It helps you to both better understand and to more effectively communicate the nature of your influences if you take the time to state it simply. Usually, this doesn’t just happen instantly. First, it takes identifying who or what the influence is. Next, it takes a series of thoughts and associations. Then, it takes a little organization. Finally, it takes a little editing; cutting the words that aren’t quite right and searching for the ones that are.

Very often the connections between ideas and feelings and their progressions aren’t clear until you start organizing them. Finding these insights is the biggest benefit of taking time to reflect on your influences. (To do this, nothing helps me more than writing. Often, it’s not the kind of writing that I might share publicly; sometimes notes, outlines, and unfinished sentences are more effective. The goal of this kind of writing is discovery and clarity not publication.)

When you’re exploring your influences ask yourself questions. Questions guide explorations away from unprofitable areas and into useful territories. Questions reenergize and sustain processes of discovery. Ask yourself a few of these questions. What is the root of the influence? Is it physical? Is it intellectual? Is it emotional? If it’s many things at once, what is and what is the relative weight of each of those things? Does one influence share elements or qualities with other influences?

Try to state the nature of an influence in one sentence.

And try to state the nature of an influence in one phrase or one word.

Simplicity has many advantages. For instance, simple things are easier to remember and easier to share. Never confuse simple-mindedness with simplicity. Simplicity often represents the height of sophistication, arrived at only after some if not considerable effort and practice. If you can present a complex subject in a simple way without sacrificing essential content, you truly understand it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why simple solutions are so elegant.

At first it might seem strange to generate a lot of information only to boil it down to a little but if you try it you’ll find that the insights you’re left with will be extremely concentrated. Writers, musicians, and photographers all do this at one or more points in their creative process. Try it when you consider your influences. You’ll understand them better – and your own works too.

Here’s a simple distillation of one of my influences stated in one sentence and one word.

Joel Peter Witkin explores taboo, which sensationally gives a rise that quickly fades, and darkness (not necessarily evil), which disturbs and awakens indefinitely.

Shock

Read Why Tracking Your Influences Is So Important here.

Read Ranking Your Influences here.

Find out more about my influences here.

 

You can learn more about your influences by identifying their relative strengths. This quick exercise will not only help you understand how different works influence you but also begin to reveal why the influence you. It’s time well spent.

Make a ranked sorted list of your influences. Start by listing your influences, in any order that they come to mind. Then, arrange them, placing the strongest influence at the top of your list, the next strongest influences below it, and so on until the end of your list.

While some choices will come easily, others won’t. To help you make these choices, assign a number to each item on your list to determine its rank. (Use a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest.) Then arrange the items on your list from the highest number to the lowest. After you see the results, you may need to adjust your list by reranking/moving specific items.

It’s highly likely that you’ll find different artist’s work are influential to you for different reasons. Identifying how these works are influential to you can help you understand them even better. Rank each item on your list numerically based on three criteria – content (the ideas behind the work), form (style or how the work looks), and feeling (the strength of your emotional reactions to the work) – assigning a number from 1-10 for each criteria. At the same time, you can also create a cumulative or average score for each item. Now you’ll have four ways to sort your list or four new ways to compare and contrast your influences.

You may find patterns in the data that you’ve created that reveal something that wasn’t obvious before. You may find that a particular influence is significantly stronger in one criteria than the others; you like this artist’s work because of their … You may even find that a majority of your influences influence you more in one criteria than the others; you like artists who emphasize … The act of assigning numbers will encourage you to make distinctions in degree and quality that it’s very likely you hadn’t made before.

It’s quite likely that your ranked/sorted list of influences won’t be 100% accurate. By using criteria you become a little more objective. But influence isn’t entirely objective. Some things, sometimes very personal things, influence you more than others, sometimes for very personal reasons. So, fine-tune your list – intuitively. Trust your instincts. While you do, ask yourself why you’re making the moves you make and you’ll gain even more insights.

While numbers offer valuable information that can lead to genuine insights, numbers alone don’t tell your full story. For this, a little more soul searching is needed. But if you do this exercise you’ll have started off on your journey of self-discovery better informed and with a clearer direction.

Here’s a ranked/sorted list of of my photographic influences.

Two names on the list have been adjusted down, asking valuable questions.


A general trend of an interest in relationships between man and nature drives this list.

Read Why Tracking Your Influences Is So Important here.

Find out more about my influences here.

If he wasn’t the first, Aaron Siskind was certainly the preeminent abstract expressionist photographer. The abstract details he presents as new hyper-flat surfaces stand independent of their original subjects.

Abstraction in non-representational art celebrated in the modernist movement early 20th century has taken many forms; Kandinsky’s expressionism, Piccasso’s Cubism, Malevich’s a Constructivism, Stella’s Minimalism, Vasarely’s Op Art, etc) While photography quickly became the gold-standard of realism and consequently it took it longer than painting to embrace abstraction. (It’s arguable that the invention of photography forced painting to embrace abstraction.) Siskind’s images helped establish photography’s credibility as an abstract art.

But what kind of abstraction is Siskind’s abstraction? And what is the function of abstraction in Siskind’s work? Coming late to the game his work aggregates many previous sensibilities and ideas.

Like so many modernist’s he emphasized that what he made was not a representation of something else but “the thing itself” – an idea that has metamorphosed chimera-like since the Greeks and been repurposed by nonrepresentational artists and realists alike. But, while most modernists took pains to avoid including elements that suggest figurative images, Siskind’s images are peppered with them and because of their photographic nature they always reference something else, no matter how covertly. Like Jackson Pollock, Siskind prized directness and immediacy of expression but the personal authenticity derived from this becomes ironic given the essentially appropriative nature of photography. Like Franz Kline, Siskind’s images are riddled with poetic gesture, but none of the gestures in his images are made by hand or by him. Like Wassily Kandinsky, Siskind drew an analogy between his images and musical scores or performances, never mind that he worked without color or purely with tone.

Siskind’s abstraction defies resolution. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Siskind’s abstraction is that so many forms of abstraction and the ideas behind them coalesce into a single arena, the photographic frame.

Siskind’s work fascinated me instantly because in representing so little it demonstrated so much. A literal recording can be supremely abstract. Sometimes a photograph looks nothing like the thing photographed. To photograph is to transform. (And there are many ways to bring about transformation and many kinds of transformations.) A photograph is never the thing it represents and never just a photograph.

Find out more about my influences here.

 

Edward Burtynsky’s photographs deftly weave together aspects of a well-researched documentary expose and a beautifully constructed formal artistic statement, but it’s unclear which is more dominant, or if they’re something else entirely.

Burtynsky let’s the things he photographs speak for themselves. Yet he photographs specific kinds of things, related things; oil fields, mines, railways, highways, manufacturing plants, dumps and salvage yards, etc. More than the specific things he photographs it may be these relationships that he’s ultimately photographing. And like the effects of the global industrial complex his work has a cumulative effect.

Despite the restrained yet shocking quality of his images, Burtynsky claims not to be critical of industry and presents himself simply as a witness to the monumental changes man makes to land. At first his stance seems simple but the more one considers it the more complex it becomes, almost to the point of becoming enigmatic.

“I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.”

It might be easier to draw a clear line between us (the consumers) and them (the manufacturers), but Burtynsky doesn’t, because there isn’t one. Because of his approach, his work is richer, more layered, more nuanced and perhaps more relevant. Perhaps.

It can be tempting to think of advocacy for a cause as a matter of making a social statement for one thing and against another. But the issues and the approaches needed are much more complex. I appreciate that Burtynsky doesn’t take a simplistic cliched antagonistic stance towards industry. There can be no ecological solution without a related economic solution. I relate to his emphasis of a Rorschach-like quality of seeing, which involves and in the best of cases encourages self-reflection. Individual responsibility/action and connection/interaction is highlighted. Since I was a young man I’ve felt the standard ways of using photography for environmental advocacy, though they fulfill an important function, were not effective enough on their own and that new approaches are needed. Burtynsky offers one alternative and encourages me to think of others.

View Edward Burtynsky’s TED talk here.

Find out more about my influences here.

Read more


Since the 1950’s Jerry Uelsmann has created his surreal photographs entirely in the traditional black-and-white darkroom combining multiple negatives seamlessly into new visual realities, ones that didn’t exist before the camera eye at one moment in time but were found in the mind’s eye over a lifetime.

Many view his images as a continuance of the surreal photography pioneered by avante-garde photographers in the 1930’s. While influenced by this movement, he feels his work has a kinship with a larger visionary sensibility that has risen and fallen cyclically throughout the history of art or which could perhaps better be characterized as the history of consciousness.

Absurd only to the conscious mind, more inquisitive than critical, his work is neither automatic or entirely random, but rather driven by felt connections as opposed to ones that are intellectually prefigured. Though punctuated with moments of humor and horror, the dominant tendency in his body of work is towards encountering and collecting moments of sublimity.

Freely mixing archetypal images drawn from the natural world and architectural images (with a particular emphasis on museums and libraries both repositories of information, surrogate minds if you will) his work suggests a continual exchange between our insides and outsides. Transference, projection, repression, fixation, conflict; the contents and processes of the soul are laid out on the surfaces of his images for all to see. Occasionally Uelsmann recycles the same images creating multiple compositions from them, revealing additional connections and suggesting the continual internal stirring necessary for psychological metamorphosis.

For me, as much today as when I was a child, long before Photoshop, Jerry Uelsmann was a shining example of possibilities. He used a relatively young medium with a developing tradition in a different way. He created his own visual language to build a very personal visual world one image at a time – and then shared it with us. His is a different kind of work. He does the soul’s work through poetry rather than the mind’s work through non-fiction.

Read my extended conversation with Jerry Uelsmann here.

Find out more about my influences here.

Read more

Richard Misrach has dedicated himself to a single project for a lifetime – the Desert Cantos. Begun in 1979, the Desert Cantos is a series of series that takes its name from its location, the Americandesert southwest, and the structural term for a subsection of a long song or poem. Each canto varies in subject matter, the amount of time it spans, and the number of works included. Numbered as each canto is completed, the first fourteen cantos, in order, are: The Terrain, The Event, The Flood, The Fires, The War (Bravo 20), The Pit, Desert Seas, The Event II, Project W-47 (The Secret), The Test Site, The Playboys, Clouds, The Inhabitants, and The Visitors. Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea is from the third canto, The Flood. Stylistically ranging in sensibility between minimalism, realism, romanticism, impressionis, and expressionism, Misrach’s work is sometimes challenging aesthetically and always subtly steeped in the social issues that surround land use, ultimately becoming an extended meditation on how man (particularly the American psyche) and nature (specifically the American southwest) define one another.

Misrach thinks of all his desert pictures as part of a single great work, divided by smaller themes and stylistic treatments. When collected together, they become a monumental study constructed by wide-ranging explorations of many aspects of a complex subject with a long history and ultimately a rumination on self and identity. The American west is the landscape that defined the American psyche as we know it. Through his work we come to understand that both may be stranger than we think.

Richard Misrach’s work reminds me of how each work an artist produces is connected to all other works, in one way or another, and that creative development and presentation of that work can highlight those connections, not just for the public but for the artist as well. Even more importantly, he demonstrates the depth and breadth that can be achieved through dedication to a single subject for an extended period of time.

Read my extended conversation with Richard Misrach here.

Find out more about my influences here.

Read more


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