There’s a famous saying that “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, attributed to Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso or even T. S. Eliot, depending on who you ask. Obviously, we’re not talking about taking somebody else’s work and claiming as your own, but taking on elements of others concepts and ideas, being inspired by it and incorporating it into your own artistic philosophy and methodology.
There’s a wonderful video called Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson that touches on this topic, too (and perhaps takes it a step further), but this video from photographer Chris Sale talks about it specifically as it applies to him and his landscape photography and how it can apply to you, too.
It’s an interesting video, taking a look at the very specific path Chris has taken but also offers up a lot of food for thought into how you can learn and improve by taking inspiration and even copying the ideas of others. Of course, depending on where you are in the world, simply copying an idea might be designated as a breach of copyright, so try not to be too blatant.
Chris talks about the photographers from who he took inspiration as he’s been learning and improving his landscape photography. Photographers such as Michael Kenna, Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish and David Ward. He chose these people because he liked their work and by emulating elements of their concepts, he was able to figure out why he liked their work and how he might be able to implement those ideas into his own photography to be able to develop his vision and then to make the camera be able to see it.
Without realising it, I went through the same process myself when I decided to start learning how to photograph people. It just seemed logical to me. I’d spent a decade photographing anything but people, but when I did decide to start photographing people, I went hunting online for photographers whose portraits I liked. I stalked the websites of photographers like Joe McNally, David Hobby and Zack Arias for months before pointing my camera at a person because I wanted to try to understand why I liked a lot of their work. What was it that drew me into each of those images?
When I finally worked up the courage to try photographing an actual real live human being, I did try to recreate some of those images as closely as I could in order to first learn how to do that but also to see where things went wrong and to try and further identify what it was I liked about those photographers work and what I wanted to create for myself. I’ve never thought I was anywhere near as good as the three photographers I mentioned at photographing people and it’s unlikely that I ever will be – and my photographs certainly don’t look like theirs. But initially trying to emulate their looks, ideas and concepts taught me a lot about what I like, how I want to express my vision with the camera and how to actually do it.
Ultimately, it’s about inspiration and truly learning from your photographic heroes and not just straight-up copying them. Simply mimicking without understanding the reasoning behind the decisions that go into creating a certain photograph doesn’t really help you all that much. But it can be a good first step to set you in the right direction. And learning from those who came before us is certainly a much faster way than just blindly pointing your camera at stuff and seeing what happens.
I suppose this is the counterargument to “stop looking at other peoples work!”. They say it makes you feel shitty because your work isn’t as good. I say the opposite. If you like it, try to figure out exactly why you like it. What specifically about their photography makes you like it? Let it inspire you, then head out there with your camera, try it and experiment!
How do you learn and improve?