The classic phrase: “You are what you eat” has a parallel in photography – “You shoot what you see.”
We don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a very romantic idea that we can all be creative and artistic, and just come up with ideas out of thin air. It might seem like this sometimes, but my experience is that what we create grows from the fertile soil of what we see all the time. Therefore, the better the work you look at, the better the work you’ll produce, and the wider the pool of work you’re inspired by, the more original your work will be. Just looking at one genre, or one photographer, will usually mean your work becomes very derivative and boring.
Now, if you’re just starting out, you should definitely be in touch with people who are at the same level as you, but you should be looking further afield and further ahead for inspiration. If you always look at the work of people who are only as good as you are, you won’t be setting your sights very far ahead.
Where should you be looking for this inspiration?
EVERYWHERE! Galleries, books, magazine, websites, TV and film – anything visual at all that inspires and interests you.
Learn to follow the threads of work, and track things back – don’t just look at contemporary stuff – recognise that there’s very little new in the world. The imagery you’re inspired by today will itself have sprung from work that was produced years or even decades ago. Delve into a bit of art and photography history, and you may be surprised to find how much stuff these days has it’s roots in things that were shot 50, 70, or over 100 years ago.
Allow yourself to be challenged by work that’s not necessarily in your field. It’s tempting to always play safe and only look out for things that are close to what you already know, but in doing so you may be missing out on whole worlds of inspiration. Challenging work may suggest approaches you wouldn’t have thought of, and bring new light to areas of work you’ve got bored with. You may think that as a devoted portrait photographer (for example) that there is nothing you can learn from still life photography. Yet, you might look at someone’s still life and be inspired by their lighting, or the way they’ve structured their shot, and think to yourself: “Hey, I could take that lighting and apply it to my portraits!” Think right back to the start of this lecture – nothing exists in a vacuum – what works in one area of photography might not be 100% relevant to another area, but there’s bound to be some crossover.
Learn to follow your gut instinct – if it looks good to you, great. There’s no harm in listening to art critics, friends, family etc, but your gut instinct is the final judge of whether you like an image or not. Look for work that grabs you, stops you in your tracks, and above all, makes you think “I wish I’d created that!” That feeling is a pretty sure sign that you’re on the right track – learn to trust it. To start with, don’t ask yourself why you like something, just accept that you do, and go and look for more like it. As you get more experienced you can start to investigate exactly what it is about the visual world that you’re attracted to.
Look everywhere – TV programs, films, books, galleries, magazines, adverts, websites. Collect as much imagery as you can. If you can make the effort it’s well worth organising it, but don’t get too hung up on this, it just makes things easier as your bank of imagery starts to grow.
Make sure to credit where the work came from. Not only is this good practice, but if you want to find more of the same, you’ll need to know who created it. Above all, be guided by your gut instinct. If you love it, no matter what it is, stick it in. Here’s a short list to get you started:
Some starting points:
(Names may come from any visual background – photography, painting etc, and I’ve deliberately not provided links, as I want you to do your own search so that you stumble across interesting things!)
Sebastio Salgado, Ansel Adams, Arnold Newman, Martin Parr, Nadav Kander, Albert Watson, Terrence Donovan, Guy Bourdin, Robert Capa, Mark Rothko, Joel-Peter Witkin, Joel Meyerowitz, Michael Kenna, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Sally Gall, Diane Arbus, Elliot Erwitt, Robert Frank, Don McCullin, Robert Doisneau, Paul Strand, David LaChapelle, Lee Miller, Georgia O’Keefe, David Hockney, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Roger Deakins, Christopher Doyle, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Liebovitz, David Bailey, John Swannel, Mario Testino, William Claxton, Mark Seliger, Richard Misrach, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Norman Jean Roy, Bob Willoughby, Robert Maxwell, Michael Muller, Art Streiber, Enrique Badulescu, Patrick Hoelck, Platon, Dan Winters, Robert Wilson, Gregory Crewsdon, Vittorio Storraro, Carlos Serrao, John Wright, Vincent Peters, Sean Ellis, Darwyn Cooke, Frank Miller, Sante D’Orazio, Greg Williams, Julia Margaret Cameron, Bruce Davidson, Raymond Depardon, Minor White, Harry Callaghan, Helmut Newton, Antont Corbijn, John Blakemore, Robert Weston, Bill Brandt, Josef Koudelka, Philip Jones-Griffiths, August Sander, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, William Egglestone, Stephen Shore.
30 Second summary.
Surround yourself with the best imagery you can, from as wide a range of sources as possible. The work you go on to create will be richer, more interesting, and more personal to you as a result.