It was the early eighties when I left California for a new job in The Big Apple. Henry Wolf, a world-famous photographer from Vienna, had just renovated a dilapidated, east side carriage-house into a state of the art photo studio. I was going to be one of his workhorse workaholics.
I loved my new job but my new workmates baffled me. Armed with their Ivy League majors in design and minors in sucking-up, I was out-maneuvered for opportunities I never knew existed, much less knew I was supposed to want. All I wanted was to learn Henry’s creative genius secrets—and get the heck out before I got bitten and became a werewolf too.
At first, it seemed that Henry’s creative path was just about burning through hundreds of rolls of film and hoping one or two images would stick. But, at some point during every shoot, his brain seemed to shift, twist, and suddenly see the whole problem differently. When that moment arrived, he would invariably throw a child-like tantrum at his staff as they desperately tried to keep up with the fast-moving, inside-of-his-head thoughts.
But, the whole thing was somehow joyful, too. We‘d all rush around to rearrange sets, replace backdrops, screw-on different lenses, haul cameras and lights into new positions, fire models and hire new ones. (Once, we actually built a fake elevator and filled it with people from the street in less than an hour.)
When the set finally reflected his new thinking, Henry would slow his feverish snapping and become deliberate about the new direction. When the shoot was over, he would shove his Lika camera into the hands of some lowly assistant, like me, and bellow in his full-throated, Austrian accent, “Ja! We have it! Get me a sandwich.“
Being a kind and empathetic man at least once a day, Henry once bought me a sandwich. As we sat in the corner deli, he told me a story that helped me understand why ideas just sprang forth from his brain…and just maybe, how I might be able to spark some creative genius of my own.
The Bahamian lipstick shoot.
Henry explained that the Navy had shipped him out to the Pacific during WW2, and because the experience was unspeakably brutal, he hated any and all “god-forsaken islands” ever since.
But, when the war was over, the tropics became romantic destinations that symbolized glamour and freedom. Madison Avenue, the advertising center of the universe, was paying attention and soon models in bathing suits were selling everything from sandals to fur coats. As his career took off, Henry was often hired to take photos in the Caribbean, which he did unhappily with clenched teeth.
Elizabeth Arden, one of his big cosmetic clients at that time, was about to introduce a line of tawny, beach-colored lipsticks to millions of make-up obsessed women. Arden, of course, wanted the shoot to be on an island with aqua-tinted waters. So, Henry gathered his crew, got on a plane, and set up on some tropical beach at dawn.
Henry said that his models were crabby that morning but that was not unusual. The stylists were buzzing around smearing them with lipstick and then smearing it off again. The wind was up and paradise sand was sticking to everything, including camera lenses, gooey eyelashes, and sore lips.
The morning sun was blazing hot and Henry’s mood deteriorated mostly because he was on an island but also because he was just not “feeling” the shot. He stormed off down the beach to swear at some crashing waves.
When he returned to his sand-encrusted and bewildered group, he noticed that one of the models had collapsed into the sea and was hungrily devouring a mango through her now wet and tangled hair.
That’s when he grabbed his camera and snapped a few rolls of her sucking on the stringy fruit which, in his eyes, were making her lips look delicious.
As he arose from his crouched, photographers stance, his mood whipsawed to elated. He declared loudly that they could now get off that f–king island and go home. No time for a sandwich. Lunch could wait.
They say Henry was a genius. I say maybe.
I think Henry had a four-step formula that brought out his genius.
- The Task: In this particular case, Henry was tasked with taking some totally unique photos for Arden’s advertising. He internalized what it was they wanted him to do.
- The Synapses: Henry would scour his brain for an obscure, emotional connection. In this case, he found a connection between an ordinary, real-life experience (like eating a mango) with millions of women who wanted to be beautiful.
- The Impulse: He then acted immediately on that connection AND got the mango-girl on film before she disappeared into the waves like a dream that we can barely remember.
- The Belief: Finally, and this is the tough part for many of us, he convinced himself (and through that belief, others) that he had THE best possible solution on film.
Unique experiences fuel unique ideas.
When I talk about “Henry’s formula”, I’m not trying to get all philosophical on you. It’s just that most of us want to accomplish something AND most of us have lots of unique life experiences. Steve Jobs chimes in…
“If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative … you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does, or else you’re going to make the same connections [as everybody else], and then you won’t be innovative, and then nobody will give you an award.”– Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs also suggested that everyone should take a gap year or forego college altogether. He said writing poetry in Paris would be much more conducive for tech innovation than stuffing a good brain with the same set of facts and experiences as every other engineering student.
So, is the trick to being a creative genius really dependent on some tenuous thread that connects our goals and with our experiences? I think so.
You can be a genius too.
If you’re like most people, you probably believe you’re not creative and have minimal talent for marketing, painting, or whatever. Yes, we are all different because of DNA, but we are also unique because of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. The more unique those experiences are, the more innovative our accomplishments will be.
How to use your genius to grow your business.
Innovation is a huge piece of business growth. We don’t all need to dream up something as world-changing as the iPhone, but great ideas lie within and the timing has never been better.
In 2020, when most of us are locked away in our homes, we are presented with a unique opportunity to get new ideas in front of a captive audience craving and consuming interesting, new content. There’s never been a better time to look back at your life experiences, consider how they have impacted who you’ve become, and share those stories in the form of self-promotion.
Let your inner, creative genius out of its cage. Telling stories from your past will demonstrate your experience, boost your credibility, make you even more likable, and garner trust with your potential customers.