Sometimes it seems that there is an almost constant reassessment and reevaluation of social media. Often the most vocal critics are those who seem unable to walk away from it. Personally, I enjoy the opportunities to learn from others’ work, and to place my own in the public eye for a far wider audience than I could ever have dreamed of. The way I see it, we are all learners, learning all the time - to a greater or lesser extent. Even those with tens of thousands of followers post disappointing images sometimes. And do you know what? They probably never feel completely satisfied with their work either. I bet that occasionally they post photos that they expect to be met with great acclaim, only to find the silent curse of internet tumbleweed blowing through their feed. Just as I do. And at other, less-inspired times, they probably post something that’s been gathering virtual dust in the cellar of their hard drive, only to find it being greeted with wide acclaim and a posse of new followers. Just as I do.
We are all seeking the ultimate photograph. That one shot that says it all!
It’s human nature to want to get better at whatever we are doing. We are also our own harshest critics, pointing out why our latest great hope is actually fatally flawed. We failed to nail it. Name your top three all time greatest photographers and I guarantee that they would tell you that they never nailed it either. Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Leiter, that Instagram shooter with a squillion followers… If only we could ask them.
It’s natural to be striving for improvement; for innovation; for that new angle. There’s always something we could do better next time.
Throughout history people have been inspired by others. It’s natural to want to recreate something that has brought us pleasure. That does not mean a direct imitation - plagiarism - but a desire to create something which evokes the same feeling, creates the same atmosphere, has the same message; or any combination of these and more. We learn by imitating. It helps us to understand what the originator did - be it artistic, scientific, sporting - whatever...
Once we have understood how something was done, we can then assimilate that technique into our own skillset. We are in a new position - we are able to innovate. Taking our new skills, we bring our own background, experiences, tastes etc to the creative process and can now shoot a new image. This image is rooted in all we learned from the original artist but we have moved it beyond imitation to create something new. This innovation is all part of finding our “voice” or distinctive style.
We have all experienced knowing who took a particular image before being told, simply by recognising certain elements and features of their style. With perseverance, the best artists find their own distinctive, easily identifiable style. They have learned their craft and have moved beyond imitation and innovation, based upon their initial artist led inspiration, to a higher state where they are able to use their hard earned skills to create something totally new, in their own unique voice. This is invention. Invention needs both imitation and innovation. No one invents in a creative void, out of nowhere.
This is the learning process. It is something everyone goes through - from learning to speak to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pick up a photography magazine and you will read an interview in which professionals tip their hats to those who have gone before. They are happy to acknowledge the influence of a Robert Frank, a Cartier-Bresson, a Garry Winogrand. Or go to a big hitter on Instagram and you’ll find that very often their feed will happily direct you to others who they admire. Even the first photographers (without any photographers to emulate) were influenced by the fine artists of the past, learning composition from the painters and sculptors of the previous thousands of years.
It was partly as a result of a recent tense exchange on social media that I decided to put down these words. The debate centred around the use of public spaces and whether one photographer can claim to own a specific view because they believe they shot there first. The streets are busy places and London (perhaps more than other cities at the present time) is seemingly filled with street photographers. Beyond that, anyone with a smartphone has the capacity to shoot in these popular places. The great views are, after all, popular for the very reason that they are great views. Some places will be there for centuries to come - monuments, grand buildings, landmarks. Others are more transitory than others - advertising hoardings, building sites etc. Perhaps the work of another photographer encourages us to emulate their work in a certain place, or even to feel that we can build on what they achieved, having a go at creating something new for ourselves as we seek to present our own unique take on our surroundings. Once we can imitate what they have created, we can then innovate and finally invent our own unique image. Each of us is a singular and creative individual - each with our own unique outlook, background, likes, dislikes, tastes and way of seeing. We are all striving to develop our own voice or style that incorporates that uniqueness - but we need to learn from those around us and those who went before.
There is room for us all.