As photographers, we like to think we bring a certain personal creativity and style to our approach. Finding your own way of doing things, your own way of seeing, is definitely something to strive for. At the very least, you should get out of the way when it’s happening.
But rarely is a unique approach totally unique. It might be unusual, or unpopular, or hard to reproduce, but it’s probably been done before. Much of the most creative work we do is simply a matter of taking what’s come before and re-inventing it, building upon it, maybe just paying homage to it. After all, what makes much of art so great is the fact that we can relate to it somehow. Those things that have been seen before, in our own lives and the dramatizations of our lives, (what we recognize and associate with our own personal experiences) give us a reference point, if not just a feeling of familiarity and connection.
Recognizing the Potential for Exploration
Danielle, a young actress, and I had a discussion about some of the characters of the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s. When I mentioned Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones (who happens, by the way, to be the subject of a mural on the entire southern wall of Two Boots Pizza, a joint I frequent on the Upper West Side), she looked at me like I must be confused. “You mean Foxxy Cleopatra from that Austin Powers movie (Goldmember, 2002)?” I explained that Beyoncé’s character in the film was a sort of parody of the bad-ass women of a certain movie genre way before her time.
I also mentioned Quentin Tarantino (currently riding the success of his Spaghetti Western inspired, Django Unchained) and his previous references to various film genres which include characters reminiscent of stereotypical 70s film heroines. A few days before, I’d heard an interview with Tarantino on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
He spoke about his early introduction to African-American culture:
“[My mother's] boyfriends would come over, and they’d … take me to blaxploitation movies, trying to, you know, get me to like them and buy me footballs and stuff, and … my mom and her friends would take me to cool bars and stuff, where they’d be playing cool, live rhythm-and-blues music … and I’d be drinking … Shirley Temples — I think I called them James Bond because I didn’t like the name Shirley Temples — and eat Mexican food … while Jimmy Soul and a cool band would be, you know, playing in some lava lounge-y kind of ’70s cocktail lounge. It was really cool. It made me grow up in a real big way. When I would hang around with kids I’d think they were really childish. I used to hang around with really groovy adults.”
Anyway, talking about these types of characters and how they’ve been depicted and re-depicted got us to experiment with how they might translate into today’s look. A few shots later, we had some idea. A little post-processing and there it was; our combined effort to reference a genre and make something of our own.
Where commercial portraiture is concerned, I can understand how important it is to essentially reproduce the look of your own recent work, and in many ways, the work of other contemporary portrait photographers. A client commissioning you for a family portrait isn’t expecting a surprise or some interpretive representation, at least not usually.
But hopefully, you’re not limiting yourself to the demands of your clients, or anyone else. Experiment with other points of reference, with other visuals and perceptions. Explore through your subjects’ and your own imagination. See where this process takes you. What you find could transform your work in general.Get tips, inspiration, and discounts in your inbox! Signup for our free newsletter here!