This weekend I was back in England visiting my family, while I was traveling I took “Steal like an Artist” with me and read through it again. It’s such a great compact book full of great advice that you can get a lot out of it in a short space of time. One of the key points that stood out to me was the difference between good stealing and bad stealing and how imitating leads to you developing your style.
The wrong way to steal
Austin Kleon describes the wrong way of stealing as plagiarising. Where you try and pass off something as your own unique idea with as near a copy as you possibly can. This might be the case in the work of Tyler Shields, an obviously talented photographer who has clearly seen the work of many masters and yet refuses to acknowledge their influence. In some cases he has invented elaborate stories to help explain how his idea has no attribution to anyone else. It is of course possible that he has just so happened to accidentally recreate a portfolio that sums up some of the most iconic photos in history, but I imagine it’s just as likely that a child would pick up a paint brush and happen to paint the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’a sun flowers.
This is obviously wrong, but what is the right way to steal?
The right way to steal
Instead, the right way to steal is to copy a variety of influence and give reference to whom you have sought to be like. This could be like Robert Frank who stated the influence of Walter Evans on his “The Americans” projects.
How failing at imitation, leads to your style
The truly interesting aspect that Austin mentions is when you fail, often that failure reveals your style. In countless interviews, artists have said that they tried to copy others but couldn’t pull something off due to a limitation. However, that limitation often revealed who they really were. Those “flaws” often become the essence of their work.
How to Steal the Right Way
Imitate the Masters
This is why I want to study the masters of photography and learn from them. I want to delve into their works and absorb ideas. I want to digest books taking in the valuable and reject the non essential to me. That’s why I started Monday Masters with Yuri, to delve deeper into the works of the masters and learn from them.
However, I think that simply looking at a masters photos is not enough. We need to go deeper to truly imitate them. Here are some suggestions
Interviews are a great way to find out more about your favourite photographers, this will reveal a lot about their thoughts, influences, how they started to take photos and so on. I find interviews to be incredibly rich sources of information and there are a few websites which provide great interviews. You may also like podcasts for interviews.
Check out their about page
About pages can be an interesting personal interview, where one person interviews themselves and reveals insights into their personal views, approaches, tools and more.
Buy a book
Books go more in-depth than single pictures. They are a curated collection on a theme sometimes with commentary to go along with it. These show you a lot more of a persons viewpoint or world view than a single photo in isolation. Books are much better to gain insight into a photographers mind.
Watch a documentary
Documentaries provide a collection of resources in the form of a story surrounding an artist. This can show you their evolution from the past to where they are now. This is unlike an interview where you see the photographers viewpoint there and then. It’s pretty well known that people’s perception of their former selves is very inaccurate so a documentary can provide you with a more well rounded and complete viewpoint.
Look at their influences
Your favourite photographer will have influences as well, even then first photographers were influenced by painters and sculptors. It’s a great fun take to make a “family tree” following the influences of the people you are interested in. It is a bit like following the Wikipedia links and seeing what crazy places you’ll end up at.
Make a scrapbook with material
scrapbooks are a great way to collect influence and pin together different elements which might not seem related. You can do this with either a paper scrapbook or you can use a digital tool like Pinterest. This can help you curate data together.
Try to think like your heroes
Once you’ve gone in depth with your research, it’s time to try and think like your master. By thinking like your master you should ask questions along the WWJD lines. Where Would [photographer] shoot (in my town), What subjects would [photographer] find interesting? How would [photographer] move down this street? What lens would [photographer] shoot with? And so on.
Challenge yourself to Take a photo in the style of…
Now you are thinking like your photographer, go out and try and take a photo like that person. try and grab a decisive moment like Cartier-Bresson, take a selfie like Friedlander, follow the light like Trent Parke, and so on.
Attend a workshop
Of course if you really want to see through your masters eyes, it could be a good idea to go on one of their workshops. These can vary a lot in price and quality but you will almost always get the opportunity to follow the host around and see how they look at the world, what they look for and how they take photos.
Credit your influences
No one learns in isolation. If you try to then you’re just holding yourself back. It is much better to pay tribute to your influences and learn from them. Try to emulate them, be inspired and in doing so, truly discover yourself.