Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, motivation by Paul Butzi on June 3, 2007


Copying the work of other artists gets a mixed review in the art world.  Outside of the photo world, copying the work of the masters is widely regarded as a great way to learn technical skills.  Even in the photo world, there’s a sort of grudging allowance that copying the work of the masters is a good way to polish your technique.

Outside of this, though, there’s not much respect for work which is even derivative of someone else’s work, let alone outright copying of someone else’s work.  The prevailing sentiment is that your work should be original.  Originality and creativity are very important, I hear.  If it’s not original it can’t possibly be creative, and if it’s not creative, then it’s not Upper Case Art; at best, it might be lower case art.  If fact, the argument goes, if it’s not completely unprecedented in the history of humanity, then it’s not really original and thus… it’s not really Art, so why the hell bother?  (I think that’s a load of hooey, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make right now.  Maybe later.)

Despite my ambivalence about it, I’ve lately been looking at the work of various photographers.  Rather than examine them to build my technical skills, or even to try to get inspired, I’ve been taking a different tack.  I’ve been looking at photos, and I’ve been pondering the understanding and motivation of the photographer.  So I’ve looked at Deborah Marlin’s photographs of Golden Retrievers, and I’ve been pondering “Why this photograph, and not some other one?  Why photograph dogs at all?  Why not cats, or turtles, or people?  Why not photographs of the beach, or photographs of beach houses, or even photos of bicycles or cars?” 

It occurs to me that one of the aspects of copying is that in order to really do a good job copying, you pretty much have to get yourself into a state similar to that of the artist you’re copying.  So, in the process of making photographs of Golden Retrievers that are ‘similar to’ or ‘inspired by’ or ‘outright knockoffs of’ those done by Deborah Marlin, you’re probably going to learn something about how she feels about dogs in general and Goldens in particular, and it seems to me that this stuff you’d learn would probably be different from or perhaps deeper than what you’d learn just by looking at the photos. 

The psychologist William James told us “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.”  We always think that it’s our inner state that drives our outward actions, but the converse is true, too. 

Anyway.  What I’m trying to get at in a very roundabout way is that maybe, just maybe, there’s some value to copying/imitating/ripping off an artist than just sharpening technical skills.  Maybe the value, which I haven’t seen discussed anywhere, is that copying work might be a way to getting a deeper understanding than just looking at it.

11 Responses

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  1. Gordon Coale said, on June 3, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Funny you should mention that. One of my photography heros (and art hero) is Ben Shahn. A lot of his photography, including an incredible series of New York City street photography, was done with a very early rangerfinderless Leica I with a right angle finder. I have a little project converting a Leica II copy (a Zorki 1) into a Leica 1 copy. I have a right angle finder but it is for my Leica IIIc. I need to modify it to fit on the modified Zorki. All to see what it was like taking pictures like that. To get into a better feeling of what Ben was doing. Will this effort result in something good. It might. If it does, great. If not, that’s OK. I mainly want to see what Ben went through in taking those pictures.

  2. Oren Grad said, on June 3, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    It’s fascinating to see this idea turn up in radically different contexts. The following passage is from an essay on the place of doubt in faith:

    …the relationship between the cognitive and the functional does not proceed only in one direction, from the cognitive to the functional, or from theory to practice… Judaism has always maintained that behavior influences belief, that the cognitive may be fashioned by the functional. Thus the bold statement of the Rabbis that God cries out, “Would that they had forsaken Me but kept My Torah!” “The heart,” a medieval halakhic source states, “follows actions.” Thus, too, the wise insight of Yehudah Halevi, so characteristic of his whole Weltanschauung: “A man cannot attain a relationship with God except by [the observance of] the word of God.”

    The entire essay, written by a prominent Orthodox rabbinical scholar, is here. Interestingly, the discussion that sets up that passage cites both the pragmatist William James and the Anglican theologian Joseph Butler, wrestling with the question of commitment in the face of uncertainty.

    Whether understanding inevitably leads to faith is a debatable point; I’m more of a doubter myself. But the idea that one fully grasps the essence of something only by doing it has some resonance.

    As does Gordon’s point. One of the reasons I first took up large format more than ten years ago is because I wanted to understand “what it was like taking pictures like that”.

  3. Mike said, on June 4, 2007 at 12:36 am

    “maybe, just maybe, there’s some value to copying/imitating/ripping off an artist (other) than just sharpening technical skills. Maybe the value, which I haven’t seen discussed anywhere, is that copying work might be a way to getting a deeper understanding than just looking at it.”

    Dunno — just walking out the door (hell, just opening our eyes in the morning) confronts us with enough reality begging “deeper understanding” — why go through the motions of “ripping off” someone else’s take on reality when it’s your take that is important? That is why each of us ought to make her/his own art (notes on our respective realities). We can still appreciate the art of others by viewing same — no need to reinvent the wheel. I’m not sure we we can come to an understanding of anything just by looking at what others have done. At best it would seem we add more data into our respective realities. Can the photos someone else takes do anything other than just present a view of what was in front of the camera at the time of exposure?

    And if “it’s all been done before” then we’re all just repeating and repeating and repeating and ain’t that a just a sorry waste of materials? Why not just “sit on the beach” and come to an understanding of “beachiness” by being there? Why all the in-between equipment and materiel?

    I think I’ve seen something similar posted before:


  4. Colin Jago said, on June 4, 2007 at 2:40 am

    One of the reasons I first took up large format more than ten years ago is because I wanted to understand “what it was like taking pictures like that”.

    With this I agree, but I think it might be a different point. Back a long time ago I copied a particular photographer of flowers (Dennis Stock, I think, but I’d have to check to be sure). What I learnt in the copying was a lot of stuff about using a tripod, and selective focus. Loads of stuff about how a mirror lens worked and the importance of a good viewfinder.

    What I didn’t learn much about was flowers.

    The biggest lesson from that time was the difference between seeing something and deciding to take a picture of it, and having a picture that I knew I wanted to take and going through the world until the subject matter lined up the right way.

    I’ve no idea if my experience was a common one or not.

  5. Oren Grad said, on June 4, 2007 at 9:20 am


    Nice observation.

    More questions for Paul, to help sort this out: in this situation, exactly what “quality” are we trying to acquire by acting as though we already have it?

    I see at least two distinct possibilities in Paul’s discussion: Deborah Marlin’s feelings about dogs in general and Golden Retrievers in particular, and her urge to take pictures of them.

    In the end, does one have to “acquire the quality” – share the feeling – in order to fully “understand” it?

    This is in some sense an extension of the discussion about whether photographs can convey meaning; it sounds as though in at least some cases Paul wants to assert that modeling the photographer’s behavior in making pictures can help us grasp the meaning of those pictures better than we can by merely looking at them.

    A tangential observation, re the “urge to photograph” aspect: it’s been said of Vestal that early in his career he was somewhat dismissive of Ansel Adams’ work, but that this changed when he visited Yosemite. The experience didn’t result in Vestal’s converting from 35mm to large format for his own work, or in reading any particular meaning into Ansel’s pictures – Vestal’s not big on meaning in pictures – but it did leave him with a better appreciation of why Ansel was trying to take a certain kind of picture, and of what value there might be in it.

  6. Mike said, on June 4, 2007 at 9:46 am

    One of the reasons I first took up large format more than ten years ago is because I wanted to understand “what it was like taking pictures like that”.
    Colin says it —
    I took up LF because 35mm just wasn’t “sharp” enough — didn’t give me a sense of “being there”, which is what I like to see in a picture. I was also curious as to what the experience of LF would be like. Tell the truth — if money were no object ULF would be the way to go — can’t get sharper and more “there” than that.
    Back in the 80s I did the zone thing, read the Adams books and the Picker newsletters and did the tests and tried to get my landscapes to be just a little like Adams’s. Well that wasn’t going anywhere — I live on the other side of the planet and things are different here. So I make do with what’s here. Trying to imitate the masters was helpful only in gaining a little technique. Subject matter has to come from when/where you are, but having technique helps.


  7. […] writes: And if “it’s all been done before” then we’re all just repeating and repeating and […]

  8. Jeremy said, on June 6, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Sherrie Levine is a Great Artist. I know because she told me so.

  9. cehwiedel said, on June 10, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    The notion of authors copying other *authors* has been extensively discussed. Shakespeare stole plot ideas, for instance. Shared universes have grown up around Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek. Some writers have confessed to copying out entire works by other writers, in longhand, to gain a better understanding of every from sentence structure and story-line control to scene development and dialogue. I think such exercises in duplication, done thoughtfully, can be valuable, across media.

  10. Olli Wendelin said, on June 11, 2007 at 9:53 am

    “Why photograph dogs at all?”
    I photograph dogs. Specifically black Standard Poodles. More specifically my own dogs and their offspring. I have no interest in photographing other peoples dogs. I don’t think someone could understand my motivation just by looking at the prints. Or by photographing dogs in general.

    I have one of William Wegman’s books and saw that all of his dog photos are of his dogs or their offspring.

    A story I heard, not sure if it’s true. A photography student met one of his Icons, a famous photographer who did great nudes. He introduced himself and asked for advice on how to photograph nudes. The Icon replied, I do not photograph nudes, I photograph my wife.

  11. pfong said, on July 1, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I think that copying the masters both in photography and in art one good way to learn the craft of photography.

    Going beyond that, at least one photographer seems to have found a way to make a very good living from translating paintings into photographic form. I was reminded of Jeff Wall’s photographic recreation of a Hiroshige painting.

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