A few weeks ago, a gallery owner asked me where I got my inspiration. I’m sure he expected me to rattle off names like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz or Robert Frank — so my answer surprised him.
“Painters and cinema,” I said.
“Not photographers?” he asked. “Why not?”
I explained that while I love looking at photographs, they have the potential to corrupt my creative process.
As a street photographer, my goal is to find something fresh, new and different. But if I’m not careful, I can wind up in an endless loop of déja vu.
I have millions of photographs stored in my psyche — from magazines, art galleries, newspapers, advertising, posters, and so forth. I cannot count how many times I have been seduced into taking pictures that I have already seen somewhere else.
To ensure my photographs reflect my imagination and not someone else’s, I have to look for inspiration elsewhere.
Painters as Inspiration
I studied to be a painter when I was younger, but I never thought I was very good at it. Photography was the better choice for me. But I continued to look to painters for my creative spark.
Edward Hopper, for instance. I’ve always viewed him as a street photographer disguised as a painter.
Hopper chose real scenes from life; some had figures in them, while others were landscapes. He framed his canvas as if he were looking through a viewfinder — allowing subtle, extraneous objects to invade the corners of his pictures, for example.
His lighting could be harsh — whether street lamps at night, or direct sunlight streaming through motel windows. He did not look for beauty in his subjects, but instead strived to achieve a certain mood or feeling in his art.
Controlling the Canvas
Painters begin with a blank canvas. What they place on it comes directly from their heads. They rarely begin with something that already exists, and if it does exist (e.g., a landscape), they have free reign to interpret it as they choose.
If something is in their way, they remove it. If an element is too far to the left or right, they move it.
They achieve balance and movement by carefully placing the elements, shapes and colors, making the viewer’s eyes move across the canvas as they intend them to. The boldness of their brush strokes and strength of their lines give emotion and feeling to their pictures.
I cannot think of a more inspiring approach to making photographs.
As a photographer, I want to begin with a blank canvas — uncluttered by preconceived ideas from my psyche. I want nothing that confuses, corrupts or complicates.
Once I raise the viewfinder to my eye, I can begin to construct my image.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. I once saw an interview with Gary Winogrand in which he described taking pictures this way: “All you got to do is choose what you want to put in the frame and decide when to click the shutter.”
Just control the frame, as painters control the canvas. It’s so simple, isn’t it?
“I see why you are inspired by painters now,” the gallery owner said upon hearing my explanation. “And how are you inspired by cinema?”
But that is a topic for another post.