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A Letter from Arno Rafael Minkkinen on Emulation | A Personal Letter

Coming off my high from Art Basel | Miami last week and reading 11 Incredibly Powerful Hand-Written Letters from History on Buzzfeed has gotten me quite inspired. I wanted to find and share the first e-mail that actually encouraged me and helped formed as a photographer/artist – it didn’t help build on my technical foundation, but it has changed how I respond and react to others who seek advice, encouragement and help from me. All because one man took the time to respond to a probing mind.

In September 2009, I wrote a letter to Mr. Arno Rafael Minkkinen seeking advice on the technical aspect of recreating a few of his pieces for a photography assignment in my intro photography class. At that moment, all I cared about was completing the assignment to the *best* of my abilities (technically). It never occurred to me to look deeper and try to instill a bit of myself in my work.

The assignment was to recreate a photograph similar in style, flair, and technical aspect to a “Master in Photography”. I was drawn to Mr. Minkkinen’s work because of his honest depiction of his self. He was a self-portrait artist and at the time – so was I. I felt a connection and wanted to tribute him. I was lacking in technical skill and didn’t want to disappoint someone whose work I truly admired, so I reached out to him, why not?

This is his response:

a letter about emulation from Arno Rafael Minkkinen


Dear Ms. Nguyen,

We learn best not by emulating others but by extending our own imaginations upon the inspirations we seek to honor. Thus, I would, if I were you, think about what is missing in my work that you would like to see there and start from that point instead. Even the slightest difference can show us something of your ideas in the work. Then, if you make that difference more and more important, over time you will see your work as containing a part of your original thinking and no longer a copy of anyone else. Our influences are always going to show. But repeating the same work exactly serves little purpose other [then] learning the technical aspects used to make that work. On that score, I would tip my hat to experimentation and good old trial and error instead. Never know what surprises might be in store.

To make art we all begin from the art of others, of course, but to make a contribution to art, we need to begin from something far more riskier: ourselves.

Good luck with the assignment,

with best wishes,


4 years ago I didn’t think that a great piece of work needed more than just being technically correct. What I found only over the past few years since this letter was that any work I meant to create (for myself, for my clients, for anyone) needed to be MORE than technically correct – it needed to be from some part deeper in me.

Thank you Mr. Minkkinen, your letter still holds true 4 years later. Maybe it will ring true for others as it did for me. You’re the best.