Last week Owen Shifflett wrote a post on Viget.com that made the rounds. I tweeted it. Chase blogged about it. And it got rounds and rounds of kudos and attaboys, among them my own voice. And then something started to bug me. Owen’s title – How Inspiration Killed – Then Ate – Creativity, says it all. It lays the blame for the death of creativity (I didn’t get the memo on this one, but moving on…) at the feet of our need for inspiration and the usual imitation and derivation that occurs in its wake. It’s (still) an article well worth reading. I suggest you read it before you read this post, but once you’re done there, come back here and let me throw my towel in the ring in defence of Inspiration.
Here are my thoughts. Consider them thunk for your consumption and discussion. Comments, as always, are open.
1. This is a case of mistaken identity. What we now call the phenomenon of inspiration is often Inspiration’s doppleganger, Imitation. To be clear about this, Inspiration means to inspire. It means to breathe in, it is the gathering of raw materials. Before we engage in any creative endeavor we must have raw materials. The more we increase our inputs the more raw materials we have to engage the “what if?” of creative processes. What we do with that in-spiration is up to us. We can incubate the stuff, work within constraints, and do something true and unique (hard road) or we can peel the skin off the old stuff and make it look new, look like ours. But faulting an essential part of the creative process for our natural inclination to take the easy road isn’t helpful.
2. Everything is derivative. Ultimately there is nothing that is not created in the context of other stuff. We see two things, combine them and juxtapose them to create something new. We see something we don’t like and we react and move in the opposite direction. But to advocate a creativity free from true inspiration is a step in the wrong direction, which, by the way, is not what I believe Shifflett is suggesting. I think he’s simply using the word the way so many do and in doing so making his point well to those that use it that way. The danger is that in so-doing we villainize an important part of the creative process and suddenly we’re heading in the same direction Owen is arguing against – the death of creativity.
3. Adapt but don’t Adopt. What is needed is an adaptive approach to creative processes, not an adoptive one. In the words of Bono – every poet is a cannibal, every artist is a thief. We all draw from sources outside ourselves. The challenge is in finding your own voice, in adapting elements, thoughts, processes – whatever – and not not in adopting them. One strips former things down, re-purposes them, combines them with parts from myriad other sources still, and takes us to a different place than when we started. The other just likes what he sees, gets “inspired”, steals the original idea, and makes it his own with a can of spray paint. One is creative, results in something new and comes from the in-spiration of many sources; the other is just imitation and while it might well be the first step in learning your craft, it won’t get you any further.
4. Inspiration Comes From Working. Inspiration, in the rare sense that it appears like that bolt from the blue (it never is, but let’s pretend) still comes from working. It doesn’t come from flipping through a book looking for an idea. It comes from putting your camera in your hand and being honest with yourself, and learning your craft, embracing your constraints.
In case it’s not clear, I’m advocating (I think) for the same thing Owen Shifflett is, but I think I want the word Inspiration back. I’d rather re-align our use of the word to its original meaning than cave in to a popular use that leads us in the wrong direction. The more we understand how creative processes work, particularly our own process, and that includes a proper understanding of inspiration or increasing our inputs (and then using them for good and not for evil) the more life and breath we give to our creativity. Creativity is far from death, but if we deny it the need to breathe in and out we’re stepping closer to the morgue.
5. One more thought in post-script: I think there’s another issue here and that’s where we go to find our inspiration. If our primary source of inspiration is other photographers then I think our work becomes not only more derivative than usual, but we begin to draw from a thinner gene pool and, well, y’all know how that turns out. No one wants to see the results of our artistic in-breeding. We should be drawing from the widest pool, breathing in the purest air. By all means see what other photographers have done in order to learn from them, but when it comes to filling our creative wells, it might just be best to drill into the deeper, purer sources, not just the groundwater downstream from everyone else. I’m not sure if those metaphors work for you, but they do for me.
I don’t normally do this, I usually save my shameless self-promotion for posts of their own, but if this is something you want to explore more, I discuss creativity and inspiration (the good kind, not the evil twin) in two $5 eBooks – The Inspired Eye and The Inspired Eye II, both available on the Craft & Vision website. Both books look at ways in which creativity happens, and ways to hone your own processes.
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Thank you! As a novice photographer learning very quickly, I find this kind of unique advice to be pure gold. I recently spent a week in Hawaii, away from blog stalking, studying, and mimicry. The images I took were the best I have ever done. My inspiration was the world around me- and that fed my creativity in a unique, true way. Studying photographers is great to learn composition, lighting, depth of field, and other methods, but a true photographer learns to heed the voice – and vision- within.
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I can’t help thinking that there is a lot of hypocrisy coming from some of the photographers jumping on this particular bandwagon. Many of them make a nice extra income from publishing books designed to ‘inspire’ those who buy them – including Chase Jarvis.
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I enjoyed reading it
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Loved all the posts. Not having put my thoughts on inspiration and creativity out on paper like this yet, then reading this, helped me realize I was heading in this direction already. Perhaps it’s from some of your other posts (like the one about going to the writers for inspiration). I’ve since found myself daydreaming inspiration from the readings I’ve been doing… something sparks something, which leads to another thing… which then begins a new project. Great source for me.
Closure is good and I came back today to try and find it by re-reading all these comments. (I’ll hit that smashingmag article next). This discussion has inspired me, quite frankly. And I can’t resist the impulse to add some more ruminations.
A few people took the inspiration vs imitation thing to mean that one can’t even look at others’ work to be truly inspired. (Maybe because of Dennis’ mind-blowing comment.) I didn’t. In my earlier comment, the difference of methodology between myself and my colleague amounted to him creating a collage of cut and pasted ideas vs me sitting down with a blank paper and pencils as a starting point. He’d laugh at me and I’d call foul on him.
But I think there’s another aspect at work which is summed up in the old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”. In the ad agency environment we had no choice but to create. There were deadlines. Be inspired or be fired was the unspoken rule. Many here seem to be talking about the process of doing art entirely for one’s own reasons, rather than a client’s. The more urgent the necessity the more diligent we are to be inspired. It’s not brain surgery. There are simple ways to gitterdone, whether we start by looking inward or outward.
In the end what one creates is an expression of a moment which, whether we are imitating or finding pure inspiration from within, is entirely unique. Even my perspective is unique, not to mention the quality of my gear, my skills, my awareness… all of it. We can’t be anyone else. We are each who we are. Again, I think it comes down to how much work do we put into our process and are we lazy about doing what we do? If we are, it shows. Are we content to simply churn out an unremarkable standard product or are we pushing to put our signature on it, to make our mark, to make a wheel that is our own?
For me the closure here is a self-examination. I am revisiting my ethos, re-evaluating my approach. I am reminding myself of the idealistic zeal of my youth and remembering all the inner vows I took then. Thanks for the stimulating discussion, all. Cheers.
Inspiration is a fickle thing.
I agree completely that too much observing leads to complacency and a “lack” of creativity. It’s actually a lack of CREATING.
I read all three articles on this topic yesterday (Shiflett’s, DuChemin’s and Jarvis’), but I really didn’t feel a sense of closure on the topic. Today, Smashing Magazine published this article which really drove it home for me:
In a nutshell, I think photographers should strive to spend more time shooting than surfing. If we see things created by others and then play with ideas in our own minds, something good is bound to come out.
What perfect timing. This weekend I’m delivering essentially the same message at the Grandfather Mountain Camera Clinic, that once you achieve some level of competence (I call it The Wall of Pretty), you should then set out to do something on your own.
Sorry for what may seem like spam, but just wanted to say I agree.
Thanks for your thoughts. Obviously if it’s original, it’s seen as inspired. But the distinction between inspiration and imitation is extremely important. I firmly believe that creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. I picked up the phrase ‘filling the well’ at some point in my past and that’s stuck with me. If the well is empty you have nothing to work with. In that sense, inspiration is important. But inspiration can also mean admiring and being motivated by the work of others, learning from it and growing as a result. Which is also important. Perhaps not as necessary as ‘filling the well’, but not without value.
I sort of can’t help imagine this being discussed even back in the stone-age-days by Agor and Gregor (two of the most common stone-age names btw 😉 over the cave-paintings they were doing. And I do think I see where Shifflett is going with this (and I agree with duChemin and his take on the matter). But I do find it slightly ironic that Shifflett writes about not looking at others work on his…blog!? And Jarvis, on his blog, wholeheartedly agrees with him, Jarvis, by many acclaimed as the the king of social media, don’t want us to be inspired by others? But at the end of his post you are encouraged to “Get my every move: Follow Chase Jarvis on Twitter” !? Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Photography is a hobby to me, so maybe I’m not looking at this with the same level of seriousness, but I for my part have no trouble of knowing when I’m inspired or when I’m imitating. I know that my learning curve has been much steeper then what it would be before the days of the “interweb”. And I sort of imagine that if your are living off any sort of creative business, one day soon, if all you do is imitating, then your gonna be out of business. And maybe that then proves that it wasn’t meant to be? Many people can play the piano, not everyone can live off it!?
Besides, there will always be “leaders” and “followers” and throughout history the really leap in progress has come from people not “educated” at all, they just seems to be born with a gift, and create new stuff before they are even able to consume others work. Like the young promising photog mentioned above, Einstein, Mozart etc etc.
Take a cup of relaxing tea, go with YOUR flow, and it will flow ;))
Well said David,
Inspiration is the spark that starts the fire but our true inner vision is what fuels it.
If we are limited to artistic in-breeding we inevitably we come up with derivative work sooner or later.
I guess that is the challenge of using a visual medium. I feel like we missed one more point in the whole equation.
What can I say, I like to do things my way. Towels or no towels 🙂 metaphors are always better mixed, keeps people guessing 🙂
I’ve got nothing major to add to the discussion (which is very good, BTW). Just this about mixed metaphors — you “toss your hat into the ring” if you’re joining the fight/discussion; on the other hand, you “throw in the towel” if you’re giving up.
Just saying … 😉
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Your point that inspiration comes from working is the crux of the matter I think. I made this same comment on Owen’s page: When I was a fledgling creative at Grey Advertising a century or two ago, I had this same debate with one of the more senior designers in the department. Actually we had it over and over whenever we were both competing to win a bid. I argued Owen’s line of thought. My colleague argued that of his professor and design mentor from some very prestigious European design school. His argument was that good ideas were there to be stolen and that in the hustle and bustle of an ad agency’s daily workflow we didn’t have the luxury of reinventing the wheel every time. I felt then and still feel now that reinventing the wheel every time is a good thing. The more you do it, the better you get at it and ultimately someday, you’ll be the one to come up with a wheel that blows everyone’s mind. People will go, whoa, why didn’t I think of that, and then they’ll promptly proceed to steal your idea over and over and over. But even if you aren’t savvy enough to make sure you get the credit (sadly this happens to originals more often than not) you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that after a gazillion reinventions of that pesky wheel you finally hit on something new that no one else had ever thought of. Somewhere in there, in the midst of that daily drudgery which most others in our “post-modern” times are too lazy or cowardly to really take on, you were inspired. 🙂
You said this so brilliantly. Thank you.
What else is art (music, photography, painting, etc.) but particular attempts at communicating reality according to all of its infinite factors? Inspiration, then, is a matter of being struck by some aspect of reality or another such that you have something worthwhile to communicate to your audience. How then to be struck by reality; how to throw your heart wide open in front of it? Your Point #5 is a big part of being open in front of reality. But even further than that, you have to simply live your particular circumstances with intensity. Your work. Your family. Your morning commute. Everything that makes up your existence–be acutely aware of everything that happens to you–let it pain you, let it exalt you, let it worry you, let it comfort you. I think, David, this is what you mean in Vision Mongers by saying that you have to take inventory and know yourself. But it can’t be static. It has to be ongoing. Constant. I think you would agree? If we let our experiences penetrate us to our hearts on a daily basis, then we will have something worthwhile, and something substantively unique, to communicate through our particular artistic medium and style.
Complex indeed. For instance, when I created this image of sunflowers, I, of course, was aware of Van Gogh’s painting, it may have even influenced, to some degree, my handling of it, and yet I still feel its my own original creation. (I even created the vase).
It would be interesting to hear what others feel about my assertion that it’s still my original creation, despite my knowledge of Van Gogh.
You can view it on this page:
I wish it were so simple, Colortrails, but I see lots and lots of inspired imitation out there in the world of photography. Imitation doesn’t have to be duplication of an image, it can be replication of style as well – and in that sense it does hamper creativity because we’re looking to re-create something old rather than something new. There are lots and lots of photographers lining up in Yosemite to take the same shot Ansel did instead of finding their own, plenty of folks replicating Avedon instead of finding a new angle. Again, I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t think this is less of a temptation in the professional realm either. There are plenty of clients who know no better, even ask for photographers to copy this image or that style. Creativity comes at a premium and imitation comes cheap – witness the millions of images on stock libraries, many of them derivatives of derivatives.
I’m not sure photography is a separated from graphic design as you make it sound. Elements in a 2D frame, that’s all it is. Sure, there are more constraints, a few more variables, but in the end it’s as easy to be uncreative, to imitate, in this discipline as it is in another. Finding your voice is hard, and imitating is easy.
Agreed, Greg. I think for photographers it would almost have to be a conscious decision to mimic the look of another’s work. To truly imitate you would have to pay close attention to patterns of composition, light, focal length and aperture, etc… and then go out and say “OK now I’m going to recreate those same variables in the same type of location.” Other than 1 or 2 people who were intimidated by the medium when starting out, I can’t think of any student or fellow shooter who does that. So it’s a little hard to believe “inspiration kills creativity” in the world of photography (seems like the other blog has a point of reference relating to graphic design mostly).
In my experience, photography students and aspiring pros look at another’s work and say “wow that is beautiful / striking; I want to shoot those kinds of subjects too and see what I can come up with.” Then they go out there and start shooting; the composition and settings and situation the other shooter faced doesn’t cross their mind. I love the work of Rowell, Bertrand, Sudek, Schulman… but there’s no comparing the work because I go out and see what I see, and set things up in a way that makes sense to my eye. I am not them.
Photography is instinctive (or should be if you “do it right”). All you have to do is pay attention to what pulls at you, and then start photographing those things or places in a way that tries to convey to others what you see. There’s really no formula or rules for being creative with a camera, beyond the obvious like knowing good exposure habits, etc. The rest is about following your eyes and understanding what’s important to you.
I really think the creativity element of this argument is more relevant to the contexts faced in graphic design and web design. There is quite a bit more imitation and variances on a theme in those lines of art than in photography because, it’s so much easier to do from a business standpoint. Make an obvious variation on a theme in web design, and you’re still going to get paid as long as it’s good code / works. Same thing with designing a newsletter or packaging. In photography if you’re out there shooting the same subjects in the same ways that are found in every stock agency catalog, chances are you’re not going to make a living for very long. You’ll either be forced to create a unique perspective with your camera, or forced to find another line of work.
David, I absolutely agree with what you wrote here. Main thing being – don’t confuse Inspiration with imitation. I love seeing great photographic art, but I never feel like doing something exactly the same. It just gives me this mood that there are so many possibilities out there, so much room for creativity, and then I go and create something completely different from my own creative pool 🙂
Great post, David. I had caught Owen Shifflett`s post and have been mulling it over for a couple of days. I can see where he’s coming from but I think his approach is a little over the top. Inspiration and copying are very different things, and no matter if you’re a photographer, dancer, chef, or any profession demanding art and creativity, you’re going to be influenced by something or someone. How you channel that influence and make it your own is up to you.
I’m of the (un?)lucky ilk who has a terrible memory. While I spend a fair bit of time looking at the work of others, the specifics of much of it slips out of my head very quickly. Unless I have a book/iPad out in the field with me, I really only have the tangle of the things I’ve learned and what I want to create to work with.
If you haven’t had a moment to read Cole Thompson’s post, I wanted to share with you this brilliant comment from Matt Fitt:
I would suggest that if your work begins to show the clear influence of one photographer or the other, then the solution is not to stop looking at the works of others, but instead to look at more of them. Not more of the same artist(s), but rather, more from other artists.
Rather than cutting yourself off, instead, open your horizons that much wider, until your influences are so numerous and diverse that it’s not clear where one ends and the next begins.
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i agree fully with your words – except your shameless self-promotion 😉
and thanks for clearing the misuse up – owens article did’nt make sense for me, because how could someone mistake imitation for inspiration? i dont get it … but will pay more attention to what people migth mean when they say “inspiration”.
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was just reading about curiosity and photography at the digital photography school http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-be-a-curious-photographer and there are a lot of connections with inspiration in this article.
What i take on Shifflett piece is simply to gain a certain awareness on how we do things in this web and computer era.
1-In our everyday time management: work, commuting etc there is a constant research of efficiency and use the most convenient, efficient. error and risk free ways of doing things. In our case here that could influence consciously or not the way we approach our artform. This may or may not be a good thing depending on what it is you are trying to acheive. To be aware of it is an important point
2-OVERLOAD, the overload of available material say here photographs online might lead us to a- spend too much time on it and/or b- consume it in a fast bit and chunk ways. Again being aware of that is an important point.
I think the challenge lies in being able to be aware of the point at which we identify with the source of inspiration. We can become absorbed to the point of losing our own identity as an artist. Then we cross over from inspiration to imitation. I would add that creativity also comes from awareness of ourselves through work & repetition.
“To be clear about this, Inspiration means to inspire. It means to breathe in, it is the gathering of raw materials. Before we engage in any creative endeavor we must have raw materials.”
Excellent post, David. I so appreciate your writing.
The photograph you posted with this post has inspired me to jump on the next train to Kyoto and to go and shoot some temple gardens 🙂
I just have to add another Picasso quote to the mix:
To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.
– Pablo Picasso
Looking at others work is really a double edged sword. It can really inspire you, but also sometimes influences you unknowingly. The key might to be avoid too much of it early on. You can then find your own creative style without bias. Once your established you can then look to others work and appreciate it without the worry of it unknowingly leeching into your own stuff.
When I read about creativity and lack of creativity I think about other words: constriction/contraction/habit/ruts/safety/etc. There is a saying that there are many paths up the mountain. I believe that creativity is both that proverbial mountain and the journey up the mountain. I think the path to get to truly creative work is found though openness, and by defying contraction within ourselves. This can be done by stepping out of our comfort zone into the unknown. I agree totally that curiosity and wonder (i.e. What if?) will lead to openness and foil the death grip that we use to contract ourselves. As you said more elegantly, no matter what path we use to get up the mountain, as long as we don’t start believing it is the only or best way to go, we will be fed by our experiences.
I think you said it all when you said inspiration comes from working – when I’m working regularly, I find ideas EVERYWHERE – the trick for me, it s force myself out when I’m in a lull.
Dennis – Boggles my mind too, though I’ve gone through phases when looking at other work has been helpful and really unhelpful. I’m interested to know – do you have any idea where this talented young photographer is at now? I guess what I am asking is – did this refusal to look at others’ photographs bear any productive fruit in terms of being creative?
Years ago, I knew a very talented young photographer. He had absolutely no interest in looking at anyone else’s photos (in museums, books, magazines, etc.) That boggled my mind then and still does.
Looks like my original comment was bounced. I forgot my email but then when I added it and re-submitted I got a “looks like a duplicate”. So not sure if it will show up or not?
Anyway, to recap (in case it doesn’t show up). I think Viget is confused about what inspiration is. To be inspired is simply to appreciate the work or art of another, from which the motivation is derived to make something yourself. We *need* that. Ultimately it’s what makes the arts (and many other fields) “go”.
Whether the results of one’s efforts to make something end up being original or too much imitation or pure creative genius, is an entirely separate issue. Inspiration is about motivation, creativity about an innate or learned capacity to create something new.
Either way, best to leave the high-minded debate to the ivory towers so the rest of us can get out there and enjoy our craft and (wait for it…) create something. 🙂
Interesting. Their blog reads like Viget doesn’t understand the definition of “Inspire”. They seem to downplay that “…in school [or society] we’re taught by [or learn from] the examples of others… .” All I can think to say is, “of course we do!” 🙂
That’s what inspiration is. To appreciate the beauty or genius in the art or works of another, and then from that the desire arises to “do something great myself”. That’s all inspiration is, really. Photographers are inspired by the works of their favorite shooters, musicians inspired by their favorite albums, engineers inspired by famous inventors, builders inspired by great architects. Inspiration and creativity don’t necessarily have anything do to with one another.
One is about motivation, the other is about ability (more or less). I think it’s OK to ponder these kinds of topics from time to time, as long as people don’t get caught up in it and forget to pull the camera / guitar / paintbrush out at least twice as often! 🙂
Also it’s worth noting that some of the frustrations about flattery-by-immitation is more common in mediums like web design (a Viget specialty I think?) than it is in photography. I could stand in front of Half Dome and try to “make an Ansel Adams” all I want but it’s probably not going to happen. Whereas with web design, there are thousands of good sites out there that are just slight variations on a theme.
And it’s not always a copy-cat thing but simply a limitation in the number of ways a client’s information can be organized and displayed in a browser. Everyone wants to use the same subtle color schemes, the same 5 or 6 Web 2.0 layout breakdowns, and of course clients want designs to look and behave in a “familiar” way for users… the end result is many go-to web sites being more similar than they are different. I can understand their frustration, but again not much to do with inspiration IMHO.
Yes, I think it’s clear you’re saying the same thing and defending the creative PROCESS… and I agree that we’re probably accustomed to a watered down version of real inspiration, one that is more integral to the longer process.
“While the work featured on these sites can be some of the best our industry has to offer, the way that it’s displayed usually throws concept and story out the window in place or pure visual sugar.”
The same phenomenon is occuring in photography in the name of ‘inspiration’. I’ve recently tried to put books down, stay off of websites, and really try to do the ‘work’ you mentioned. Is it working? I dunno, but it’s definitely a process 🙂
Well Said! I think this can be important. I am a high school art teacher and I always tell the kids that they have to see what others are doing. It doesn’t mean they are to copy but if a writer wants to write the next great novel and has never read a book…… well good luck with that. I will share these thoughts with my students!
To not be influenced at all by that which came before us, would be frivolous. We would constantly be “reinventing the wheel.“
That said, I grew up a lonely boy in the forests of New England, without many friends till I reached school age. This gave me the wonderful gift of “love of solitude,“ that I have always treasured.
This gift in turn, gave me an insight. By not having people around to tell be how and what to see, I learned how to see things in my own way.
This proved invaluable as an artist, because I have always resisted the temptation to do what’s hot and currently popular and rather to do what moves my heart, soul, and mind.
In a prior life, I was a professional ceramic artist. I can remember talking to gallery owners who would say to me, “can’t you do something like this, it’s what my people want?”
To which I would reply, “you have 15 other people doing that, don’t you think there may be some other types of people in the world?”
To me that’s the key, if you do work that inspires you personally, working hard to develop the insight and skills to do it well, it will resonate with others as well.
I never expect, or care to capture 100% of the market, but there will always be a percentage that will resonate with my work because it is honest, sincere, original, and created with craftsmanship that has been developed by working with complete dedication to excellence over time.
If it truly moves you, it will move others, you can be sure of it. If you only want to work in an idiom that is currently “hot “, expect that it will be “cold” soon.
When your eyes are clear, fresh inspiration lurks behind every corner. Combined with the influences that speak to your heart, you can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, and create wonderfully fresh work to inspire others.
Sorry for the long windedness, but this strikes a cord in me. So much talent is wasted in uninspired imitation that robs the creator and audience of so much that could be…
Thanks for the link to Shifflett’s post; I enjoyed reading it, especially in the context of this article. Couldn’t agree more with the notion that nothing is ever created out of a vacuum.
By the way, tell the people at BlackRapid that their R-Strap is a godsend.
David – Love this post as many of my fellow photographers were talking about Shifflett’s post yesterday. And yes, it would be an interesting to discuss the sources of our inspiration… something I try to think about consciously since doing so can help me craft the photograph and my vision for it better.
Richard – I think like all things in the art world it’s tempting get prescriptive. Cole’s post (haven’t yet read it) is likely great advice for artists at certain points in their development, and less helpful for others. I do think that – long-term – our best inspiration will come not from other photographers but from the world around us. Being inspired by other photographers is less helpful and can lead to something like artistic inbreeding.
Perhaps a good addendum to all this would be a discussion of the sources of our inspiration.
Cole Thompson wrote a provocative post about avoiding looking at other photographers’ work so that he would not be tempted to ‘imitate.’
Perhaps that is something valid to a photographer with many years of artistic development behind him, but for us still starting (even after plural decades of trying), inspiration garnered via viewing the works of others is as important as having our camera’s functions explained to us by those more savvy.
Amongst the many challenges developing photographers have to face is the ability to heed and adhere to the 4 points you make here.