Finding out who you really are by acknowledging and thanking your influences

"Let influences be your guide. But don't let them define you"

 

We all have to start somewhere. That place is usually in the footsteps (or tripod holes) of those that we admire. It has often been said that the biggest form of flattery is imitation.

The Cuernos & Lago Pehoe. Image © Galen Rowell

The Cuernos & Lago Pehoe.
Image © Galen Rowell

I would certainly agree with this. I know myself that I learned a lot during my initial years of photography by following in the footsteps of those that I admire. For example, I remember my whole reason for going to Patagonia back in 2003 was because I had been so inspired by the work of the late Galen Rowell. He had made one particular image of Lago Pehoe that just made me want to go there so badly and when I did, I sourced out the location where Galen made the image you see on the right.

I know my influences: Galen Rowell first gave me the motivation to use strong colour when I first started out. Through his writing and emotive images he taught me to embrace the adventure. Even today, his book 'Mountain Light' is perhaps my most favourite book on travel photography which I often return to when I feel I need to re-connect to my roots as to why I got into this whole thing in the first place.

Michael Kenna was and still is a great influence on me: I've learned so much from Michael's work over the decades that I have followed him (I've been a fan since the late 80's). He himself has said in many interviews that it is quite normal to follow in the footsteps of your heroes. By working in the places that they worked, you learn a lot about how they made the images they made.

The Cuernos & Lago Pehoe Image © Bruce Percy

The Cuernos & Lago Pehoe
Image © Bruce Percy

But there must come a time when your work should diverge from your heroes - it is usually a signal that you are beginning to find your own voice. Some of us have a long journey ahead of us to get there, and indeed, some of us never do. It is my hope though that we should all, at some stage, get a glimmer of who we really are underneath all the hero worshiping that is, I believe, a normal stage of development.

In this age of high proliferation: it is hard to be an individual. Indeed, I often feel that many people go to the same locations because they wish to capture similar shots that someone else has captured. We are bombarded with many shots of the same view, endlessly repeated on image sites that I think it is hard to step away and find our own voice.

To find one's own voice inevitably requires us to understand ourselves: to know who we are.

As part of finding out who we are,  we need to acknowledge and thank our influences. I remember noticing that Kenna had gone to some of Bill Brandt's locations and he had name checked his influence with the title  'Bill Brandt's Snicket', as you can see below:

Image Left: © Bill Brandt Image Right © Michael Kenna (titled 'Bill Brandt's Snicket, Halifax, Yorkshire)

Image Left: © Bill Brandt
Image Right © Michael Kenna (titled 'Bill Brandt's Snicket, Halifax, Yorkshire)

I myself have openly thanked Kenna in turn for kindly providing me with his guide's details for Hokkaido and the work I created there - I made sure to namecheck him as I felt a need to be in-tune with which parts of my creativity are truly my own, and which parts I've borrowed from my heroes. It's vital that I know who I really am and to do that, I have to recognise and understand my influences, and to thank them for what they have given me.

Image Left: © Michael Kenna 2007 Image Right: © Bruce Percy 2017  Following in the footsteps of one of my heroes, even now.

Image Left: © Michael Kenna 2007
Image Right: © Bruce Percy 2017

Following in the footsteps of one of my heroes, even now.

Photography is a personal journey into finding out who we really are. That is what makes it so special; it is our own private universe, a place where we get the chance to express our individuality. If we wish to get a clearer insight to who we really are as artists, and to know where we are going with our creativity,  we first need to understand our influences. But before we can continue, we also need to acknowledge and thank them for showing us the way forward.

Postscript:

I received a few replies about this post where the reader assumed I was telling them to go and literally thank their influences:

"If the person who influenced you didn’t mention that they had already been “influenced” by another photographer. Or who do you mention when shooting something like St Paul’s? Could be 1000’s thinking they deserve a mention. Do you mention the influencer every time you post it?"

That's the problem with the written word: readers can often read into what you've said and come up with a different meaning than the one I intended.

If anyone is still in doubt about what I was suggesting, I am merely saying it's good to be aware of your influences. You can thank them any way you can, but the easiest way is to just be mindful and to recognise that they are part of the reason you do what you do.

Moving beyond the accessible

I think all great artists at some point lose their audience. Through pursuing what they feel is all about the art, they move beyond what their audience find accessible.

Because accessible often translates to 'conservative' or perhaps 'already understood and accepted'. Accessible means that the audience know where they are, because they've been there before. There is you see, great comfort in knowing what you're dealing with.

Fjallabak-(6).jpg

When something comes along that we have never experienced before, some are able to see it as the great wonder that it may be while others find it hard to take the new step on board.

Now let's mirror this in what we do as creative people. If you are always creating work that you can accept, then I would like to suggest to you that you are only treading water. You know where you are because you've either been here before many times, or someone else has.

Conversely, if you venture into an area that is new to you, or something you've never encountered before elsewhere, I would suggest that you are growing.

it can feel like you might have gone too far. You may be scared, or uncertain because you are now in unfamiliar terrain. If you feel this way, then that's great, because when you're riding the crest of a wave, you should feel scared (and dare I suggest - alive). Being somewhere you've never been before is good for you.

When you get there, you may feel that what you have created is too weird, or strange. Maybe you don't feel you get it yourself. This is normal. Like trying out a new style of clothing, something that you had never thought would suit you, you may find after a while that it was a natural progression. 

If you manage to get to this point, you should congratulate yourself, because I don't think this happens very often. In general, most of us stay within our comfort zones and create the derivative - we see what else is around us and we replicate it. Without thinking about what we're doing, we may be fitting in, but we're not standing out. We've lost our individuality. We conform.

Great work comes from going it alone. To make a mark, you have to be different, and to do that, you cannot follow others. You have to find your own path. One way to do that is to not give a damn about what others are doing and to give your creativity the freedom it deserves. This can only come from some kind of confidence or self-belief, and that only comes if you give yourself the permission to experiment. You need to give your creativity the freedom to be what it needs to be. You know this is the right approach. Control it too much and you'll be right back to producing something bland and derivative. Sure, everyone will get it, but they only get it, because everyone else is doing it too.

If we only keep within the realms of what others think is cool, then we are in danger of becoming lost. We won't be pushing the boundaries of the medium, and most importantly, we won't be finding out who we are, or what we are capable of.

Instead,  we will simply be losing ourselves to someone else's story, to someone else's idea that has already  been tried and tested so many times before by so many others, that it can't possibly be yours.

So what is it to be? Do you want to reach the levels of the work created by others you admire, or would you much rather find out who you are?

The choice is yours.

Is there a need for Narrative?

During the summer, I was interviewed and  asked if I could explain the narrative behind my photography. On impulse, I responded 'I've never considered that my photography has any kind of story. My images are just aesthetic responses, ones that please me'.

Hokkaido-(20).jpg

I couldn't help feel that looking for, or requiring a narrative in one's photography could be a little bit pretentious. I appreciated that my interviewer's question was asked with genuine sincerity, but I just felt that my imagery is just an emotional response - I do what I do, and the images are what they are, and it's up to the viewer to see in them what they see.

Having given it some thought, I've come to realise that narrative doesn't specifically have to be a clearly defined story, and if there is any kind of narrative to what I do, then it is about leaving enough room, so that others can form their own story.

Like a song we have fallen in love with, each of us forms our own internal emotional response and our own personal vision of what a song truly means. Most song lyrics are often abstract, vague formations of words that give the listener room to form their own interpretation. For me, that is something I find very appealing - that we are allowed to create our own internal dream world.

Having a narrative may be important to some of us. But for me, if I do have any narrative, it is in leaving things deliberately open and inconclusive. I prefer to let the viewer make up their own mind.