John Constable was adamantly opposed to the building of the British Museum, because he believed that students would be in there copying art that was already done, rather than drawing/painting from nature. His conviction was that nature (read surfaces which reflect light) is the real teacher, that to copy is to get it secondhand. Copying paintings in museums was a common practice in Europe (I suppose that in certain academic sectors it still is) but Constable thought that not only is that unnecessary, but that to do it is to cut oneself off from direct and authentic experience. It would be pretty hard to argue that Constable was not a pretty great painter himself and had some definite ideas about how one gets to be one.
Originally Posted by Photo Engineer
As you may recall from above, I have little use for style and the odd notion that one ought to have one. I think that is pretty strange, and not very productive. I do study artists from the past, look at other people's work, and encourage others to do so as well. However, I do think that there is a very great tendency to emulate. That is not always a "bad" thing to do, but with certain limitations.
The difficulty that I see is that we tend to emulate without knowing we are doing so. Our ideas about what a photograph ought to be are very seldom conscious, but come from the millions of images that we each have seen and continue to see every day. We have internalized these to such an extent that we cannot distinguish them from ourselves. They are conventionalized to the extent that in the ad biz, the creative folks know that it is often effective in getting people's attention to depart from the conventions in fairly aggressive ways while preserving familiar elements. For example, fashion images that cut the model off just above the chin, or some other odd terminations. I'm sure we've each seen stuff like that. Adhering to the conventions verbatim doesn't get noticed - Calendar pix for example. Do you even see them? But how many photographers emulate them unconsciously?
It is NOT a matter of avoiding looking at the work others have done, but it is very important to develop the facility to see these things critically and use our own vision with as much awareness as we can muster. It is imperative to respond to our own vision, whether we look at the work of others or not. I think it is a great advantage to look at and to think about past work; it can inform our work. It is also imperative not to simply reproduce it except as an occasional deliberate exercise. That can be extremely useful.
It is not useful to simplify or generalize these things too much. Not everyone is the same, and we all have different ways in which we might benefit from working.