It's just after 1:30 am as I'm writing this. I should be asleep, but instead I'm writing. Thats a thing I'm trying to do more often - just write. I have pages and pages of notes going on my phone for this reason. Most of them are sort of meaningless, or only meaningful to me, but there are a few ideas I think are worth sharing, and this is one of them.
Your Influences don't define you
And I'm not just saying that for the sake of saying it, it's something I wish more people, photographers especially, took to heart. As I am browsing my instagram feed, most of the photographs are by photographers I follow. Most of them do good work, but there is an overwhelming theme to many of the photographs that pop up - nostalgia. Its something that affects pretty much every artist, no doubt. After all, we are only the most recent of all the decades and even centuries of artists that have existed. By default, every work, artist, or influence that has affected you has been in the past. And theres nothing wrong with that, its true of everyone. But a lot of people, I feel, are making a major mistake, which is trying to do the same work as their influences. Ive been struggling with this a lot in a project I am currently working on, and I think Im starting to understand why.
Looking at work from some of my favorite photographers - Winogrand, Meyerowitz, Eggleston, etc, I see all these amazing images of the world in their time. As someone who never knew that world, to me they feel almost "new" despite their obvious age. In that way, they are very inspiring for young artists, and people like them in large part because of the nostalgia factor. In the younger generations, this translates heavily into our own work. The problem is, people tend to try and photograph their influences' worlds all over again. In photography, this leads to some of my least favorite photographs - images of vintage cars, retro roadside diners, and motel signs dating back to before my parents were born. I've seen so many of them that its beginning to make me a little sick to my stomach. They are the easiest of easy photographs. And the worst part is that they take something that isn't necessarily uninteresting per se, and beat the living hell out of it until the photos become cliche to the point that they saturate photography altogether.
As a photographer, one's goal should be to take interesting photographs. You can interpret that as widely as you want, but thats how I see it. Nostalgia is fun, but it is so ubiquitous with photography that in my opinion, nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia is NOT interesting. You have to remember that when all those beautifully sentimental images were made they weren't vintage, nostalgic, or old fashioned, they were often very modern for their time and considered "new and cool" when they were created. And they were, and still are, very good photographs. Nostalgia, however, Is not the reason why. In fact, out of all the things one can learn from the work of photographers that came before them, nostalgia should be the first you take off the list.
If I could offer you just one piece of advice in this post, its this. As a general rule, keep your head in your own world. Copying old photographs wont make you a good photographer, but if you can take your predecessors skills and translate it into your own modern work and vision, that just might. Going forward, I hope this is something that we can collectively learn
I would like to leave you with the work of someone I think does an awesome job with this, a photog by the name of George Muncey. You may know him from his youtube channel Negative Feedback, but he also has an awesome project called "Doughnut City", that you can check out here. He has said in his youtube videos(of which I am a subscriber) that he has been influenced by photographers like Stephen Shore and Alec Soth, which you can clearly see in his photographs. However, in "Dougnut City" he has a very clear vision, and the project is still distinctly his own. I highly recommend it.