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Influences and Confluences

Colin Jago briefly covers his top three photographer influences here (Blossfeldt, McCullin, Erwitt), and I thought it might be fun and time-wasting to list some of my favourite photographers so I can look back one day and laugh at how superficial and uninformed my tastes once were, while others of more refined sensibilities can indulge in that right now.

I’m not going to call anyone an influence, because it opens the door to someone saying, “P’shaw, your shots do not begin to approach the genius of The Great One!” I know this - in many cases, I lack the opportunities let alone the motivation and ability to produce imagery in the vein of those below. I’m not a hardened photojournalist and I have only slightly more chance of becoming one, or even pretending to be one, as I have of going into space. Nevertheless, I can detect some impact on my photography as a result of looking at the work of others, chiefly in an increased appreciation of what sort of subjects can be utilised to make an image (more than just sunsets, trees and close-up flowers, for example). If I had to name one marked influence to date, then it would be reading The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer, which made me appreciate both that there are other photographers - indeed a great historic tradition of photography - and that there are other ways to talk about photographs beyond “Nice contrast and tones”. This provided the impetus to move beyond books about “how to take pictures” and start discovering what sort of pictures have already been taken.

Second disclaimer: I have by no means conducted an exhaustive trawl of the photographic milieu. I’ve largely used well-known names in guiding my perusal of the shelves at the local art library, and I haven’t sought out the new, upcoming and hip on the current scene. Don’t expect surprises and maverick opinions; I doubt there is much new to say about many of the following, certainly by me.

Third disclaimer (yeah yeah, get to the point and quit dissembling): I’m only listing the notable ones in no particular order. Of course I admire the work of Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who doesn’t? I like The Beatles but I don’t list them in my top ten because other bands occupy a greater personal mindshare.

Photographers I admire or like

W. Eugene Smith
Everytime I look at Smith’s photos and read about the tortured circumstances - even if much of that torture was a product of his own tendency towards self-dramatisation - in which he made them, I want to burn all my negatives and stop being such a dilettante (I don’t, of course, because I know where I stand in relation). Everything about them, from the choice of subject to his trademark dark and dramatic print manipulations, takes my breath away. I know I said “in no particular order”, but Gene Smith is number one for me. Of all his many projects, the Pittsburgh work and the loft years are my favourites, although they probably represent his lowest ebb on a personal level. (The Phaidon 55 book on Smith is the one to get if you haven’t seen his work before, then track down an ex-library copy of Let Truth Be The Prejudice on Abebooks - prices on this seem to be rising.)
Elliot Erwitt
Erwitt is best known for his trademark humorous images, but he also captured many of the great figures or moments in recent world history. However, the “New York, 1953” shot of his young wife & child, together with the family cat, is one of my all-time favourites for its gentle portrayal of the joys of domesticity; the mother gazes lovingly at their naked baby, the cat purrs at both of them and Erwitt, through his viewfinder, gazes with love on all of them and the whole scene, which is enveloped in soft shadows. No matter that we later discover she was only the first of several wives (a situation apparently common to many of the great photographers, at least until they slow down a little in later life); at that moment, he was in a state of bliss. His Snaps collection is probably the single easiest way to add a large (and heavy) number of significant images to your bookshelf.
Trent Parke
Very much in the Smith mode, but with a modern sensibility; I’m deeply impressed by almost every one of his images that I’ve seen and I have no idea how they’re made.
Garry Winogrand
In his sheer profligacy, Winogrand may have produced more crap than the rest of us put together and he suffers the double blow of having most of it well-known, at least by reputation, but his best work sings with the sheer effortless vitality of it. If there’s one photographer here that blows me away yet I am never going to be able to emulate in even choice of subject matter, it’s him.
Josef Sudek
I once went to a photography exhibition while visiting Prague and, although the memory has long faded, I think it was Sudek. Quite an eclectic choice of subjects, with some eccentric or obscure still life compositions, but wonderfully caught and printed.
Andrew Sanderson
For a time early on, I was utterly obsessed by Sanderson’s Home Photography and did my utmost to replicate his often pictorialist style, despite post-processing digitally and having no knowledge of the alternative processes he favours. The use of shallow focus with limited DOF and co-opting of low technical quality to increase aesthetic value was my schtick for a couple of years, and I still think it produces photographs that are objects of pure beauty - “fine art”, if you will - even when they lack a deeper subtext (talking more about my images rather than Sanderson’s originals).
Graham Finlayson
Not a well-known name unless you follow UK newspaper photojournalism, but Finlayson was the subject of a Lowry retrospective exhibition last year which was tremendous. He has one poignant shot of a young girl dancing around a deserted music room in an orphanage - everything is blurred with her motion, the frame is tilted and the highlights are blown out, but it’s a definitive portrait of the grace and energy of a small child that enraptures me whenever I look at it. See also Denis Thorpe and the late Don McPhee.

Photographers who intrigue me

…Being those either from whom I’ve not yet seen sufficient examples to judge or I can see there’s something going on but I don’t quite “get” it.

Walker Evans
I like some of the Evans’s shots - there was one in Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (Gas Station, Reedsville) that stuck me as remarkable - and I can sort-of see what the fuss is about, but mostly it doesn’t engage me. Perhaps because his choice of subjects are mainly static scenes shot straight on with the minimum of artifice or interpretation - I realise that’s The Point Dummy, but it leaves me unmoved. Oddly, I’ve begun picking out similar subjects myself lately, though not in the same manner, so in that sense I guess Evans opened my eyes to our often fairly prosaic everyday surroundings.
Daido Moriyama
Just a whole different tradition. Some of it’s good, some of it’s just weird (to western eyes?). But all beautifully printed.
Stephen Shore
I can’t explain what the appeal of Shore’s Uncommon Places, or the few I’ve seen, might be, but they seem to sum up a view of America for me. There’s (apparently) nothing special going on in them; perhaps they chime with buried memories of films and books set there in the seventies. I like the slightly bleached out tones of the colours too - saturated without being overpowering.
Henry Wessel
Added after I watched that eight minute video of Wessel at work that’s doing the rounds. He evokes a similar feeling to Shore, but in monochrome. I need to see more of this.
Joel Meyerowitz
Again, very American but there’s something about his work that makes me want to keep coming back for another look. It might be the process of exploration that’s more clearly apparent here than elsewhere.
Robert Frank
I recently bought the new print of London/Wales, which I’m very pleased with, and I managed a brief flick through The Americans at the reference library, quickly realising that this was to do it a great disservice - it deserves a proper browse. Heck, it deserves to be in print.
Josef Koudelka
Dark in here, isn’t it?
Atget & Lartigue
There’s something there, but I’m not yet sure quite what…