Nude, Maine, 2003
“No art is created in a vacuum.”
That’s a phrase that I like to say about creating art. Oh, I’m sure that it has been said by many people before me using different words (or perhaps even the same words), but what’s important is this: nobody creates anything without being influenced in one way or another by the world around them or, in some cases, by the world that came before them.
This applies to musicians, painters, writers and, of course, to photographers. Mozart was influenced by the world around him. So were Picasso, Hemingway and Avedon.
For example, there’s a symphony by Mozart in which the music in one of its movements sounds remarkably similar to the music of the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah.” I once heard a program about this Mozart symphony on a classical music station, and rather than say that Mozart copied it, the host simply said that this music was “in the air” at the time and Mozart used it. (Hmmm. I wonder how the “in the air” defense would have held up in court should Handel’s estate have sued Mozart for plagiarism.)
Certainly, my own photography has been influenced by many things. Obviously, the work of other photographers is one source. A number of years after I had begun to photograph nudes, I even began to ask myself how much longer I could go on photographing models in the same Edward Weston poses. (The great photographer Lucien Clergue said that Weston was a big influence on him, too, as I’m sure he was – and is – to many others.)
Still, there are different ways in which artists can be influenced by the works of others. One is stylistic, when an artist adopts a particular styles used by other artists. Then there are those who may intentionally choose to copy something that another artist has done, though perhaps to do it in their own way.
What I’m writing about now are a couple of my photographs that I believe were influenced by specific works produced by others, but where those influences were not intentional. I think that when we see works of art (or anything, for that matter), those things are filed away in our memory banks. Just because those files are not open (that is to say, in our conscious thoughts), they are still there, to some extent, in our subconscious mind.
Such is the case with these two photos. The first one (above) was a photo that I made of model Hope Hoffman on my first trip to Maine in 2003. We were working in a field that had an overturned kayak on it, so we decided to use that as a platform for Hope to pose on.
In this photo, Hope is stretched out on top of the boat, her back turned to me, with her right arm languidly stretched out along her torso. I imagine that I may have asked her to put her arm there, but whether it was my idea or hers, there was obviously something I liked about it as I chose to photograph it.
Some time later, however, I realized that I had seen that pose somewhere before, in the painting “La Grande Odalisque” by the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. I was definitely not trying to copy that pose, but the idea of a model seen from the back with her right arm stretched out must have been there in the back of my head, so I went with it.
“La Grande Odalisque” by Ingres
Naturally, being a two dimensional visual art like photography, painting is an obvious influence on photographers – but what about sculpture? As I have written before, I studied classical art at university, and I have said that I see my photographs as something of a continuation of that classical tradition.
However, what about non-classical sculpture? Take a look at this next photograph, which I made in the summer of 1995. I had attended my very first art nude workshop at Woodstock, New York, the weekend before, and one of the photographers I met there invited me to join him and a few other photographers to work with some models the next weekend.
Untitled Nude, 1995
Being pretty new at this type of thing, I probably wasn’t too certain of what I was doing. On this occasion, working with this model, I just asked her to put her arms up over her head, with her hands pointing inward.
As you can see from the photo, this is what she did, and I probably gave myself a mental pat on the back for having come up with an interesting, original pose. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this pose was not original, at all, as I had seen it before on the figure below.
Pre-dynastic Egyptian figure, c. 3500 BCE
This particular piece, in the Brookyn Museum, is a so called “bird woman’ figure from pre-dynastic Egypt (that is, before the time of the pharaohs). It’s made of pottery and dates to around 3500 BCE. I studied Egyptian art as well as classical art, so I was definitely familiar with it and similar pieces. Like the painting by Ingres, I just love this figure for its simplicity, beauty and elegance, especially the way that the arms sweep upward. There is no doubt, then, why I would subconsciously use such an object as a basis for creating a photograph.
Finally, to end things on a slightly different note, here’s an example of art imitating art in a totally independent manner. I was working with BlueriverDream in Vermont last summer, using the curved stump of a tree in the forest as a prop. She is a very creative model, good at making interesting and beautiful poses, and I believe that she herself initiated the pose that you see here in this photo.
Nude, Vermont, 2015
On this occasion, a particular work of art did come to mind for me: Jacques-Louis David’s painting about the French revolution, “The Death of Marat” (below). I mentioned this to her afterwards, and I believe that she was unfamiliar with the work.
“The Death of Marat” by David
So, I guess it is possible to create a work of art that looks similar to another one without any intent, conscious or subconscious, to do so.
Either that, or there are only so many poses that can be used for either a painting or a photograph.