There is a famous saying that “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, attributed to Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso or even TS Eliot, depending on who you ask. Obviously, we’re not talking about taking someone else’s work and claiming it as your own, but about taking elements of other people’s concepts and ideas, building on them, and incorporating them into his own philosophy and artistic methodology.
There is a wonderful video called Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson who also touches on this topic (and maybe goes a bit further), but this video by photographer Chris Sale specifically talks about it 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 that Chris has taken, but it also offers a lot of food for thought on how you can learn and improve by getting inspired and even copying the ideas of others. Of course, depending on where you are in the world, simply copying an idea may be considered copyright infringement, so try not to be too blatant.
Chris talks about the photographers he drew inspiration from to learn and improve 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 mimicking elements of their concepts he was able to understand why he liked their work and how he could implement those ideas into his own photography so he could develop his vision and then to make sure the camera can see it.
Without realizing it, I went through the same process myself when I decided to start learning how to photograph people. It just seems logical to me. I had spent a decade photographing everything but people, but when I decided to start photographing people, I searched online for photographers whose portraits I liked. I scoured 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 figure out why I liked their work so much. What drew me to each of these images?
When I finally found the courage to try to photograph a real living human being, I tried to recreate some of those images as faithfully as possible in order to first learn how to do it, but also see where the things were wrong and try to identify more about what I liked about the work of these photographers and what I wanted to create for myself. I never thought I was as good as the three photographers I mentioned at photographing people and it’s unlikely I ever will be – and my photos 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 really learning from your photographic heroes and not just copying them directly. Simply imitating without understanding the reasoning behind the decisions that go into creating a certain photograph doesn’t really help you much. But it can be a good first step in pointing 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 things and seeing what happens.
I guess that’s the counter-argument to “stop looking at other people’s work!”. They say it makes you feel shit because your work isn’t as good. I say the opposite. If you like it, try to understand exactly Why you like it. What specifically makes you like their photography? Get inspired, then take your camera, try it out and experiment!
How to learn and progress?