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Being in the arts since winning my first “talent contest” at the age of 12 as a harmonica player, (believe it or not, I think I still have the plaque somewhere!), the struggle has always been to set ones self apart from the crowd by having a unique creative voice. Musician’s, writers, painters, actors, dancers, photographers, etal, all have the same dilemma. Only a few true originals come to mind: Miles Davis ( I can tell if it’s Miles in about one note), Picasso, Mozart, Bill Evans, there’s more. Photography-wise, there are many great photographers out there producing mind blowing work, but very few are true originals. Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Freeman Patterson, David Muench, Pat O’Hara, and JP Caponigro are in the “true original” realm. The work of the great many of us can be traced to being derivative, from one of the aforementioned photographers (or someone of their ilk).

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being derivative, and there is always room to grow and eventually evolve into one’s unique voice. It’s actually a good practice to imitate artists’ styes on the way to finding one’s own voice, but not a good idea to continue imitating if you want to break away.

Developing the confidence to let go of the past and move into your own way of doing things is not unlike falling off of a cliff. It’s the unknown, and many of us are susceptible to the criticism of others, which can  be stifling and intimidating, sending us back to tried and true imitative styles, abandoning our own development. Sticking to ones creative vision in the face of non acceptance and even ridicule is difficult, but is an essential step in the process to find one’s own unique creative voice. But, how does that happen? Can it be done consciously? How does one go about “trying” to be unique? Zen Buddhists say that to try is to fail. 

After 50 years in the art world, as a professional jazz artist, professional close up magician, professional photographer, and educator in all of the aforementioned disciplines, one thing is clear: one must remain true to one’s own creative vision regardless of what others say. It can be difficult. It may result in loss of commercial work. As a photographer, my work is no longer viable stock photography. My choice.

The great Cole Thompson has blogged for a time on his concept of “photographic celibacy.” I knew a few musicians who practiced “musical celibacy,” long before it became a popular discussion topic via Cole’s blog.
What is that, you say? Photographic celibacy is the idea of focusing completely on one’s own work in a visual vacuum, so to speak: not being influenced by or studying the work of others (ditto for musical celibacy). To me, this is a valid concept, and after getting to “that place” in one’s work, is a good way to begin the process of finding one’s unique voice. However, to get to that point, there is the imitative stage. There is no quantifiable time to enter the “photographic celibacy” period, but it becomes apparent after a period of going to the same places as everyone else, getting the same shots as everyone else, and quite frankly, getting a bit bored…..and wanting something different.
But, different, how?

• Software to greatly influence the final look of our images is certainly one way. If we all took the exact same image and applied software effects, every image would be different. Greater software facility gives us more unique, creative options to set us apart from the crowd.

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• Going from single image photography to multiple images, stitching several, to a great many, images together to create abstractions of reality that we cannot see when making the image, is a good way to cultivate a unique vision. It’s an invisible world only viewable after processing.

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• Another invisible world is the world of infrared. Take an old camera and convert it to a dedicated infrared camera. Digital color infrared is a bit tricky, and is relatively unexplored territory. 

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• In this time of instant everything, don’t just shoot and run. Stay with your subject, using several lenses. Walk around it. Just study it for a while. Contemplate on what you want to convey. This could also involve visualization on what you will do using software when you get to the processing stage.

• Break out the macro lens. Going more inward with close up and macro photography can result in more personal and abstract work.

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• Mobile phone photography is the most spontaneous photography. The “camera” is always with you and the immediacy of capture is undeniable. Images you wouldn’t take time to photograph with “gear,” because of set up time, you would snap with your mobile phone. With the ever expanding world of iPhone photography, ever increasing file sizes, and photoshop quality apps, camera companies are taking a serious look at mobile phone technology.
“The more gear you carry, the less you shoot.”……..Jay Maisel

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• When visiting an often visited location, photograph the iconic shots first, getting them out of your system, then you’ll feel freer to take chances on different approaches.

Final thoughts:

Pursue your vision.

Don’t believe nay sayers.

It’s not about what it is….it’s about what you want to make it.

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Ultimately, photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.
If you don’t feel what you’re photographing, no one else will either.

I didn’t intend to get into a treatise, here, but it kinda took on a life of its own…

Please drop in a comment to continue the dialogue!

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online!

Tony