We often hear that there is nothing new in the world. That’s not hard to believe in the world of photography: if we look at the number of images we are exposed to every day, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you are unlikely to come up with anything that has not been done before. But is that a bad thing?
As a teacher of photography, I see a great opportunity in using the work of others as point of departure to hone our own craft. For a recent 2nd year studio photography project at the Orms Cape Town School of Photography I challenged students to draw direct inspiration from iconic photographers. The students each had to select three studio portraits by famous photographers, and treat these as concept sketches for their own photographs, replicating lighting, pose, props, wardrobe and processing.
The images shown here are a few examples I made to demonstrate how to deconstruct and replicate a lighting set up from a reference photograph. In this instance I simply worked with some of the students in the class, and focussed on lighting the images in a way resembling the references. While the images are not exact replicas of the samples, keeping composition similar, matching the lighting, and processing the images for similar tone and colour still produces an interesting comparison, while variations in wardrobe and subject give the image just a hint of different-ness (if thats a real word?).
An argument against thissort of project is that is fails to take into consideration the students own creative voice, and that it produces work that is derivative at best, and simple copying at worst. Fair enough. But as working photographers we are as often as not tasked with making photographs that are direct expressions of a client’s vision. How is this different? And anyway, precise copying of an image can be surprisingly difficult, even for a skilled photographer, so the final results always bear some stamp of the photographers own vision. These are not the sort of images that are intended to end up in portfolios either, since they are not really the students’ original work (whatever that may mean these days), rather they are a step along the road to finding what their own work really does look like.
The strength of this sort of brief is that it encourages attention to detail, precise crafting, and adherence to the finer points of a brief. In this process it teaches goal oriented problem solving, and allows students to focus on the visual aspects of their images to a degree that is seldom possible with conventional briefs. Very often craft will take a back seat to message or concept, meaning there is opportunity to slack of a little on excecution. Here it’s all about the image, just the way I like it!