Imitate, then Innovate
Brownie points to whoever can name the (very famous) artist who created the painting above. Extra bonus points if you can say why it is relevant to how smart photographers can learn their craft.
I first saw the Pablo Picasso's Science and Charity while visiting the Museo Picasso in Barcelona in the '90s. This particular museum is a laid out chronologically, which allows you an intimate look into Picasso's life and development as an artist.
Early in his career Picasso made the visual rounds, mastering and then rejecting a number of painting styles before discovering his own. He was simply copying the styles of others -- even saying as much in some of the titles of his paintings at the time.
But while he was busy finding out what he didn't want to do as an artist, he was also honing the technical skills he would use after he found his voice.
With immediate access to the work of most every photographer of note in the world, the web has greatly compressed the time required for this process. Take the photo above, by Justin Lanier. It is very much a copy of a Dan Winters photo of U2 frontman Bono.
At first blush, you might be tempted to write Justin off as another copycat wannabe. But he also is following in a long tradition of photographers being influenced by the work of others. Justin is overtly copying Winters' work as a learning technique. And whether the imitation is obvious or not, conscious or not, it is a fast track to learning the skills and techniques you can apply later in your own work. The important thing is to develop your own style and vision along the way.
Looking at Dan Winters' work, he was almost certainly influenced by his association with Greg Heisler. And Heisler in turn had famously camped out on Arnold Newman's door to get the chance to learn from him. As for Newman, he is credited with being the father of the photographic environmental portrait. But that is not to say that he didn't learn from painters who came before.
For those still rolling their eyes at Justin's overt copy of a Dan Winters photo, consider this: Justin Lanier (pictured just below in a self-portrait) is 15 years old. What were you doing with your photography at that age? Probably not trying to reproduce Dan Winters' photos, or shooting a 365 project, I'm thinking. Click the pic for a BTS photo, with Justin's duct-tape-and-clothes-hanger-wire studio.
Studying and imitating light puts you onto the fast track for leaning your own lighting skills. So when it does come time for you to find yourself visually, you'll have the technical chops to express your ideas.
[Editor's Note, to Justin Lanier: I happened to be exchanging emails with Dan just yesterday about an unrelated matter. You can be pretty sure he is reading this today, and thus viewing your photo and setup. (Pucker factor: f/64.)]
Back to Science and Charity, you may not know that Picasso was only sixteen when he painted it. About the same time he did the self portrait at left.
Incidentally, Science and Charity is a massive painting -- over eight feet in width. Very impressive and imposing to view in person. And it had nothing at all to do with the painter Picasso would soon become. But it had everything to so with the education he had given himself by studying and emulating the work of others.
He painted it for a contest. His father (and art teacher throughout his early years) suggested themes of death, religion and science. To be honest, he was pretty heavily coached on the whole thing. But the teenage Picasso, who had already spent much time copying the styles of the painters who went before him, had the skills to create the painting.
Interestingly, dad served as the model for the doctor; mom was the bedridden patient. So, just like Justin, Pablo was working with the models that happened to be available. So, Justin, you should not take any crap for photographing your dad, either.
Picasso won the contest, and with it his first of several trips to Paris as an artist. As a college-aged guy with a paint brush and an attitude, hanging out with women of questionable repute in Parisian bars led to predictable result. Suffice to say it was quite the visual experience.
But it was also during that time that he entered his Blue Period, and through that process found his own unique vision as an artist. If you can't make it to the Museo Picasso (it's a must-see if in Barcelona) you can get a pretty good proxy by clicking around this comprehensive series of articles.
And the next time someone dings you for trying to learn by copying someone else, know that you are in pretty good company.