Our debt to other photographers

Over the summer I’ve been making several portraits, almost by default just with the Rolleiflex.  This is in part to do with my 1953 project (at the time of writing, I need to add lots of portraits to these pages… I’m way behind with this!), but I’ve also just found it pleasurable to photograph some of the people I’ve encountered.  Here are two of them.

Alex (Rolleiflex, on Ilford FP4+)

Alex (Rolleiflex, on Ilford FP4+)

This is Alex, my brother-in-law.  He was somewhat sceptical when I asked him to close his eyes, but I hope he likes this!  I think it softens the portrait considerably: not that he doesn’t photograph well, but I think he looks really relaxed here.

Gwendolin (Rolleiflex, on Ilford FP4+)

Gwendolin (Rolleiflex, on Ilford FP4+)

And this is Gwendolin, a long-standing friend: my wife met her parents at university, and we first met Gwen when she was a bump!  We’ve seen her almost every two years since then and she even lived with us for a little while some years ago.  Now she makes me feel quite old – she has become an assured, adventurous and beautiful young woman, rather than a toddler running through our flat with her toys muttering ‘ticka, ticka, ticka…’

There are, of course, portraits I have made this summer in which the subjects have their eyes open!  However, the ones I have put here owe their look in part to another photographer: I have been following a fascinating project that Jenny Wicks is pursuing.  Jenny is creating astonishingly striking portraits – and all her subjects have closed their eyes at her request (do click on that link to her work, and maybe read her blog too – I very much admire her use of photography for this kind of social engagement).  Many people do not like being photographed by a large camera, but I have found that by copying Jenny’s idea I can put my subjects at ease, and other portraits – with eyes open – then become more relaxed.  So thank you for that little idea, Jenny!

I mentioned this sort of thing in a blog posting some time ago, but I think it is important to note more explicitly that we should acknowledge our debts to others.  So often as photographers we create images borrowing ideas of technique, composition and form from other photographers, but fail to acknowledge that we have done this, pretending something is entirely our own work.  As more and more people attend photography workshops, this happens ever more frequently: surely there should be some acknowledgement that the workshop leader has (hopefully!) helped in some way with an image, perhaps even stood by and offered suggestions at the time of exposure?  After all, none of us create images in a vacuum!  We are indebted, whether we are aware of it or not, to countless other photographers (and other artists and creators) – and not only is it good to show these other photographers that we appreciate their ideas, but consciously acknowledging our indebtedness also helps us to critically examine our own work and identify what is really distinctive about it.  Of course, if we come to the conclusion that our work is largely derivative rather than distinctive, perhaps we need to re-examine what it is that we are doing…!

P.S. If it is not already obvious, given that ‘Bruce Percy‘ is one of the largest tags in my tag cloud on these pages, I see myself as being substantially indebted to Bruce for what I do photographically.  You can see his incredibly beautiful and engaging work on his website.


6 thoughts on “Our debt to other photographers

  1. Tina

    Alex was shocked to see himself here! Of course, I think he looks handsome!

  2. Lucy Telford

    Interesting post Michael. It is true that there is nothing new, photographically (and otherwise!) under the sun so an amount of nodding to others is unavoidable. Sometimes our influences are direct and perceivable, other times they are more nebulous – part of the Zeitgeist. So I’d agree that we should acknowledge when acknowledgement is due but at the same time we should also know that we are all unique individuals with unique outlooks. Even if we try consciously to copy someone else it will still be different, derivative maybe but different. Now let’s see if I can actually post this comment…. 😉

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Well, your comment certainly worked! 🙂
      You’re right on all these counts. So often, however, it seems to me that people don’t want to acknowledge their influences because they feel it might diminish (rather than enhance!) their own work – which will almost always be something new and different, even if they’re not completely aware of it. Sometimes we’re only aware of influences much later – especially if, as you say, they are part of the Zeitgeist (how interesting that we need to use a German word to describe this…).

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