Under the Influence

By Roger (25 May 2015)

Today is Memorial Day. We honor and cherish all those who have given their lives in service of the United States and kept us a free nation. In addition, our deepest and sincerest thanks to those who have served, in any capacity: the veterans, families, and support personnel. We usually do a special blog on this subject, but, since we've done so many commemorative and military-themed blogs lately, I thought I'd stay contemplative, but move to a broader topic related to photography.

Ft. Clinch, Florida

Ft. Clinch, Florida

Most beginners make photographs of anything that crosses their path when they're holding a camera. This shotgun approach is helpful, at first, because they shoot often and learn lots. As you shoot more, you tend to better identify the subjects you prefer, and, very likely, the subjects you tend to do better with. For photographers who want to go beyond the simple fun of photography, or capturing their family moments, it can be very helpful to go into a little self-analysis to help direct your efforts and get into subjects that will suit you best.

Please note: There is nothing wrong with stopping at the sheer enjoyment phase of photography. There is absolutely no requirement to take it further. Some folks want more and see photography as a pursuit to create art or a business or, sometimes, both; they are compelled to complicate everything. ;-)

When you listen to interviews of veteran photographers, they are, often, asked what influenced them to move in the photographic direction they did. What got them started? How did they choose the area of photography they went into? Who helped them along their way? It is one of the most common questions you hear.

We are all influenced by many things: some common to most of us; some unique and very personal. If you understand what your main influences are, you can better organize your pursuit and move closer, more quickly, to your goal. What influences you?

Probably, the first answer that will come to mind, for those who immerse themselves in this photography thing will be other photographers and artists. We all follow photographers whose work inspires and influences the kind of work we do. It could be their work, their subject matter, or, even a little deeper, their struggles or work ethic. We try to emulate what they have done; see how they see; and learn their techniques for our own use.

I've been into photography for quite a while now, and I have my list of photographers and artists that quickly pop into my head. Some I've met and talked with, and some I've only read about. I enjoy looking at their work. This is the easy answer, but let's go even further.

All of your life has been an influence on the photography you'll make. Your goal here is to make yourself more self-aware of what has shaped you into you – the real you, the one in the mirror, when no one else is around. There are so many variables here that I can't list them all for you. Your life, background, experiences, and desires are likely to be very different from mine. Even if they are similar, your reaction and attitude to them may be very different from mine. Take that personal information and organize it; give extra weight to the things that have influenced you the most and matter the most to you; and decide how you want to translate that to your photography.

Your photographic reaction may be to embrace or totally reject those influences, but you can use this self-awareness to move yourself along in a more useful direction. Many photographers want to go further in their pursuit, but they are overwhelmed by the choices available. Their lack of direction can slow down their progress; instead of choosing, they continue the shotgun approach. The more thoroughly you work through this exercise, the clearer your path will be.

I'm not saying you should forsake all other photography subject, except the one this over-simplified exercise seems to point you towards. I'm saying this over-simplified exercise can help narrow your choices. Here's a simple example: if you don't like bugs, camping, or being alone in the wilderness, you are, probably, not going to be into photographing nature as a primary pursuit. That doesn't mean you won't take any pictures at the zoo or on a safari, but it isn't likely to be your first subject choice. So, don't spend much effort in this direction. See, we've already narrowed the list of photographic topics you need to pursue.

One of the major influences on my photography has been my military life. As a military brat and, then, living through my own military career, I've been moving from city to city and traveling throughout most of my life. I thought it was great. I loved the travel and meeting new people – travel and people are my favorite subjects. Family becomes very important when the world around you is constantly changing, and those are my favorite people subjects.

Street Musician, Krakow, Poland

Street Musician, Krakow, Poland

So, try to take a serious inventory of the people and things that have influenced you and those that are still active. Think about the type of each influence – environment (past or present); lifestyle; emotions; education; and attitudes toward them. Think of how they may affect your approach to photography and where they may suggest you concentrate your efforts.

Or maybe you think I just spent too much time studying my navel, lately. I had plenty of time to do so, on my latest trip. The photo, below, is Alexander Graham Bell's summer home, where I spent the weekend, without the internet or television. The irony of the situation was not lost on me

The Bell House, Colonial Beach, Virginia

The Bell House, Colonial Beach, Virginia