I’ve been thinking about influences and inspiration lately and how it has affected my work and aesthetics. I am curious about why certain things stick with me and why. And furthermore, if inspiration is simply picking up the torch and continuing on. I’m curious about the importance of that particular torch. I came to photography from a black and white darkroom environment and I still enjoy both making and viewing black and white prints. I was thinking about how I approach color, specifically how I approach using color in the landscape and why I am drawn to certain locations, times of day, qualities of light and perspectives.
I spent a week camping on the Oregon coast with my son Griffin. We managed to camp on the beach several nights and though this was a father son camping trip and not about photography, I did take (for me) a few photos. An interesting thing happened when we got near the end of the day and the light (according to me) would start shaping up. I would stop and survey, looking to and fro for what might be compositionally interesting. Griffin would simply and very patiently ask, “Do you see your picture?” Most of the time it would be “No” or “If we could get over there” or “Not for another hour, then maybe”.
And then I would say, “There… not there, but there…” and I would spend ten minutes or so capturing what I saw. I would spend time using my abilities to capture and create an image that was not only born out of my eyes but from some kind of of inner inspiration as well.
Where did this inspiration come from?
I thought back to why and what I was looking for and who inspired me. In the case of shooting this particular color landscape I acknowledged being influenced by Joel Meyerowitz. His handling of color in his Cape Light images had made an impression on me, and not recently, but when I shot only black and white film in my early 20’s. It was also at a time when, in my own work, I was very concerned about making images with large amounts of contrast, not subtle color and low contrast atmospheres.
So 30 years later here I am standing on the beach subconsciously considering my scene based on the subtleties of hues, tones and subdued light and contrast through the eyes of Meyerowitz, though not really thinking about him at particular at that moment, but as an afterthought. I questioned how I was inspired. Similarly many of my landscape’s low horizons and expansive atmospheres are influenced by a Robert Mapplethorpe image he took of the aircraft carrier, The Coral Sea, in the fog. Mapplethorpe isn’t known for his landscapes, nor his images of aircraft carriers, it’s about showing what’s in an image by where it isn’t. I love the social street photography of Robert Frank and think of his work often, though not Meyerowitz, even though his street photography is renown more so than his seascapes. My inspiration continues from the fashion images and sensual work of Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and Bob Carlos Clarke, and then Clarke’s darkroom manipulations lead to Uelsmann masterpieces made long before photoshop. From there to manipulations by contemporary Brooke Shaden, and the list goes on… all influences and inspirations.
Is there a way to make sense of all of this, these inspirations? How is it that someone else’s punch to the gut becomes my punch to the gut? The etymology from middle english concerning inspiration is “breath or put life or spirit into the human body; impart reason to a human soul.”
I believe we are born as solid artistic beings, imbued with desire to make and create, until, for most, a parent or teacher degrades us into thinking that either we are not worthy to be an artist or that life as an artist is sure way to manifest folly. After being tricked into believing this, many of us lay creatively unconscious and near death. Some remain in their grave for the rest of this life, others desire to sputter back to a creative life.
In a subjective way inspiration is kind of a creative resuscitation. A series of open mouth breaths and bone breaking strikes to the heart, until our creative pulse begins beating on it’s own again. In the end there is something about inspiration that is completely familiar, whether subtle or overt, how could one not be inspired by a certain artist's images, paintings, piece of music, or the wryness from the playwright or film maker, for it can’t help but be realized in one's work.
As I polish and practice my craft I don’t think about inspiration in the moment anymore than I would think about how my chain glides smoothly into the crank sprocket of my bike as I peddle down the path. But as I stand at my destination I do appreciate the gift given to me by those who came before. And with a sense of responsibility I hope I can repay the honor to them by touching the heart strings of those who come after me. Acknowledge and give thanks for those who have inspired you, and give inspiration freely to all those around you, your contemporaries and those who will come after you by creating with thoughtful intention.