There are many photographers who worry that exposure to photographs by others will contaminate the purity of their own creative vision, that they will never find their own voice if they are working under the influence, so to speak. Creativity involves choice, however. The late, great art historian Michael Baxandall famously demolished the idea that artists can ‘influence’ other artists in the true sense of that word. He rightly pointed out that the notion of influence describes the effect of an active power exerting itself on a passive subject, and that the nature of artistic intention actually runs the other way around. He offered up some alternative vocabulary that better explains the process of working in any medium, actual possibilities for what an artist can do in light of another’s work:
“Draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle…—everyone will be able to think of others.” (Patterns of Intention, pg. 58)
It is important for photographers to keep in mind that they have all of these options and more for creating their own photographs after viewing other images. It is also important to acknowledge that no photographer exists in a vacuum. One of the great plagues of history is the idea of pure creative genius, that an artwork can spring fully formed out of the head of an artist without any external input. On the contrary, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and even so-called “naive” artists absorb the visual solutions of whatever imagery they do encounter. Promoting the idea of purity in creativity is not only absurd but is also detrimental to the creative spirit in that it sets up a false premise. That premise posits that what ultimately matters is difference, the extent to which a photograph or a body of work can stand apart from everything that came before it. What really matters, however, is not difference but substance—not standing apart, but making a contribution. As I have written before, the pursuit of difference puts the emphasis on what to avoid rather than what to create, an emphasis that is ultimately counterproductive.
One of the most helpful ideas about viewing photographs that I have encountered is to consider how they might be “extending the conversation” established by photographs that came before them. How is a given photograph in dialogue with what preceded it, and what has it contributed to that conversation? As Brooks Jensen explains, the more that we view other photographs and get to know the history of photography, the better able we will be to appreciate “the subtleties of the currents that drift through the medium” (Looking at Images, pg. 102). That level of appreciation will serve any photographer far better than the impossible pursuit of visual ignorance—burying your head in the sand only cuts off an important avenue for personal development. If we think about existing photographs positively, as foundational elements for all that follows, then we will be more likely to process this visual input in creative ways. We don’t have to try to ‘un-see’ other photographs or fear how they might affect our own work if we embrace the idea that we can ‘own’ our responses to them.
So my answer to the question in the title of this article is a resounding “yes”. Explore and enjoy the images of other photographers! Even photographs that cause us to be overwhelmed with admiration can advance our progress as individuals by helping us to identify what moves and motivates us, which is ultimately a point of personal discovery. If we keep in mind that visual literacy will inform the work of a photographer, not ‘influence’ it, then we can remain focused on productive goals rather than getting hung up on being different. Viewing the works of others is one avenue that can lead in a positive direction as we respond to what we see. Ultimately, anything that can put you in touch with your own interests, reservations, emotions, and experiences is going to help to place your focus where it belongs: on you.
Do you find yourself conflicted by the idea of viewing the images of other photographers? Do you have any favorite strategies for responding to visual input? Please feel free to chime in on this important topic by leaving a comment below. Thanks for reading!
Erin Babnik is a full-time landscape photographer, photography educator, writer, and speaker. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks on both continents. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com