I was saddened this week to read that Terry O’Neill has passed away. Celebrity culture is constructed in such a way that certain images become part of the public consciousness whether or not a majority of people even consider the source of those images rather than merely their content—the creators share the same invisible fame enjoyed by script-writers, most cinematographers, and architects. Capturing elegantly playful images of subjects as diverse as a convalescent Winston Churchill, Dustin Hoffman playing the beggar, The Beatles, and a peerless pairing of David Bowie and William S. Burroughs, O’Neill was one of the photographers who helped define what “famous” looked like in the ’60s. I found his work particularly compelling when he experimented with a dash of the unheimlich, as when he posed Raquel Welch on a desolate, alien beach or sat Bowie down next to a vicious-looking dog, mid-leap.
The news did inspire me to dig up an idea for a challenge I’d thought of back in September. This week, your mission is two-fold. First, seek out a new photographer whose work excites you. If you like street photography, you must know Eugène Atget. Landscape-lovers, try Alex Noriega (or even Macey Sigaty 😉). If you like weird stuff like Diane Arbus, have you heard of Robert Mapplethorpe or Les Krims? (Careful, NSFW content.) The photographer doesn’t even have to be famous; many accounts on Flickr or various stock-photography websites are as breathtaking as visiting a curated gallery exhibition. The point is that creativity can easily grow stagnant—or, at least, miss a chance to grow—without new concepts and styles to mull over.
The second part of your challenge, as you might have expected, is to transmogrify that excitement into inspiration. Imitate, as best you can, the style of this new object of your admiration. At the very least, it’s a fun experiment, but the exercise in trying to use a different (metaphorical) lens should also expand your ability to create more types of image, and more confidently. You’ll figure out what elements of this photographer’s images spoke to your soul and, if all goes well, you’ll be able to create more of the kind of art you like, with your own unique brand. As the oft-misquoted advice goes:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.T.S. Eliot
Be sure to share your discoveries as well as your attempts to imitate them, either on our Facebook page or Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework!
My choice was one of the first Conceptual photographers, Lewis Baltz. I happened upon a little Phaidon 55 retrospective book of his work in a second-hand bookstore in Pai, Thailand, and was instantly smitten by his style. High-contrast photos of dirty, unfinished, and simple subjects filled the pages, with few human elements to add easy emotion and never crossing over to the grotesque or dramatic.
As someone who appreciates art that intentionally handicaps its own accessibility, insisting that both the artist and the audience work to meet in the middle, the high concept/humble subject combo was very appealing. As Jeff Rian writes in the accompanying text, “Serial work is non-heroic. Series don’t build monuments, they describe graveyards. Bodies of work create thematic perspectives.” Analyzing Baltz’s photography helped me understand more explicitly qualities inherent to my own aesthetic sensibilities.
A great example: a blurry tree branch “in the way” of the view of a distant tire dump, capturing both the beginning and rude end of the rubber’s life-cycle and implying its rugged, utilitarian wearing-out. As a bit of a contrarian, I also enjoyed Baltz’s submission of a slideshow about a murder when commissioned to make a survey of Newport Beach, CA. (The local museum rejected his submission.)
Here are my attempts at imitation/flattery. I hope some of you find the exercise as productive as I did!