This week I’ve thought a lot about the idea of inspiration vs imitation and the role they play in the creative process. It all started when the amazing Brooke Snow introduced me to Yousuf Karsh. I’m actually embarrassed to admit that as a photographer I didn’t really know who he was, even though I really did know who he was. I knew his work, his iconic portrait of Ernest Hemingway in particular stands out as one I know well. But I didn’t know his name.
I’ve spent time pouring over Karsh’s portraits and I’ve been deeply inspired. His images are classic, timeless images that truly capture the soul and essence of a person, in fact of some of the most famous people in the world. And I know in looking at these images that’s what I want to create. I might just be taking pictures of kids and family but in the end I want them to show the same kind of vision. I want them to stand the test of time, to look back on them 20 years from now and feel that they’re just as relevant and not simply reflecting what was trendy at the time.
And I don’t want people to say “cheese.” Kids in particular become conditioned to do this. But saying cheese creates forced smiles that don’t show authentic moments of joy, happiness and connection. Forced smiles don’t reflect who someone truly is. That’s my challenge as a photographer, to interact, observe, and capture moments in a way that gets to the heart of what kids are all about, what family is all about. I imagine Muhammad Ali punching Yousuf Karsh in the face if he’d asked him to “say cheese.”
At the same time I’ve been inspired by Karsh, I’ve also been reading Steal Like and Artist by Austin Kleon. Kleon’s fundamental message is that to grow as an artist and find yourself and your own style you’ve got to copy those that inspire you.
“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”
He explains that “copy” does not mean “plagiarise” and pass off someone else’s work as your own. Copy means to take inspiration from those you admire, work to understand their process and thinking, and then transform that into something uniquely your own.
And so inspired by the portraits of Karsh and the words of Kleon, I’ve been copying. Specifically, copying Karsh’s iconic portrait of Audrey Hepburn. In doing this I’ve learned a lot about portraiture. And I’ve also learned that Kleon is right. That while I’ve copied Karsh’s image, it is completely different and my own for so many reasons. Not the least of which is that I am not Audrey Hepburn.