Musings on Photography

Seen It Before?

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 14, 2006


I’ve gone back several times to re-read this post on The Online Photographer.

In it, Mike Johnston writes

Once you’ve seen “enough” photography, then you start to realize that this competence isn’t enough. You start to get bored with the obvious. It’s not enough for a photographer to do what lots of photographers have already done. New photographers like to make photographs that work by photographing what many photographers have already figured out are things that work as photographs. If ya follow.

Now, part of that I agree with. There are things to be learned from doing imitative work; it’s a tradition that’s been used in the rest of the art world for a long, long time. I remember reading an interview with a jazz trumpeter (can’t remember who, sorry) who offered up the insight that first he learned to play like Louis Armstrong; once he’d done that, he moved on to learning how to play like himself.

But I also think what Mike wrote is a little misleading. If you care about the prints as objects, then clearly going out and buying a contorted pepper and a tin funnel and trying to recreate Pepper #30 is a pointless exercise – Weston went there, did that, and trust me, you’re not going to out-Weston Edward Weston.

On the other hand, I think it makes sense to observe that Ed Weston did some amazing work by photographing his food before he sat down and ate it, and if the spirit so moves you, I don’t see much harm in you (or anyone else) going and doing the same thing. You’re unlikely to chart new territory and get your own page in the art history books, but that’s unlikely anyway. My point would be that you won’t have Ed Weston’s experience; you’ll have your own special experience – an experience that can’t be duplicated by anyone else, no matter how good they are.

In fact, one of the wonders of the whole thing is that you can’t have someone else’s experience, and they can’t have yours.

Mike also writes

Have you seen it before? If you feel strongly like you’ve seen a picture before, chances are that it’s nothing but a genre photograph, a cliche, one step above a pretty postcard.

Stop the bus. I want off. I’ve looked at a lot of photographs. There are a lot of photographs that are similar. That doesn’t make them derivative; I made a photo (the one above, in fact) which is strikingly similar to one made by Richard Garrod. I’d never seen Garrod’s photo until about a year after I made mine. The reason my photo and Garrod’s have any similarity is because Garrod went to the beach, and he came to some understanding of the spot, and he made his photo. And, independently, I went to a beach, and I came to understand the same thing Garrod had, and I made my photo. Is it a surprise that the photos are similar?

Do your own work, and let the chips fall where they may. If you’re doing your own work, don’t worry if it looks similar to what someone else has done. Scrupulously avoiding anything that’s similar to work you’ve seen elsewhere is just as destructive to artistic progress as slavishly imitating that work.

2 Responses

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  1. Jon Conkey said, on November 15, 2006 at 9:28 am

    In viewing the photo above, I had first conjured “whale bones” buried in the black sand on some foriegn beach. This left a very strong impression on me.

    As a painter, I am ignorant of Garrod’s similar piece, so these similarities mean nothing to me; I am left only to enjoy the one before my eyes. Even then, In my confusion I didn’t know what I was looking at…I had already created a fantasy to fit the mystery before my eyes.

    I can easily see why two or more people could easily be drawn to such a unique subject; it is “natures offering” to those who see it.

  2. Richard Garrod said, on July 29, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    +Amazing to see my name on this fine site that I have just enjoyed seeing for the first time. I just wanted to say that I seek to somehow get beyond the “thing” being photographed and see if there is something metaphorical to be said. The objects out there are just being used over and over again, as I photograph, as challenges to see what else is there, waiting to be said. Minor White said it first, and beautifully, in his journal “Memorable Fancies” in 1956. He said, “I now seek, not things as they are but what else they are, those objective patterns of tension beneath surface experiences, which are also true.”
    It would pay any serious student of photography to try to find either of the two major books of Minor’s work. One is called Minor White The Eye That Shapes and the other is called Mirrors Messages Manifestations. Anyone differ with me, you can chew me out at rgphoto80@sbcglobal.net..!!


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