The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Photographers
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Habit 5 – Getting inspiration from your peers

"In the last year of his life, he studies a book of paintings by Mark Rothko, an artist he hadn't known about before, thinking of what could inspire people on the walls of a future Apple campus." -Mona Simpson, A Sister's Eulogy for Steve Jobs
No artist grows in a vacuum, so you cannot grow without looking at a lot of your peers’ works, be it in books, exhibitions and ever increasingly online.

Looking at great images, however, is only one of the things you should do. If you want to be an effective photographer, you need to look at what other effective photographers are doing across a whole spectrum of activities. Maybe it’s one or more of the 7 habits I am telling you about. If you have been reading the past emails, you know that being great does not involve only taking great photos.

I have to admit this practice can be quite controversial and determining where inspiration becomes imitation and imitation becomes plagiarism can be quite tricky. Photographer Cole Thompson even advocates what he calls photographic celibacy: never studying other photographers' work.

Personally, I'd rather side with director Jim Jarmusch:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Stay on the Bus

There is another reason why artistic celibacy doesn't really work, in my opinion and that is because your work will always be compared to that of others. Others whose work you might not even be familiar with. The thing is, pretty much everything that is worth doing has already been done, in one form or another.

The million dollar question is: how do we develop our unique style and vision, after we have spent countless years imitating or taking inspiration from the work of others?

At this point, I would like you to read this article by James Clear about the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. I will be here, waiting for your return.
More like a streetcar than a bus, but hey!
Did you read it? I hope you did, because it's really powerful and also ties in nicely with what I was writing in Habit #2 on the importance of deliberate practice.

If you read it, now you know what the answer is to the question of how you develop your own style and vision:
“Stay on the bus. Stay on the f**king bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.[..] Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it. Your vision takes off. And as the years mount up and your work begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!””
The bad news is that there are no shortcuts. You can't jump on a helicopter and get to destination quicker than the bus. So, for this fifth installment of my 7 Habits series, I am not able to give you an exercise that you might be able to repeat a few times and see results right away.

That doesn't mean I can't give you something to keep you busy until my next email.
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”
– Jack London

Are you feeding your muse?

Can you answer these questions quickly?
  • What was the last visual arts exhibit you attended?
  • What is the last book on photography or the visual arts that you read? (books about how to operate your camera don't count)
  • Who is your favorite photographer? Painter? Sculptor? Composer?


Find a great artist, either a contemporary one or from the past, whose work resonates with you and study their work with attention for a few days.

Try to distill, in a few sentences, what makes them great in your eyes. Write that down. Then go out (or stay inside) and, whenever you are photographing, try to reflect on what you have just realized about your source of inspiration. Do this for a few days.

Do not just try to replicate a photo from one of the great masters. Do not go to Yosemite and try to redo "Clearing Winter Storm" by Ansel Adams. Many other photographers already tried, but Ansel already did Ansel and no one is going to do it better. Always try to put something of yourself into every image you take.
When you have finished, please reply to this email, telling me the name of the artist and what you think is the essence of their greatness. Please attach or link to some photos that you took during this period.


P.S. Do not forget to share this program with your friends. Please. OK?

P.P.S. With thanks to Sandra Nesbit for reminding me of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

P.P.P.S. Do you like this series? Would you like to delve deeper into these concepts?

I started writing a book about becoming a more effective photographer and living a more satisfied life as an artist. I'm calling it Better Living Through Photography.

For a limited time, while I'm working on the book, you can get its chapters for free as soon as I release them. Just click on the button below, and you'll start receiving them.
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Copyright © 2019 Ugo Cei Photography, All rights reserved.

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