We’re all subject to influences whether we know what they are and/or acknowledge them or not. As visual artists we’re influenced by our environment, other artists and photographers, and of course, what we read and see as we go about our daily lives. I suspect most of this is unconscious influence as it drives not just our photographic work but everything we do and think.
There are other influences though that we take on board quite consciously. This is certainly true for me. I actively spend a lot of time looking at other photographers’ work and it’s one of the reasons why I collect photobooks (I’ve written an article here on 35MMC all about it).
The reality of this is that my photography has developed and evolved over the years in ways that I could not have imagined possible, cannot have predicted, or know where it’s going next (I love this about my photography). Looking at the work of other photographers (and artists working in other media) not only opens my eyes to fantastic new work, but it also steers my work and projects.
More recently though, I came across a single photograph that triggered in me a new way of seeing and interpreting.
I went to the Photo London show back in September and saw a print of Three Daisies by Sam Haskins (1926-2009). Now as far as I’m aware, Sam printed very few photographs for general consumption. He produced tiny runs of four or so prints to create the maquettes of the books that he published. These were the physical models/mockups of the books he was creating from which the published books were derived. So coming across an actual (vintage) silver gelatin print from 1963 is, I believe, quite a rare event. Even more unusual given that Sam was primarily a commercial photographer and is most well known for his books of extraordinary photographs of models. One of these books from the 1960s, Cowboy Kate & Other Stories, features Three Daisies (I didn’t know this at the time of course). You can see a video of the Cowboy Kate maquette here (NSFW).
EDIT from Sam’s son, Ludwig after reading this article: “I would mention that it’s the final image in the Cowboy Kate narrative. It symbolises death and the fact that life goes on. Also the number 3 has symbolic value in this context. Sam had great fun with the sixties figure book trilogy but he was unbelievably serious about the photography.”
To say that Three Daisies stopped me in my tracks is an understatement. Something in it immediately resonated with me and I couldn’t take my eyes off it and I went back to it during the show again and again. Being a show and not an exhibition, the print was for sale. Lucky me! Unfortunately, at £8,000, it was quite beyond my reach (even if I, er, sold all my photobooks and all my camera gear).
What captivated me was the fact that I was already taking similar photos (albeit of leaves on trees) but this was that type of subject executed completely differently.
Anyway, back to its conscious influence.
While I thought about ‘Three Daises’ a lot, I didn’t notice the impact of it on me for a while – but I did start to look, see and think through the high key lens of that photograph.
Before this, I had already made photographs of leaves and trees (like the one below), but instead of my usual low key (c.f. Moriyama), I started taking photographs that were high key.
The process was more about emulating than copying but I was taking photographs of leaves on trees in the way that blows the sky out so much that the edges of those leaves started to be blown out too. Being on film though I had to wait, tantalisingly, to see if my interpretation of the technique delivered the results I wanted.
I don’t know if it’s an actual thing or not, but a comment on Instagram on one of these photos used the phrase ‘negative white space’ to describe the blown/burned highlights. I think it captures that as a salient feature really well..
I’m pleased with the results and I think some of the images I made were pretty much what I wanted. As in, I adapted what I saw in Three Daisies to a new way of interpreting my subject matter. This is an ongoing project and negative white space is something I’m going to be exploring in other ways.
In the end, I did decide to pay homage to Three Daisies (with cosmos from the garden as I didn’t have South African daisies). I did it because (a) I would learn more about creating such an image, and see if I had the skills, equipment and vision, and (b) copying/emulating other artists work is what artists do… to see if that work can be developed, extended or form the basis of new ideas. I consider it a moderately successful experiment. More work needed.
As I said in the intro, external influences impact and steer much of what we do. I was, and remain, surprised at how influential this single image was to my work.
The print of Three Daisies is still for sale here.
Sam’s estate is being managed by his son, Ludwig, and he has an Instagram site that showcases Sam’s work (some of Sam’s work is NSFW). Well worth a look.