How inspiration works in Photography

Ever felt like your images lack some originality? What happens that your images just look cliché? Maybe they need some originality boost! Let's look at the how inspiration how it relates to you and your photography.

There is two kinds of inspiration: Direct & Indirect, let's look at them both:


Direct Inspiration
When I say Michael Jackson, you probaly picture him holding his crotch with one hand and doing the moonwalk right?
When I say Apple, you probably picture sleek unibody all aluminum computers right?
Well the cold, harsh truth is that both Michael Jacksons and Apple took their inspiration from previous generations.
For Michael Jackson, just look at this video to understand where he got his dance moves:



For Apple, they are based off Braun's product designs.


Even the beloved “Chiclet” keyboard design in Apple computers is actually Sony design. Steve Jobs even admitted in video that Apple “Steals shamelessly” echoing the words of Picasso “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. That's called direct inspiration, it's when you get inspired by something that was done in your field previously.


The fact that both MJ and Apple took pieces right and left, they both still deserve credit because they both made something coherent out of them. They both improved upon the original material, and after all we ALL recycle, but I believe that when it comes to inspiration, indirect inspiration rules.


The thing about direct inspiration is that it doesn't matter if you didn't invent anything, it only matters to be perceived as the inventor or originator. Bruce Gilden is probably the one that comes to mind when I say Flash Street Photography, but Weegee the great did it first.


Indirect Inspiration & The story of a Juggler
There was this highly successful juggler, his juggling was different than every one else's. When asked for his secret, he simply said that everyone else's inspiration came from juggling, his came from everything else but juggling. Point taken. The fact is, you become more and more what you focus on.


Focus too much on one photographer and you will start shooting like them. It's actually an obstacle to expressing one's own Vision, expressing somebody else's. So idolizing a particular photographer is the sure way to be more like them and less like you.


The science behind it
The funny thing is, we can be influenced by our environment, so if we start having the same sources of inspiration, we start looking alike. See this most interesting video on the subject:



How did Derren Brown influence his subjects? Their environment. Something so banal can influence you, imagine how much more you draw from direct inspiration….. I go for indirect inspiration because of this, photographers with the same influence will render the same types of images. That's one of the big reasons why we mix things up in our photography magazine.


Cirque du Soleil and Eugene smith
Circus attendance is going down the drain, and in the mist of total decline, in comes a circus that draws crowds: Cirque du Soleil. While other cirques focuses on bigger shows with more lions and elephants, the recipe for originality was simply to stop looking at the circus and start looking at theater. The result? Cirque du Soleil is one of the most successful circuses ever by combining theater and circus.
One of my favorite photographers, Eugene Smith, his influence was also theater. He often said himself that his primary influence was theater and music, not photography. Let's look at a few photographs from one of his best known essays: Coutry Doctor


Copyright Heirs of Eugene Smith


The image above, is a great example of Eugene Smith's influence by theater, the whole photograph reeks of “Mis-en-scene”. Their pose, their expressions, their placement to the background, they look like theater actors more than live persons.


Copyright Heirs of Eugene Smith


Observe the lower angle, the light and the expressions all are used to bring drama to the photograph. Is this a still from a movie?


Copyright Heirs of Eugene Smith


Just like the first photograph, this scene reeks of the Mis-en-scene, the staged. The two planes are obvious, the background and foreground, and the placement of the subject seems as if they are placed in order for the audience to see everything.


Copyright Heirs of Eugene Smith


Look how the photographer exaggerated the doctor's feature to create more drama than his face would allow. The image and the stitches is reminiscent of Frankenstein. Is this a whole play? Well no, it isn't. All the images are real. The last two images document a 2 year old girl who was hit by a horse. The parents are of course freaked out, and in the last photograph the doctor tries to find resolve on how to tell the parents that he cannot save her eye.


I think the influence of theater is symbiotic with Smith's documentary, drama in front of the lens does not translate to drama on the roll of film. His usage of theater helped translate what he saw and what he felt more accurately than “straight” photography.


Eugene Smith therefore is a good example of indirect inspiration, he drew from theater. I think with indirect inspiration you get more of you in the equation than direct inspiration, making it more satisfactory. In direct inspiration, most of the ground is covered, in indirect inspiration, you have room to innovate and put more of yourself in it.


The influence equation
As the video of the logo design demonstrates, you can't really escape influence, but you can control your influence's source (Not taking the predefined course would have changed everything), determining it's end. The influence equation, in my opinion is simple: Never draw from a unique source.


If you want to stay in photography, be inspired by other styles. A popular style of fashion photography takes it's inspiration from street for example. Wedding photojournalism bough photojournalism to wedding photography, etc. But better in my opinion, draw from sources other than photography, read and learn about game design, psychology, art, nature, etc.


The You factor
Two photographers can have the same influences yet produce similar but different results. The logo design experiment was a controlled experiment, but life isn't a controlled environment, little variations in factors produce different outputs in people. I don't think influence is bad per se, I think it's bad when there is so much influence that it chokes the YOU part of the equation.


I do think indirect inspiration is superior to direct inspiration, but both are useless if it's not permeated with your unique sauce. We all have the same cameras, the same world to capture, the real unique thing to everything is YOU.



Inspiration (3 of 1)


My grandfather had this cutout made of him, somewherez in the world and I always remember it. That was of course years ago, but once the church windows lit the groom, I couldn't help myself and made the shot.


Inspiration (2 of 2)


My inspiration for this image is mainly from supernatural thinking. It's that whole idea of this world being a mere shadow of the other one and sometimes both meet in one point. Here what I had in mind is heaven meets earth.


Inspiration (1 of 2)


When I was a kid (about 13?) I read this comic about Daddy long legs, a book about a mysterious benefactor. The only clue we have of him is a shadow with long legs. This surrealist image draws inspiration from that.


Inspiration (4 of 1)


For this last image, I was inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio. Not only the whole tenebristic style of image but the meaning of light. A child reaches for the light out of darkness. The whole light and darkness theme comes from the Bible.



Be inspired, ask yourself what attracts you and put in the you sauce. Make it so much yours that you cannot pinpoint the point of origin in other words. Be influenced, from everything and everywhere (Did I say that Salomon, hailed in Hebrew wisdom, drew some from Ants?) but be influenced your way with your voice. If not, it's not being influenced, it's being a copy, a shadow. You were born an original, don't die a copy.

Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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7 thoughts on “How inspiration works in Photography”

  1. Wow , this article has hit me hard, at a time in my life, where I’ve been hit real hard. This article, for some reason, as caused me to look deep into my soul. More than just photography, I realized just who and what I’ve become. A product of what I have allowed myself to be influenced by. And I am not happy about that. Thank God, for I see, I can change it, I have the resources, Thank you. This just may become the best Easter revelation I’ve ever had.

    1. Wow. That’s pretty deep, I only intended to show how inspiration works in Photography but indeed influence is everywhere. That’s why it is said to guard your heart with due diligence!

  2. Probably the most valuable article on inspiration I have read. Re-affirming and confirming. It addresses the issue and phenomenon with depth and weight.
    I find that a lot of ‘genres’ and iconography find their way into my ‘street’.. mostly I am amazed when I see “Classical”, “Expressionist” & “Abstract” forms emerge and converge with “Noir” in a seemingly random shot that somehow still manages to carry a contemporary narrative. When I *feel* these influences emerge i get a high like no other.

    1. You are too kind 🙂
      Being able to pinpoint the influence I think means that you are able to semi-consciously put them into your work, hence that is why I am all for a Non-naive approach to art (in the sense that you are consciously able to draw an quote other works of art), my 2 cents at least 🙂

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