Seeking Out Photographic Inspiration

Keys, Brussels
In the March 2008 issue of Photoshop User magazine, Katrin Eismann has a wonderful article about how important it is to go see a lot of actual prints in order to learn how to make better prints of your own special images. It's worth reading, and Photoshop User is just one of the many benefits of being a NAPP member. I find a lot of inspiration in the tools and technique tips that I read both in print and on their website. Her article has made me think a bit about how I get inspired and stimulated in my own photography, and how I keep learning all the time.

Working as a photographer and then a photo editor in the newspaper business, I was fortunate enough to be able to interact with dozens of other photographers from day to day, getting to see their work not only as a finished product (one image culled from perhaps many rolls of film) but also seeing entire takes. It really helped me to see the thinking process that other shooters went through as they took rough ideas and undefined parameters and finally, frame after frame after frame, made all the elements coalesce into a viable image. And, of course, those photographers looked through the film and prints from MY shoots and taught me a lot about how to refine my own eye. An old friend of mine used to bring his prints out fresh from the darkroom, wave them in my face and ask, "Don't you wish you could shoot pictures like that?" Sonofa.. But it did always make me want to try harder.

Cathedral and reflecting pool, Brussels

After many years of this work, I became aware of a mindset that sometimes creeps in to such groups where you end up thinking about your work in only photographic terms. It's easy to get caught up in notions of image size, noise control, layer masks and contest judges to the point where you're shooting for some perceived end rather than for yourself. It's easy to start thinking about making pictures that will please (or tease) other photographers, and in that mode you can sometimes get away from creating images that reflect your own artistic style and communicate what you want to your readers or viewers.

Edna, "Happy Face #6." Snow on picnic table, with mitten. 2005

That's why I think it's terribly important to look for inspiration in other media. Make a point to get out to museums and galleries in your area to see what's on display. That's not only a good idea for keeping up the level of culture in your area, but it may also ensure that there's a place where your art might hang someday. Living in the Washington D.C. area, I'm fortunate to have a lot of museums near me, and the wonderful thing is that most of them are free.

I.M. Pei, Art Museum, Indiana University, Bloomington

The most obvious place to turn is to painting. Painters, after all, have had to work with the same constraints that afflict photographers: rendering a three-dimensional scene in to only two dimensions. And people have been scratching and burning and splashing images on to walls and canvases for, oh, 25,000 years or more so there's a lot to choose from.

To me it is often particularly instructive to see how the early painters worked, because they didn't have as much to draw on in the way of previous experience or examples. About three years ago I was lucky enough to be in the Dordogne region of France and spent an afternoon in a chilly, damp cave looking at amazing representations of bison, deer and other animals (sorry, ne pas de photos des bison fait, or as they say in the opera shows in the Hong Kong night markets, "No Photos Make!") and it was amazing to see how subtle toning and depth were achieved by these anonymous masters. To my mind, they achieved a level of dimension that wasn't drastically improved upon until the discovery of perspective drawing in the late middle ages.

Later painters of course offer a huge range of techniques and styles that can visually stimulate the lensman (does anyone say that anymore?) I'm always amazed at the deft and assured brushwork of a Canaletto showing off the grandeur of Venice. The way his highlights are rendered with just a small dab of white oil paint, or the amazing complexity of shadows in a darkened room as shown by one of the old Dutch Masters really gives me a lot of information about the potential for getting the full range of tones from the images I make with my camera. Of course, later painters like Mondrian and De Kooning, working with only fields of pure color, can tell me a lot about how my eyes and brain are drawn to certain parts of an image. I love Charles Sheeler's paintings of a now-retro industrial world with it's graphic forms and striking juxtapositions, and of course many of his paintings are based on photos he made.

Statues in a churchyard, Copenhagen

Something I find even more challenging, and maybe even more stimulating, is to look outside of the two-dimensional world to try to find inspiration from sculpture and architecture. Here again, there are thousands of years of examples to see. Sculptors, no less than painters of photographers, have to think about composition and juxtaposition, and often had to incorporate strategies to best show off their work in the areas that they might be displayed (maybe this is off the mark, but I think of much sculpture as being commissioned to be placed in a specific spot, though that's certainly not always the case.) But even beyond what the sculptor intended, which can often only be guessed at, I try to figure out what it is I'm seeing in a given piece. Am I drawn to form, to size, to technique? Could I ever render that amazing granularity and texture of marble in a Houdin bust in an Epson print?

Modern Building, Silver Spring, Maryland

And I think that Architecture probably offers some of the greatest creative challenges, because there are so many ways that a building is used and enjoyed. It has to "work" with the surroundings, and be both a big space and a small environment: at once functional and pleasing to the aesthetic.

Taken from atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Then of course there is the story that's communicated in a given piece of art. Few photographers ever have to describe an entire epic myth in a single frame. But prior to the advent of the printing press, most people on the planet couldn't read, and thus much of the religious, political and social information was disseminated in pictures and carvings and sculpture. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I really enjoy going in all those European cathedrals because so much of the art seems to be instructional (telling bible stories) as it is purely artistic. Interestingly, I think much of it was designed to get the message across to the masses during masses that the masses couldn't understand, as they were all done in Latin for so long. To keep the peasants from getting bored, colorful stained glass pictures provided allegory and entertainment, and even for the learned monks and clergy there were little diversions to hold their focus on the church instead of more, um, secular matters. Look for wonderful small carvings
, called misericords, on the armrests of the pews of many old churches where the choir and other clergy would sit, that depict little scenes of suffering and salvation, or heroism in the service of God. We bought one from the gift shop in Westminster Cathedral; a little knight rushing off to mete justice to some deserving sinner, or perhaps, dragon.

Run, Forest, Run.

Pull away from your computer, get out and go to a museum. Instead of just talking with and reading about other photographers, befriend a glass blower or a potter or a someone who whittles, or even just a guy who will hot glue-gun a dead squirrel to a piece of driftwood. You may not like what they've produced, but from learning about these other media you'll find your photography is enhanced and you'll have more tools in your mental toolbox that you can use the next time you press the shutter button.

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