Beyond emulation…making it yours
To create is to make something new or unique that has value or meaning. For an artist, this means not just mastering skills such as composition, lighting, and the use of tools and materials — whether a camera and film, paint and brush, or kick wheel and clay — but also seeing or imagining things in new ways.
As I take that deep dive into my botanical project, I am aware that many great photographers have already tackled this subject. In fact, the work of Karl Blossfeldt, Imogene Cunningham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Harold Feinstein, Cy DeCosse, Joyce Tenneson, Huntington Witherill, Brigitte Carnochan, Kate Breakey and others inspires me. And yes, there are moments when I wonder why anyone in his or her right mind would even consider tackling a subject already so beautifully expressed. But then I think: Would writers stop writing about the South because Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, William Faulkner and Pat Conroy have already done that so brilliantly? Not a chance.
So just as writers write to find out what they know, I shoot to see what I have to say. My hope is that I will have something to add to the conversation. I will never know until I try. Indeed, I cannot grow as an artist until I give it a serious effort. One finds her way slowly.
It is a process that begins the day we first pick up a camera, paintbrush or lump of clay. And it is a process that often begins with emulation. Emulation, as it turns out, is an excellent way to learn. I recall tracing Ed Dodd’s handwriting in the Mark Trail comic strips one summer, trying to improve my writing enough to make a series of hand-lettered labels for a local museum featuring some of his personal collections. While my penmanship never came remotely close to the neatness, uniformity and confidence of Dodd’s, this exercise did improve my handwriting and eventually led to the development of a writing style that is uniquely my own.
Similarly, as a photographer, I learned much by studying the work of other photographers or even taking workshops from them. There were many I admired, and I picked up tips from each that helped me develop my own visual vocabulary and way of seeing. So I tip my hat to Elliot Porter, Ansel Adams, John Shaw, DeWitt Jones, Lisl Dennis, Brenda Tharp, Tim Cooper and many others. About 15 years ago, it was seeing an exhibition of black-and-white photographs by Michael Kenna that shook up my way of seeing. Since then, there have been many others whose work I have admired and studied. And yet, my work is not like any of theirs.
When teaching photography workshops, I’ve noticed that before going their own way, students often line up their tripods side by side and train their eyes and cameras on the same subjects. Yet they rarely produce similar images. Even though two or more people may gaze upon the same subject, they do not necessarily see the same thing. One may be taking in the subject and it’s environment, while another is zooming in on a graphic element in the composition.
Each photographer and artist has a different way of seeing. Some may have a loose composition with ample breathing room while others prefer a more compact view. Some choose simplicity over complexity. They select different lenses, different viewing positions, and different depths of field and shutter speed combinations. They may use film, shoot digitally or use more traditional (now deemed “alternative”) processes. The finished image may be in black and white, color, sepia toned or altered in some other fashion. It may be a print or digital image, or may be an element in a mixed media piece. And the methods of presentation vary widely.
The subjects themselves are also different. Portrait photographers shoot different faces. Landscape photographers go to different locations in different light. And in botanical photography, no two plants are quite the same. Indeed, the same plant can vary from year to year, season to season, and sometimes even day to day. Some photographers focus on flowers while others prefer foliage. Some love flowers best at their peak of perfection, while others see beauty in the fading and imperfect. They may approach their subjects with the mindset of a botanist, gardener, horticulturist, designer, flower arranger, documentary photographer or romantic, with resulting images being scientific, graphic or emotionally expressive in nature.
The lessons in this apply to all of us — artist or not. We are all faced with tasks and projects that have been done before. We can choose to do them the way they have always been done, or we may make them our own — whether we do so by making subtle changes or bold statements. The next time you tackle a project, think about ways to make it yours. Dare to do something different. Leave your own mark. Add your own voice to the conversation.