There are only three ways to improve yourself: through the people you meet, by the books you read, and by the places you go. If you can't get to a seminar (the places you go) or speak to a professional photographer you admire (the people you meet), then read, read, read!
Today I went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in an attempt to broaden my influences such that I'll be able to incorporate them into my work. It was interesting, but I didn't see anything that I really wanted to incorporate into my work...
I'm looking for something specific. Something big. Really I'm trying to figure out how my ideals drive my photography. Making women beautiful in imagery is one thing. Evolving as an artist and expressing your ideals via your work is another. I want to show people a unique perspective of either beauty, fashion or even the world and life in general. This unique perspective must come from my values and my ideals expressed in such a way that is individualistic and stylisticly unique to me.
I often harp on the belief that I'm not that creative. I feel that my strengths are more in execution and allowing great images to occur organically rather than having them premeditated in my head. This brings up the subject of the Inputs/Outputs post because a potential downside of not having enough inputs is that you're limiting your exposure to potential influences (assuming they come from an external source). On the other hand, by limiting your inputs you might just prevent the contamination of your ideals and visions. Really it's a double-edged sword.
I have to admit that when I consider ideas and visions, I'm very selective. Too often I shoot down my own ideas in my head because they're "too cheesy" or "it's been done" or "it's boring". I fear that this screening process occurs prematurely and doesn't allow for idea seeds to take root long enough to mean something to me.
The other idea-killer for me is that because I'm good at execution, I think about what's "doable". There are many fantastic ideas that pop up in my head but many are simply impossible to execute or potentially require a huge budget to realize. Basically the project manager in my head has pretty stringent requirements about what's doable and what's not doable and ultimately lots of ideas get scrapped this way.
Which is why ultimately some of my best work is spontaneous. When you get together with someone likeminded and just shoot from the hip (for lack of a better expression), the ideas, influences, ideals, visions, etc. go out the window and you're left with pure unadulterated inspiration, excitement, and eagerness to create something. Sure, lots of times it's already been done before but hopefully it's like pulling on a thread on an article of clothing... the more you pull, the more it unravels and the farther down the rabbit hole you go. You won't know where you're going but it doesn't matter because that thread is firmly between your index finger and your thumb which is to say, it ain't going nowhere. Some of my most spontaneous shoots have been some of my favorite shoots.
Which explains why I've been really excited and willing to shoot location lately. I get too comfortable in the studio and for location work I don't like the idea of shooting somewhere I'm not "supposed to be". When I think about shoots that involve a certain amount of guerilla tactics, I feel uneasy. That being said, when I'm actually out there and the adrenaline is flowing, there isn't anything that I can't shoot or accomplish. I've climbed mountains, bamboo forests, and waded rivers (okay, small streams). Everything's possible. Well almost everything, I'm still working on conquering gravity but everything else is doable. For whatever reason when I'm on location I'm willing to try almost anything to get a shot.
So I think I've come full circle. Originally this post was simply about influences. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realize that my personality and style of shooting lends itself to more organic developments i.e. being totally spontaneous. But therein lies the riddle. Having influences that guide your shoots conceptually will ultimately limit your spontaneity. You simply cannot go willy-nilly when you're realizing specific visions. That being said, spontaneity can only get you so far. Without proper planning and conceptualizing, you're likely just repeating old stuff and not really innovating on top of what already exists. Spontaneity is fun, but it's not always productive and unlikely to produce cutting-edge results.
I'm still working on several concepts and how to execute these ideas. Time will tell how they pan out... Hopefully a certain combination of spontaneity and planning with just the right amount of idealism is the formula for success!