I read an unattributed quote recently. The gist of it was this;
“The photographer who is able to look at the work of another, admire it and not be tempted to imitate it has finally begun to mature”
It seems to me there is a lot in this. As photographers, most of us love and seek out the work of others. I spend hours each week looking at photographs. The quality of what I find often amazes me. Some shocks me. A lot is awful, but then that’s only my opinion which is only of worth to me, and some makes me smile. I do like images which make me smile.
Why do we look at the work of others? Stimulation? Inspiration? Motivation? Plagiarism? Entertainment? There are lots of reasons, most valid, some shady. I sometimes refer to Cole Thompson, a photographer who has taken a conscious decision to avoid the work of others as much as he can. His reason? He doesn’t want his work to be influenced by anything he sees others doing. I can understand his motive and even admire it. His work certainly shows an individual style, so hard to achieve in the world of millions of images, but I don’t think I would want to work that way. I want to be inspired by the work of others.
Inspired, yes, but when does inspiration become plagiarism? When does what we see another doing affect us in such a way that what we do is head out and try and replicate it? I think there can be merit in the beginner, the learner, in duplicating an image they love. If, and it’s a BIG if, their entire goal is not to pass the image off as their own, but simply to gain an understanding of technique and light, and that they very openly attribute the image to the originator.
Those of us with commercial customers also have to produce the ‘classics’ (as we would prefer to think of them, but ‘cliches’ is a much better description.) our customers demand them. However, in our personal work, we have the freedom to break from this strait-jacket.
It seems so sad, then, when photographers seem to get locked in to simply going from location to location producing identikit images. Reproducing what has been done before by others and Often to a much higher standard. Where is the real sense of accomplishment in that? Where is the craft? The art?
How much better to reach a point in our development as photographers when we can admire what others do, be inspired by their work and then head off and do something quite different. Let it influence us, but not direct us.
It takes a certain amount of creative courage to do this. An explosive sunset at a beautiful location is guaranteed to please the crowd. Showing our audience something different, showing them the world in a different way often leads to a deafening silence. Most of us can’t stand the silence and soon go back to the crowd pleasing. Doing what everyone else does.
So why not, as a private project, set about photographing something as you see it. Not as you have seen others see it? Those who like the results will truly like it. There might be fewer of them, but their appreciation for the way you have shown them the world will be more sincere than the “wow, great shot” crowd. You may start to become a leader, not a follower. You might become the inspiration. How much more fulfilling that would be?
A famous photographer, I forget for the moment who, talking to photographers once said, “don’t show me what you see, show me what you feel”. Sound advice.