Good artists copy, great artists steal.
– Pablo Picasso
There’s a school of thought that says that if you are an artist, you should not look at the work of other artists. Though stated in different ways, the basic rationale seems to be to keep the influence of other artists away from your own work, such as where looking at the work of others may create an obstacle to finding your own vision, or where you simply may end up imitating the work of others rather than developing something original to you.
Personally, I’ve always felt okay with looking at the work of other artists. For one thing, I enjoy viewing art, and I would not want to deprive myself of this simple pleasure simply because I am a photographer. Moreover, I think it’s okay to be inspired by what others have done, be it a certain technical approach, a choice of subject matter, or so forth.
For me, looking at the work of others is like holding a mirror up to my own likes and dislikes. Sure, I can appreciate the work of another on its own merits, and it’s fun to discover new artists and to be exposed to different kinds of work, but it’s when I look at a particular work more deeply and analytically that I begin to see my own preferences and tastes.
In photography, for example, perhaps a given photographer may not photograph subject matter that I’m drawn to, but maybe their images have a high-key look that I like. It may make me realize that I like the look of high-key images, and perhaps that I may want to try that approach in my own work. Or perhaps a given photographer produces work having technical aspects I don’t like, but maybe they photograph portraits, or still life, or other kinds of subject matter that I might not otherwise connect with. It may make me reconsider my approach to that kind of subject matter in my own work.
Inspiration is different than imitation, however. For myself, I’ve always drawn the line at the point where viewing a particular work of someone else would want to make me go out and simply re-create that work in whole. If I ever reach that point, then I may have to reevaluate my approach to looking at the work of others.
Which is why the image in this post gives me some pause. I would be lying if I said I was not thinking of photographer Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower when I photographed this view of the Washington Monument, particularly Kenna’s “Eiffel Tower, Study 10.” There are obvious similarities – each is of an iconic tower framed by trees. Moreover, my motivation in pursuing this image quite honestly was to frame the Washington Monument in a manner analogous to that in which Kenna used trees to frame the Eiffel Tower.
Did I cross a line with this image? Not by any kind of objective measure, I think, in as much as I did not set out (and in fact did not) literally re-create Kenna’s image. Subjectively, the question is a little harder and, ultimately, one that I think can only be answered by me based on my own standards of what constitutes imitation versus what constitutes inspiration. While it’s as close as I yet have come to mere imitation, in the end, I’m reasonably satisfied that this image is innovative enough to fall within the camp of inspiration.