Magic Monday: Imitation vs. Inspiration

From artist Jeff Schaller:

Somebody once said about my paintings, “I could of done that.”

I replied, “But you didn’t and I did. Now you can’t because I did and that would be copying.”

I love this!

I know that “copying” or “imitation” can be a very touchy subject among artists and photographers.  I would be dishonest to never admit that I haven’t had my own moments of heated reaction to see another individual copy some aspect of my work or my business.  However, its also important to not forget where we came from, and to remember, that we ourselves aren’t always as unique as we think.

Is Imitation ALL bad?

My very first experience with a digital camera was shooting my sisters bridals with my mom’s SLR in 2006.  What did I do?  I copied the extraordinary local photographer and went to the exact locations he shot at.  I shot my sisters engagements where I had seen other photographers go.  I copied poses and locations.  It never occurred to me in the least that I was copying anyone.  I sincerely just thought that was what I was supposed to be doing to be successful because that’s what the other photographer had done.  That was what was “cool”, and looked great.

I continued to do this for another year!  I moved to a new city and shot at the locations that I saw other people shooting.  I shot in the style that I saw other people shooting, never thinking anything was wrong with that at all.  I didn’t know any better.  To me, I was trying to be “professional”.  I was trying to follow what I saw as their recipe for a successful picture and successful business.  If it worked for them, it should work for me.

Through time I have discovered that my favorite part of photography lies in the creative aspect.  Thinking of ideas on my own.  Thinking of my own locations, and poses and stories that I can tell with the camera.

To my utmost disappointment, I have found that even when I think I am being completely original, sometimes I am not…

I remember a year ago moving to a new town.  I discovered this amazing house in town with unique landscaping and goodies in the yard (like an old vintage school bus, vintage bike, vintage truck…all beautifully worked into the scheme of their yard.)  I knocked on the door and asked if I might have permission to shoot some bridals there.  This was their response, “Of course you can!  We get photographers coming here all the time!  They just love it and we’re glad people can enjoy it!”  I was still excited to shoot there, but somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t the first one to think of it.

bridal

Again, a few months later I did a senior session, found a new spot of town and picked some locations that I have never used before.  I asked permission of an Italian Ice Cream shop to shoot in their window and got the same response, “Sure.  People do it all the time!”.  I had never seen any pictures shot there, thought it would be an original great idea, but others had beat me to it.

window2

Yet….

I still feel these images are completely my own.

Photographer, Me Ra Koh said on her blog about this very issue: “It’s the same with photography. I would bet that every composition has been done. What makes the image unique is our subjects and the spirit of who they are. Yes, we grow in our ability to understand light, or post process our color tones, etc. But these things are all peripheral to the ability to capture the spirit of our subject.
Copy those you respect and admire until you find your own eye, your own voice. I believe wholeheartedly that we all have our own specific eye. But here’s the thing: the journey to find our own eye–our own voice– is not an overnight journey. It requires courage and faith to believe in what we can’t yet see in ourselves, support from those around you and humility to start with others’ ideas until we see value in our own ideas.

I think that is exactly what happened to me.  I had to start with others ideas.  I had to take the journey of working through imitation, until I had the creative ability to work with inspiration.  There’s no way I would have started with my own ideas from the very beginning.

Finding inspiration

After learning how to master my own camera (an absolute must…LEARN HOW TO SHOOT MANUAL!!!! LEARN HOW TO USE LIGHT!), after gaining experience, and becoming comfortable with myself as a photographer… then I began to discover who I really was.  Only then did I begin to discover my own unique creative self.

I no longer go out and try to recreate an image I’ve seen.  Instead, I use images I like as a spring board for other ideas of my own to create something unique for myself.  I take inspiration from all things in the world around me.  A line of poetry can spark thoughts, as can colors, locations, magazines, feelings or emotions, literature, etc.  And still, I’m likely not completely original in what I do.  Someone in the world somewhere may have already done something similar, but I can have the quiet confidence of my work being my own.

Want a creative project?  Want to learn how to make your images your own?  Want to stimulate those creative juices inside?

About a year ago I gave myself the challenge to never shoot in the same location twice.  As such, I also challenged myself to discover all these locations on my own.  I still try to follow that, and can’t even begin to tell you what thats done for my creativity.  Honestly, its hard sometimes.  Its much easier to take  each client to the standard place and shoot.  Having to come up with somewhere new every time requires more work 🙂  But it also makes the session unique, and for me, it keeps things fun and fresh.  Each session has its own excitement to me because I get so excited to come home and see how the new spot turned out!

How do you find inspiration? What do you think is the proper place for imitation?

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Brooke Snow

Brooke Snow

BROOKE SNOW WANTS TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE BACKGROUND MUSIC PLAYS ALONG TO LIFE’S ADVENTURES, THE SMELL OF A NEW BABY CAN BE BOTTLED, AND MORNING NATURE WALKS HAPPEN EVERY MORNING.

As a photographer, she’s been published in Where Women Create and Where Women Cook magazines, featured on the Huffington Post, The $100 Startup, and is a regular contributor to her local NBC lifestyle show Studio 5. A sought after instructor and speaker, when she’s not putting the magic into her next presentation, you can find her drooling over organic recipes, hiking with a mountain buggy carrying precious cargo, and hanging out in her Farm House with her fabulous little clan in Northern Utah.

Her free course Living a Thriving Life is the perfect anecdote for those seeking balance in the midst of chaos. Discover how to create meaning in both your photos and your life at brookesnow.com.
Brooke Snow

Latest posts by Brooke Snow (see all)

  • JaiCi Razak - I have always heard that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”…and I go with that 🙂

  • andre - this post was right on time Brooke!

  • Jackie Norris - Since I’ve started photography, I find inspiration everywhere! Magazines, advertisements, driving down the street, even just people watching. It’s everywhere if we just open our eyes to it!

  • Kristi - Inspiration and imitation are two different things. In fact…had I realized this early on in my Graphic Design career I may not have given up so easily. I always thought I had to come up with it all on my own without any inspiration from others or even in nature. I thought I wasn’t a true artist if I didn’t just dream it up. But I think LOTS of GREAT artists (including photographers) come up with their best work by being inspired by others work. I’ve looked at peoples work and started out with their ideas and then twisted and bent them all up into my own. And they look completely different! And that my friend…is what I’m sure you do! And it’s true…it’s all in the person you work with that makes the photos unique. Inspiration from others is a good thing…cause you know those artists were inspired by others as well.

    But I hang my head in shame friend cause I ALWAYS (or almost always) shoot in AUTOMATIC mode! EEEEEEEEK! I know!!!!!! I knooooooooooooooooooooooooow!!!

    Hee hee!

    Someday!

  • admin - Kristi! I’m glad that you brought this element in the design world as well. With my experience as a musician (particularly as one focused in the area of composing music) I find it interesting that all through my undergrad and graduate degrees in the field, they would have us study the work of the masters, often times (in fact, most of the time) encouraging us to use the same techniques that we were finding in the work of those that we were studying. My music never ever ended up sounding like Bach, or Beethoven, or Stravinsky at all… but I was able to use the same techniques to achieve something that was unique to me. As I read a biography on the life of Bach himself (whom I consider one of the greatest composers of all time), it was interesting to note that most of his training came from studying the works of composers he admired, and copying out their music–of course in a day where you couldn’t just go buy a copy so you had to write out your own by hand–and he would study their work by candlelight.

    My mom has always said, “Inspiration comes from Information”. We have to know some things to be inspired. And oft times the knowledge comes from learning from someone else.

  • Paola - This was a virtual hug needed for someone just starting and experimenting with what my “style” is supposed to be. Thank you for posting this… truly inspirational in itself.

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