moment.

But our mental model is also a filter, and can be a barrier to creativity. It prompts us to notice certain things, but it also dictates all the things we fail to notice. Have you taken multiple photographs of sunsets, flowers, or dogs? What aren’t you photographing? What are you missing?

Master photographers are very aware of their mental model and work to continuously expand their vision.

So your goal in this module is to examine your mental model to see differently, more expansively and more creatively.

You’re going to read and watch videos that should prompt you to think and see differently. Then in your creative practice you are going to challenge your mental model and expand your creative vision.

Question: How do you see the world? What do you notice? What might you be missing? Please respond in the comments below.

Module Content

With these concepts and ideas in mind please read and view the following:

The Photographer’s Vision, pp. 126 – 136; and

Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Connections Are The Key to Creativity (Brain Pickings). This post from the Brain Pickings blog introduces and outlines how creativity is about making unique connections and combinations. And as we’ve studied, that is the heart of composing an effective photograph.

Also, watch the documentary I AM by filmmaker Tom Shadyac (Available streaming on Netflix and Amazon), and

Edward Burtynsky on Photographing Man’s Impact on the Landscape (TED).

Featured Photographer: Cig Harvey

Cig Harvey, Weathervane, 2010 © Cig Harvey, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery

Cig Harvey, Weathervane, 2010 © Cig Harvey, courtesy of Kopeikin Gallery

Contemporary photographer Cig Harvey is known for her use of self-portrait to create surrealistic scenes of the commonplace. The minimalist compositions feel vaguely familiar and are intended to communicate a sense of shared experience of every day life. Read an introduction and links about the photographer and her work here. As you view her work think about how it reflects her mental model and perspective of the world.


Read the Featured Photographer links and research photographs by Cig Harvey. Then find and add your favorite photograph by the photographer to the featured photographer collection. Write a photographic analysis of the photograph describing the photographer’s vision and style, and how it is different from your own. Use terms and concepts from the course in your analysis. Full Directions

Discussion Topics

The photographer’s mental model plays an important role in his or her creative vision. Photographers like Edward Burtinsky and Cig Harvey draw on and challenge their mental model to produce their work. In much the same way, the movie I AM asks us to consider our place in and contribution to the world.

There are two discussion topics in this module. For the first discussion post, consider Edward Burtynsky’s explanation of how his passion for communicating the impact of man on the natural landscape is the foundation of his photographic work. Explain how his mental model has been instrumental to his work. Also, identify and explain two design elements he uses in his work to present his ideas and impressions. Full Directions

For your second discussion post, explain how I AM got you to think about your own mental model and how you might use it and challenge it to produce your own creative contribution to the world? Full Directions

Creative Practice

In your creative practice I’d like you to produce two photographs. For the first photograph, take a photograph of subject matter you consider beautiful and/or interesting. Then for your second photograph challenge your mental model. Create a photograph of subject matter that you would have never considered for a photograph. It may be too ugly, profane, private, uninteresting, etc. Push yourself and take a good photograph of it. Use elements of design and principles of composition and make a good photograph of what you consider bad subject matter. Challenge yourself to see and think differently. Full Directions

Top Image: Sandy Skoglund, Fox Games, 1989  Copyright © Sandy Skoglund