Welcome to Episode 9 of The Photo Flunky Show!
Why Inspiration is Unreliable
Inspiration is one of the most used words in photography, but what does it really mean to you and how you come up with ideas for your next photo?
I'll talk about some examples of inspiration that work and some that have gone terribly wrong. Are you creating photos because you were inspired, or are you merely imitating work you've seen elsewhere?
You ought to have something to think about when we're through this this episode.
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PHOTO FLUNKY: Episode 9
I’m your host, William Beem. Welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, Episode number nine.
Today we’re going to be talking about inspiration. Is it unreliable? Find out!
Hi, welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, available at photoflunky.com. You can find links there to subscribe on iTunes and Stitcher Radio. Show notes are available at williambeem.com/episode9.
Let’s get into inspiration. It’s a topic I hear people talking a lot about today. They bring it up as, “I’m going to inspire you. I’m going to give you these wonderful ideas for your own creativity.” And honestly, inspiration is a topic that annoys me, just for that reason.
I want inspiration to be a surprise. I never, ever want someone to tell me they are going to inspire me, because honestly they don’t. If they are going to show me something inspirational, it seems presumptuous. It’s like, I’ve created this. It’s going to inspire you. Well, the truth is you don’t know what’s going to inspire me; I don’t know what’s going to inspire you. Inspiration really is a surprise.
What happens to me, you know, if they show me their pride and joy and I really just don’t care about it? I look at it and it’s nice and all that, but I’m not moved, I’m not inspired and I don’t hate it, but I also don’t like it. Am I supposed to act like I’m inspired? Is the burden on me now? Is this just another way of trolling for a compliment? I don’t know, but here’s the way it breaks down for me.
To me inspiration is like a fart in the wind. You don’t know when it’s coming. All you can do is react to it and it’s gone before you know it.
Now that’s not to say that I never get inspired. The truth is I get inspired quite frequently. There’s a lot of photography out there that I think is very beautiful, I’m looking for it to see what’s new, what has somebody done. The things that inspire me could be a set design; it could be a post processing technique, maybe an unusual angle or composition, great application of lighting. As photographers, we’re always looking at light. We see beautiful light and we want to know how you got that and more importantly, what did you do with it? Those kinds of things to me are inspirational, but I don’t know when I’m going to see it.
I see a lot of photographs with lovely subjects, whether it’s a landscape, a building or a portrait. All these elements have to come together in order for it to be inspirational to me. There’s got to be something unique and different that I have not considered and I think a lot of people are talking about inspiration when they really don’t know what it means.
So let’s just go and get a dictionary definition.
“Inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative.”
So you’re mentally stimulated to do something. If you feel something, that’s great. Street photographers, for the most part I just don’t find them inspirational. I know a lot of people love it, they go out and they’re looking for something and when they do capture it, it’s really great. It can be fantastic. It can inspire you to feel something. When you see someone’s emotion and you see that they are happy or they are feeling something, it can make you feel something as well.
Or you can see photo journalism that can make you feel like you’ve got to take action to change something. Those are wonderful examples of how photography can inspire you. But to me inspiration for photography is the process of being mentally stimulated to do something.
Now the question is what are you going to do with it? A lot of times when I see people say they were inspired, what they really end up doing is emulation and that is the effort to act like someone else or more specifically the effort to make a photo that looks like someone else’s.
I’ll be honest, I’ve done that too. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of photos out there taken at the same places and that look very similar because they’re going to look similar. You shoot them from the same spot all the time. The next step off beyond emulation is when you get down into being a rip-off. It’s an inferior imitation of something and I see this happening every year, particularly summer time, you know when Fourth of July is coming around in the USA, there is going to be a shot of some beautiful model in a bikini or cut off shorts that have a US flag on them. Like nothing helps celebrate the birth of our nation like a beautiful woman in scantily clad clothing!
The truth is, a lot of us do shoot some of the same subjects. One of the recent examples that I just saw online was at Horsetail Falls. There are a couple of weeks out of the year where the lighting is just right that they get what’s called a Firefall. In other words, the water coming down off the mountain is backlit by the sun, it looks orange, and it looks like fire falling. It looks like lava falling down there. And, as I said, photographers are always paying attention to the light. You get this colorful light coming down on silky smooth water with a long exposure. It’s a beautiful thing. And I know it’s a beautiful thing because I’ve seen it done. Every year there are Firefall photos coming out in February. It’s not an original thing.
If you look at some of the photographs of people out there, you will see four or five dozen photographers, all crammed into the same space, all with tripods and chairs because they are waiting for just the right time, and then they are all going to try and make their shot. It’s like collecting your trophy.
After that, I suppose they are going to go to Horseshoe Bend and then they are going to go to the Mesa Arch. With this kind of stuff you can make beautiful images, but they are always trophies because you’re making the same image that a lot of other people have made before.
And again, I can’t point a finger at anyone else without pointing it back at myself because I’ve done the same thing. I live in Orlando, I’m close to Walt Disney World, I’ve gone off and taken photographs of theme park areas that are just the same as everyone else, I’ve gone to Zion National Park and stood on the bridge taking a photo of the Watchman over the river and actually, mine wasn’t as nice because I made the mistake of taking it in winter time and there were no leaves on the trees so it’s much better to go there in summer time!
The idea is, we see something beautiful, we want to capture it and sometimes emulation is a way of comparing yourself to other photographers. Am I good enough to make this look as beautiful as someone who did it before me?
I have absolutely no problem with using inspiration that you get from looking at someone else’s photograph as a tool to help you build up yourself. And sometimes that is going to be through a process of emulation. When it becomes a rip off, it’s inferior. You’re imitating someone else. It’s kind of like in the fashion industry. A designer will come out with something new and shocking and then a little while later you’ll see that some of the discount clothing stores have inferior versions of the same thing, because nobody can afford what the designer is doing, but they will take the same color, they will take the same style or idea and they will dumb it down so it’s affordable for the average person to get something that’s just like it, or at least close enough to what the designer created.
Photographers do the same thing all the time. Most of them will do it as emulation; a few of them will do it as a rip-off. It also kind of reminds me of a quote from the movie Full Metal Jacket. They’ve got all the Marines standing there and they are saying, “This is my rifle. There are many others like it. This one is mine.” And that’s great. If your photo is out there and it’s yours, it may look like someone else’s but the problem is you’ve got to remember, you’re not creating original work. You’re creating trophies.
Using inspiration to emulate others isn’t just something that happens in photography. It happens in other creative fields. Let’s take the music industry for example. There are a couple of them that come to mind.
John Mayer hat to defend his song Heartbreak Warfare from his album Battle Studies. A lot of people said the guitar lick in there sounded like U2’s song Bad. And Mayer said, “You’re right. I liked that. It was intentional. I liked what I heard in Bad, I wanted to do something similar, I put it in this song.” So shut up and go away! (He didn’t say shut up). Anyways, that’s kind of the thing. I liked what they did before me. It kind of inspired me. I want to do this; I put it in my song.
The same kind of thing happened a few years later. Robin Thicke and Pharrell recorded a song called Blurred Lines. That was 2013’s hit song of the summer. Marvin Gaye’s family claimed it was a rip-off though of You’ve Got To Give It Up.
Pharrell said in the trial that they were inspired by the song, but they didn’t rip it off. Well, Gaye’s family felt otherwise and a Jury agreed with Marvin Gaye’s family and they awarded the family a $7.3 million settlement. Those two songs have kind of a similar feel to them, but they’re not the same song. Blurred Lines, according to Pharrell, was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s work. It didn’t change enough, apparently. And that kind of sent a shiver down the music industry.
Imagine that happening in the photography industry. You’re inspired by someone else’s work, you do something that’s similar to it and you get sued. Fortunately I haven’t seen anything happen like that, but it kind of makes me wonder, should we be looking at other people’s work and going off and doing our own versions of that? As I said before, I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing that as a learning step, but you don’t necessarily put it out there as “Look at my work I just created. Oh, by the way, it looks just like someone else’s.” Inspiration should lead you to something new. Create the work, copy someone else, keep it for yourself, use it as a tool to analyze and then discover whether it’s going to be the subject that inspired you, the technique, whatever it was that inspired you. Take that and do something original with it.
It’s OK to emulate as a tool for learning and growing, but your best work is going to come out when you do something original. So step all over inspiration, get what you want out of it and then use what it creates in your mind and go do your best original work.
Thank you for listening to the Photo Flunky Show. Show notes are available at williambeem.com/episode9. You can find a transcript of the show there for free.
I’m William Beem. And, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t hurt you to subscribe on iTunes. It’s easy. Just go to williambeem.com/itunes, find the show and I would love to have your honest rating and review. Give me some feedback, let me know what you think.
Thank you very much. I appreciate you! Have a good one!