On Influences

I am a rock. I am an island.

Paul Simon

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The line from Simon & Garfunkel song is full of irony. As we all know, no one is an island. Our ways are the sum of our education, learnings and experiences. We all stand on the shoulders of others. Still, many photographers seem hesitant to talk about their influences, maybe from fear that their own contribution is undervalued or that they are accused of unoriginality. But as one might have noticed by now, I like to reflect on why and how I do things. So let’s talk about influences.

Always a good start is to give an example. My own decision to focus on black & white photography only, comes from mainly two sources. The first is the monochrome ink landscape painting, which is subject of the series A Tale about Five Painters. But in photography it is the work of Ansel Adams that convinced me of the power of black & white in showing the non-obvious in a landscape.

But how do we then process such influences? I think it goes in mainly three steps:

  1. In the first step, we simply start copying. I remember that I started seeing “Ansel Adams scenes” everywhere I went in nature. This is not a bad thing, as his photographs to a certain extent defined the very genre of landscape photography. This step is also mostly still a conscious one, fed by our enthusiasm about another artist’s work. But, of course, this doesn’t lead anywhere unless we enter step two.
  2. In step two, we integrate core aspects of an influence into the general tapestry of our believes and sensibilities. Rather than a dominating force, the influence becomes a small stone in a mosaic of tools, insights, experiences and perspectives. We start to internalize the aesthetic sensibility we acquired through the influence. Certain ways to see and do things become a reflex and automated. Still someone familiar with the original might be able to point out the similarities; until we make it to step three.
  3. Step three is where all the influences amalgamate into something new, something genuinely unique to the artist himself. It is an unconscious step and one that can’t be tought, learned or forced. The artist him/herself can never be certain about whether step three is happening or not. We have great difficulty in seeing ourselves in something we create. This is a driving force in an artists uncertainty and a reason, why artists rarely seem satisfied with their past work and always focus on the next endeavour. For the very same reason artists are often a bad judge regarding their own work. In taking step three, the work develops a life of its own and becomes wiser than the artist.

A good example for the above is the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto. As mentioned in an earlier post, his work Pine Trees from 2001 is strongly influenced by a work of Tohakū. As Sugimoto explains in the notes to the work, the Eastern tradition of “honka-dori” or “taking up the melody” emulates and re-invents works of the past. Still, in my view, the work is one of Sugimoto’s weaker ones and one that seems somehow lingering on step 2.

In contrast thereto, Sugimoto’s take on the Japanese tea house for the 2014 Biennale in Venice seems to me a pure stroke of genius. In this rather lengthy, but highly recommended video, Sugimoto explains how he transformed influences from Marcel Duchamp to Zen aesthetics to create a “Mondrian” tea house. This video also demonstrates well, why Sugimoto is an “artist’s artist”, one who is not only creating masterworks, but also one who demonstrates supreme mastery of the creative process itself.

Where does this leave us? For the first, I have no intention of hiding my influences. Instead, I will continue to post entries about artists that have an influence on my way of seeing, or which I simply find interesting. But I have stopped making photographs just because a scene reminded me of someone’s work. I also learned that any conscious effort to create a work in the style of e.g. Xia Gui is more often doomed than not. Foremost though, I have stopped worrying about influences and whether I will ever make it to step three. Instead, I focus on what interests me without regard to where this interest might stem from.

But isn’t the same true for all of us, also outside photography and art? Don’t we all have a mandate coming from our abilities and personality to contribute something unique to the world? And aren’t we all equally uncertain about the prospect for success? In light of the possiblity that everything has already been said and thought by someone else, every individual contribution roots in a certain degree of stubbornness. A stubborn believe in our creativity beyond our influences and the judgment of others. A believe that “being oneself” is more than a cheesy inspirational phrase. And paradoxically this means we do also have to be a rock and an island.

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