Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

– Clark Terry, Jazz Trumpet Legend

Always a concern for beginning and emerging artists. Where do we draw the line between inspiration and appropriation (stealing)?

In our examination of what makes an image portfolio worthy, we begin to look for authenticity, and not merely a ‘me too’ approach to the art.

Jan Klier, a friend and photographer in NY sent this to me after last weeks newsletter:

“The question of whether it’s worthy to be in your portfolio is harder. You may put the 24 images that best describe you in your book, or more precisely the 24 images that best describe your sensibilities to the particular audience you’re showing this particular book to on that day. But for an image to be worthy it actually not only has to be describe your sensibilities, but it also has to be in the 1% of your best work, and you have to be convinced that you pushed yourself to create it, that you couldn’t have done it better at the time. I think we all have images that have a rightful spot in our book, but not all of them are actually worthy to be there, and they be booted as soon as something better has been shot.”

While this is very true, and should be regarded as excellent advice, we first must get to that point where the images in the 1% Jan describes do more than emulate what is already out there, but begin to define us as photographers in our own right.

I have heard the questions “what is my style”, and “how do I find my style” from beginning photographers and full time professionals as well. The answer is simple… look at your photos and tell me which ones you love (not like, love) and then tell me what makes them so loved?

Wait… I did say it was simple, didn’t I?

Yeah… I lied. It is not simple or easy, it is a complex decision making process that combines what we know with what we feel and adds in a bit of whimsically applied aesthetics along the way.

Finding the good images is one thing (as we discussed last week) but finding the authentic ones are a bit more challenging. While it may be a good technical photograph, the goal is to achieve something more than mere technical competence.

We want to make images that look as though they came from us. This doesn’t mean that our images are totally unique to the entire world of imagery, but instead that they are uniformly identifiable as ours. They belong to us, and are a part of how we see and present the world through photography.

And while that is a noble and excellent goal for our work, we are now challenged with how to get there.

As the quote above by Clark Terry says, imitate, assimilate, innovate – and that means that now we have a path to follow. A road map for creativity. A plan.

Imitate: In jazz it is important to gain the ‘chops’ to be able to play some licks or patterns that our heroes play. We learn to do a cool fill like Elvin, or a blues change like Trane. We are copying them not from a point of stealing their music, but from the experiential learning method so important for all forms of art. In order to understand,we do what they did.

In photography, the goal is to learn the exposure qualities, what ratios look like, and make images that look like others have made them – others that we admire. That doesn’t teach us to steal the work, but to imitate the technique, and get better with our tools.

Assimilate: Just again as in jazz, we learn so well that the techniques become second nature to us. We can hit that riff just right, and play the turnarounds just like Monk, but with the beginnings of our own flare.

We have assimilated the techniques. We are no longer stymied by exposure, or how to get ‘that look’ or where to put the umbrella. We have imitated to the point of assimilation. The techniques are a part of us, and are called into service without much ‘thinking’ about them.

Unfortunately the first two are the easiest. They require practice and faithful study of something that is currently out there to be studied. The model exists, so we have the base upon which to build. But this is not where we quit. Assimilation is not the goal.

Innovate: Innovation is the goal.

We take the techniques that are now second nature to us and we begin to build our own sound, our own riffs, our own blues turnarounds. And we make the images that are ours, fully and completely ours.

Yes, the homage may be present. Yes, there may always be some areas of crossover, but the images are more “us” than the ones we studied. They are authentically ours. We have broken through the limitations of mere assimilation, and created something unique and ultimately much more powerful. We have innovated.

Innovation comes hard. It requires more study and more practice than the first two levels did, and the payoff may not be visible so quickly. This is where we get to words like ‘vision’ and ‘style’ and ‘personal work’.

The previous LE post discussed making sure the images were portfolio worthy, this one is asking ‘if they are worthy, that’s good. If they are YOURS that is even more good. Gooder, so to speak.

The method we discussed about looking at your work is the first process, now we have to dig deeper into your vision and see the work that is presented as a group. A ‘body’ of work. More than a collection of ‘good’ images, this body of work is a collection of related images that show an authentic connection to the photographer.

Photography can be quite a challenge when you get to the ‘innovate’ part, but it is so rewarding when you do. To create something uniquely yours is very cool, and very much a confidence builder.

Look at your body of work. Lay prints out on a table… the best of the best. Do you see a style emerging? Is there a unique way of looking and seeing the world that connects the images somehow?

Can you say with confidence that someone looking at the group would state… “yeah, those are all yours?” That is the goal we are looking for. That point where we stop making images that look like ‘theirs’ and make images that are ‘ours’.

And remember that your style doesn’t mean a unique to the world style, it means it is YOUR style. It is also not how you process your images, or what lens you use, or how off angle the horizon is. While a little of all three can be involved, your style is more about how you see than the gear/actions/presets you use.

Where are you on this path? Are you still imitating to find the technical control you need? Or are you in the assimilation section, having the skills and using them to make images that look like everyone else’s? Have you begun to innovate – to create something that flows from you as a personal extension instead of looking outward for validation of your work?

And, BTW, here is Clark Terry teaching a master class.

And a younger Terry cooking along with a big band from a little TV show that was on late nights. The man could certainly play that trumpet.

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