I’ve said it many times here. If you want to be a successful photographer worry about being you – not being new. Yet, the younger you are, the more prone you are to want to do something “out of the box.” It’s natural. You get that advice from all the big shots. But it’s not really possible for newbies. Not yet anyway. There’s this notion of time. You have to put in the time. You cannot cheat time. It is constant. It is demanding. It is unyielding. It is the same for everyone. You have to put in the time. You have to do the work first. But I digress. Let’s discuss doing something “new.”
I remember when people started making slightly out of focus pictures. That became all the rage. The photographers who started this line of thinking were trying to do something new.
I remember when people started making pictures that were all black and white but had a splash of color in them. Pretty soon everyone’s portfolio was full of such pictures. The photographers who started this line of thinking were trying to do something new.
I remember the first time I saw a portrait that was extremely backlit and full of lens flare. Now every wedding and portrait photographer has that photo in their portfolio. The photographers who started this line of thinking were trying to do something new.
Now here’s the bad news – none of this was ever new. There is no new. Someone had done it before. These photographers may or may not have subconsciously or not been influenced by what they’d seen before but they weren’t doing anything new. Seriously. Everything has been done. Don’t believe me? Let’s go all the way back to the Bible. “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) There’s the best proof I can offer of my thesis.
Every photographer borrows from other photographers. Whether or not it’s something they are mindful of is irrelevant. It applies to all art. I once wrote a song that I was convinced was truly mine and truly original. Then years later I heard “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams and realized I had inadvertently “borrowed” significantly from that song’s melody.
The pictures you make today are but a reference to the collection of visual ideas you’ve accumulated throughout your life. You may not like me saying this – but it is true. It’s true about you and it’s true about me. It’s just the way it is.
But there’s the good news. Everyone is doing it – borrowing that is. Borrowing from other images they have seen and been influenced or inspired by. That is not a bad thing. Here’s why. Chances are that when YOU apply YOUR approach to what’s been done before it is in fact new. It’s new because it’s you.
Stay with me now.
The young people who work for me are always saying “Oh that’s been done to death.” They say that about photographs they could never in a million years hope to “see” on their own. The arrogance of youth (something that happened to me when I was young too — so I speak from experience) is to think that you might be able to do something newer and better than the masters, and do it soon. It’s a pipe dream. You have to understand yourself before you can understand the masters and you have to understand the masters before you can begin to think about copying them and you have to begin copying them to even think that you’re anywhere near the road to finding your own style.
Yes that was deep so read it twice if you need to.
The bottom line is that YOUR version of Delicate Arch, or Moon over Halfdome or Afghan Girl will be different than the original. And THAT folks is why you should never shy away from making a photograph that the camera club kids will call a cliche. YOUR version will always be YOURS. Yes Ansel Adams did Moon over Halfdome. But unless you go to Yosemite National Park and stand before the great monolith and make your own shot, you have no right to claim cliche or that it’s been done to death or it’s not new enough because you haven’t done it yourself. And I guarantee you that no matter how much you may be convinced it’s a “cliche,” you’ll secretly be thrilled to be there and to make the shot. I know because I’ve been there.
It’s in this process of shooting the things that you are either deliberately or subconsciously copying that you will eventually find your own voice. It is not something that happens quickly. It takes time. Remember what I said above. You can’t cheat time. You can cheat everything else. You can have better gear than Ansel did. You can have better maps than he did. You can have better tools and research to help you plan and execute your expedition than he did. But you can’t cheat time. That you have to put in yourself. And when you do, you will eventually find YOU. And YOU is always, always, always better than NEW!
Now here’s the punchline. You will be better than all the masters and me and everyone else you learn from – someday. Here’s why. It’s generational. It’s the way of the new world order. Things have morphed beyond anyone’s expectations. Because of this – you are probably naturally more inclined than the masters were or I am to be collaborative. You are more inclined to do a “mashup” or “remix” of everything you see. And for that reason alone I am jealous of you. I wish I were of that generation but I am not. So my job is to encourage you to go out there and throw off your prejudice about NEW and just be you – because of all the things I just mentioned, YOU are going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.