The Beauty of Limitations

Creating work with imperfect tools


It's been raining all week in the Bay Area. In our neck of the woods, it's called an atmospheric river1. I love it when it rains and I am a self-professed pluviophile. The caveat though is that commuting in the rain annoyed me.

In 2016, the rain returned after a long period of drought in the Bay Area. So, I thought to myself, why not do a creative project out of it to confront this feeling? If I focused on something other than my attitude, it might do the trick. Saul Leiter's work2 in the 1950s was the kernel that got this project started. I had been a fan ever since I encountered his photographs in 2003.

One day, Tina sent me a link from the New York Times Instagram feed.

We’re looking for your photos of a place you’ve suddenly seen through fresh eyes. Maybe it’s your hometown, or perhaps it's somewhere you lived for a while. Photograph something — a striking street name, a strange storefront, an oddly-shaped building — you once overlooked but now treasure.

At first, I hesitated but she nudged me to submit one photo. After giving it some thought, I agreed. The process was painless –all I had to do was post a picture and add a hashtag. To my surprise, I heard back from the Times and they ran this photo on their opinion page a week later. The nod encouraged me to continue in this direction.

(Since the article is behind a paywall, I recreated the page for this post.)

I've been experimenting with ways to capture the feeling of rain. My paltry 8-megapixel iPod Touch camera3, it turned out, was the right creative tool for this series. Using its limitations to my advantage and with some degree of luck, the results kept surprising me. My attitude began to shift from annoyance to excitement every time it rained. Having a purpose changed my perspective.

I continued working on this series until the battery malfunctioned. I tried to use it together with a mini power bank but it only gave me at most 20 minutes to photograph. I used my iPhone SE as a substitute but the images came out sharper than I wanted. So, as all projects go, it reached its end.

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I heard this inspiring backstory on NPR’s Hidden Brain4. It’s about jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s most famous concert in Cologne, Germany. A 17-year-old named Vera Brandes invited Mr. Jarrett to play at the Cologne Opera House in January 1975. On the day of the rehearsal, the staff wheeled in the wrong piano. This particular one was a rehearsal model— dilapidated and out of tune. The organizers did their best to bring the instrument in decent shape. Still, Mr. Jarrett refused to do the concert. Without any other options left, Ms. Brandes stood in the rain and begged. Seeing her drenched from outside of his car, he relented. That evening, Mr. Jarrett played one of the most magical performances of his life. The live recording of the Köln Concert5 became one of the best-selling solo albums and the best-selling piano albums in jazz history.

As we start a brand new year, I hope this post will encourage you to face any limitations you may have in your life right now. By thinking outside the box and learning to work with the resources you have, who knows what might come out of it? Take a breath and have the courage to try.

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Morning Edition, NPR. A weather system known as an atmospheric river hits the West Coast.


Hidden Brain, NPR. In Praise Of Mess: Why Disorder May Be Good For Us.


The Köln Concert on Spotify