Be a voice, not an echo
This post was inspired by a friend of mine who asked me what I thought about photographers copying her style of work. I'm not talking about stealing photographs, but shooting pictures which are a copy of a style. Wedding photographers will be very familiar with this situation.
Away from photography, my other passion in life is music. I've been playing electric guitar since my early teens and bass for the past 15 years. I own almost as many guitars as I do cameras.
Learning to play the guitar with small hands was a frustrating experience. I struggled with stretches and exercises, and even though I was good enough to perform in a few pub bands, I became disillusioned with the instrument and didn't play it for a couple of years. As much as I wanted to, I wasn't physically able to copy the players which I loved.
About ten years ago, my wife bought me a beautiful Gretsch 6120AM, an instrument which was so different to the guitars I had struggled with, that it changed the way that I played. I listened to new artists, experimented with different tunings, and eventually found sounds which appealed to me. I only play for myself, but by moving away from the necessity to copy other guitar players, I finally found contentment.
But what has this got to do with photography? You may ask.
to spend a lifetime copying others is a life wasted. To spend a lifetime producing art which is unique to you is something to be treasured.
Having been around guitars for nearly forty years, and photography for thirty, I have noticed a striking similarity between the two industries. They are both full of people trying to do everything they can to look or sound like someone else. I'm sure this happens in other industries, but I have no experience of those.
I've always believed that to spend a lifetime copying others is a life wasted. To spend a lifetime producing art which is unique to you is something to be treasured. So why are some people so desperate to copy others?
I believe creative people are naturally drawn to things that stimulate them. If a photograph or piece of music evokes a strong reaction, it is natural to want to emulate that. Not only for the artist but also for their audience. I had goosebumps the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen play and, like many kids in the 80s, I wanted to play like him. Looking back on the hours I spent learning to play like someone else, I can't help but wonder where I would be, small hands aside, if I had spent those hours learning to find my own style.
We live in an era where some artists want to get from A-B as quickly as possible without putting any time or effort into their art. The easiest way of doing this is to copy others. The lure of instant fame and fortune comes at the expense of defining an individual style. However, without that unique style, any success tends to be short-term. It's actually not that hard to be unique, it just takes some time, practice, and a change of mindset.
The first thing to remember is that the life of a creative is full of ups and downs. There have been times when I've loved my photographs and times when I've hated them. When I first took pictures that showed the world who I was as a photographer, there was a lot of negativity towards them from the industry. It would have been easy for me to take boring pictures and follow the pack, but I've always been a bit of a rebel. I learned to ignore the criticism and not take any comments too seriously. There is a big difference between influence and copying. They are not the same things!! Different photographers have influenced my work, both positively and negatively, but I've deliberately avoided copying their pictures. Maybe my guitar playing mistakes helped, but I realised very quickly that no two individuals interpret the world in the same way. We are separated by our physicality, upbringing, intellect, and life experiences. By embracing these and calling upon our own experiences and trusting our intuition and eye, it is possible to create something really unique.
Like a rock guitar player that learns to play jazz, I've found that practising photography is more challenging and effective outside of a familiar genre. Does everyone practice? I have never really asked, but it's something I've always done.
Five years ago, I needed a second photographer for some weddings. My wife, Sarah, asked if she could take some pictures while she was assisting me. I set up a spare camera for her and let her take whatever she liked. She got the job. Within two years of picking up a camera, her wedding photographs were in all of the main celebrity magazines. Within three years, her documentary work was accepted into the Martin Parr Foundation Library.
How did she progress so quickly? By copying other wedding photographers? No. She learned framing, timing, layers, light, and working close to people through street photography. By practising in a genre that was different from the one she was working in, she developed her own unique skillset, and a way of seeing the world that wasn't influenced by wedding photography. Practice, experience, and the continual development of her eye has allowed her to move effortlessly into other genres of photography.
I've found street photography to be such a good platform to teach new skills, that I spend time each year running street workshops. Many students come from wedding photography backgrounds.
I'd rather fail with a unique image than succeed with something which isn't original.
I've always taken photographs for myself. I like to experiment a lot. Taking photographs for 'likes', or to grow a social media audience, is something I don't understand. Trying to appeal to a large, anonymous audience stifles creativity. Getting 'likes' requires images which are easy to understand and familiar to viewers. Many accounts on social media show the same photographs as millions of other accounts because they are guaranteed to get a positive reaction from followers. How boring is that?
It's the same with competitions. There is always a temptation to see what type of image won in the past and copy that. I'm a great believer in entering images that I like, and if they don't get anywhere, it just means the judge didn't like the photo. There could be any number of reasons, none of which are personal. I'd rather fail with a unique image than succeed with something which isn't original. To sum up. As a photographer, there is nothing more satisfying than creating work which expresses who I am. My body of work has naturally changed over the years because I've changed. If I had just followed the latest fad or fashion, I would still be that frustrated kid trying to play 'Eruption' who eventually packed his guitar away in the attic for two years.
I would like to finish this post off just as I started it, with a favourite quote from Albert Einstein.
"Be a voice, not an echo"