Some photographers say you should look at and study as many examples of other artists work as you can. Others say you should not view other’s work. Underlying it is an assumption of how much our own style might be affected by other artist’s work. Is my style fragile and easily influenced or is it inherently robust?
I have been reading the book More Than a Rock by Guy Tal. (I have no financial incentive in recommending this) Guy is a very thoughtful writer and the book is challenging. I recommend it. It has no tips for taking pictures, it is about why we take them.
A recent chapter titled Artistic Promiscuity made me examine some of my beliefs. Like many artists, I occasionally have self-doubt about my style – about whether I really have one. Guy poses the situation ‘I was baffled when I recently heard from a fellow photographer asking if I would recommend avoiding viewing other people’s photographs as a means of isolating one’s own “vision”.’
A vocal proponent of just such a position is my friend Cole Thompson. His blog is well written and has some great insights. But he has a controversial position for his own life, he does not look at other people’s images. He calls it Photographic Celibacy.
Guy attacks this straw man he set up, arguing about artistic history and how creativity flowed and developed over time as artists were inspired by other artist’s work. And he talks about how seeing great art is inspiring and elevating, especially to another artist.
He goes on to say “So be promiscuous, at least when it comes to art. Seek and study and contemplate and revel in art of all kinds and genres and styles – the more the better. Find what inspires you and articulate to yourself why it inspires you. Borrow but don’t steal; incorporate but don’t imitate. Find inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge in the works of others, and in return strive to inspire others with your own work. Such has always been the way of artists.”
Guy’s advice is very mature and inclusive. He has a strong world view and belief structure. A self-confidence that comes from experience and values. It is good advice, at least for him. It may not be universal advice for everyone in every stage of development.
Cole, on the other hand says; “As I stopped looking at other people’s images and focused on what I was creating and what I thought of my work, my Vision began to emerge. The work I am creating now is my work, not an imitation of someone else’s.”
He has been on this path for years and is not likely to change his mind. He says “Ten years later and I’m still practicing Photographic Celibacy because I find it a useful practice for two reasons: first I’m still inclined to copy other’s work. … And the other reason I still find Photographic Celibacy useful: it keep me focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. When I look at the work of others I find myself comparing their images and successes to mine. Sometimes I get discouraged at the large number of great photographers out there and all of the great images being created. All of this is an unnecessary distraction that keeps me from my purpose: creating images from my Vision.”
This seems to work well for him. Cole has a distinct style and he is a great photographer.
What is Vision?
These two good artists disagree in how to develop your vision and grow as an artist, but what do they believe “vision” really is?
Guy says “There is nothing to find – your vision, voice, and personal style are already in you by virtue of the unique amalgam of experiences, sensibilities, stories, and beliefs that make you who you are.”
On the other hand, Cole says of vision “It is the sum total of your life experiences, it is the lenses you see the world through, it is your photographic personality and it is your inner voice (or the ‘force’ for you Star Wars fans). There is no need to be able to define, identify or describe your Vision. All you really need to know is that your Vision is there and then follow it.”
Put these side by side and they are really saying the same thing – our vision is a unique property of who we are. It is inherent in each of us.
Who is right?
It seems that the Artistic Promiscuity position and the Photographic Celibacy position share the same belief of what Vision is. The difference is how to get there.
Who is right? I believe Guy is right for Guy and Cole is right for Cole. They each recognize something about themselves that requires or allows them to behave in a certain way.
Cole adopted his philosophy early in his formal career when he had doubts about his vision and style. He recognized that he was being influenced by other artists and needed to isolate himself to discover his vision. He recognizes and clearly states that this path is not for most people.
Guy seems to be have a personality that thrives on the inspiration from other artists. He is confident in his vision and does not feel any temptation to imitate them.
They are both right – for themselves.
So is style really fragile? Probably not, but following and expressing our style is a very personal and individual journey. We may be going to the same place but we all take a different path to get there. Some of us get lost on our path and end up in the weeds.
I admire that Cole recognized his nature and need and acted accordingly. It would be great to have the confidence of Guy, but in reality I am more like Cole. I am getting better, but the artistic spirit is a strange mixture of fragile and robust.
Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I think this is a wise warning. It is well proven that spending too much time on Facebook is destructive because you compare your everyday life that you know has problems to the happy, exaggerated image others portray.
Likewise, being a photographic artist is a difficult thing these days. Everyone in the world is a photographer it seems. We are flooded with beautiful images all the time. It is hard not to compare ourselves to the best work we see out there and not feel doubt. It is hard sometimes not to think we should do work more like something we admired.
Promiscuous or celibate? I think we have to know our own nature enough to decide.
Is style fragile? No, not if it is really just who we are. It is probably not the style that is fragile but it can be hard to have the confidence to believe in ourselves and follow our own style. It can be hard to go against the stream of popularity. And some of us may need a quiet place to recognize our style and get to know it.
How about you? What are your thoughts about style?