the creative process is never linear

The creative process is never linear. Since it’s the end of the year and a convenient time for self reflection, I’ve recently realized something about myself:  I like to shoot my photos within the loose framework of a series. I may shoot under the larger umbrella of toys (or LEGO) but within my photographs you will see consistent themes running through my frequent social media posts.

I’m sure my themes are not as obvious as the Stormtroopers that populate the world of Mike and Kristina, or the women of Boris’s work or the Star Wars ships that dominate Vesa’s photos, but trust me they’re there. By shooting these mini themes, or to borrow an idea from Kristina, always shooting with a red thread in mind, I can slowly add to a larger body of work that I can fall back on as needed.

I break my work down into five general themes in order of importance:

  1. The Book
  2. Custom Robots
  3. Chima
  4. Classic Space
  5. Mix and Match

Whenever I go out shooting I make sure each of these themes are represented in my box of mini figures. I’m constantly pushing each individual idea along in hopes of one day having enough images that I can create something larger. My philosophy is that the sum is greater than the parts.

After the successful completion of my first book, the Runaway Bunny in 2014, I wanted to grow on that experience this year. At the beginning of 2015 my goal was to have enough images finished by August that I could begin assembling a new and much larger book. Not only did I fall short of that goal, but life had other surprises for me. When the last minute decision to have a second show at the Bryan Ohno Gallery came up, I was caught without anything suitable to show. I felt the second show was taking place too soon. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I got to work.

I really wanted to showcase a series of classic space images for this group show, but the images I had taken so far hadn’t gelled into a cohesive set yet. When I scoured my other images, I realized the custom robot series I’d been working on all year had enough images to pull from that I could create a cohesive group of images to showcase. At this point I was very grateful that I had several ideas in play at once.

I know in my heart that I would have a stronger body of work if I was more single minded in my photography. I admire Mike, Kristina and Vesa in their singular visions, but frankly, I would bore myself if I worked this way. I like what happens when I take a seemingly random set of mini figures into the real world and see what develops. Sometimes the location is perfect for Classic Space, sometimes it’s more suited for The Book project. No matter which way the energy flows, I’m ready.

When it came time for me to put together my best of 12 images for our book challenge I had the most pleasant surprise…. a different book came flowing out unbidden. I’ve been shooting  the LEGO Chima line for almost three years and it seems that whatever has been going on in the back of my head during this time, was finally ready to reveal itself. The book I’d wanted to make at the beginning of the year wasn’t the book I ended up making. Rather than be disappointed, I was thrilled!

I share all of this with you to let you know that the creative process is not linear. It needs to weave and dodge; it needs to take two steps back and one step forward; it will even occasionally crash and burn but rise up again in unexpected ways. Basically the road from initial idea to finished product is never straight. Instead of trying to force an idea to completion, always be open to the pauses, be open to the detours…

Above all, be patient.

~ xxSJC

How do you like to work? Do you enjoy following one or multiple “red threads”? 

Do you have any projects you would like to complete in 2016?


  1. Great post and so inspiring! There’s probably many things I’d like to say right now but I’m too tired to be able to write them down. So I’ll just wait until tomorrow, or maybe even a few days so I can think over it and see if there’s still something worth to say 😉

      • I must admit I completely forgot about my previous comment, probably because I wrote it late after an exhaustive week-end. Now that I don’t have to work for the next 10 days I can take time (to try) to continue my reply 😉

        I completely understand your point of view of getting bored when always working with the same things. One of the problems with me is that I always want to do multiple/too much things at once. As soon as I’ve got an idea I already think about the next one. For example I’d like to include MOCs in my photography but when I start to build one I almost never finished it because I want to start to build something else. And for my photography there is this long todo list of ideas/projects/themes/stories that only grow over time.

        I find very interesting to know about how your plans for 2015 did not go as expected with all those ups and downs. In some way it reassures me to know that this is normal. Even though next year I’ll probably be surprised how it went, I’m going to spend time in the next days trying to decide which projects I should or should not focus on.

  2. Great reading, love the way you share you way of working. I get your point and honestly I get bored with my obsession with the same troopers, teddy… and that I shoot the same figurines over and over again, but when I get bored enough I can alway use that as an excuse to take a break and leave the idea to next time 😉 I realise writing this that this is the beginning of a post on my own creative process. I’ll come back to that. I really like that you share this Shelly. Thank you!

    • Kristina, this is the post I should have written in response to your what’s next post; Im never one for choosing. When I look at your creative process I can see how your portraits would be a nice break from the storm troopers. How you can push one forward and then the other. I will be interested in seeing how continue to evolve in the coming year! Shelly

  3. i also get bored taking pictures of the same figs over and over. cats, however, i never get bored taking photos of them. 🙂 or food. or coffee. hmm, i wonder why that is?

    silliness aside, i think you’re quite right that it often takes the perspective of looking through the past year’s work to see how it’s all coming together. last evening, i made mosaics of my 365 project (more of a memory project and not only a LEGO thing) and looking at them, my year came through happier and more content than i thought it was. it had felt like a bit of a long slog, getting through it, but there in the pictures was a colorful and happy life. perspective. it’s everything.

    • Julie,

      Whenever I look back through my photos I have the same feeling you express here. Eery year I put together a photo book for my kids of the years adventures and I always leave with the same sense of happiness and contentment . Even when I am looking at an event I know was really awful. Like a camping trip that went south, or a family gathering that wasn’t not exactly joyful. What is it about photos that allow them to tell such compelling lies? Or is only that when we see the bigger picture that those dramas become small and inconsequential? I dont have the answer but I will continue to document our family life and so I can look back and be grateful for all the small moments of joy.

      And heres to cats – the worlds best subjects!

    • I have a few copies of Runaway Bunny, but I am not allowed to sell them because I don’t have rights to the words. If you would like to send me you email address (possibly a DM through IG?) I can send you a PDF of the book so you can see how it came out. For me it was the act of finishing something that was the most important aspect of the project. It was good experience and I hope to do it again!


      • I’m sorry things didn’t work out with that project. It’s one of the things I worry about even with photographing LEGO. Creators and their estates can be very tight about giving permissions and charge a lot for rights. One reason I don’t write nonfiction for young readers is that I can’t afford to buy the rights to photos, so the photos that are widely available for very little money seem to turn up in every single book on the topic.

        • Lyn, I really don’t know if the project is dead or not. I did not pursue the rights because I did not have the contact information for the agent that represents Margaret Wise Brown. If you would like to make the introduction, I would be interested in pursuing the project. I don’t know why yo shouldn’t pursue nonfiction writing. Since the price of photography has dropped to practically nothing, I am sure that getting rights for a children’s books would financially feasible. We should swap stories in more detail. Shelly

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