I have lost count of the number of times someone has told me they don’t want to go on a photo shoot or photograph a particular subject because the location or the subject has been photographed many times before. Although many of my photographs are of locations or subjects that have been shot before, I firmly believe it’s not so much what you photograph but rather how you photograph it. While many people may have photographed the same thing, I doubt two people will have exactly the same idea of how to capture and reproduce the scene before them. Simply put, we all see differently and introduce ideas into the final image that are personal to each and everyone of us.
Whenever I come up with an idea to photograph something it is generally because I have a picture in my mind of what I want the final image(s) to look like. However, to me ideas are incremental. A new idea is nothing more than an adaptation of an older, existing idea and can be influenced by the work of another photographer or an adaptation of a theme, feeling or experience that I have previously worked on. In the world of media advertising this would clearly be sacrilegious. We are constantly being told that “new” is best and exciting, whereas “old” is dull. I once read an analogy that I think explains this perfectly and it goes something like this:
Ideas are like barrels. When they are new they are empty and have no contents that have benefited from careful nurturing, adjustment or aging. Like barrels, ideas must be filled. Ideas are filled by being used, by having thought, emotion and experience poured into them. Through usage they are shaped, the rough edges are smoothed down and the useless parts are discarded. Through time and usage, meaning slowly attaches itself to an idea.
I don’t want to approach my photography as if I had to re-invent the whole art itself. I feel that those who refuse to photograph a location or subject “because it has been done before” are throwing away an opportunity to introduce their own creative spin and therefore enrichment of their own development. Lots of my ideas are the result of inspiration from the work of other photographers. If I see something that I like I start to wonder how I can apply my own vision. I don’t want to go out and recreate the exact same image but rather consider how I can introduce my own interpretation of the subject through the feeling(s) it imparts within me.
I was recently reminded of this when looking through the current edition of Diffusion Magazine (Volume II 2010) when the work of a photographer named Kimberly Mowbray leapt out from the page at me. Kimberly’s images were taken with a large format, 4 x 5 camera using Polaroid PN 55 film. This film produces a positive and a negative and you adjust your ISO rating separately for each, depending on which you want to keep. I have also worked with PN 55 and still have a large [out of date] stock in my refrigerator. The negative has a very distinctive look to it that is created when the film is exposed and then pulled through the rollers, spreading the developer chemicals over its surface. The chemicals are then “supposed” to be cleared in a sodium sufite solution. However, Kimberly had decided not to clear the developer but let it dry on the surface of the film, creating a very interesting texture. I had toyed with this idea a few years ago but hadn’t produced anything that I enjoyed. Looking at Kimberly’s work inspired me to try again and the images included with this post are examples of what I have started to work on. I am enjoying working with this idea and look forward to developing it, just to see where it goes.