I think it’s really easy to find a pretty image and scream to the heavens “How do I made my stuff look like ___________ (insert famous photographer here)”. And when you can’t figure out how you cover yourself in ashes and wail at the sky in defeat. I remember the first time I saw Elizabeth Messina’s work. I had never seen photographs that looked like that before and I felt like if I didn’t learn how to shoot like that I would simply die. Not dramatic at all right? To say the least, my first attempts shooting like her were laughable, because as any seasoned photographer knows…it’s more than F/stops and equipment to create a unique and beautiful image. Even if you manage to emulate your mentors, it’s not very satisfying to create replicas (and they probably don’t really appreciate it either).
So how do we find inspiration without being copy cats? Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon was a game-changer for me.
This is what he has to say:
“Copying is about reverse-engineering.”
Was it Shakespeare that said there is nothing new under the sun? If so that is scary because that was a LONG time ago folks. When you see something you love, don’t despair that you didn’t create it…put your own spin on it! I knew I wanted to successfully photograph a mother and baby laying down together, but I didn’t want to just copy a pose. So I found a way to put a new twist on it, not only with the pose itself but in the tone of the photo as well. Was I inspired by Elizabeth Messina’s flawless, soft, vulnerable posing – you bet I was! Yet, I found a way to make it bright, cheery with a bit of goofiness…which better represents me as a person as well as my work.
“In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”
I think Coco Chanel said women with great style know to remove one accessory before they leave the house. Editing ourselves is so important while we develop our eye and style. My favorite photographers understand simplicity and natural moments. They don’t force things and they know how to edit themselves. I think of the image by KT Merry on the left constantly when I shoot, reminding myself that keeping it simple and removing distraction makes me a better photographer. If you find yourself setting up a styled shoot or a pose that is a direct copy, edit it down! Remove some stuff…find your own voice through subtraction.
“You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”
If we create images to look just like our favorite industry professionals, we’ll be left pretty discouraged. But if we learn to think more like the people we admire, then we can apply new life into our work. Jonathan Canlas and myself work really differently but I love how he sees potential for art in every moment. He cares nothing about wardrobes or styling or even scenery…it’s all about bringing out emotion and picking up that advice from him has really changed how I approach photographing people. Like Kleon suggests, don’t shoot just like my idols, but rather get inside their brain a bit.
Strangely enough, I think it’s actually way harder to copy people exactly than to wind up in your own space, your own vision. So here is to growing and learning as artists, we can do it!
You can learn more about Austin Kleon and his books HERE.