Inspiration

I was responding to an email when I found myself blabbing about how students were always asking me what my inspiration was. What inspired me? Since I haven’t ever been able to understand the question, much less answer it – I wonder what if anything inspires your photography? Do you go into a trance waiting for a visit from the photo muses? Are you aware of the influence of other photographers while you’re shooting?

In my own case – I can only explain it by comparing it to writing music. One day you discover that you like the way the C minor chord sounds in some progression. Or if you’re orchestrating, you find some combination of instruments that pleases you. That’s really all it is – finding something that pleases you in the world. It’s not because it looks like HCB might have taken the shot. Or Ansel Adams. Maybe in the beginning there’s some of that but it fades with time.

For example – it might be that you caught “the moment.” Yes, you clicked at the right time, had the right lens, lighting was good etc. and you have something on film, or now digital – where the pieces fell together in the right way.

But the sacred “moment” isn’t everything. I happen to like fog. I like images where fog, or mist, or snow, are obscuring the subject. I always have. I don’t know why.

My parents had a summer house in Westchester. I’d go up there for a week or two during the summer until I got bored, and every morning – usually before the sun came up – I’d pack up my heavy Pentax 67 and walk about a mile to a little lake where people fished. The only reason I went was because there was always a morning mist on the lake. So I guess that misty lake was my inspiration in the sense that it got me out of the house. But I never did get what I considered a good shot. It was one of many places that I would return to over and over again and just waste film. I couldn’t even explain to you why the shots weren’t good. But they weren’t.

I even went back to look at them again a few months ago – and did some negative scanning – and they were all just as boring now as when I first shot them 15 years ago.

You know how that is. How many times have you been “inspired” by some subject or location, only to find out that you had achieved nothing. And the obverse is also true. How many times have you set out to photograph some subject – only to find that your best shot had nothing to do with your original destination.

What I’m trying to get at – is that the inspiration can be a motivating force, some fixed idea you’re wedded to that gets you out of bed – or out of the house – but frankly but it isn’t much more than that. Surprise is more productive than inspiration. Being open to chance is everything. Surprises while you are shooting; surprises while you are reviewing, this keeps me going. If you can toss your inspirations and fixed ideas; and just be open to the scene, the moment or whatever is unfolding – that’s when it gets exciting. And easier said than done.

So after all that – I’d have to say that chance is my main influence. I think that’s where the magic of photography can blossom.

I was watching a show on photography – where the photographer created an entire set – including a small road, town, etc. to do his large format photographs. Every bit was lit, storyboarded, and designed to his exacting specifications. And yet, strangely enough, the subject of all this setup is usually mysterious. I guess that I find there’s enough mysterious stuff going on around me without having to build it. But that’s where the idea of a photographer’s personal style comes in.

It’s something that is taught in school – and that galleries and museums are looking for. Personal style. If you see a certain photograph, you know it was by so-and-so. This goes back to painting – where the artist has control over all aspects of the image. (Or in some cases, leaves it to chance – but this too becomes a style).

I used to think this was the area where I was lacking. No personal style. Some of my shots might have been done by Mr. A, and some of them by Ms. B, and some by anyone in the XYZ school of photography. But I guess I don’t care much about that anymore.

Hitchcock made movies with a very controlled personal style. Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) made tons of movies. The visual style of his movies was wildly varied. What they had in common was that they were good stories, well-told. The style fit the theme of the movie, not the other way around. So I think I’m more in that camp. You may not know who took that shot – but you enjoy looking at it.

But now, as my images flash slowly through my mind, one thing strikes me: the majority have some element (maybe I can call it an effect) that is pictorial, or surreal. These include heavy use of night photography, all sorts of reflections, weather elements such as snow, rain, or just the film noir wet street look, infrared film, blurred figures against a still background. So, without knowing it – there is a style. Not intentional – but defined by habitual use of visual motifs.

Was I inspired by early pictorialists? No, because I didn’t even know their work when I began. It was years into shooting before I learned who they were and what they were doing (not to mention how out of favor they were for trying to emulate painting).

So I’ll ask again – do you understand inspiration. Is it helpful to you? Is it anything more than some idea you have that might lead to something else?

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