Discussion points: Influences

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From the series ‘Only The Clouds are Truly Free’, inspired by the work of Magritte

Following on from the previous article on finding inspiration – it makes sense to throw another question out to the audience – who are your inspirations? Hopefully, you might find something you’ve not seen before. The more I’ve been asked this question, the more I’ve found myself allowing increased weight to non-photographic themes: creativity is a fluid, difficult-to-define thing, and sources can be pretty much anything: other photographers; artists in different media; music; a season; muses; objects; locations; even (ahem) hardware.

I’ll go first, after the jump. MT

In no particular order, and by category, and with a little rationale:


  • This is an odd category, because I feel like I want to consciously avoid anything that might remotely be constituted as derivative work. It’s already difficult enough to be original without distractions that are similar to your own work messing around with your subconscious. What I tend to do instead is look at work I will probably never replicate or imitate; the cross-pollination of ideas then results in (hopefully) an original presentation of a different subject…
  • My current photographers in this category include Nick Brandt, Sails Chong, Paul Nicklen, David Doubilet, and of course, Saul Leiter. I’m fortunate enough to know the first two in this category personally, which has lead to some rather interesting creative discussions…


  • The surrealists, specifically Rene Magritte, for the conceptual/ logical non-sequiturs;
  • The abstractionists, specifically Rothko, for the geometry and subject-independent balance;
  • The impressionists, specifically Monet, for the importance of suggestiveness
  • Hokusai and Hiroshige, for the layering and forced perspective

Music/ musicians

  • What I think of as ‘epic’ classical, like O Fortuna; the Toreador Overture; Ode to Joy; the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons etc. – they put you in a positive frame of mind

Design/objects/ architecture

  • Oddly, Frank Gehry: even though I’ve never photographed one of his buildings in person.
  • Local architect Hijjas Kasturi
  • Some watches: the Lange chronographs; my Ochs und Juniors
  • ‘Compensation object’ cars, like the BMW Z4 I used to own

Places, seasons, events

The more I think about it, the clearer it is that the objective of an inspiration isn’t to seed a direct copy, but rather condition your thinking into being open or receptive to trying something different and out of your usual milieu; perhaps it’s subtly suggestive, or perhaps it’s a huge slap in the face.


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  1. What happened to the mentioned article? Can’t seem to find it.

  2. I think for me (and get ready to laugh, and possibly not in a positive way)

    Movies, usually 1960s ones, filmed in technicolor and especially The Valley of Gwangi

    No, I don’t mean that I love crappy oversaturated colours (although….) and photoshoping dinosaurs into my images, but I’m inspired by the notion that photography is only (sic) a 2D representation of reality, and that we need to enage the viewer into a state of willing suspension of disbelief

    I think that willing suspension of disbelief is where we attempt to convey a feeling and a mood, that negates the 2D nature of the photograph, and draws the viewer, but with the caveat (for me at least) that they have to know what they’re looking at (ie not an abstract), so they know what it is, they know it’s not real, but want to look at it anyway

    So, old colour films, is the short answer. Perhaps others are similarly inspired by modern CGI movies?!

    • Seems perfectly reasonable to me, and with the strong prevalence of HDR and sometimes overdone PS these days, you’re probably right about the CGI bit!

  3. The sources of inspiration change often, but some stick longer than others. I like to think these have not been fleeting influences:

    – Mediocre photographs (for motivation). They’re all around, and so many things deserve better.
    – Ming Thein (for discipline). Things worth doing are things worth doing well.
    – Jitka Hanzlová: Horse (for patience). Explore the subject and make more than a passing effort. Then repeat.
    – Printing. Still mostly a dream to chase for me, but takes the whole process to another level, from the realisation that I’ve shot very little print-worthy, to the realisation that most of what I’m trying to imitate is not what I’d hang on any wall.

    • Also, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger :D. Slightly modified:

      “I do not see with my lens. He who sees with his lens has forgotten the face of his father.
      I see with my eye.

      I do not frame with my viewfinder. He who frames with his viewfinder has forgotten the face of his father.
      I frame with my mind.

      I do not photograph with my camera. He who photographs with his camera has forgotten the face of his father.
      I photograph with my heart.”

      The whole series is also a good example of taking everything you know and mixing it into something completely new and unique, surpassing most of what came before.

    • I’ve always said print is the ultimate arbiter…and really very quickly forces us to abandon images. I find this happens more and more often, especially when wall space is limited…! 🙂

  4. Tom Hoglund says:

    Hey Ming – maybe you didn’t know you were photographing Frank Gehry when you were in Chicago? We try to have at least one work by every great architect here in Chicago. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mingthein/21801246443/in/photostream/

    • Of course, you’re right – I did – the Pritzker Pavilion…but must have somehow slipped when writing this! I had in mind his ‘solid’ structures with enclosed spaces like the Disney Concert Hall etc…

  5. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Ming, you know that in Margrittes universe clouds, suns and moons are often in front of trees and houses, I mean distant stuff is in front of the near one. A cummulus on front of store front or a train in front of fireplace. 😮

  6. Homo_erectus says:

    It’s mostly jazz for me and then a tiny sprinkling of movies and tv. And by Jazz, I don’t mean listening to music, I mean what Coltrane said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” My first art was music and I approach photography like improvisation. Play, play, play, play some more, play, play, play with someone new, play, play, every day.

    I treasure your blog, Ming, because you are practically the only photographer on the internet who talks about the interesting parts. Everybody else spends all their time talking about doodads and thingamajigs.

    And, thanks to everyone who mentioned photographers names in their posts. I looked them all up and ordered some books 🙂 My education on that front is severely lacking and you’ve all helped make it slightly less lacking. Now my bank account is slightly more lacking though!

    • Thanks – good point on jazz, especially more in terms of philosophy, flow and practice/ emotion than the subject (though the subject tends to be wonderfully emotionally strong, too!)

  7. I don’t look for or follow any particular thing, they seem to sort of jump out at me.
    Signs: No great photographic skill or pro equipment necessary to take a picture of a sign, many of my favourites were taken with a teeny-sensor pocket camera. Some are ludicrous, some are funny, (without intending to be), some are interesting when you relate the message of the sign to its surroundings.
    Places: I think it’s human to be very interested in something we see for the first time, and new places always intrigue me. City, countryside, near the sea, whatever, if it’s new to me, it’s almost always interesting and inspiring.
    Shadows: Sharp, dense shadows create very interesting “frames” or surroundings for what are often mundane objects. Where I live, the light is quite clear and intense, and it can turn a slice of a porcelain coated pot lid, surrounded by inky blackness, into something surreal.

  8. I think “gesture” is a fancy semantic way of tricking people into thinking that you get it and they don’t, so they have to pursue that elusive quality. Meanwhile, the emperor is buck naked.

    • There’s probably something more concrete than that, but it’s just not so easy to define.

      • Perhaps it’s a weak form of the “idea”. Something visual connecting synapses in your brain. Human gesture is the easiest, given how our brains are wired, but definitely not the only type. With inhuman subjects the response is more difficult to predict, therefore requiring more skill to achieve the intended reaction (just my opinion). Personally I like Maisel but his technical execution is rather poor. Ignoring that, I think I “get” a lot of his photos, and there are very skilful aspects to them.

        • Counterpoint: sometimes, you might actually need the imprecision to convey the idea; motion blur to convey something hurried or panicked, for instance. Precise imprecision and all that…I think the best example of this are the Japanese street photographers – it looks chaotic and messy, but if you try to imitate what they do, even in the same environment with the same subjects, you find that it’s nearly impossible to do with any level of consistency. I can only conclude it must therefore be deliberate…

  9. I think of the things I’ve learned from photographers – Saul Leiter (whom Mark mentioned). His photos gave me an appreciation for not moving my viewpoint to get ‘interfering’ stuff in the foreground out of the way. Gregory Crewdson taught me how light and colour can turn a scene into something surreal. Cartier-Bresson taught me how a scene can lead in and create a three-dimensional image. Now they and others are all in my head like a puzzle.

    • The beauty of this puzzle, however, is that you have more pieces than you need – and your can choose the most appropriate ones for the scene and subject to make something unique…and even if somebody else has the same pieces, they make a different result…

  10. I’m going to answer this a little differently …

    First, when anyone asks me where I learned photography, I tell them 80-90% of my photo-making knowledge (as opposed to the technical stuff like sensor noise, exposure, shutter speeds, ISO, etc.) comes from you, and I truly believe that. The 4 Things, the 5 ways of isolating subjects, compositional balance, and frame cleanliness are still things I evaluate for every photo I take. The one compositional thing that’s a mix of influences is how I relate foreground to background. You certainly were the first to make me aware of it (in the wide-angle vs. tele lens post from way back), but the way I use it now is heavily influenced by photojournalists, especially what I think of as the classic Magnum big-small subject juxtaposition usually done with a wide angle moving mostly horizontally across the frame, or the stereotypical landscape with a big foreground rock, and a small mountain in the background, moving vertically in the frame. Those are simplifications, but I think you all get the point. For some of my subjects (dance for example), the foreground-background relationship is what drives the rest of the composition, so it’s become a very important tool for me.

    Second, there are a lot of photographers I admire and follow, but I don’t really look to emulate any of them. What I see is their use of some technique or compositional device that I haven’t seen before or thought was forbidden, which I then try to assimilate into my own technique or allow myself to use (and it’s amazing how many hang-ups I have about my photography).

    I do think it’s important to have interests outside of photography, because that makes one a more interesting photographer with more things to say, and sometimes subjects that you love that are great for photographing! Even within photography, I think it’s important to practice more than one kind of photography seriously, because there are things that can feed across genres in terms of technique and composition. I find myself these days looking at a lot of cinematography, because of the way they use light and how they set scenes up that already imply some kind of story. Of all things, I’ve started to notice this too for comic books: there’re often extreme uses of perspective in them that may be physically impossible, but are inspirational.

    • Hah – thank you, but also it’s time to expand your horizons! 🙂 I don’t cover everything creative, and can’t; one has to have individual focus and therefore also levels of expertise when it comes to different types of work…

      “Second, there are a lot of photographers I admire and follow, but I don’t really look to emulate any of them. What I see is their use of some technique or compositional device that I haven’t seen before or thought was forbidden, which I then try to assimilate into my own technique or allow myself to use…”
      This is an excellent point, and precisely the purpose of inspiration: to get the idea, not the exact plan…

      “I do think it’s important to have interests outside of photography, because that makes one a more interesting photographer with more things to say, and sometimes subjects that you love that are great for photographing!…I find myself these days looking at a lot of cinematography, because of the way they use light and how they set scenes up that already imply some kind of story.”
      Definitely – this is how I personally started shooting; it was the only way to have a personal experience with a watch I could never hope to own. And then it because a career…

      On the cinematography thing: the level of deliberation is precisely why I spent so much time studying it myself, and figuring out what could be applied in reverse. And most of it is in this article

  11. First up, thanks for some more names to look up. I just looked up Paul Nicklen – wow. Serious skills. Nick Brand of course I know (I have two of his books and he was gracious enough to reply to an email I sent him), and I’ve seen David Doubilet’s stuff too. I’m curious about what draws you to Sails Chong (not someone I was familiar with); from a cursory glance, he is obviously very skilled and somewhat brings to mind Joe McNally – and that’s intended as praise – but I didn’t get that same “eye-popping” reaction as I did from Paul Nicklen.

    Photographers : Jay Maisel first and foremost, not just his pictures but his entire philosophy. Also Saul Leiter (who I think I first heard about on this blog, in fact), HCB of course, especially when I’m using my Epson R-D1 in pretentious mode 🙂 I think I’ve also picked up stuff subconsciously from you; I sometimes enjoy taking wide-angle, slightly abstract, angular pictures with deep shadows and for whatever reason they bring to mind things I’ve seen on this blog.

    Artists : Anything old and Chinese / Japanese. I like the minimal approach and the idea of saying a lot with very few elements. I’m also fascinated by atmospheric perspective, which a lot of old Chinese artists do so well (mist and fog, etc). Also, from a totally different angle, Joseph Albers (that’s another Jay Maisel-related influence); I have his app for the iPad (on colour).

    Visual : Certain Japanese anime, especially the cyber-punkish, noir stuff like Ghost in the Shell (the original anime and series, not the deserved failure that was the remake).

    Music : too many kinds to list. I’m plugged in almost 24/7, and I find shooting while listening to music to be a totally different experience to shooting in silence.

    Places : Like you (or that’s certainly the impression I get) I’m obsessed with Tokyo and Japan in general (as I live there). Generally, I prefer big cities to countryside but can shoot in both. I think it’s the sheer variety of visual stimuli available.

    This is a great idea for a thread; I imagine that everyone who participates will find out something new and interesting.

    • Oh, also forget to mention Fan Ho. Totally changed my viewpoint on how to evaluate light.

    • Sails Chong – perhaps the execution and the vision, but making the whole ‘over the top-ness’ work.

      I’ve honestly never gotten Maisel, but perhaps that’s my fault for never feeling like I wanted to put in the effort to understand him 🙂

      • It’s not a question of “fault”, though. It’s just personal taste. In my case I don’t understand why people get so enthusiastic about Diane Arbus, but they do, and more power to them. With Maisel, it’s mainly his approach which inspires me – go out with no preconceptions, don’t look for shots – let them come to you – put gesture above anything else, even light and colour – if you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doings something wrong -and be your own toughest critic. I got more inspiration from that than from his actual pictures (which I still like a lot). Come to think of it, there’s something of the Zen in his approach, I find – the harder you try and find pictures, the fewer you will get. Once you let go and let things come to you, then you get the best stuff.

        • Actually, it’s the ‘gesture’ concept that gets me – it doesn’t work with non-living subjects, which form most of my work…the rest, I agree with.

          • Ah, that’s an interesting one. One of the things he talks about on his videos with Scott Kelby is that “everything has gesture”. He extends the term beyond the obvious physical sense into something close to “essence”. So to him, a building can have its own unique gesture, or characteristic, which sets it apart from any other building. It is a somewhat abstract idea though, I have to admit.


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