Following on from yesterday’s reposted article on influences, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into the topic. Influences go both ways – as in we are as much receptive as we are conductive – and this can be both conscious and subconscious. I don’t claim to be anything more than a casual interested observer when it comes to the field of human psychology, but I do notice after a while, big groups of people tend to act and think the same if they spend enough time together; I suppose it’s some form of subconscious normalization that happens in order to maintain the peace. And those who don’t fit will feel sufficiently uncomfortable to leave or be ejected – or if they’re strong influencers themselves, land up as leaders.
I see this mentality all the time in anything where a choice is required, and there’s no clear right or wrong; be it corporate behaviour, camera choices or composition. I don’t think I’ve done myself any favors in the past by being a misfit and having strong opinions (as has been cited and criticised many times on various fora and elsewhere) – too bad. What I did find, though, is that going against your own internal compass and following the masses leads to the sort of mental discomfort that produces ulcers. So: if you can’t follow, why try? More importantly, one has to be prepared for some friction.
There are of course enough people out there that everybody can eventually find a group that shares similar views; such places are great for building confidence and comforting the ego, but ultimately may lead to creative stagnation. Creativity, by definition, is something that requires a tangible difference to what came before. I can’t remember who said it, but everything that’s new now was old once; what’s required is a judicious application of timing. Recognition of such is even harder: often, it’s not those that do it first that reap the rewards, but those who implement and market it best. Case in point: touch-screen smartphones didn’t start with the iPhone, or the Palm (XYZ), but arguably Apple implemented it the best, and at a time where people were getting bored of buttons, and there was only so much more in the way of features/ size reduction that could be achieved with conventional keypad designs.
I think it’s the same case with photography: things go in circles. I once received a comment on an image shot with a Hasselblad on film that was along the lines of “Nice, what Hipstagram filter did you use?” At this point I of course wanted to slap the person silly – or as much as can be done in a virtual environment – but it did get me thinking. If one’s knowledge doesn’t extend any further back than the last few years, then there’s no awareness of film, of medium format, of earlier formats, hell, of why most of the pop art filters look the way they do. Pretty much everything there can be traced back to earlier influences: cross processing was initially a mistake; Disneyland color came from slide film; squares came from medium format; high contrast B&W came from early photojournalism and limitations of fast films, and so on. Were the creators of the apps influenced by this? Undoubtedly. Were they aware of the historical context? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? Almost certainly not.
I’ve often said what matters is the end result – the image. I stand by that. But I do believe that being unaware of history – or at least some context – limits how much you can get out of something, be it a processing technique or a style or a piece of equipment. There’s no arguing that shooting film with a Hasselblad changes the nature of your images: they tend to be slower, more thought out, and there’s a heavy emphasis on active metering and tonal choices – a consequence of loading it with black and white film, not having a meter, and having to focus manually with fairly shallow depth of field for a given angle of view. Oh, and it’s unlikely one would compose with 16:9 in mind if you have a square viewfinder.
Let’s continue to run with this example. A little while back, I found that one of the most compelling features of the Ricoh GR (Digital V, reviewed here and compared against the Coolpix A, here) was its ability to output native squares and files that had excellent tonality for monochrome conversion. Now, this is a feature every other GR-Digital I’ve owned (I, II and III) has had but I’ve never used. The only difference between then and now is that I’ve spend some significant time with a Hasselblad, and greatly enjoy it. Coincidence? I think not.
It’s almost certainly also not coincidence that a lot of my students find they greatly enjoy the cinematic style after attending one of my workshops* – that would be because it’s something I teach as part of the exploring style exercise, and if we go further back, it’s because my photography is heavily influenced by cinema. Cinema, in turn, is influenced by the dramatization of events, which presumably happen in the lives of people. At each turn, the person responsible for passing the bar adds a little of his or her own interpretation into the mix; be it the camera angle, color grading, composition, postprocessing etc. Perhaps one of the movies I’ve seen was based on an event or true story which one of my students might have been involved in. Guess what: we’ve come full circle.
*And there’s still a chance to experience it personally in Europe, if you’re interested – please see here for details.
My writing is affected by many things: my own personal experiences, what I enjoy reading, what I’ve shot, and what other external influences have touched me during the time immediately preceding any given article. I’m sure that given the same topic and message objective, every single photography writer would approach it in a different way, being a consequence of their own experiences. (These experiences go to make up who we are as people, but the physicist in me has to attribute it to random fluctuations in the quantum foam…)
For instance, the watch in the title image is a new version of the watch that did in fact accompany the Apollo astronauts to the moon; granted, in fifty years, technology has improved (slowly, this is an industry that’s built on tradition and heritage, remember), cases have gotten larger, and prices have increased, but the original DNA is still very much intact. A good number of people buy them because they believe they’re getting a bit of the moon story; and even more buy them because they’re recognisable status symbols…because of the moon heritage.
The same goes for cameras: we buy them not because we need them, but because we think we do. And we think we do because our favourite internet celebrities or photographers are using them to make great images, and so forth…this marketing 101, of course. What’s more interesting is that there’s very much a tiering system to this: I might be influenced by a prominent photographer I trust, in turn writing a review that highlights the camera’s capabilities, which then causes a reader to buy one. That somebody takes it to a family gathering where more casual users ask for advice – them being the go-to person for things photographic within the small immediate sphere – and thus more units are sold. Much has been written about the ‘butterfly effect'; little has been done to quantify it, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do so. Just how much of that reader’s decision was influenced by me, or by somebody else, or by an ad they saw, or by a handling experience they had in a store? Further down the line, how much of the revenue (and profit) is attributable to each?
I’m digressing a bit here: when it comes to image-making, there’s a continuum. Evolution of our personal work is a usually a continuous process, but sometimes can be a conscious step change – you could one day decide to abandon shooting horizontally, for instance. Or try film. Or large format scanning backs. Or move from a compact to an SLR. What I’m curious to know from the reader pool is to what extent they think creative development (in anything, I know there are a number of creative professionals outside photography who read this) is a result of passive-absorption, and to what extent it’s active, i.e. people experiencing those lightning-bolt strikes out of the blue. MT
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