Alternative inspiration sources for photographers
Jerome has very kindly written another article for us, this time on how to keep inspiration and how to find inspiration.
Alternative inspiration sources for photographers
When one is in the process of learning something new it may seem like there are limitless sources of motivation. Because we know little about this new craft and our enthusiasm is very high, anything or anyone can give us ideas and keep us going. As we gradually learn and master new tricks we begin to refine our focus (bad pun) and our areas of interest within that domain to slowly narrow down. At one point, it starts to become less obvious where to draw inspiration and we seek greater challenges that are less frequent to come by than beginner tasks. This is a common pattern to any learning process and it is the same with photography. That’s why I would like to talk today about inspiration sources for us photographers.
First of all I’d like to skip photography books, as that should seem obvious to anyone. I’ve recently started a small collection of books by photographers I consider influential and the impact has been phenomenal so far. But let’s start with something else that is close to photography, documentaries.
A photograph, whether a single shot or part of a sequence always tells some sort of story, and always has an informative aspect to it: the temporal dimension can range from a split second to a few years and the geographical dimension can be one place or many places. So any photograph has a narrative potential and an informative potential, a set of photographs have a higher potential, and in the right order they can deliver a very direct and powerful message.
Documentaries do have a narrative but are a more informative sequence of images put together with the intent of recording or documenting something. So how can documentaries inspire ? By seeing a pictorial display of information we might learn how to bring out the informative aspect in our photographs and we can learn good ways to record things with photographs. I for one enjoy taking pictures of my friends whenever I get the chance, I like to record these small moments that pass by and hopefully in 10 years look back on them with these same people, by then I would have effectively made a small documentary of our shared lives. Of course one can also decide to go shoot an endangered species in Africa or social issues in south east Asia, but a quality of all documentaries is that they chronicle time. Knowing what to shoot, how to record certain moments, deciding when not to shoot, dating, remembering, journalling basically. Documentaries are typically well structured, so to a story telling beginner (such as myself) that is a good introduction. How does one begin, how to propose the topic, the entry into the subject, then a development, perhaps there are several parts to this documentary, a conclusion, some questions.
Films are mostly fictional narratives. They are less focused on trying to communicate messages and information and are directed towards the imagination and feelings. Cinematography is perhaps the creative form closest to photography, it is essentially moving images and I believe most of us shoot “fictional” photographs rather than documentary ones. When we watch a film we are seeing the final effort of many takes, the distilled result of many repeats because with cinematography one can start over and redo until the work is deemed satisfactory. Photography is essentially an improvisation game, there is no way we can get the same light again, the same expression on someone’s face or that certain alignment of elements that when they fall together make a shot unique. Though I find that juggling act much more exciting, I think we can learn a lot from a more directed environment. I for one learnt to make portraits from movies, not from portrait photographers. I always found the shots in films to be much more interesting than a portrait session taken by a photographer. Seeing how filmmakers use moving images to tell stories, we can learn some tricks that we can apply to still images, or maybe spread out over a sequence of still photographs. We can see how directors use light, colors, symbols to provoke an emotional response to certain
scenes, or how they can hint at things without dialogue just by camera movements, increasing tension or drama with the careful balancing of motion and stillness etc.
Comics and graphic novels
Here’s another example from the camp of directed environments and it really isn’t that foreign to photography. I tend to think of graphic novels as a form of controlled photography, and like cinematography the artist can repeat the design many times until he/she deems it perfect. The difference here is that since the artist is not necessarily bound to reality as with film, they have complete creative freedom and although today we get some spectacular special effects and artificial enhancements an artist can still create entire universes with just a pencil, which is very relevant to photography because our tools are simple, a camera, maybe a couple of lights, that’s all.
Comics and graphic novels also tell stories, and since the frames are not moving like in a film, there is a more intimate view to how the narrator laid out the story and how this person’s approach to story telling serves the graphics.
Whereas in a film we are carried by the motion and just follow through, in a graphic novel, the sequences are cut out for us, there are less shots and we have to make our own transitions.
Graphic novels are also a fantastic way to study composition since graphic designers and artists study these topics, they know how best to attract the eye towards important parts, how to make a scene appear more dramatic or serene, they know how to suggest rather than tell, how to play with the different graphic elements to serve their narrative purpose. And since their imagination is less restrained by physical considerations they can really go wild with the story and the story telling, all the better for our own imaginations.
Photography’s ancestor, indeed many photographers started out by drawing and sketching. HCB himself described his photography as instant painting, and when Saul Leiter first moved to New York he wanted above all to paint, not photograph.
Painting has some advantages over photography in that it isn’t rooted in reality. Want to paint surrealist scenery, strange looking people or abstract shapes ? Easy, but try photographing Dali’s Persistence of Memory or Chagall’s Mariee. Sure, any amount of elaborate photoshoppery will get you there, but the point is that painters can easily tap into their imagination to portray what they want, therefore telling us something in the process. What can we learn from this ? First that there is no one way of seeing something, even something seemingly as formal as a camera, there is no reality but many realities. Second that us photographers should really learn to use the creative potential of our imagination much better. Just like photographers, those who paint are obsessed with light, colors, and seeing new things in the objects that surround us and that we dismiss as ordinary or quotidian.
And of course just like photography, a painting can be unique or part of a set.
Perhaps the farthest one from photography but not entirely unrelated either. After all, it is story telling at its purest form. Here the effort is greatest on the part of the reader where, unlike films that serve us the images, we have to use our imagination and compose our own images, but this is the most diverse too since we each make up or own images.
Literature can be pure fiction or very real but it has an additional advantage over the other visual forms in that the author can take us very deeply inside the characters’ minds and emotions, he/she can tell us exactly what they are feeling and thinking and that is something incredibly difficult to do with images, even with the most expressive actor or the most talented painter. From that extended expressive range we can certainly try to learn a few new ones and try to portray them in images. And since many other story tellers like theater directors, graphic novel artists and filmmakers start with a written form of the story this can be a great starting point if one wants to learn how to tell a story.
Many of the art forms I’ve listed help us see the expressive limitations of photography, but I think we should learn to use our medium to its maximum potential, perhaps even try to push the boundaries of expression. By visiting a little of each one of those, one can also identify which are the major themes that inspire him/her and the underlying motivation to photograph.
So once we’ve taken a look at some of these, then what ? How does this inspire photography ?
Well for one, we can pick up new themes we haven’t thought of trying before. We can learn new tricks that aren’t considered strictly part of photography, after all a wider skillset can expand the mind. And as I mentioned in one previous article, by immersing ourselves in high quality visuals we will unwittingly absorb a lot of those visuals, they will ferment slowly to form a rich and diverse base until we decide to make a photograph.
As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged. Let us know your thoughts and ideas on this matter. And share this with others. Thanks.