Having had a week away the last week has been one of catching up at work and home and this has left little or no time for photography, course work or progressing assignment 3. This morning I planned to focus on assignment 3 or to write up my notes from Anna Fox’s excellent lecture that I attended on Wednesday. However, whilst having my coffee I started to read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon *(1) and ended up reading the whole book before even getting as far as my desk. Austin Kleon describes himself as a writer who draws and as well as publishing his own creative work he has begun to write compact little books about how to make progress as an artist, Steal Like an Artist, which is about inspiration, became a New york Times bestseller, not because thousands of artists purchased it but because the ideas are as applicable to being in business or designing a web page as they are to art. Show your Work *(2), his latest book which I have on my Kindle but haven’r read yet, is about how to get out there and begin to influence others.
Anna Fox and Austin Kleon are quite different sources of inspiration but having been exposed to the ideas of both people this week I have found some common themes that are helping me organise my own thoughts and put a number of diverse strands into some sort of framework. This is distracting me from finishing assignment 3 but might be helping me find the right context for what I am trying to do.
The fundamental idea behind Steal Like an Artist is that all art is based on ideas stolen from other artists. The book is filled with pithy quotes from sources as diverse as T.S.Eliot and David Bowie but, in many ways, they are all variations on the theme of Pablo Picasso’s “Art is theft”. Kleon’s main point is that we must find an artist whose work we love, study this artist in depth, discover who inspired them and, in turn, study that person identifying where they acquired their inspiration and by doing this open new leads to investigate and so on ad infinitum. His thesis is that by taking other people’s work apart to see how it works when you come to put it back together in your own work you should have found something of your own.
After assignment 1 my tutor pointed me towards researching the banal and the mundane as explored by the American “New Colourists”. William Eggleston led me to Stephen Shore and I spent time first, looking at them individually and then, at the similarities and differences in their work. Whilst their work is exciting I found myself being more interested in the thought processes behind it than in the end result. It took time for me to understand why that was the case and concluded that it was because the locations in William Eggleston’s Guide and Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places are alien, too specifically American. The photographs that have the most impact upon me depend upon these locations and at this stage I cannot, to use Kleon’s concept, steal those ideas and use them on the Surrey Hampshire borders.
This added impetus to finding more local inspiration and led me to look at Tony Ray-Jones and then Martin Parr. There is a neat line connecting these men as, on the evolutionary tree of photography, Ray-Jones and Parr are on the same branch as Eggleston and Shore along with Garry Winogrand and many others. Parr was influenced by Ray-Jones and is currently curating a joint exhibition of their work.
There are clearly common ideas behind Ray-Jones and Parr’s work and whilst their end product is quite different this commonality of idea underlines one of Kleon’s other key points in that we should not “just steal the style but steal the thinking behind the style”. To steal an idea is harder than copying a style because we have to invest time into researching the artist, finding interviews with them, reading their essays, finding informed reviews and curator’s remarks that provide the backdrop to their work. In essence looking at an artist’s work is not enough, we have to try and understand their thought processes and their intent if we wish to adopt any part of their style.
The strongest link between the work of Ray-Jones, Parr and Anna Fox is their focus on leisure. Although each has worked abroad it is their work looking at the British at leisure that closely connects them not just in subject matter but in the way that they see humour and quirkiness in the British at play. In his introduction to Resort 1 *(4) David Chandler refers to the subject of the “British at Leisure” as a defining one for British Photography for the last forty years and he suggests that the baton has passed from Hinde to Ray-Jones to Parr and on to Fox.
Anna Fox studied under Parr and there are a few other very obvious links. Both work in strong colours, both look at the world with the critical eye of a documentarist and both bring humour to potentially mundane subjects. Another link is that they both have worked at Butlins as photographs (rather than as Red Coats). Parr worked as a Butlins’ employed photographer in 1971 and 1972 before he moved from black and white to colour. I have seen very little of his work from that period but there are a few prints from Butlins by the Sea (1972) in Val Williams’ book Martin Parr *(3) and it is easy to place them into the ancestral lineage of The Last Report which was first published some fourteen years later and collected photos taken from 1983 to 1985.
Anna Fox first worked at Butlins in 2009 on a project approved by, but not soley funded by Butlins. Resort 1 *(4) is the first of two collections of the photographs taken for this project and whilst any stylistic link to Butlins by the Sea would be tenuous it is much easier to connect Resort 1 to Last Resort. Fox uses colour in a bold way, like Parr she takes the ambient lighting conditions out of the equation by, in her case, using lighting rigs with strobes. As a result she creates that same sense of near 3D that is a notable feature of much of Parr’s work. The foreground, and thereby often the main subject, is always slightly brighter than the background and this brings a film set feel to many of the pictures in Resort 1. Like Parr she explores the extraordinary that, to the less observant eye, is so often masked by the ordinary and has an uncanny knack, which is of course in reality is a great skill, of finding compositions that use colour to link the various components.
In both the examples above there is an interesting and consistent colour scheme. In Leaving Day the reds in the two foreground childrens’ clothes are picked up by the chalets in the background and this gives the picture an overall impression of reds. In Wooden Donkeys there are a selection of blues, the small boy in the foreground, the girl behind and to the left, the banners, the saddle cloths and the sky, there is an overall impression of blue.
This is not true of every picture in Resort 1 but in many there are one or more pieces of detail colour that carry through to the background and give the overall composition a sense of there being an overriding scheme.
Another link between Parr and Fox is their common interest in the work of the John Hinde Studio who photographed and published postcards of Butlins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Parr discovered Hinde’s postcards whilst working at Butlins and, according to Val Williams, this was the beginning of his interest in collecting postcards. Fox, on the other hand, directly acknowledges that the style she developed for Resort 1 was influenced by the work of the John Hinde studio. The hallmark of Hinde’s postcards is that they were stage managed productions with lighting, direction and, often, actors in the shape of Butlin’s redcoats pretending to be guests. Fox had started at Butlins taking pictures of adults enjoying themselves on adult only weekends, stag nights, hen parties and the like, and for this she had worked with a portable camera and flash. This approach fitted her subjects and the parties that were unfolding in front of her but when she started to work with family holiday makers she discovered that her subjects were uncomfortable with the street photography or “paparazzi feel” of this approach. In response she started to use a static 5 x 4″ camera with a lighting system and a team of assistants. This “film set” method, similar to that used by Hinde’s photographers, encouraged her subjects to participate and capture this unique view of modern day Butlins.
I have deviated from my narrative to look at the work of Parr and Fox because it is through these examples that I hope to describe how style theft is good. Kleon makes the point that plagiarism is passing off other people’s ideas as one’s own but imitation is an essential part of the process of developing a style. Anna Fox openly credits Parr and Hinde as influences, her use of daylight flash is “of Parr”, her big production studio sets “of Hinde”, for her subject matter perm any of Ray-Jones, Parr, Hinde, and many others. In Kloen’s terms she has stolen these ideas but there is no doubt that Resort 1 is Anna Fox, not any of the above, nor is it a homage to any of the above. Fox has taken ideas and style and through imitation she has transformed it, we can see the heritage, but her work is distinctly different because she has remixed and reworked, blended and merged, invested her own personality and through all these things created her own unique style.
Steal like an Artist was the right read at the right time partly because I find it reassuring. He describes ways of working that I already follow such as Google everything, read, find as many diverse sources of knowledge as possible, take endless notes, draw pictures, sketch ideas, use the computer as a way of editing, finalising and presenting and not as a way to develop ideas. He says “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Kloen presents some key words which need to be born in mind when we steal ideas. We should honour not degrade, study not skim, steal from many not one, credit not plagiarise, transform not imitate and remix not rip-off.
Kleon’s book is, in many ways, about research with the objective of developing a style and his ideas can be expanded upon and taken forward as a framework for study. When I first started with OCA I had no idea on how to research or study photography, instinctively I started looking for photographs I liked and then began to study the photographers who took them. This led me every which way and exposed me to a few new ideas but nothing was exciting me to the point that I wanted to go out and take a “Henri Cartier Bresson” – too black and white, too stuffy, or a “Koudelka” or a “Salgardo” – too dark. I found Camilo José Vergara and immediately wanted to “take photos like that” but I needed to have started thirty years ago as the whole point of his work is the long term documentation of change. Eventually I arrived at Eggleston and Shore that I loved but felt were too American and then I came upon Parr. In one direction this led me to Winnogrand and in the opposite direction to Fox and I have a list of names of other photographers which are still on the research list who are mentioned by or in the context of Parr.
Salvador Dali said that “Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing” so Kleon urges us to copy, copy, copy and through this process, and because our copies will not be anywhere near perfect we will find and produce something that is uniquely us.
I have spent a lot of time looking at Shore and Parr and now having been introduced to Fox’s work through the OCA Study Visit I am in the process of adding her to the list. The are many aspects of their work that I want to be take as direct influences or, is it steal?
- The saturated colours
- The bold, uninhibited use of colour
- Working in sets or series and not on individual images
- Daylight flash
- Parr and Fox’s types of subjects
- Fox’s stitching of individual photos to create a memory of a place over a period of time
- Fox’s idea of collecting text and images separately only bringing them together in the final edit
- Shore’s use of deep depths of fields making every piece of the frame equally important
The list is longer but the point is made.
From my experience of working with GCSE and A Level students and my own studies I know that subject matter is always a challenge and, in the age of Flickr, there is an over emphasis on “wow factor”, what Roland Barthes might have seen as all studium and no punctum. Anna Fox, in her lecture, talked engagingly about her career which started photographing Basingstoke, a notably un-interesting new town, her project in offices which was published as “Work Stations” and documenting her mother’s cupboards and her local village. Her point is that photography starts at home, She described documentary photography as recording something to give it historical significance and to have it remembered and her photographs of mundane offices in the 1980s, village life in the early 90s, Butlins in the 21st century and her current project in a small French city all fit into this description. Few people would identify any of these subjects as exciting, there is no “wow factor” but she creates compelling and memorable images that will stand the test of time and offer an insightful description of their place and time.
One of the reasons that her work has value is that she has constantly developed her style and used new techniques. She made the point that the fact she had used a technique or was using it now did not mean she would continue to use it so there is obviously an evolution of style in her work. One of her current techniques is to use a static camera to take snapshots of a fluid scene like an airport arrivals hall or a retail shop and then to select several moments from different raw images and to stitch them together to form a memory of a place over time.
Kleon offers similar advice to the artist about subject selection as the better we know and understand something the more easily we will interpret it for others. I am finding it increasingly important to take photos for myself or as Kleon puts it, to write the book we want to read. Bringing these ideas together I conclude that we can pick any subject close to home to document, to give it historical significance and to have it remembered; we can use flash like Parr or static cameras like Shore or Fox or white backgrounds like Bailey as long as we understand why we are using them and that we are using them as part of a process of finding our own voice.
My favourite quote amongst the many in Steal like an Artist provides a fitting conclusion.
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening everything must be said again.” Andre Gide.
*(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.
*(2) Kleon, Austin (2014) Show Your Work. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.
*(3) Williams, Val (2002) Martin Parr. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
*(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1. London: Thames and Huson Limited.