The Ladder; In Defense Of Imitation
It was something I read in a magazine not too long ago that inspired this column. The writer was talking about the three levels of creativity: imitative, adaptive, and innovative. I wish I could remember the context, but I made a quick connection to photography. We're imitative at the start; we copy others. Then we're adaptive; we make what we've imitated our own. Then we become inventive; we create out of our judgment and life experience.
Those three stages instantly clicked with me (no pun intended). When we start out as photographers, no matter whether we're amateur or pro, I think we spend a period of time being not much more than the sum of our influences. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's encouraged: we're told to study other photographers, see what they're doing, get inspiration from them. But my next thought was this: at what point do we start to move up the ladder? When do we stop imitating and adapting and start creating?
I thought about my own work over the years, and once I'd decided to
use the three levels idea as a topic for a column, I had no choice but to look
back at a lot of my photographs and see if I could find points of demarcation.
And you know what? I couldn't. I saw no clear lines, no point where I
could say, okay, here's where I stopped adapting and started to innovate,
to create my own way of doing things. But I saw a transition, a change take
place, and the photos you see here are a rough chronology of that change. I
saw also that nothing I imitated or adapted ever really went away. It's
still there--or elements of it are--but it's not who I am as
a photographer today.
At the start I read about the masters of photography and studied their work. I checked out my contemporaries. I didn't have the Internet then--I attended shows and went to galleries and spent hours in bookstores and libraries. I certainly didn't have a style. I'd see something and think, I like this, it looks good. Because I was aspiring to be a professional, I also thought, this sells, so I'm going to try to do it this way. My recognition of what I thought was good came from what I saw on printed pages and gallery walls; then I set out to recognize similar things in life.
After a while I began to approach the second stage. I adapted what I liked
in the work of others to what I was starting to think of as my style. I'd
think, I like the way Richard Avedon does portraits, but I'm going to
add my touch to it, my ideas. So, for example, after imitating his distance
from a subject, I discovered I liked to back up a little and include, or suggest,
something else in the frame. I was more comfortable with that; I liked it better.
A small step, but I was on my way. Soon I was no longer making a conscious effort
to mimic what I'd seen and liked. I was seeing and liking on my own. And
one day I discovered I was just doing my thing.
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