Like everyone else, photographers learn from other people’s experience.
If you want to succeed — at cooking, carpentry, or rattlesnake venom extraction — you need to bear in mind how people have done it before.
The real problem arises when an original idea is at stake, as it often is in the creative arts. So is it OK to nick it?
A Glorious Past
Great painters of the past had no qualifications about borrowing ideas from their teachers and peers. A few of them, like Raphael, even borrowed from their own students when a particularly talented apprentice joined their studio. Nonetheless, the whole process of “invention followed by imitation” can be irritating, especially when you’ve not yet had time to exploit your original idea.
I remember toiling in the hot sun, walking around Thailand’s fabled “Ancient Siam” — a 200-acre tourist attraction otherwise known as “Ancient City” or “Muang Boran.” It’s a favorite place of mine for personal reasons rather than because it’s a good location for street photography.
On one occasion I found an unusual but effective angle for taking a shot, only to be interrupted by some tourists wielding DSLRs. They noticed my viewpoint and crouched down beside me to get similar pictures.
I know I can’t claim ownership of a camera angle, but, even so, such a blatant imitation was annoying. Photography is all about “Look at this…look at this” — and even more about “This is how I see this…this is how I see this.” Yet even acquaintances who notice me take a picture, sometimes walk back to the same spot and snap it for themselves. That’s a good reason for working alone.
Inspiration or Imitation?
If you imitate a photographer who’s in the process of taking a picture you’re little better than a karaoke singer belting out “My Way” in the style of Frank Sinatra.
Don’t be silly: you’re doing it his way!
But what about someone who sees your work, becomes inspired by it, and then tries to make something similar? Do you complain about it in a vicious blog post, or do you blithely accept that “imitation is the sincere form of flattery”?
There are key differences between inspiration and imitation, the first of which is the time lag. It’s OK to be inspired by masters of the past. After all, they’ve had their day in the spotlight. They won’t mind if you learn from their work, or even if you copy some of their ideas. That said, it would be stupid of you to copy their style in its entirety as critics would soon point out your plagiarism. But you won’t mind if the critics say: “She was influenced by….” or “He built on the work of…”
A Transfer of Spirit
Inspiration is much less specific than imitation. It’s a transfer of spirit which leaves you free to express yourself, using the uniqueness of the moment to create something fresh and new. Imitation, on the other hand, is slavish copying, an attempt to reproduce an original effect by looking for the same composition and using an identical technique to record it.
Even so, there’s a thin dividing line between inspiration and imitation.
If you bop down and photograph a dog walking alongside its owner are you imitating Elliott Erwitt or being inspired by him? That’s a good question because you may never have heard of Elliot Erwitt yet you may have at one of his most famous photos and entered that experience into your understanding of visual language. The entire process of “imitation” may happen below the level of your consciousness.
Such was not the case when I took the featured image (at the top of this post). Just before I took it I muttered under my breath: “I can’t resist it. Sorry Mr. Erwitt.” In fact, I didn’t think I was taking a serious shot which I could ever use. But then, looking at the photo on my computer I can’t help liking it.
Yes, I know it’s a derivative, but there are significant differences between it and Erwitt’s photos. For a start, it’s in color. The dog looks more festive and jaunty than one of Erwitt’s sweatered chihuahuas. My dog is going places, not just hanging around looking snobbish-but-cute. Looking at the picture I can recognize my own style, not just a pale remnant of Erwitt’s style.
Territories of the Mind
Novelists have a habit of staking out certain “territories of the mind” that often correspond to territories in reality. Think: Thomas Hardy and Wessex or Emily Bronte and the Yorkshire Moors.
In this respect street photographers are no different.
Martin Parr began his career by making the English seaside resort his “territory of the mind,” later going on to colonise other places at home and abroad where he could photograph similar subjects with minor alterations to his style.
Even before looking it up for confirmation on his website I can detect that Martin Parr was heavily influenced — inspired — by the late Tony Ray-Jones. He, too, photographed the British on their days off at the seaside and did it so successfully that I would have been inclined to leave the subject alone, had I taken up street photography in the 1970s. It’s to Parr’s credit that he wasn’t deterred.
I hasten to add: I’ve never been inspired by either Tony Ray-Jones or Martin Parr.
Another example is the American photographer Berenice Abbott who took her lifelong inspiration from Eugène Atget. You can see his influence in her compositions, for example, in the way in which she would photograph a shop front, not head on but slightly to one side. (I’m always doing that — see below — but not because of Berenice Abbott or her mentor).
A Transference of Culture
I don’t think you could accuse either Parr or Abbott of imitating the photographers who inspired them. They were simply participating in the transference of culture, a phenomenon in which we all take part.
Yet there are obvious dangers if you visit a place where an accomplished photographer has taken shots that have already brought him attention and critical acclaim. If the place and its inhabitants haven’t changed very much, you’ll find it hard to photograph them in a style of your own.
It’s easier in the process. Writing allows you to dig below the surface of things beyond which the camera cannot venture. In his book “Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words,” Charles Caleb Colton — the 18th century English writer who incidentally coined the phrase “imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” — wrote: “Nothing is more common than to hear directly opposite accounts of the same countries. The difference lies not in the reported, but the reporter.”
We can take heart from the Reverend Colton: there’s no permanent ownership of territory, whether of the mind or place. You can be inspired by others but look with fresh eyes and trust your own judgment.