Today I discuss the topic of influence and affinity, with regards to who influences me, who I feel I have an affinity with, and how I feel these things fit into our photography. This is in response to a suggestion from long-time listener Morton Goldberg.
First let me read out Morton’s email, so you can see where this is coming from.
“I recall when you were interviewed on PhotoFocus you said, concerning other photographers that might have influenced you, “I’m not conscious of having been influenced by anyone as such, but I look at a lot of photography.” Would you consider doing a podcast discussing the photographers whose work you look at regularly these days.
I would like to know who these people are because I think I would have an affinity for their work as I do for yours and so would enjoy looking at it, too. For example, this request was prompted by my looking at Michael Kenna’s work. I see a fairly strong affinity between his work and yours, so I am curious to know if he is one of the photographers whose work you look at.”
Well, thanks very much for the mail and suggestion, as well as your kind words about my work. Michael Kenna is indeed one of the photographers who’s work I follow, and I’m honored and humbled that you think there is an affinity between mine and his work.
Morton presented a firm distinction between the word influence and affinity, which I’d like to explore a little first. In our mail communication following Morton’s initial suggestion, I mentioned that I would never try to imitate Kenna’s work, but having looked at so much of it, there is no doubt that I have been influenced by his work.
Influence and Affinity
I’m a firm believe that as visually creative people, we draw on a mental database of images as we shoot. These are often images that we’ve seen in the past, and find pleasing, which in some cases may well be the affinity that Morton raises. If something clicks with us, that’s an affinity. If our work has a similarity to the work we find pleasing, that’s an affinity. We don’t necessarily have to have been influenced by the photographer who’s work we are viewing, we might be viewing that work for the first time. But if we spend a lot of time looking at work with which we feel an affinity, it would be difficult for it not to influence us in some way.
The database that we pull from as we shoot is full of work that we have seen in the past. Sometimes this can lead us in the wrong direction. We’ve seen something that we found interesting, but we don’t necessarily have an affinity with. If we then use that visual clue to create our own photograph, more often than not, we don’t end up liking that work. It seems like a good idea at the time, but never really works for us. Others might think it’s great, which can compound the problem, but it’s your art. You have to be happy with what you’re creating, unless you are working for someone else, and then you sometimes have to make exceptions, but that aside, pleasing yourself should be the most important thing to work towards.
I think it’s fine to be influenced by others work, that we truly feel an affinity with, because the affinity comes from within you. As you shoot more though, you create more of your own images that you find appealing, and we continue to throw these into our database of reference images too. Over time, the ratio of internal influence starts to outweigh our external influences, and that’s when we start to really create our own work and develop our own style.
Assuming that you only post work that you personally like online, or however you disseminate your work, people viewing your work might also start to appreciate your style. I remember a number of years ago when people started to mention that they could tell a certain image was my work before they even looked to see who’s it was. I was over the moon when I first heard this, and knew that I’d finally started to create work that other people might also be able to feel an affinity with. Without something of a consistent style, I don’t think that can happen.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot continue to experiment, quite the opposite. Photography has never been about a goal, it’s the journey that enriches us and continues to build our style and hopefully also our character. I have been changed by my experiences over the years, for the better I hope, but I certainly don’t want to stop here.
Who do I Look To?
Anyway, that’s my thinking behind influence and affinity. Now let’s look at some of the people who’s work I respect, and how they’ve influenced me. I should note that Ansel Adams is a given. I don’t think anyone can spend much time looking at landscape work without being influenced by Adams, so I’m not going to be cheesy and include him here. Let’s start with someone a little closer to home.
I spent time with David duChemin here in Japan on the second of my two Winter Wonderland Tours in February this year. I’ve known David for a couple of years now, and he’s been a guest on this Podcast a number of times, but I know that he needs no introduction. I can’t imagine there is anyone listening to this that doesn’t already know David.
I first heard of David when he released his first book, Within the Frame, published four years ago now, in 2009. Since then, David has released other best selling books, such as Vision Mongers and Photographically Speaking. As founder of Craft & Vision, David has also written many ebooks that are equally as informative and inspiring.
David’s work is beautiful, and often thought provoking, and always inspiring, but in addition to this, I include David because I feel he is one of the most important thinkers in photography today. David has given photographers a vocabulary, literally in Photographically Speaking, but in everything that he does. If you follow his blog, and you should, you’ll know that he has an wonderful way with words, and what he says ranges from entertaining to totally profound, often in just a few sentences. I think photographers often have a hard time articulating their thoughts about creativity and composition, but it gets easier as you read what David has to say about all of this.
That’s not to say that he is not an incredible photographer of course. David’s work can draw you in, in a way that few other photographers are able to do. The respect that he has for his subjects comes across in every frame, and his understanding of composition, light and form makes his work some of the best of our era in my opinion. I’m proud to know David personally and be able to work with him with Craft and Vision publications and on my tours from time to time.
Next up, is Zack Arias. I’m sure you know Zack’s work too, and you probably don’t see any similarity in our work. That’s because apart from the small amount of studio work I do, there is no similarity, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate his work. More so though, it’s his character and work ethic that has influenced me the most. Again, his work is beautiful, and I never tire of looking at it, but the affinity I feel here is for Zack himself over his work.
He has an incredible sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks, even when others would hide behind their political correctness or fear of ridicule. Zack just says it. And he’s done the rounds. He’s been down. Down so far that most people wouldn’t be able to get back up again, but he did, and he’s making a go of it. Perhaps one of the coolest things about Zack Arias though, is that he in no way thinks he’s made it, as such. He’s quickly become one of the most well known photographers of our time, yet he still thinks his photography sucks, and this humbleness is so important in our advancement as photographers.
Of course, he’s got to be happy enough with his work to hand it in to his client, but it’s so important to be continuously critical of your own work. If you think that everything you do is perfect and wonderful, then you have nowhere else to go, and as they say, if you aren’t moving forward, you’re going backwards, because you can be sure as hell everyone else worth their salt are all pushing onwards and upwards.
I actually met Zack last year in New York, at the Luminance conference that Photoshelter put on. We spent some time together on a few of the breaks, and Zack came and sat with me for lunch one day. He walked up and in his great accent announced that he was “going to sit with his British/Japanese friend.” I was honored of course, and it was great to get a chance to talk with him, although from his perspective he’s just hangin’. He’s every bit as down to earth and awesome in person as he is on the stage, or his workshops, and blog etc.
Zack also just released a book called Photography Q&A, Real Questions. Real Answers, which I’m about two thirds of the way through as I type this, and he continues to be as inspirational as ever. If you are running a photography business, or have any aspirations to at all, just buy this book. Don’t um and arr about it, just go to Amazon and buy it. I picked up the Kindle version, which I don’t necessarily like, but I didn’t want to waste the time it takes for them to be delivered. I’ll have finished it before the physical book arrives here in Tokyo from the US.
I also really enjoyed Zack’s One-Light DVD, a video workshop that is full of examples of how to use a relatively simple lighting setup to amazing affect. If you do any kind of studio or location portraiture, this was an incredible resource, although Zack has now retired it.
Both David and Zack’s names are already firmly imprinted in the history of photography, without doubt, for their contributions to the world of photography, but I believe the next person I wanted to talk about, Michael Kenna, is going to be remembered with similar reverence as Ansel Adams. He’s without doubt one of the greatest photographers of our age. If you haven’t seen Kenna’s work, you should check it out, but if possible, try to get a look at one of his printed books. The photos are classically beautiful, and the quality of his books is unrivaled.
Michael Kenna has probably had the most influence on my work, and Morton was kind enough to say that he senses an affinity between us, which really does make me happy, but in no way do I try to imitate or emulate Kenna’s work. Again though, when you feel such an affinity with someone and their work, it’s hard not to be affected by it.
Kenna has spent a lot of time in Japan, and one of my favorite books of his is called Hokkaido, another is called Japan. Both of these books are getting harder to find, and Amazon.com only has reseller links at the moment. I would imagine they’ll be reprinted again at some point, but literally, the books themselves are works of art. Hokkaido comes in a hard sleeve with a wooden cover, and Japan comes in a silk-bound case.
This wouldn’t mean much of course if they were full of crappy photos, but they of course aren’t. Kenna’s work is soft and beautiful and ethereal. He shoots medium format and does a lot of winter work with long exposures, further enhanced by the beautiful tones used in his printing process.
Kenna was born in England in 1953 and moved to San Francisco in the 80’s. I guess the English roots are part of it, but one of his books, called A Twenty Year Retrospective, features a number of photographs of the Ratcliffe Power Station in Nottingham, England. I grew up in the shadow of the steam that would bellow out of that power station. It sits in the corner of my childhood memories.
I even remember walking the rail road tracks with a friend up to the entrance of the tunnel that goes under the power station to supply it with coal. We had been darting down the embankment as trains approached and recorded the sound as the diesel power engines hurtled the trains passed us. I still remember the huge cooling towers literally towering over us as we decided it was time to head back. That was kind of a “Stand by Me” afternoon, although we thankfully didn’t find any dead-bodies. Don’t try this at home either folks. Walking rail-road tracks is a stupid thing to do, unless you are my best friend Jim that I was with that day, because he now works fixing those same tracks every day.
Anyway, I know that you probably already know Michael Kenna and his work, but if you don’t you have to check it out.
I first heard of Sebastião Salgado on the Luminous Landscape Video Journal. Michael Reichmann discussed Salgado’s book Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, which is a beautiful and touching depiction of manual labor across the globe. The reference was with respect to the photos of the ship-breakers of Bangladesh, which was a source of inspiration for Reichmann’s own work there.
I’ve also just bought Salgado’s latest book, Genesis, which really has to be seen to be believed. Salgado himself says “In Genesis, my camera allowed nature to speak to me. And it was my privilege to listen.” There are few photographers that do both people and nature well, but Salgado is one of them. His books are big. Genesis is huge! But the format really suits his powerful, thought-provoking and sublime work.
To Name But a Few…
When I am asked who most influences me photographically, these are the four people that I name. These people have inspired me and affected me, artistically as well as mentally, giving me the affirmation that I’m heading in the right direction, and sometimes a firm kick in that right direction. There are others that I respect of course. Joe McNally and Nick Brandt come to mind, and then there are people such as Hengki Koentjoro and my friend Graham Morgan producing absolutely stunning work too, to name but a few more.
I don’t think the work necessarily has to come from a the top of the industry to inspire or influence us. There are amazing photographs being created every day the world over by people that aren’t that well known, but incredible photographers all the same. This is one of the reason’s I like to browse 500px when I have time to just sit in my easy chair for a breather.
I don’t buy many physical books any more, except for coffee table books of artists that I think are awesome, like Salgado or Kenna. Books on the business and even wordy books on the art of photography now generally come down in Kindle form. I literally hate Kindle books for their layout, but they save trees, and don’t collect dust on my bookshelf once I’ve red them. I read them on my iPad, and also find myself reading them on my iPhone when I’m sitting on the train or traveling light. I love whisper-sync, where they automatically take me to the page that I was last reading on another device. Hell, some books these days even sync between a kindle text book and its Audible audio book counterpart. Isn’t that cool!
Anyway, before I get too far off track, this is it. These are the sort of people that influence me, and with whom I feel an affinity. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to imitate the work of someone you respect when you are first starting out. It’s part of the process, but that’s where it should stay.
There are scores of plastic Kennas out there that shoot work as stunning if not sometimes better than the Kenna himself, but he’s already done that. A former boss of mine here in Japan, another person for whom I have truck loads of respect for, and who changed my life in many ways, used to tell the story of Columbus’ Egg. Someone apparently mocked Columbus saying that finding the Americas was no big deal.
He challenged them to stand an egg on its end, and when no-one could, he tapped the end of the egg on the table, flattening the tip so that it would stand up. It isn’t known for sure if this is a true story or not, but the point is, everything seems easy once you’ve done it, but Columbus will remain in the history books as the person that found the Americas.
The point in relation to photography of course, is however good you get at shooting like Michael Kenna, you’re never going to overtake the original master. Use this stuff as a springboard to something else. Create your own style, and don’t be afraid to let that style change as you evolve over time either. Nothing has to be set in stone.
David duChemin: http://davidduchemin.com/
Zack Arias: http://zackarias.com/
Michael Kenna: http://www.michaelkenna.com/
Sebastião Salgado: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebasti%C3%A3o_Salgado
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