Inspiration vs. Copycat

I got a message from a young photographer that made my day (my month, really!). She wrote, “I have always loved photography and you really inspire me.” OMG. Me? Inspiring? What an honor to have inspired even one person.

She wanted to know where she could go to find resources to learn and to become better at the craft. Something about my work set me apart for this aspiring artist, and as a former teacher, I couldn’t NOT help her. I pointed her toward education and reminded her that the vision is INSIDE her – what I’m giving her are only tools to bring the vision out into the world to share with others.

And sharing, especially now when cameras are in the homes of so many, leads to copying, and at times outright theft. Lately, in the photography world, there’s been a lot of talk about what distinguishes inspiration from copying in art. Truly, it’s a fine line.

I consider myself an artist. Other photographers and their work do inspire me; however, I don’t like to copy images down to their tiniest details. I’m inspired by a diverse group of photographers: I love Lara Jade’s edgy and editorial fashion portraits. I love Sue Bryce’s empowering and intoxicating photographs of women. I love Brooke Shaden’s dark and surreal self-portraits. I love Kelly Robataille’s bizarre and fantastical waifs. And SO many other photographers and artists I can’t even begin to list. It’s not so much the images themselves that I want to go out and duplicate or replicate; it’s a feeling. The feeling you get when the subject engages with the artist and a story is told. (That said, NONE of my work looks like the work of the women mentioned above, nor will it ever; but I do believe that the FEELING comes through.)

Some people get their start as artists by copying. I get it. They copy so they can learn. The big question is this: when do you begin to form your own ideas and execute them, and when are you just a copycat? When do you truly call yourself an original, as opposed to copying a concept and slapping your watermark on it?

One of my inspirations is Vivian Maier. She didn’t do her work for accolades or credit or love. She did it because she savored the world around her and wanted to capture those FEELINGS the details of the Chicago streets evoked within her. And I think a Vivian Maier quote about life and death can be applied to this inspiration debate.

“We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel; you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun.” (From the introduction by John Maloof in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.)

There’s nothing new. It’s all been done before. Being a true original is an increasingly difficult task in our expanding world. We should not set out to copy, but to provide an experience and a feeling. Find something that you love, and build your own styles and images around that. Read books. Explore the streets of your own city. No one has ever seen the world with your eyes. Show them what YOU see. Genuine, real, and fearless.

For resources to be a better photographer, I recommend courses. If you can find a mentor, that’s amazing. If you’re local to Baton Rouge, please visit us at Louisiana Photographic Society! We host many talks and workshops that help our members grow into better artists.

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