I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years.
With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.
When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.
There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.
So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.