Looking Back At Our Photographic Inspirations - Part One

Looking Back At Our Photographic Inspirations - Part One

When each of us picks up our camera, whether it be for the first time or the ten-thousandth time, our finished work is a product of everything which has inspired us. Everything we've seen, everything we've done, everything we've learned and grown from can be seen in our work in at least some small part. That's why, I believe, it's important to not only look back at our work on a regular basis with an eye critical to how technically proficient we've become, but to look back at our work from an influence-based standpoint to see how much of ourselves we can find into our work.


A Personal Note: If we've been friends on any of the various social media platforms long enough, you might have seen me post once or twice about my late father. He’s been gone for almost three years now. And I can think of no better way to describe him than to say that he was the type of person who would rather spend the day taking his friends out fishing than actually fishing himself. A true hardworking, blue-collar man, he certainly wasn't my main reason for getting into photography, but as I look back, I can see that he was and continues to be one of my biggest influences.

Thinking back, I don’t remember if he had a camera with him, but the photos I have by him and of him suggest to me that all throughout his life, he at least kept a camera close by. If I think hard enough about it, I can remember each of the different cameras which were always within reach on his boat. Cameras bought specifically for those warm, summery moments when a photo-worthy fish would land on the deck and again later when the day's catch would be laid out on the grass near the dock. To say he took a lot of photos of friends and fish is an understatement. When he died in 2011, my sister and I inherited the entire stash of photos, some of which stretched back to the 1950’s.

The majority his photos, however, are from the 1970’s and 80’s. Mostly in the form of Kodachrome slides, the photos themselves don’t necessarily capture anything particularly special - just a average suburban family coming up in the town of Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island (a sprawling suburb about an hour east of Manhattan). To be honest, the photos could be of any family from that time period; mother and father and kids, friends, dogs, Christmas, Easter, Star Wars, and trips to the ocean. Combine this with the occasional visit from grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends and you have a typical family who could be from anywhere at almost any time. 


The moments he captured are nothing particularly special either, nor would the photos be considered any outstanding works of art. There are moments, however, where we can see a glimpse of some preplanning, some form of photographic artistry. But for the most part, they are all just regular photos with some with poor lighting, most with poor composition, totally boring subjects, and rather suspicious fashion. 

That said, the photos are quite meaningful in that not only do they capture one man’s life from birth to death, but to appreciate why, you’d have to understand…I digress. All that aside, what I’m concerned with here are the photos. The hundreds, maybe thousands of photos that I have sitting in worn out boxes on the shelves in my office, serve as a reminder of someone who is no longer around. A bittersweet  - yet comforting - feeling, for sure. And one that I find myself reveling in over and over again. 


So, I wanted to take a moment write about our influences. I understand that working as a photographer is, in some cases, no different than working as a truck driver or an office worker in that at the end of the day, that it’s a job and we do what we have to do to feed ourselves. Beyond feeding the basic needs to eat and shelter ourselves, however, there is - or once was - a reason we first picked up a camera and why we shoot what we shoot. I’m not meaning to suggest that we keep this in mind each time we pick up our camera, but I think it’s important to look back at who our influences are beyond those famous photogs whose names always get mentioned (seriously, how many people could really have been inspired by Ansel Adams!?). 

I’ve always been a big fan of looking back at our work because not only does it help us see where we came from, but helps us to see where we’re going as well. Influences aside, it’s important, I believe, that if we’re going to make a run at something whether professional and/or as a hobby, we need to see not only where we’re going, but where we’ve been.


So, in a effort to spark a conversation, I’m always curious to hear about why we started to shoot what we shoot? I ran across an old quote yesterday which states something like, “if you want know what someone values, look at what they shoot.” At first it kind of sat funny with me - I mean, I value a lot of things that I don't necessarily shoot, but when I started to think about it more and more, it was became obvious to me; there on the screen was everything I placed value on. I won’t get into it and dissect my influences and values for you, but take a moment and look back at your work and see if it holds true. While you do, it may be helpful to keep the following guide lines in mind: 

What first sparked my interest in photography?

What influence did that person have over my early work? Do they still hold any influence over it today? 

What does my early work look like as compared to my work today? Are the basics still the same? What, if anything, has changed? 

Am I headed in a forward direction or am I stagnant or stuck in a rut? If so, is there anything I can I do to break out of it? 

What are my plans for the next few months? The next few years? 

Are my current influences still influences or have I surpassed them in any way? 

These questions are of course, mostly rhetorical. I mean, you don’t have to answer them or even keep them in mind and there are certainly no right or wrong answers. I, however, find it a great exercise and I do look back over my previous work and seeing who my big influences were and - more importantly - see if they still remain my influences quite often (too often, probably). 

All that said, I am always curious to read about what may have sparked your personal photographic journey (it is a journey, by the way) and how your influences set you off on the path you’re currently on. I’ll include some of the most inspiring stories in the second part to this article. 

Thanks for reading.

John Schell | Instagram | Facebook 

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Steven Cohn's picture

Thanks for article. Lovely model. Fine pictures. But is her head so wobbly she's afraid it's going to tip over? To answer some of your questions: Dad was a photographer. But later in my life, it was McNally that gave me the excitement for it again. Influences never fade; they all teach you something different, inspire in different ways.

Sean Shimmel's picture

John, I have been saving this article until my schedule and attention span freed up after the long holiday weekend... only to discover a single (real) comment posted so far. How surprising. Deserves much more interaction. Such a nuanced exploration of both the obvious and subconscious ways we have been shaped with our vision.

Beyond the respectful homage to your father, I appreciated the questions with which you ended your article. With those in mind, here's a smattering of thoughts: bumped into photography through my early exploration of drawing and graphic design; Still appreciate cleanly precise composition much like designing an ad or poster; this same love for design and order has spilled over into my love for abstraction and also of feminine beauty and the human form; within all of that I see a love for subtlety and a sense of the mystical and the mysterious within the ordinary, which ties in to my worldview.

As for what's next... combining the abstract with the human form in figure studies.

Whew. Thanks for provoking the reflection and keep up the freshness in your subjects and writing.

John Schell's picture

Thank you, Sean. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. It means a lot to me.