Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Influence

Copyright Monica L. Shulman

“Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too.”  Robert Adams: Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews

I've been thinking a lot about influence lately and the people who inspire me and the art that moves me.  I can't think of many things that can be as equally flattering and deflating as someone telling you that your work reminds them of so-and-so, even and perhaps especially, if the person is well known and revered.  Last week I came across this great interview with Alec Soth on the Aperture blog where he talks about this very issue.  Read the entire interview with Alec Soth here.

I personally go through phases where I feel professionally uninspired (and because this is how my mind works, I feel "not good enough", whatever that means), and while my lack of motivation never makes me question whether I should just quit or start over, I do go through a few dry spells and what I liken to writer's block for a visual artist.  There is a lot of pressure, especially with so much art and talent to be found and to discover online, to constantly be creating and to be innovative and stay fresh.  I find myself getting frustrated with my process and the way I see so this quote really resonated with me: "A few years ago I became really frustrated with photography. In order to continue working, I felt like I needed to take apart my process and to examine things before putting them all back together..."  For me it's not necessarily photography in general that I feel frustrated with but rather with myself, and so I start to examine the way that I personally see things and how I capture them and how I fit in with my work in the field.

Aperture asked Soth, "To what extent do you think a young photographer needs to confront his or her influences, and at what point does one need to identify what one has learned and move on?"

Alec's response: "It has always been important for me to wrestle with my influences. In college I studied under Joel Sternfeld.  At the time, I was sort of embarrassed by his influence, so I made work that was as different as possible. But that was a waste of time. It was only when I worked through his influence that I really started to grow. Over time, you begin to understand influences and the nuances of what makes your own work different.  Photography is a language. To communicate, you need to learn the language. The history of photography is like the vocabulary and influence is like a dialect. One shouldn’t be embarrassed about having an accent. That said, it has been important for me to reevaluate those influences as the years go by."

I love that paragraph and the sentiment.  I spend a lot of time studying other photographer's work both online and in books and I really learn and grow from the process.  While I don't view my work as derivative (at least I hope it's not) of my influences, admiring and learning from other photographers and artists absolutely informs my style and my point of view. And I don't doubt that the emotion and vision behind my work is all mine.  Still, I truly rely on so many artists to keep me motivated and, importantly, excited about creating.  I have to work very hard not to constantly compare myself to other photographers and not to try to do what they're doing.  Instead I try to focus on how my images are different and the why and the how.  Not that it is even remotely easy but doing all of that is the process by which I feel I'm growing and evolving.

What do you think?  How important is it to be influenced and inspired by other people's work in any creative field?  Is it necessary?  And when is it plagiarism?

I've shared some influences and photographers I like in the past but starting tomorrow I'm going to make it a weekly feature on the blog.  Maybe I'll also share some personal interviews with artists in the months to come.  In the meantime, you can check out some of the people whose work I've shared in the past like: Aline Smithson (this woman is one of my creative idols), Timur Civan, The Photodiarist, Chris Craymer, Emiliano Granado, Phil Toledano, Laina Briedis, Miss Aniela (she is major), Olivia Bee, Cig Harvey and Natsumi Hayashiaka. And you can see everyone I've featured here.  Is there someone who you think I need to see?  Please share in the comments!

Also, I love the Aperture blog and if you're ever looking to be inspired, that's a great place to start.

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