The Addictive Madness
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” - Jack Kerouac, On the Road
In 1930 Walker Evans told Lincoln Kirstein that the possibilities of the medium excited him so much that he sometimes thought himself mad. For a photographer watching in the street, the dramas there are incalculable, oblique, and continually rising. A sidestep, handshake, kiss, or slow goodbye are metric shifts, sprung rhythms set against the beat of walking. Cameras are like dogs, but dumb, and toward quarry, even more faithful. They point, they render, and defy the photographer who hopes.
Critics, and even photographers, have commonly assumed that photographers should have the same wary, respectful relationship to what they describe in their pictures that moral philosophers presumably have to what they think and write about. This, however, repeats an old confusion: that a picture (or a poem, for that matter), because it resembles the world, is therefore somehow equivalent, and morally responsible, to it. I call this an old confusion because, until the nineteenth century, poems and paintings were often referred to as “mirrors of nature”; and since they seemed to exist then, as photographs do now, as “imitations of life,” were assumed, even while pleasing their audiences, also to be instructing them.
A photograph, however, is just a picture - or, as Winogrand would have it, “the illusion of a literal description of a piece of time and space.” It is as wanton a fiction as any description; but it is also, of course, a particularly convincing one because it so specifically locates and describes what it shows. As a poet knows that the words he chooses for his poem will, by their particular combination, resonate with a power that is the gift of language itself, so a photographer has at his disposal a system of visual indication that, even without his conscious deliberation, will describe the world with a unique, mimetic energy.
W H. Auden’s observation that “it is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words,” could also be said of the photographer’s relation to the things of the physical world: he cannot invent them. By being fictions and, at the same moment, returning their subjects to us with a compelling fidelity, both photographs and poems work with the same surprise: both mediate between our experience and our sense of the-world-as-it-apparently-is, and both strike us as if they were simultaneously remembrances and revelations. In both the poem and the photograph, meaning is inseparable from the series of specific responses we make as we "observe” or “read” the works.
It is in the precision of a picture’s details and the surprised addition we make from them that we discover what the picture is “about” and what it “means,” and with that begin to understand the specific gravity by which a camera can draw the most intractable of facts into a small system, a photograph that works. The best poems are those with the right words in the right order; so are the best photographs those with the right objects in the right position. “Right position,” however, is a difficult problem for a photographer to solve, even in a photograph with an apparently simple form. The slightest shift, whether by the photographer or his subjects, changes the picture that records it as surely as a shift of word order changes a poem. And as more facts are included in the photograph, these problems of position and movement become even more difficult to resolve. The process involved in creating a body of work that possesses this constellated density is a process only the most interested and active mind would attempt.
From wherever it begins, a photograph ends as a cupped abstraction: the thing capsized by a lens, stripped, and projected as an image. If made well, it will give its own shape of delight and, at the same time, be tempered as conclusively as steel. The game is the old one of form set against the specific charge and demand of content. Photographers do not expect others to understand this, but for them the process they use is prodigal, addictive, and maddening.
-Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. “ -Salvador Dali
Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism - plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.
Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” McCartney and his partner John Lennon became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history but as McCartney recalls, they only started writing their own songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.”
First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy.
Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes - the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be. The songwriter Nick Lowe says, “You start out by rewriting your hero’s catalog.” And you don’t just steal from one of your heroes, you steal from all of them. The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, “lf you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”
What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don't want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes. The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want - to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.
Francis Ford Coppola said: “We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”
At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.
“There isn’t a move that’s a new move.” The basketball star Kobe Bryant has admitted that all of his moves on the court were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. But initially when Bryant stole a lot of those moves, he realized he couldn’t completely pull them off because he didn’t have the same body type as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own.
Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan 0’Brien. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.
In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.
-Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative