When learning something new, particularly, something we desire to become good at, at some point, we emulate. For the novice, emulation is often a natural response to inspiration, being moved by someone else’s mastery of the subject we’re interested in. Sports and celebrities come most immediately to mind. Gatorade made an iconic commercial, Be Like Mike, which celebrated emulating Michael Jordon, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
But, my interest here (go figure) is photography.
In 1995, I took a photography workshop based out of Page, Arizona with an emphasis on slot canyons. We were a group of fifteen enthusiasts, intent on improving our craft. There was one notable exception, a guy from Florida, named Steve. Steve had a singular vision: to make photographs of slot canyons he’d already seen. Tops on his list were replicas of images made by one of the instructors!
Steve was a chain smoking, nervous, generally nice guy. In the evenings he proudly related stories of discovering photographs (in books or online) that triggered him into emulation mode. His inspired mission: to replicate the photograph. To place his tripod in the same three holes as the original. To compose the image in edge-to-edge complicity. If the image was made recently (and still possible) Steve could drive 3,000 miles straight across the country to capture it. And, once made (or not), he’d drive right back.
Steve has stuck with me. It’s a fun, if over-the-top, anecdote for discussing photographic growth. I believe this discussion is more important than ever because the current culture of photography is locked in emulation overdrive. From Lightroom presets to YouTube how-tos to step-by-step online guides explaining where, when, and how to find a certain place and take a certain photograph, we’re inundated with information that often lacks growth-oriented perspective.
On top of all this, our social media dominated lives constantly tease a near manic desire for self-affirmation. Unchecked, our egos can crave “likes” as fervently as the air we need to breathe. When entangled by this mindset, the easiest path to garner a respectable quota of “likes” is to emulate someone else’s work. This is rampant on the Internet. Something goes viral and the copycats quickly rise.
I understand the temptation. I’m not always above feeling a few pangs of jealousy when I see a “been-there, done-that” style of photograph receiving 1000’s of Instagram likes while I struggle to earn 100. And I know my early days included emulating photographers including Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Joseph Holmes, Jack Dykinga, and others. My compositions often channeled their styles, not my own.
Emulation’s dark side, quirkily represented by Steve, is the risk of falling into a chasm or stylistic conformity and creative dissonance. Working within a medium you love but expressing that love (intentionally or unintentionally) in a style that isn’t your own carries an emotional price: a growing awareness that what you do rings false. Slowly, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction builds inside you. Doubts arise. The experience scale tips from fun to frustration. You start to fret, feel yourself drifting sideways, listing. You brood in indecision, slide into self-medication, culminating in the embrace of the ever-popular Tortured Artist Syndrome (TAS™). Maybe it’s not so dramatic but, whatever the descent, it ultimately ends up with one outcome: you give up. Yes, those seduced into and trapped by emulation’s grip will lose interest and quit. What held promise to infuse your life with richness becomes an abandoned wayside station in your life’s rearview mirror.
While I didn’t stay in touch with Steve, I’m 99.9% certain, unless he experienced a creative self-breakthrough, his photographic interests are an indiscernible speck in his rearview mirror.
I’d like to believe most of us don’t want to end up like Steve, stuck in a cycle of emulation. But it happens. We do get stuck. We hit a wall. We know we need something more. It may not necessarily be an emulation issue. All sorts of issues lurk in the shadows of creative self-growth.
A number of ideas, both old and new, permeate my thoughts here. They pertain as much to me as to anybody. Too much to include in this post. So, more to come.