Shirley Read: Finding and knowing

Thinking about Ideas

Reflecting on the Essay By Shirley Read contained in a chapter within Photographers and Research.

Brief abstract:

Read starts her essay with two questions: “How important is it for artists or photographers to find a subject matter that is particular to them?” and “What do we (curators) mean when we talk about the central concerns of a photographer’s work?” She then attempts to answer the question; ” I am is looking for what is at the core of any work. What I am looking for will carry with it the sense that the work is powered by the authentic concerns of the photographer, that it is in some way heartfelt and has the integrity to its approach to the subject.”

She then proceeds to motivate her answer by sharing her research. These include a practical test to determine in what way unsolicited observers can identify an artist by viewing their photographs and the responses of many successful artists. She determined that “a photographer will have long term preoccupations. These preoccupations may either be in either abstract or material ideas or subject matter, an approach to the world or to the making of the works.”

Read finally concludes that this may initially be developed through taking Input or feedback from others and may also necessitate feeling one’s way through the process of making work.  Not knowing will become a knowing. She reaffirms that she believes “that the recognition of their particular subject matter is crucial to the long-term progression of the work of any artist or photographer. And that this recognition may take time and accumulation of work. …evidence of where they have been and point to the future” (Simmons and Read, 2016 pp 218-222).”


My initial response was sceptical, that as a curator Read wants to categorize and package the creative work of individuals. But reflecting on my body of work I need to admit that there is a line observable and in some cases is not my primary concern in life, but the most dominant. … How I see the world and its people. Mostly imposing my view of myself and the world on them or alternatively how they perceive the world and themselves…

After my initial reading of the essay, I took a break and watched a documentary on Netflix, “Abstract: The Art of Design“ featuring Olafur Eliasson.

At one-point Eliasson describes his creative process which fascinated me. But it is best described in his own words which he repeated in an interview with Rachael Cook for the Guardian. I added photography for contextual alignment.

“You have an idea… an intuition, a feeling, a subconscious thing. It comes in many versions, but when it does it is sometimes better to go back and ask where it came from than to immediately decide where it is about to go. If you know where it came from, you might know why you had it, and once you know why, it’s easier to know-how. The brush or the pencil:” (or Taking a photograph),” they’re just tools. The playing, the fooling around; you need to step out of the macho-driven goal-orientated brutality of today’s success criteria. You need to be confident of the step you are taking, not of where it will take you because the moment you put the pencil to paper” (or make a drawing with light) ” is the moment when you change the world.” (Cooke, 2019)

These ideas can be visual and still require words to form. (intuitive). He realizes that there needs to be a reason for their occurrence and states that as an artist it is his job to find the “why” of the idea and what initiated the idea from information that informed its creation. Once he establishes these answers, he will be able to formulate it into words and hands the words over to the practitioners to develop the “how” and build and model (artefact) that brings the creative idea to life. As Photographers we are both the artist and practitioners. The “why” needs to be answered before the “how”! I believe it is the “why” that is what Read identifies in the work of artists. This seems logical now. The only difference in his approach is that you don’t have to initially verbalise the why but visualise the why. Use your intuition. He added that gets the most creative ideas when he is busy working. (My interpretation from Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson, 2019)

While Eliasson’s work seems to have no boundaries and seem creatively free he states: “I don’t think my scope is wide enough. My projects are all connected. There’s a high degree of synchronicity. And I have a lot of confidence in things like abstraction, so it’s not a big step for me to move from one medium to another.”

Read and Eliasson’s comments led me to briefly research how ideas are formed in the brain. The ScienceDaily has an article about a study done at Haifa university on how our brains develop an original and creative idea. In summary, the researchers discovered that “Developing an original and creative idea requires the simultaneous activation of two completely different networks in the brain: the associative — “spontaneous” — network alongside the more normative — “conservative” — network; (ScienceDaily, 2019)

So in a way, our new idea only substantiates when the spontaneous part and conservative part concur. This process is mostly subconscious. Eliasson stated that his creative ideas increase with hard work (Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson, 2019), which I take to mean that the “conservative” generated by actual work deliverable or outcomes allows for more “spontaneous” agreements …therefore more creative ideas.

In conclusion: The creative process requires that we look back on a body of work or and we will see how your creative ideas are informed from our previous work. This does not necessarily be a lifetimes body of work. Even an immersive personal project, with creative ideas, can and will develop this. I currently find my current project and the related research both an introspective and retrospective of myself. I did not realize that this is my creative process. All this reflection and reading removed my initial scepticism leading me to the same conclusion that Read came to.

Wow! And I initially thought this essay had little value for me.


Simmons, M. and Read, S. (2016). Photographers and Research. Focal Press.

ScienceDaily. (2019). How does our brain form creative and original ideas?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].

Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson. (2019). Netflix.

Cooke, R. (2019). Olafur Eliasson: ‘I am not special’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2019].

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