The tethered mind: Garth Badger on the intersection of tech and creativity

Garth Badger clearly remembers telling friends and family that he wouldn’t ever need a mobile phone, that it was just another tech fad doomed to fizzle out.  

“I just thought it was ridiculous,” he recalls, laughing and shaking his head. “I remember thinking, ‘you don’t need to call people all the time. You can just call them when you get home.’”

Now, years later, Badger, a renowned concept photographer and creative force, sits with a mobile phone in his pocket and says he would struggle to do his job without being able to call people exactly when he needs to.

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In reflecting on this incorrect prediction and some of the others he’s made about tech, Badger says he now veers away from rejecting tech, no matter how outlandish it might seem. In fact, when it comes to his job, he investigates how it might help him improve his craft.

“Technology needs to help, but it can’t get in the way,” he says. “There is so much of it out there and some of it’s necessary but so much isn’t. It’s all about working out the differences.”

While the stubborn traditional artist might still be tempted to furiously wave a withered paintbrush at all the machines on offer, Badger believes it’s always worthwhile finding the pieces of tech that help to push the work forward.

One way he has put this into practice is by tethering his camera equipment to a computer when he works on a project.

“In the past, I always used to see tethering as a client tool,” he says. “You used to sit the client in front of the computer and you take pictures until they’re happy. And even when they say they’re happy, you read their face until you could really see they meant it. It offers instant sign-off.”

More recently, he has also incorporated tethering into his personal creative projects because of the various advantages it offers.

“I do almost no creative work without tethering. I become the client. I’m scrutinising the image and I’m scrutinising it in a way that I couldn’t do on the back of a camera. And that’s where the technology is definitely helping.”

It’s a narrative that clearly plays out in the work Badger recently did to help Microsoft launch its Surface Studio product. He constantly paces between the set and the computer, checking the lighting, the quality of the image and overall aesthetic. He pinches the screen, zooms in, tweaks the scene and tinkers until he’s satisfied with the end product and then tinkers a little more. This is a brief glimpse at the world of the tethered creative.

But the tether should never be used as a crutch, says Badger.

“People sometimes rely on technology,” he says. “There’s this sense that the camera [or the computer]is going to do the job for them.”

The reality, of course, is that the quality of the work is always contingent on the idea. Without a crisp creative angle, the tools simply serve to accentuate the gaping hole where an idea should be.

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Advertising more so than almost any industry seems to have an obsession with originality and creativity.

Whereas Hollywood directors, pop musicians and even novelists are permitted to borrow from the past and refine existing ideas, there’s an almost militant expectation that advertisers should always produce original work.

Badger doesn’t buy into this. He says creativity always comes from what we’ve seen, heard or experienced before.  

“Our ideas all stem from somewhere. Some of us are just a bit better at ripping them off than others. There are no pure ideas out there. We’re all just good at repurposing what came before.”

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This is not to say that he condones the replication of already existing ideas. On the contrary, he believes that what already exists should be contorted into something that’s almost unrecognisable.

To make this point Badger tells the story of The National frontman Matt Berninger, who wanted to write a song about a particular person. However, rather than using a familiar name like Cecilia or Angie, Berninger went in search of something new, something that would slide off the tongue as easily as the phrase ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ (from the Nirvana song).

“He came up with the name Vanderlyle,” says Badger.  

“I love the creative process of not just creating something, but creating a whole new name for it. It brings a whole new element that no one else could’ve done. Things like that are hugely inspirational for me. People who will go so far out of the way to make something different. They almost make life hard for themselves. That’s the only way these days to make something even close to new.”

Badger believes that finding these types of ideas rarely happens when sitting in the recycled, air-conditioned air of an office. He elaborates by referencing the story of an ad agency that once had its staff pinpoint the exact place where they last came up with a creative idea. As it turned out, the least number of pins were at the agency building.   

“There were pins on the way home from work. There were pins out in the ocean. There were pins at home… And there were also a whole lot of pins at the bar across the road.”

The reality is that it doesn’t make a difference where those ideas come from. All that matters is that those ideas come to life in the best possible way. Sometimes this might involve a withered paintbrush and other times it might involve being tethered to a beautiful 28-inch computer screen.  

  • This story is brought to you as part of a content partnership between Idealog and Microsoft. If you are a business interested in experiencing Surface Studio, for a limited time Microsoft is offering an opportunity to experience it through an in person product demonstration session or trial Studio for a week. Register your interest here.

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