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Part 3 | Elements of creativity: Key influences

This blog post is the third of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my next ebook! Through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers, we will explore in this article the workings of our creativity –  decoding a mysterious process as unique as the artists interviewed here. David Carol, Rammy Narula, Rohit Vohra, Mike Lee, Melissa Breyer, Martin Waltz, Nima Taradji and Arek Rataj – You’ve inspired me. Thank you!

Based on these interviews, I have identified 3 fundamental elements to creativity. Each of these elements influences image-making and creativity for street photographers. This third post is about key external influences, that I define as: The people and art that are shaping the way we see – an ongoing dialogue with the world.

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Photography is a constant dialogue between the artist and the external world – a refined stream of ideas that nurtures, inspires, and guides artists in their photographic journey.

Sometimes we meet an artist who will define forever how we see, and sometimes these are the multitude of interactions we will have with others – our mentors, peers and critics alike – who will push us further in our art. The commonality here is that no artist creates in a vacuum, in an ivory tower.  We are all susceptible to be influenced by those who’ve changed art before us, and by those who will come next. And this is because our art belongs to something greater than ourselves that it will be able to touch people we don’t know, whom we’ve never met. In this chapter, we will be looking at the role played by these external influences on how we think, create, and evolve our street photography –  through an ongoing dialogue taking place with the world.

Image by David J. Carol

Image by David J. Carol

Key insights

1. Artists as social beings. All artists, street photographers included, belong to a world much greater than them. A world with whom they interact and exchange ideas, find new sources of creativity, question and challenge themselves. We may be producing images for ourselves, but would we do it if we had no audience? It’s unlikely that art would play the role it plays in our society if it was not used as well as a two way communication medium.  To put it simply, we need others to create art, and others need our art to become themselves. This ongoing exchange has a tremendous impact on our own creativity as an artist: from the art created by others to the feedback we receive from our peers, we keep evolving our vision through these interactions. As Arek Rataj pointed out: “Influences from others are felt both consciously (through new ideas and experimentation) and unconsciously (intuitive triggers happening on the street)”. Therefore it’s both conscious and unconscious material that we take from others, from their art, their ideas and their dialogues with us.

2. The role of mentors. More common in Eastern civilizations than within our Western traditions, mentors – whether official or not – are a key element of growth and becoming for street photographers and artists. Mentors are there to guide us, to help us change or evolve direction with our work. They are essential as artists are in constant change themselves, and in constant need to redefine their art along with this change.

For Rohit Vohra, now a mentor himself, it was a meeting with his mentor that acted as an eye opener a few years back: the challenge was not B&W vs. colors, it was really about form vs. content. This realization made him focus on content first, which totally changed the way he sees, and heavily impacted both his B&W and color work from that point on. Interestingly, it seems that whatever we take from our mentors is more akin to an organic learning process: it has to come from inside of us for us to make good use of it. Following a mentor blindly will only lead to emulating that person, and not developing a real artistic self.

3. The need for perspective. As previously discussed in this book, others are also critical to self-awareness. There are so much that we can see and notice about our art without external perspective. Others not only bring an objective opinion devoid of emotionality, they can also see unconscious patterns in our work that our mind is not seeing and understanding yet. Arek Rataj and Nima Taradji saw these patterns emerging through interactions and feedback from others: they were literally pointed out to them; Rammy Narula got help from David Carol, his friend and editor, for putting together his first photo project.

4. A thirst for culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, all interviewed photographers are deeply cultivated, with a thirst for discovering and consuming other forms of art such as books, music, painting, cinema as part of their everyday life. They see art as a continuous fuel of inspiration, and are unstoppably curious about other artists, new exhibitions and art in general. Rammy Narula found the color work of Harry Gruyaert to be a strong source of inspiration for his project Platform 10, his favourite authors and artists always in the back of his mind as he formed a new idea for a project.  Melissa Breyer takes inspiration from NYC writers as she goes out looking for possible shots.

5. A medium for other arts. As interestingly, some of the photographers I interviewed were also skilled at other arts – and actually started like Melissa Breyer as a painter, or like Mike Lee as a writer.  Mike Lee, after spending some years focused on his child, started doing photography again as a mean to reconnect with his surroundings, and deepen the depth and quality of his writings (characters, details). He since then has continued to use both medium for creativity, and even use entire photography series as inspiration for new short stories and novels. Some of his written work now include his own photography –  as an ongoing dialogue between his words and his images.

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Case study: Rammy Narula

“My vision is a constant exploration: I become drawn to a subject for a while whether I intend it or not – and it becomes central to my work. Artistic influences are constantly in the back of my mind, reminding me of possibilities, pushing me forward in my next project.”

Unlike many street photographers, Rammy Narula works on one project – or one central idea – at a time. While his projects evolve organically, he recalls being greatly inspired by many artists – looking for Tarantino-like drama on the streets, or for the colors and shadows present in Harry Gruyaert’s early photographic work.  Highly talented but equally very cultivated, Rammy effortlessly merges styles and art to produce unique series – his artistic influences coloring his vision of the world and pushing him forward in his discovery of himself.

Rammy Narula believes in the power of coincidences: his love for street photography stems from the unpredictable nature of the world around him.  His vision is elaborated and complex, dramatic and meditative at once. Each project brings a little more light, and a little more depth into his multi-faceted world – a gracious nod to the artists that have shaped the way he sees.

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Case study: Mike Lee and Melissa Breyer

Mike Lee and Melissa Breyer had fallen in love with art way before they took on photography in earnest. Melissa started as a painter, a career that she wanted to pursue professionally for a while. Mike comes from a family of visual artists, and has been a writer since he was a child. Photography, to them, came later in their life, and their work is tinted by the many influences they’ve gathered over time.  Melissa sees the world as a painter, capturing blurry, imperfect images hinting at the essence of life, as opposed to making factual statements. She takes her influence as well from NYC writers most specifically, whose words are like songs in her mind as she captures the world around her.

Mike Lee not only writes and photographs in his idle time: he actually uses his photographs as inspiration and material for his future short stories. He needed to reconnect with his environment: photography gave him the fuel for his imagination.

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  • We do not create art in a vacuum, and our art is greater than ourselves – which is why the external world matters.
  • External influences are expressed consciously (in ideas) and unconsciously (as intuitive triggers on the street).
  • Photographers need others to see their images objectively, and increase their understanding of themselves.
  • In particular, having a mentor is seen as critical for growth and evolution as an artist – as we are ever changing.
  • Street photographers are incredibly cultivated, with a deep and wide knowledge of art across man genres.
  • Some photographers commonly use their proficiency in other arts to fuel their photographic work.
  • External influences are seen as critical to continuously get inspired and push one’s own boundaries.
Image by Arek Rataj

Image by Arek Rataj