“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.” - Terry Pratchett
Photoville, a few weeks ago now in Brooklyn, was the biggest kick up the backside I've had for a while. There was some beautiful imagery on display. Brave, bold, thoughtful, emotive, striking, memorable images. Disciplined, committed projects. Sure, there were images that I didn't like much too but I'm happy to skip over the stuff I know I won't enjoy and spend time with the images that I connect with. It's good to get away from the screen sometimes and look at large prints and dwell on them, taking more time to absorb and consider the images.
I've heard at least two relatively successful and accomplished photographers say that they don't really look at anyone else's work, that they just focus on their own. Which makes sense, in a way. They can try to develop their own style without fear of being swayed into copying someone else. They might (I hope) still take inspiration from other media. But it also makes me a little sad for them. Brooks Jenson talks about photography and, wider, art as a whole, as being like an ongoing conversation. It seems that ignoring the other voices is a bit like shouting your own message and ignoring the themes and nuances of the conversation, stuck in your own views. Can you imagine the Beatles not listening to other music? What would they have created without the inspiration of Chuck Berry? John Lennon said that the Beatles wouldn’t have existed at all if it hadn't been for Elvis and his influence on them.
The downsides of seeking inspiration seem to me to be in either intimidation or imitation.
It can feel an impossibility to attain the standards that another photographer has reached, to produce images of the same standard. You might well not have the time or willingness to travel the world or face the frontline in a war zone. It can be disheartening. But only if you think you need to make the same kind of images. It’s not so intimidating if you know that your own path is different, that you’re not competing with them, not really.
Because the other danger is of imitation. Of trying to be like another photographer, trying to produce the same kind of work. Then it might well be an impossibility to reach their level - because it's their work and their vision, not yours.
I think it all comes back to understanding what you want to do, what you want to say about the world. And that can be the hardest thing to figure out. But it shouldn't be in a vacuum. We take bits from other photographers, other artists. Steal an idea from one, a technique from another, a workflow from another, an attitude from another. Take what you like but give credit where it’s due, make it your own, figure out how to use it to say what you need to say. (If you haven't read Austin Kleon's Steal Like An Artist, I highly recommend grabbing a copy).
And, just to be clear, I'm not 'there' yet and I don't think any other photographer is 'there' yet either. No matter how accomplished they seem, however many publications or gallery shows. It's an endless search. Find what you want to say in one project, one body of work, then the next. Some photographers for sure are more advanced than others, with more experience, a more developed visual vocabulary or a more specific vision for their work. But we each have a unique perspective and the opportunity to bring our voice, as clearly as we can, to the conversation.