Have I seen something like this before? How much did it influence my vision? Am I presenting my own voice, or is my work derivative? If there’s nothing new under the sun, how can I have something original to say? Should I even be trying?
The source of your photographic ideas can seem elusive. But the fact is that if you are sentient, you are completely and unavoidably immersed in the wellspring of all ideas. It’s called reality. The challenge of creating something unique, something unlike anything that’s ever existed, can feel like a crippling burden. But how realistic is that goal anyway?
I think it’s important to realize that no one creates anything in a vacuum. An artist needs to release herself from the guilt of having been influenced. Your ideas are the product of everything you’ve seen, felt, heard and experienced. These factors subconsciously bleed into what you create, but that’s a good thing!
By all means, identify those influences, but you needn’t parse them. Recognize how the world around you impacts you and express that. Use those influences in a nuanced way to strengthen your artistic voice. It’s a completely different endeavor than seeing something you like then spitting it out verbatim.
Find your photography style so you can develop it and grow as an artist.
At a certain point, you must be the one driving your photographic style. I know photographers who are skilled at making images and have found success in the business of selling them, yet are still unable to identify and label their particular photography style. At the “top of the hill,” they’re not sure who they are or what comes next.
One of the best ways to find your photography style is to understand yourself. That’s simple to say but maddening to realize; we’re complicated beings, and teasing apart what you like and what you express can be a slow and hard process. First, take inventory of the influences affecting you. That’s a biggie, but a couple of simple exercises can help you do that.
Exercise #1: Note what interests you in daily life.
For a week or so, go about things as you usually do, but note and jot down the things that pique your interest in your daily life. These might be obvious things like a photo you see online or artwork on someone’s wall.
Note as well those things that bring joy, however short-lived or routine: a rock song on the radio; a funny TV commercial; the dazzle of the sun off the glass building across the way; children giggling over a picture book; the sun freckles scattered over your friend’s face; the summer night symphony of myriad unseen creatures.
At week’s end, study that list and tease out the elements that gave you pause. For example, the repetition and geometry of the artwork, the way the freckles beg your eyes to move along as in a game of connect-the-dots, the cosmic synthesis of the disparate sounds, the booming cadence of the percussion in the rock song.
Exercise #2: Identify your influences.
Make a list of three to five of the details, objects or sources behind those items that influenced you (artists, authors, musicians, architects, etc.). Draw a circle to represent you, and place the items from this list in smaller circles around the you in the center. Draw a line from the central circle of you to each of the circles in your orbit, like spokes in a wheel. (See the example below by Andrea Murray.)
As you go along, do you see any parallels between those influences? What similarities do you see? I don’t mean to discount your own ingenuity and the processes you’ve developed, but to help you concretely identify influences the world has had on your photography style.
When you compare your list from being aware throughout the week and the diagram you’ve created, what do you see? What most people become aware of are that:
- Big and small things seep into their subconscious and into their work whether or not they were distinctly aware of them.
- An influence is just an influence, not a directive. Being inspired by an element in something you saw or felt is not the same as copying; the elements as used in your work are expressed in your own voice are uniquely yours.
If your voice is authentic, your work will no doubt show what’s going on in your world and what your mind makes of it. Don’t allow yourself to be labeled by others, or even yourself. Accept that your work will look different six months from now. In fact, most of us cycle and recycle through “I love my work”/“I hate my work,” and with each cycle, our work changes at least little. That’s a good thing. Don’t feel bad if you’re sick of your current shots, just try something new.
Don’t feel you should ever stop learning because new skills can help you express something new. Being open to the influences and inspirations all around you will help you to continue creating photographs that you love and that speak to you at that time and beyond.