Taking inspiration from others

Reflected Branches (inspiration: Fay Godwin, Jan Töve)

I’ve often heard people say that they try and avoid looking at the work of their fellow photographers because they would prefer that their own work be unsullied by the influences of others. This, they say, is the only way they can create work that is truly original.

However, I find this a rather strange position to take. Firstly, it is impossible, these days, to avoid photographic images; they are everywhere! And secondly, I don’t think it is a particularly useful route to follow. Unless you happen to be a photographic genius (and, let’s face it, there are precious few of those around), creating something that is completely original in every way is a tough call. Even if you are lucky enough to have that original idea, what do you do when people start to take their inspiration from you and try to emulate and build on your original concept? If you are working in true isolation, and ignoring what the world around you is doing, you will not be aware of your many imitators so, unless you can come up with more original notions, you’ll simply continue working away at refining your original concept – despite the fact that your work will no longer be perceived as ‘fresh’ and may even (if you are truly unlucky) be seen as a poor pastiche of your later imitators.

So, in a world where everything that can be done probably already has been done, how do you produce work that has that spark of originality? Over in the art world, most artists do what artists have always done. Rather than seek to be iconoclasts, building something radically new from the ‘ruins’ of the work of previous generations, most artists seek to synthesize an original style by drawing ideas from the work of others. In this way, art evolves organically. Yes, occasionally a group of artists will take inspiration from a source outside of their art and, by so doing, forge a totally new path (expressionism grew from the work of psychologists such as Freud and Jung; abstract art was a reaction against the ‘easy’ realism of photography). But inspiration has to come from somewhere. You can’t always rely on some ‘inner voice’ to tell you where to take your art. Essentially, no art exists in a vacuum.

Stephen Shore: banal 'snapshot' style?

It’s with this in mind that I actively seek out sources of inspiration and not just from photographers whose work I find immediately appealing. Having a strong negative reaction towards someone’s  work can also be a fruitful avenue to explore, providing we understand exactly why such work leaves us cold. And by understanding what we don’t like, we can better understand what it is we do like, thereby giving us better insight into the development of our individual styles. Often, I find that with close study, images which initially left me distinctly unimpressed slowly become personal favourites – one example being the work of American photographer, Stephen Shore, whose seemingly banal ‘snapshot’ style hides a meticulous approach to composition and a sharp eye for detail. In fact, I found the whole ‘art photography’ aesthetic of washed-out colours,  grey featureless skies and a seemingly undisciplined approach to composition somewhat bewildering until I sat down with some examples and tried to understand what was going on. Fundamentally, the problem lay with my expectations of what constitutes ‘landscape photography’. My initial introduction to landscape images was via the style we constantly see in photography magazines – strong colour, composition-led, heightened drama, etc., etc. – and this conditioned me to think that this was the only serious approach to the landscape as a subject. Anything else was obviously inferior.

Ice and Branch (inspiration: Shinzo Maeda, Jan Töve)

I find it sad, therefore, that so many photographers who make images of the landscape appear to seek inspiration from limited sources or do not actively seek out inspiration at all. My own approach, is to be interested in the full gamut of photography and if I see a style that I do not immediately warm to, I make every attempt to understand why that particular style might be deemed by others to be of merit. Obviously, not every photographer’s style finds its way into my own image-making – if that were the case my own pictures would look like dreadful pastiches (I hope they don’t!) – but I like to think that the work of others has inspired me to go down paths I might not otherwise have even considered exploring.

For those people who wish to develop a personal style (and not all do, for a variety of perfectly valid reasons), my advice would be to cast your net as widely as possible when looking for inspiration – and don’t just look to the work of other photographers or even artists. Be proud of your influences! If an image has been directly inspired by someone else’s work, why not pay them the compliment of crediting them as being your source of inspiration? There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the giants on whose shoulders we all stand.

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