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 Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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