Inside this issue
A Question of Influence
Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US.
Paul Cézanne, one of the most rebellious and original artists of the Modern era admonished, “We must not be content to memorize the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors.” And indeed, he was not and did not, and thus earned the admiration of generations of artists that followed. The great painter Henri Matisse went as far as to refer to Cézanne as “a sort of God of painting;” Pablo Picasso called Cézanne his “one and only master” and “the father of us all.” Cézanne, himself, in his formative years, was influenced heavily by Impressionist Camille Pissarro, as were painters Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Cézanne’s work, along with that of Matisse, Picasso and others, was exhibited and admired by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, himself a mentor to many other photographers, among them Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Minor white. With some research, the web of mutual inspiration can be traced to just about every artist you can name. Such connections are responsible not only for the growth of individual artists, but also for the evolution of art itself. And the same is true for almost every area of creative thought, including writing, philosophy and science.
It is fair to say that every artist, at least in the last several millennia, beyond finding joy in creating their own work, also found inspiration in the art of others. In fact, it is likely that such inspiration is what made them decide to become artists themselves. In my own library I have upward of 150 books by and about artists. Almost every day I find inspiration in these and other books, in exhibits or on various web sites showcasing many kinds of artwork. My life, quite literally, would not be the same without other artists’ art.
Featured Comments from:
David Ward: An interesting, well written piece. Confession time: I was ‘guilty’ at one time of trying to avoid the work of other photographers. I used to think that I didn’t want to be influenced by others, but in retrospect I realise that I avoided most landscape photographers’ work because I found it uninteresting and uninspiring. There were a few notable exceptions; Minor White and Edward Weston being prominent amongst them. Like you, I found my inspiration in other art forms.
Whilst I think that it’s undoubtedly true that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, to borrow Isaac Newton’s famous phrase, it’s also undoubtedly true that we are sometimes subliminally influenced by others work. I was horrified to find that, ten years after first seeing it, I had unconsciously made an image that was strikingly similar to another by Paul Wakefield. The word ‘horrified’ is the key here; I have no desire to directly copy others, although after several millennia of human artistic endeavours we cannot help but copy some aspects of that continuum.
A sentence from your last paragraph:
Borrow but don’t steal; incorporate but don’t imitate; learn the language and use it to tell your own stories.
contrasts interestingly with the famous Picasso quote;
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
But, then again, he also said;
After all, what is a painter? He is a collector who gets what he likes in others by painting them himself. This is how I begin and then it becomes something else.
And, if I’m not mistaken, this is the central tenet of your thesis.
Thank you for sharing your ideas.
Guy Tal: Thank you, David! Picasso was obviously referring to elements of style and technique, rather than making precise copies of someone else’s work. In painting that would be considered forgery and likely will end an artist’s career (perhaps even have legal consequences). In photography I think we implicitly acknowledge that different photographers working with the same subject matter may end up with similar images. Still, I draw a line between accidental similarities and deliberate, intentional copies.
Certainly we are all influenced by everything and everyone we come in contact with. I don’t see that as a bad thing (in fact, I believe the opposite). It’s what I meant by “learn the language.” There is no dictionary for the visual language; we understand it intuitively but also learn new “expressions” as we discover them. The richer one’s visual vocabulary is, the greater the range of things they are be able to express in their work. That’s a very good thing. Still, there is a great chasm between, say, learning to express yourself in iambic pentameter, and outright copying the works of, say, William Shakespeare.
All art, I believe, begins in intuition – a subconscious recognition of something worth expressing. But, it doesn’t end there. You can’t capture, print, frame and hang intuition. The role of the so-called “creative process,” however one defines it, is to transition such amorphous intuitions into tangible expressions through a series of conscious and deliberate decisions for which the artist is, and should be held, responsible.
David Ward: That Picasso was talking about style or subject matter rather than direct copies is obviously true. I fully agree with your differentiation between similarities based on content and direct copying. I also agree that being influenced by others is a good thing. It’s actually completely unavoidable, unless we were to spend our entire lives cut off from humanity in a hermit’s cell. I included the second Picasso quote because I felt it chimed so well with your entreaty to “learn the language”.
Like you, I believe that art should reflect the deep concerns of the artist. Being true to these concerns is the key. But I know, from my experiences leading workshops, that for many landscape photographers – especially at the beginning of their journey – recognising their own unique perspective can be tough. It is easy to become beguiled by surface gloss rather than looking for what lies behind it. Easy to think, for instance, that the place itself is a critical factor in making a great image rather than realising that it’s really how we respond to any place that matters. For this reason, like you and Minor White, I largely prefer anonymous subjects. Art is a translation of reality through the mind of the artist. It’s not, as some photographers believe, simply the recording of amazing light on an amazing place. I blame this paucity of ambition on the general quality of writing about photography in the popular press.
Photography is but one of many visual arts. Yet most magazines treat it as a completely separate entity. I know they have their advertisers to please and that this accounts for much of their emphasis on the technical. We may also claim some special status because of the ineluctable link between reality and photographic image, although this link has been somewhat eroded in recent decades. But neither of these facets of photography grant us the right to turn our back on all that has gone before us, and still goes on around us, in the rest of art. So, your reminding us of that inheritance – with references to Cezanne, van Gogh, Debussy and others – and the debt we owe to the rest of art is much appreciated! Thank you again.
Guy Tal: Hear, hear, David! Very eloquently stated. As educators it is our duty to instill such values in our students, no matter how inconvenient it may seem to some. As Minor White said, “By offering here something of my understanding of photography, I can continue to earn the images that I have been given.”