8 May
2014

The Infinite Monkey Theorem

The “infinite monkey theorem” holds that, given enough time, a bunch of monkeys randomly pounding on a bevy of typewriters will eventually produce the greatest works of literature ever written (for a humorous take on this by The Simpsons, watch this short video clip). The basic idea is that something meaningful can arise from random processes—even something as complex and wonderful as art. Strange as it may sound, the infinite monkey theorem is at the very core of the photographic process.

Our world is host to an unimaginably complex web of actions and reactions, most of them seemingly random. Even with all of the chaos in our world, order spontaneously arises, and shapes, forms, colors, and light emerge. We find this order not only in, let’s say, the shape of a fern, but sometimes in the growth pattern of multiple ferns and even the surrounding forest. Much of the time it just appears to our eyes as “green spaghetti” (as one of my workshop clients cleverly described the rain forest of the Pacific Northwest), but sometimes the complex interaction of multiple elements coalesces into something considerably more coherent, artistically relevant, and even considerably beautiful.

"Convergence" - Olympic National Park, USA (by Ian Plant)

“Convergence”—Olympic National Park, USA.
Canon 5DIII, 16mm, polarizer filter, ISO 400, f/16, 0.8 seconds.

Photography, at its core, is all about finding these spontaneous convergences. This is exactly what Henri Cartier-Bresson was getting at when he coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” When composition, light, mood, and moment come together, the photographer must act quickly, before chaos overtakes the scene once again and the art of the moment is lost.

This is what makes photography, to some extent, different from other types of art. In a sense, the photographer does not create art, but rather reveals that which is created by the chance interactions of our everyday world. It is the photographer’s task to seek out the spontaneous and random emergence of coherence, and to snatch it from the world around us.

"Twilight Moods" - Olympic National Park, USA (by Ian Plant)

“Twilight Moods”—Olympic National Park, USA.
Canon 5DIII, 81mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 3.2 seconds.

Is the photographer then merely nothing more than a passive recorder? Of course not. The photographer imposes his or her artistic vision on any given photograph through a process of discovery, transformation, and revelation.

Discovery involves finding unique and meaningful convergences. Sometimes I refer to this glibly as “the search for cool stuff,” but it is so much more than that. On some level, discovery is the search for the real-world manifestation of the artistic vision in your head. It all starts with moving your feet: stand where you are and nothing significant emerges, but move a little bit to the right and suddenly the world lines up in a meaningful way. It’s not always as easy as that, but you get the basic idea—you can’t excel at photography if you just stay put. You have to immerse yourself in the tumult with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Transformation involves the imposition of the artist’s vision on the subject by creative use of light, motion, lenses, filters, and perspective, and by making careful choices regarding what to include and exclude from the final composition. It is not simply enough to take a photo when you see something cool; the photographer-as-artist must also bend the scene to their will through the photographic process.

Revelation involves telling the story of your subject, using mood and moment to forge an emotional connection with viewers. This is often the most difficult, and least tangible, part of the process. It requires an intuitive sense of the perfect moment to trigger the shutter, and the ability to recognize when that certain “je ne sais quoi” arises.

Someone recently asked me what I look for when I go shooting. My answer was that I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but that I’d know it when I see it. I guess I’m looking for those monkeys hard at work—searching for those random yet meaningful convergences of visual elements. I’m hunting for art emerging from boiling chaos.

"The Infinite Starfish Theorem" - Olympic National Park, USA (by Ian Plant)

“The Infinite Starfish Theorem”—Olympic National Park, USA.
Canon 5DIII, 57mm, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/11, 0.3 seconds.

Many photographers these days aren’t content with merely capturing and revealing that which is offered by the world around us. Photoshop is being increasingly used to significantly alter the content of photographic captures, and more and more, digital files are bent and twisted (sometimes past all recognition) in an effort to take a more active role in the creation process. It’s as if the photographer sits down with the monkeys and rewrites most of the pages.

There’s nothing wrong with this muscular digital approach (I dabble in it myself from time to time), but personally, I usually prefer to let the monkeys do what they do best. I find this to be the fundamental joy of photography—to me, nothing surpasses the progression from discovery, transformation, to revelation through the photographic process. It’s quite a remarkable thing to witness firsthand when the monkeys triumphantly produce something truly magnificent, and I want nothing more than to be there when it happens, ready to trigger my camera’s shutter.

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (381 Posts)

Ian Plant's photographs and instructional articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars, and magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. Ian writes a regular blog column for Outdoor Photographer online, and he is the author of numerous instructional eBooks and videos. Ian leads several photo tours each year.


16 Comments

  • Reminds me of a quote from Sports Night (TV show): “First we show up, then we see what happens.” – Casey McCall

    We have to put ourselves in the best location, under the best conditions, and then see have to see what happens.

  • I completely agree that we don’t know what we are looking for until we get there. I’ve discovered that the majority of my most popular photographs do not show what I originally went to the location for. It’s the unique ones that haven’t been seen over and over that make people take notice. They want to see the world through our eyes. Great post!

  • So true. And the wide-eyed enthusiasm (rather than looking for something in particular) is exactly what I try to practice. Last photo-oriented post was on that exact topic, in fact. Love that tidepool shot!

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Michael!

  • Great piece of advice to be reminded of from time to time! I recently went out to one of my local haunts to shoot some sunset shots. I came home with a portrait of a cactus. Little did I know, that monkeys had anything to do with it in the middle of the Mohave desert! I guess you learn something new every day!

  • Ah yes, mon petite chou, is it opportunity or serendipity? Or, can chance be manipulated into magic? The gifts are there, it’s just up to us to find them. Outstanding article!

    • Ian Plant

      I’m your little cabbage?

  • Oui! Ha! I thought I was speaking your language. :>)

    One other thought. Too many are monkey see monkey do today. I wonder how their feet fit in the bigger footprints they are trying to follow rather than taking the time and effort to attempt exactly what you prescribe? Your examples are, well, exemplary! Wonderful images, as per usual.

    • Ian Plant

      As always, you are correct, sir! There is a lot of “comp stomping” going on out there these days. I think people would be well served to try reacting to conditions as they unfold, rather than trying to pound a square peg into a round hole at some tried-and-true photo composition icon.

      • You speak a great truth.

  • Hi Ian, great article, the two paragraphs above twilight moods equate to exactly how I feel.
    At 59 I have not lost my passion for capturing those unique lighting conditions/atmosphere that amaze me with beauty. Your work is a constant inspiration to me.Tidal pool pic rocks man!

  • Loved reading this, Ian. Great analogy and wit in putting words to this concept.
    It has application in wildlife and landscape photography for me – and the luck (or synchronicity of the monkeys as it were) plays a part in both genres. Luck in terms of right place, right time and luck in terms of alignment of the various aspects that would make a good photo. But outright luck it surely is not – it was Gary Player who famously said “the more I practice (get out there) the luckier I get”.

    • Ian Plant

      You speak the truth my friend!

  • I frequently use the Thousand Monkey Theorem when lecturing on investments: “If you put 1000 monkeys in a room with an infinite supply of darts and put every stock and mutual fund in the world up on a wall, eventually they would re-create the portfolio of Warren Buffet.” It serves to get the point across.

    A long time ago I learned that when I take the cameras and go out with a specific image in mind I’m disappointed almost all the time. Since subscribing to the “…I’ll know it when I see it” method I’m far more successful and definitely more at peace with my photography.

    Great blog post!

    • if an infinite number of darts are thrown i don’t think you require a thousand monkeys…

  • […] The “infinite monkey theorem” holds that, given enough time, a bunch of monkeys randomly pounding on a bevy of typewriters will eventually produce the greatest works of literature ever written (for a humorous take on this by The Simpsons, watch this short video clip). The basic idea is that something meaningful can arise from random processes—even something as complex and wonderful as art. Strange as it may sound, the infinite monkey theorem is at the very core of the photographic process. MORE… […]