In The Snow, with the spirit of Michael Kenna

We have, uncharacteristically for our bit of the UK these days, some snow recently. At one time we’d expect a lot of snowy days in the winter but now one or two is going to be the lot. Naturally, when it’s been snowing and the school where you work has closed because of it, the thing you do if you’re a photographer is to get out there with the camera. Well, actually, what you do is to look out at the snow under a flat grey sky, and grumble that there isn’t any interesting light, but then when the sun comes out you head off with the camera.

I knew it would look good over the fields near our house, which has the advantage of open vistas, long dry stone walls, gnarly and photogenic trees, and most importantly it’s close to home as it’s bloody freezing on snowy days. So I went off down the road, though the gate into the field, down the path and spent a very enjoyable hour photographing snow. Open sheets of snow, dry stone walls in snow, gnarly trees in snow, snow in snow. You get the idea. It was when I was lining up a shot down a mysterious furrow (well, it’s not that mysterious, I think the plough went a bit deeper there) in the snow going off to the dry stone wall in the distance I realised something.

I was channelling Michael Kenna.

Badly

Now lets be clear on this, I’d be amazed if I was channelling Michael Kenna well, and stunning arrogant if I thought this was the case. The man is a genius with years of hard work, practice and experience behind him and, spoiler alert, I’m not. I’m also not going to kid myself that Kenna has access to gnarly trees and snow in Hokkaido and Korea which is what makes his work special, a gnarly tree is a gnarly tree and if Kenna was down my street he’d turn in a far better image of the local ones than I’m going to. What I found myself wondering was why was I channelling Michael Kenna badly rather than developing Andy Smart?

So, first off I’m happy and content with the whole idea that creatives ‘borrow’ liberally from each other and that ‘great artists steal’; a quote which while it’s attributed to Picasso and famously used by Steve Jobs I always think ought to have been said by David Bailey. It’s going to take an awful lot for anybody to come up with something new to do with the combination of rural landscapes and snow. Couple that with the fact that I love Kenna’s work and I can see why I saw the snow that day in Kenna terms and however subconsciously photographed it as such. Also, realistically I’m not mortified by the fact that I didn’t produce photos with an original vision that day, I produced photos I was happy to have taken and which were well liked (and how that term is now literally true) on social media. Also, when I look at them in the future I’ll remember the day, and remember how I waited for some light, and how cold it was on that field; the next time I’m in the same place its will be spring, the crops will be coming up and I’ll remember how different it was when I was up there in the snow.

But it does make me think about how an artist develops an independent vision. This is a question so frequently considered that if you do a search on Youtube for ‘how do I develop my own artistic style’ it offers 51 600 000 results. Even though a lot will, due to the nature of youtube search algorithms, have bugger all to do with artistic style there are still going to be a lot. But can you really teach somebody how to develop their own artistic style in a 10 minute video? If it was that easy then everybody would be doing it surely? We’d have billions and billions of original artistic styles and it doesn’t take long on Instagram to find that just isn’t the case. When did you last, honestly, see something on one of the social media photography platforms and think, not that you responded positively to it but that it was new and original?

Can I actually develop my own style? Do I have my own vision? Or are all my visions really other artists’ ones recycled?

Much to consider, but I’m going to end now

Before this blog post gets to sound too much like I’m now channelling Philip K Dick

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