There’s a wonderful story about Kurt Schwitters.* One day, the artist was on the train, carrying with him the roots of a tree. When someone asked him what the roots were,
[H]e replied that they constituted a cathedral. “But that is no cathedral, that is only wood!” the stranger exclaimed. “But don’t you know that cathedrals are made out of wood?” Schwitters replied.
On the face of it, the artist probably seemed a little crazy to the man on the train. But to Schwitters, it was no more unusual to look at those roots and see the cathedral inside than it would’ve been for Rodin to recognize the lovers waiting to be liberated from the stone. His fertile imagination gave the world inventive poetry, whimsical bits of collage he dubbed “Merz” and Gaudi-esque architectural fantasias that came to be known as “Merzbau.” A more sensible man might’ve conceded that it was a bit of a stretch to see cathedrals in stumps; thankfully, Schwitters stuck to his gentle madness.
At some point, you’ll want to cultivate your own style and vision. After all, when just about everyone’s got a camera, what’s a guy or girl got to do to stand out? So we look for that individual style, the one that will at least make us stand out, if not make us rich and/or famous.
Mind you, I’m not saying “take the same photos everyone’s taken of the same things since the dawn of photography.” What I’m saying, more accurately, is quit worrying about making yourself unique. You might as well fret over your fingerprints. Each of us sees the world differently, just because. There are ways that we can see more of it, either by getting to places we’ve never been, or finding a new light (sometimes literally) in which to view that which we pass every day. Worrying about authenticity isn’t what makes you authentic. It’s a simple matter of seeing what you see, as no one else does or can, framing that in the viewfinder, and then being faithful to that vision.
There’s everything you need to find your style in a nutshell. Simple, isn’t it? Well, not really. It takes work. It’s easy to take those same shots everybody’s taken (Hey, look! I’m squishing the Eiffel Tower between my fingertips! I’ve got the Guggenheim in a waffle cone!). It’s also tempting to settle for the easy shot for lack of time, or because the more conventional shot might get more plaudits (or sales). It’s quite something else to pass those shots up for another spot altogether, or to do the even harder work of finding new angles on the same old subject that nobody’s thought of before. They may not be what’s in every vacation snapshot or postcard, but they’re something else: they’re truly, irrevocably, yours. If you can nail that, and stay true to it, you will have done something you can be proud to put your name on.
Ansel Adams said once that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it. Not the Canon, Kodak, or Nikon, nor the tripod it’s on, nor the lens that’s attached to it. You. Nobody else sees the world quite the way you do. You have a responsibility to yourself to honor the vision that only you can see, and only you can communicate.
*Related in Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, p. xxvii.