My Five Greatest Photography Influences

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time, trying to figure out which photographers influence my work and what I’m trying to do.

Then, via a conversation with Anton, I realised that when I began photographing with intention, I didn’t really know any classic photographers at all. My influences came from other places, via other passions.

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Here then, in no particular order, are who I consider to be the top five influences on how I try to photograph today –

Kate Bush

In three words – Sensual, Emotional, Eccentric.

I was vaguely aware of Kate as a child – her videos for early classics like Wuthering Heights are amongst my earliest memories of music shows like Top Of The Pops. But it was much later I discovered her properly, via a random tape my brother found with a few of her early hits.

What I love about Kate is the emotion that goes into her music and lyrics, and how often this is entwined with very sensual imagery and language too. It makes me think and feel and yearn.

Her voice just makes the presentation even more sensual and more often than not – especially with her first three records – eccentric, if not completely bonkers.

One of my favourite songs is Suspended In Gaffa. It sweeps and swoons like a drunken fairground ride into the chorus of “suddenly my feet are feet of mud / it all goes slo-mo / I don’t why I’m crying…” At the end I feel exhilarated, exhausted and like I understand everything and nothing all at once.

In contrast, something like the stripped down and incredibly beautiful Under The Ivy has an exquisite balance of lost innocence, mystery, fragility and sensuality, and all with just vocals and piano. Possibly the most tender and touching song about discovering carnal pleasures every written?

How does Kate Bush influence my photography? 

I think she reminds me how something very simple can be incredibly beautiful, like Under The Ivy, or arguably her finest hour, The Coral Room. It doesn’t need to be complex and cluttered.

She’s also very English, and obviously steeped in English Literature, and somehow I hope my photographs of the English countryside and ancient churches mine a similar vein too.

Oh and Kate also seems often still half lost in childhood (or rather caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood) and immersed somewhere between memories, dreams and reality, something I also feel much of the time. I think I retain the curiosity of a child, seeing beauty and wonder in things that most dismiss as mundane and would give a second glance. Then making photographs of them.

Mark Rothko

In three words – Vast, Bold, Colour.

Through an old friend who I used to share a great deal of music with, I was introduced to The Stone Roses. Well, not the band themselves, just their music. Anyway, their lead guitarist John Squire had something of a passion for abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Intrigued by his work, I explored similar artists and came across Mark Rothko.

I was struck by not only the bold and vivid colours he used, but the sheer size of his paintings – many at least 2m high. Seeing a few in the flesh enamoured my further, and helped me appreciate the layers and textures he used that aren’t apparent seeing them just online or as a print.

How has Mark Rothko influenced my photography?

This influence is far more obvious. Any time I take a picture with large bands of colour (or greys!), it leads back to Rothko. Even if it’s not solid colours, and more haze or loosely contained bands of different colours or textures, I think his work burned deeply into my subconscious and informs much of what I do.

Stars Of The Lid

In three words – Space, Serenity, Warmth.

This influence could have been any number of at least half a dozen bands in the same genre, including Labradford, Loscil, Hammock and Eluvium.

Stars Of The Lid just feel at the top of the pile, and have amongst other records made two expansive masterpieces in “The Tired Sounds…” and “And Their Refinement Of The Decline”.

Add up all the time I’ve spent lost in their music and it would probably equate to months, those two records above being quite probably the two most played of any I’ve ever owned.

How have Stars Of The Lid influenced my photography?

Again by showing less is more, by slowing everything down and letting it breathe and find its elegance.

They’re the antidote to so much in our busy daily lives, especially the frenetic internet and social media.

Stars Of The Lid constantly remind me to breathe and let things unfold in their own time, which has certainly led to me being more patient and thoughtful with photography, rather than just rattling through a roll of film to get to the next one, or “spraying and praying” with digital.

Jack Kerouac

In three words – Poetic, Honest, Urgent.

Im not sure how I discovered Kerouac, though the memory that rings most true is that I was simply browsing through the fiction section in a bookstore one day some 20 years ago and saw his face looking out at me from the cover of On The Road.

I read a page or two and was hooked by his beautiful burning urgent words that rattled along fearlessly, at once both fierce and tender.

In the following year or so I read virtually all of his other novels and his wonderful collected letters, and he was then, and probably remains now, my greatest literary hero.

Kerouac taught me how to unleash my own inner poet and I wrote even more than I read over this period, at first long rambling broken rhyming letters, then gradually more edited and structured poems.

Jack also introduced me to haiku, and maybe a couple of thousand haiku of my own later, it was the only poetry I wrote.

How has Jack Kerouac influenced my photography?

Haiku and photography – then and still now – are so close in my mind as to be virtually inseparable. The aim of each is to capture the senses and emotion of a single scene, a fleeting moment in time, so that the artist – and their audience – can appreciate and re-experience that moment in its full glory many times over.

Taking pictures was just a different way of creating haiku, and when I started with camera phones around 12 years ago, this was what I was trying to do. And still am to this day!

Brian Eno

In three words – Sparse, Spacious, Influential.

Though I’d come across Eno as part of the original Roxy Music line up, he interested me more as the collaborator on David Bowie’s Berlin albums, especially Low.

This led me to explore his own work, starting with Ambient 1 – Music For Airports. The record was a revelation, I’d never heard anything so stripped down, so sparse, yet so beautiful.

Ambient 1 and its sequel, Ambient 2 – The Plateaux Of Mirror, remain for me probably the definitive ambient records, and the blueprint for all of those bands mentioned above, led by Stars Of The Lid.

Yes, they all have their own spin and sound, but their DNA can all be traced back to Eno’s work decades earlier.

How has Brian Eno influenced my photography? 

In a word, minimalism. I remember lending Ambient 2 to a friend who was also a composer and music producer. He reported back – “It’s fantastic – if you happen to like the two notes he uses on the entire record…” This was a slight exaggeration, but not much.

But this was, and is, precisely the point of the music. The less you focus on, the more attention and energy you give those few precious things, and so the more you enjoy and appreciate them.

Minimalism has been a significant influence in my life in the last decade or so, from my wardrobe, to the music I listen to, finally, my cameras.

My photographs themselves, more often than not, feature very few elements, and often the main object is in focus and much of the rest of the frame is blurred. Again, this is to focus (literally) on one or two things and let them resonate to their fullest, uncluttered and unhindered by chaotic surroundings.

Repeated attempts on my part to create visual equivalent of Eno’s sonic masterworks.

Influences current and future

As I hope you’ve seen, our photographic influences can come from a range of sources, and certainly don’t have to come exclusively via other photographers. Mine barely do at all.

Very recently I’ve begun reading more and studying the past masters and inevitably this will have a subtle influence as my photography continues to evolve. But I strongly suspect none of them will have the kind of impact any and all of the above artists have had in my formative years.

Who are the biggest influences on your photography, and why?

Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

27 thoughts on “My Five Greatest Photography Influences”

  1. (an aside: That’s a gift; sense bleeds over into sensibility and nigh synesthesia. Singular richesse; awareness doubles it, and articulation triples.)

    1. Thank you, and this reminds me I read a wonderful book a few years back called A Natural History Of The Senses by Diane Ackerman. Must dig that out and read again…

        1. I had to look that word up (alembic), indeed it is fitting. This is how I see these influences, each a kind of gauze or filter through which my own pure intention has trickled and each has changed the chemical make up of how and what I see and capture.

          Once I’d caught up with the comments here I went back to look at the Kubrick photographs in more depth. He really was extraordinary in seeing and capturing images, and every photograph is like a still from a movie. Very very impressive. Thanks for pointing me in this direction.

  2. I realy like the fact that you name non-photography related artists as influences! And I’m totally with you regarding Kate Bush and Jack Kerouac.

    Photos as visual Haiku… spare, succinct and yes, they are visual too. They create an image in the mind!

    And then here goes nothing… what the heck, I’d ‘like’ this post if there were a LIKE button! 😉

    1. Frank, it’s simply because I have such a sparse education in photographers.

      In terms of input, music has (and still is) the artform I devour most, and my predominant output for a long time (and probably still, if you include blogging) is/was writing.

      Near misses just outside these top five were Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, both film makers with a very strong visual style that is probably much closer to photography.

      Who are your main influences?

      (I’m replying via the notifications screen and annoyingly below each comment there’s the option to “like”…)

      1. I always have to sto myself from hitting that LIKE button.

        Talking of influences, with Kubrick and Lynch you hit a chord with me but also with Wes Anderson… might seem strange if you see Andersons gorgeous colors and my black and white and muted colors…

        Music is also a great part of my life, but I am mostly old fashioned with blues, jazz and real music (i.e. stuff from long ago – Led Zep, Pink Floyd).

        Photographically, i’d like to be influenced by the greats of street photography but I doubt if it’s for me. Too shy and inhibited….

          1. I just don’t read enough. Something I’m trying to redress, but mostly with photography books. Full time job plus kids means not a great deal of time. But enough for photography, some reading, writing, blogging, I can’t complain!

            I’ve read I think three Stephen King books, then I just decided no more. The Shining is fantastic, more interesting than the film (though I think the film is excellent too in its own interpretation, Kubrick of course).

            The Stand is a sprawling epic and was very good but I remember vividly a couple of scenes that put images in my head that I wish they hadn’t and have remained there ever since. Didn’t they make a mini series of it?

          2. Yes, The Stand was made into some serial thing. But that’s the problem with King based movies…. apart from… let me think… The Shining, Carrie and The Green Mile they are all crap. And crapiest is the adaptation of The Dark Tower. And the worst is that King himself was involved in those films, adaping and supervising…

            Read each and every book by King and sure, some stuff remains stuck in your brain, but that’s horror!

          3. I really don’t like horror, but The Shining is more than that (book and film). It scares me how many horror type scenes and scenarios I can imagine in my head. I think I could be an excellent and chilling horror writer, but they’re doors and rooms in my imagination I just don’t want to open!

        1. Frank, I’m not really familiar with Wes Anderson, the only film I’ve seen of his is Fantastic Mr Fox. Very stylish and individual, but not something that struck me as photography inspiring. But that’s one film from I’m sure many he’s made.

          Both Lynch and Kubrick make/made films that you can pause on any number of scenes and they make wonderful still images.

          My era when I really got into music was mid 90s. I was aware of music in the 80s but mostly pop stuff. There was a kid at at school who was seen as quite geeky and odd but he was very into music around the age of 11, 12, 13. At the time I didn’t really get it, I remember he liked The Smiths, New Order, The Cure and Prince. Looking back about 20 years later I realised what fantastic taste he had! He went on to own a local record shop for years, no wonder!

          I’m familiar with some Led Zep, very little Floyd. I know some of their newer “descendants” like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. Funny how some music I think is incredible, like those two just mentioned, The Smiths, Bob Mould, but I wouldn’t say they actually had any artistic influence on me. Whereas others like Eno and Kate Bush it’s very clear.

          Sadly street photography has become such an overused phrase and a diluted genre. Everyone’s a street photographer, and it’s a shame that the few genuine originals almost get lost amongst oceans of dross.

          1. If you have a moment, watch The Darjeeling Limited by Anderson. A festival of colors and long slow camera pannings. And an excellent musical score…. If you’re not into action it’s a mesmerizing movie.

            And true, Radiohead is one of my favourite bands. Even if they are late comers to my universe. Their latest albums are so complex and deep…. anazing

          2. Ok thanks Frank I’ll check out the film. Radiohead were one of the last very innovative bands I’ve been aware of. It’s depressing that bands like Coldplay became so huge, when they’re such a watered down and dull version.

            The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A are a trilogy of masterpieces, yet each very different and a massive evolution. Hugely inspiring, if not directly on my photgraphy.

          3. I find the evolution of Radiohead amazing. From a beautifully conventional Pablo Honey to the later works… it’s a whole world between but still the same skill and complexity

          4. Creep and Lurgee from their debut remain two of my favourite Radiohead tracks. They had promise right from the off, but going from Pablo Honey to The Bends was such a leap. No-one saw it coming, instant classic!

  3. The earliest influences on my photography were two very different visual artists – my parents. I apologize for the length of what follows.

    My mother was a musician and a painter. Singing with a powerful contralto voice she sang in both sacred and secular choirs whenever the opportunity presented, and accompanied other singers with the same power on the piano when it didn’t. Sadly we have no recordings of her voice or piano but my sister still plays some of her piano arrangements.

    That same power is reflected in her watercolors and oils. I am fortunate to be the custodian of most of her works still in the hands of the family. As I type this I am looking at China Camp, an oil depicting an abandoned boathouse and pier near San Francisco, and Marin Fire, a watercolor of a bucolic scene of a rolling hillside in central California. But in the upper right there is a wildfire descending the slope trailing a cloud of smoke. A collector who has been trying for years to buy it says it is the scariest thing he has ever seen done in watercolor.

    My Father was a chemical engineer and a photographer. He brought the same strict analytical approach and attention to detail that earned him a number of patents in the petrochemical field to his photography. He was an early adopter of 35mm. Most of his negatives that we have found are from the mid to late 1930’s. The technical quality is the equal of anything I see being done today with film today. Most of his photos are what we would call snapshots, interesting to people with a connection with the subject but, otherwise, not very memorable. The notable exceptions are his group portraits. He had an uncanny ability to capture the relationships between the individuals in the picture.

    Without a doubt, my greatest photography influences are my mother’s mastery of space, scale, viewpoint and so much more, and my father’s passion for technical excellence and his fascinating group portraits.

    1. Doug that’s amazing, what a rich artistic upbringing you had.

      I can’t recall any kind of creativity in my mum or dad, or really anyone else in the family, aside from my nan’s snaphots.

      I had to find out for myself as I got older and became aware of music, painting, poetry, photography. You must feel very blessed to have such fruitful artistic genes!

      I do try to encourage both of our kids with cameras, drawing, painting, colouring, crafts, stories, as well as more physical activities like dance, gymnastics and swimming. Swimming aside, again I had so little exposure to these things in my own childhood. I wasn’t unhappy and was very fortunate and loved, I just didn’t have many opportunities for creativity in these kinds of disciplines mentioned. Looking back now I would have loved to have learned dance, drama and photography from an early age, all things I eventually tried myself later in life and loved.

      1. It’s fascinating to see how talents and interests pass through the generations. Our granddaughter inherited my wife’s athletic genes and is excelling in youth soccer at the highest competitive level. Our grandson shows real promise as a singer. Hopefully his voice will develop into his other grandfather’s beautiful tenor rather than my sadly ordinary baritone.

  4. So what I am reading here is that the photographic influences are actually your life influences and you express that through your photography. It is good that you are able to channel this mindset into this creative outlet.

    I’m not sure my influences are so obvious to me and as you hint at, all experiences have some influence on one’s development so pulling the big one’s out of that melee is going to take some thought.

    1. SilverFox, yes I’ve been mulling over this post in the background for weeks, perhaps months. The difficulty I think is distinguishing between artists you love, and those you love AND who have a traceable influence on your photography (on any other creative outlet, or indeed as you point out, your outlook on life in general).

      Originally I had some others in mind like Bowie, The Smiths, Radiohead, Mogwai, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, bands/artists I love and who I’ve listened to for hours on end. Also there are filmmakers like George Lucas, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick whose films are incredibly original and memorable. But none of these I feel have made a direct influence I can describe or pinpoint. Whereas all of those above have.

      Please drop back and tell us more when you’ve thought about it further.

  5. A lot of my photography is inspired by all those creative people who celebrate every day life, their possessions and things around them, their gardens, nature especially clouds and what is discovered by walking around one’s neighbourhood xoxo susanJOY

    1. I think the best way to improve our photography is not to visit amazingly beautiful and photogenic places, but to find the beauty in our surroundings, wherever we may be.

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