Should we think “I wish I’d taken that shot” when viewing great photographs?
I think there’s an important distinction to make between photographs we admire, and photographs we wish we’d made ourselves.
Most of the photographs in the typical “most influential” lists are great photographs. Admirable, useful, impactful. Typically, though, there are very few I wish I’d taken myself. Because war zones are scary, because dead children would rip my soul in two, because big events do nothing for me, because I like to walk, not hang from a chopper, because the aesthetics of those photographs rarely correspond to my tastes, because many other reasons …
I’m thankful someone took them, and admiring. But not envious.
On instawham, the situation is somewhat different. Very few photos there are important, even fewer inspire me, but there are some there I’d have liked to to have made.
Either because of the location, which appeals to me. Or, more often, because of some quality of the picture-making that speaks to me.
To me, this illustrates an important point. If you want to become a master of the craft, it’s important to be able to articulate who you can draw inspiration from. And why. Projecting yourself in the work is key to progress. How would you have done it? And you can’t just project yourself in any work. Admiring something is not necessarily aspirational or useful. The chosen work must match your context, your personality, and your voice, hidden or found.
Also, when we do find inspiration in someone else’s work, it becomes important to isolate why.
You’ll find that the two rarely overlap. It happens. Environmental reportage lends itself to a fine art approach, for instance. But few of the very memorable shots, those found in newspapers more than on gallery walls, ever do. Nor do fine art photographs often strive to document war atrocities (though it does occasionally happen).
One thing I find in the emails sent to me by photo newsletters, is that many aspiring artists adopt an almost anti-fine-art attitude to shots that also convey little meaning, and thus produce very weak work. As if the grimy look and sloppy composition were enough in themselves. They’re not. You need at least one or another of those options in your work. And it takes a Sebastião Salgado, Ed Burtinsky or David Maisel to combine both.
When you find yourself looking longingly at photographs, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we admire them or really wish we’d taken them. And in the second case, it pays to analyse the why a bit more. This will separate the wow shots from those we can use for personal training.
Photography, like wine, is about sharing. Taste, preferences, culture, craft, values. For our photographs to speak to others, we need them to convey meaning, art or both. And to do this, we need to draw careful inspiration from the work of others. The first question to ask yourself when viewing a seemingly great photo is “do I wish I’d made this myself?” It’s a tough one to answer truly.
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