Thursday, January 26, 2012


None of us wants to be a copycat, or even worse, to be thought of as one, but how to avoid it. If it's true that by now everything has been done before, even the most original ideas are likely exist already, somewhere, sometime, even if you didn't know about it. Coming up with what is for you original because you didn't know of someone elses work does not relieve you of being seen as unoriginal - exactly what you strived to be.

So how do we say something interesting as photographers?

It is argued that no one else will bring to your subject your life experiences, your biases, and the accumulation of the things that interest you, catch your attention, or the way in which you like things arranged or presented. The problem with this is that unless all of what is unique to your viewpoint comes with a considerable dollop of skill (notice I didn't say talent), little is likely to come of it.

It doesn't take long to realize that as a novice photographer, your images are typically crap, either technically or aesthetically, and likely both. So you start reading, and you discover a photographer you like. For me it was Ansel Adams. I tried to emulate him, to near complete failure. I expanded my book collection to include other landscape photographers of the same ilk - Bruce Barnbaum, John Sexton, even Edward Weston, but because their approach to the landscape was similar, I didn't learn as much as I hoped.

Then I came across the work of David Plowden - medium format, not grand landscape, often industrial or small town America - and here was something different - the technical quality was there, but the subject, the closer presentation, and the introduction of a whole range of other subject matter really opened my eyes.

I went back to the work of Brett Weston and instead of concentrating on his landscape work this time round, studied his close work and especially his abstracts.

I acquired a book of Arnold Newman portraits and learned a lot about design.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. The path you take will almost certainly be different based on what you like and what motivates you, but the point is that by expanding your horizons, even if you do come across a style of photographs you like, say those of Michael Kenna, if you then see a scene that reminds you of his images and want to photograph it, you do so with the entire path of your experiences and image education behind you. If you then combine that with your own personality and experiences, there is a good chance of producing interesting original work.

When I wrote the third book, I included Michael Kenna and then Michael Levin. In the essay i wrote on Levin, I made a point of discussing the differences between the two Michaels. Not surprisingly, Leven had been through this all too many times and asked if I could eliminate the comparison and I could see his viewpoint and so respected his wishes.

In a way that was a pity, because I don't see Levin's images as copying Kenna - sure they pick some similar subjects, and photograph with long exposures and use the square format at times, but there are huge differences in the vast majority of their images. Kenna's images are dark. He favours burning in the edges, and isn't afraid of grain. This gives his images a dark moody atmosphere.

Levin comes from an 8X10 background and his huge prints are creamy smooth and speak of the infinite and are much more meditative than moody. I don't think Michael Levin should be in the least uncomfortable with comparisons.

The worst thing we can do as photographers is to wear blinders, to avoid anything unfamiliar, uncomfortable, different.


Steve Willard said...

George, A thoughtful piece on a subject I think about frequently. My current blog somewhat parallels yours, though not as cogently.

Rudolf said...

George, you write about similarities in terms of art, way of seeing and artist's interpretations, but the world gets mad about copyrights:
So maybe making similar photographs (or taking inspiration from other artist) will be illegal soon. At all.

Gary Nylander said...

Your question is not easy to answer. I think though that originality means different things to different people , I have often read the remarks of others who will say " do we really need another picture of ...(insert word here), of course if that were the case no one would be making many pictures of anything . I do think though that what photographers think of being "original" and what the average person who is not a photographer may be two different things. For example some photographers would know the work of Ansel Adams inside and out, but if you aren't a photographer you might have heard the name of Ansel Adams but you wouldn't be as familiar with all of his pictures, so in that sense Ansel's work would be fresh and new to you.

What I think would also be interesting is to have an exhibit of photography somewhere that shows a particular place and showing two or more images taken by different photographers not knowing how the other was photographing it, it would be interesting to see how many similarities show up.


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