Influence, Inspiration, and Learning

I was going to follow up a post where I referenced conscious, semi-conscious, and subconscious things going on when I make a photograph with a post that delved into that a bit more. In a way this is that post but while writing it I pulled a thread of thought and that lead somewhere else, which lead to yet another thought, and that lead to curiosity, and a bit of quick internet research which ultimately ended up surprising me - the end result filed away into my "you learn something new everyday" category.

Needless to say, this is a completely different post than I started writing yesterday. It somehow morphed and twisted back onto the initial intent just in a way that was unexpected. It turned into a brief discussion on photographic influences and inspiration. I'll discuss mine mostly to cause you to think about your own. Feel free to explore mine - I love 'um.

Of course I have more influences than the three I am about to talk about. Probably dozens. The big three do have the distinction that I found them around the same time at a young age - my late teens or early 20's and the three of them have never ever been out of my top three. I may have become enamored with other work here or there along the way but these photographer's have continued to intrigue me for decades. I own dozens of books from them. When I was really poor I had to sacrifice to acquire a few of those books. I look at a lot their work I continue to say to myself "oh my…".

The first is Edward Weston. I think I have everything ever published. If not what I do have covers it all. The second is Jeanloup Sieff - a monster if there ever was one. The third and probably biggest influence is Helmut Newton. If you are familiar with work from these three photographers two thoughts might run through your mind depending on what direction you come at thinking about their work. One might be "Wow that's quite diverse - they have nothing in common." The other could be - like mine - "That makes a lot of sense".

Taken together these three artists have taught me the most about photographs than everything else I have ever read, looked at, or studied combined. At this point I realize I couldn't possibly escape the effect they have had on me but this is okay. I started out trying to copy the things they did. Not a bad exercise. Eventually I became more and more aware of the essence of what I saw and wanted to communicate that those photographers did so very well. Instead of learning or aping style I learned a whole lot more about my own goals - artistically and visually. Pursuing that is difficult.

At some points I couldn't tell if I had stolen some of their stylistic tendencies or just got lazy and just copied things they did when I didn't know what else to do. So I would run as far away as I could from anything that was ever done by any of them. I would make sure nothing was remotely similar on purpose. I didn't understand at that point you cannot run away from yourself. I ended up not pursuing things I liked. Things that I just must do. In some cases your influences and inspiration are those things because there are commonalities in thought process - kindred spirts if you will. Those things aren't just style or effect - they are built in. In a lot of ways if you can identify those influences they can teach you a whole lot about yourself and that is not so easy to learn sometimes.

Do you know who your artistic influences are? How much have you studied them? Do you understand why they affect you they way they do? I consider revisiting those thoughts every once in a while just as worthwhile as going out and making photographs. Both far more valuable than reading about what gear just made all your shit obsolete. If you do take the time to seriously think about your influences for the first time or revisit them yet again approach it from a slightly different view. What do they teach you about you?

A couple of words on actually studying photographers work. Especially if they are not contemporary to the internet. Buy some books. Spend some real time with their photographs. Not a millisecond with thumbnails. If you are lucky enough visit a show or a gallery or a museum with a collection of their work as they meant to present it do that. Spend time revisiting what you thought you liked in a curated collection like a book and see how that changes over time. Here are Helmut Newton's books I own that happen to be available on Amazon. I have other ones as well but they may be out of print.

So here's what completely derailed the original post I had in mind. In following up a few google link threads while writing the original version I stumbled across a mention of Helmut Newton. Of course I followed it - I had to given how unrelated it was to what I was looking for in the first place. Cutting to the chase I learned something about him that I didn't know until yesterday. That surprised me. A visitor to an exhibition of his personal property noted that he owned an amazing number of other photographer's monographs and books. Ready for the surprise - at least for me… The most from any single other photographer happened to be Jeanloup Sieff's books. That shocked, intrigued, and amused me in so many ways I cannot possibly explain. I never asked myself that question - "I wonder if Helmut Newton liked Sieff's work". I have seen a lot of connections myself but that's because I was looking at both photographer's work in a very particular way. Of course that makes sense.

Who are your top influences? Not those of the moment. The ones that still elicit that "Oh my…" over and over and over again.


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