Musings on Photography

Originality

Posted in art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on June 4, 2007

The Studio Door

Mike writes:

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?

Ah, yes, the problem of originality.  In our society, we tend to think that there’s one ‘inventor’ who comes up with a concept, and then there are a whole bunch of people who do nothing but jump on the bandwagon in an attempt to take credit.  The problem is that this is a gross simplification of how things work in practice.

Sure, there are times when the lone inventor comes up with something completely new, and no one else has even looked down the road they’ve taken.  But the vast majority of the time, there are multiple people who independently invent things.  Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray independently and pretty much simultaneously invented the telephone.  The arguments surrounding these events tend to focus, not on whether both participants made the invention, but one who invented it first.

That’s all well and good, and I think people who invent things first are quite reasonable in being proud of their achievement.  But the matter is really mostly about history books and who gets to exploit the invention for commecial gain, and not about the invention itself.  Most particularly, if person A goes off and invents the left-handed infrasonic needlegrommet, and has a positive experience inventing it, and then some time later, person B (unaware of A’s invention) goes off and independently invents the left-handed infrasonic needlegrommet and has a fine time in the process, we might argue that A deserves the credit for first invention, but we’d be fools to say that because A got there first, B didn’t have a fine time or conquer the same challenges.

And so, if there were a photographer who was utterly unaware that slot canyons had in the past been invaded by hordes of photographers and photographed in depth, and this photographer wandered into a slot canyon, thought to herself “Hey, this is a cool place” and proceeded to photograph the place, she’d still be having an authentic original artistic experience.  (And she’d get a surprise when she showed the photographs to just about anyone).

From an outcome point of view, strict global originality can mean a lot.  It can mean the difference between fame as an inventor and notoriety as a copycat, it can mean the difference between being on the winning end or the losing end of an IP lawsuit.

But from a process point of view, originality has a different meaning.  From a process point of view, it’s like the advertisements that TV networks run when they rebroadcast old episodes in the hopes that people who didn’t see them the first time around will watch – “It’s new to YOU!” 

From a process point of view, the fact that 27 million people before you have fallen in love with the forms and lines of Calla lilies and made still life photographs of them doesn’t much matter, because the process of photographing Calla lilies is new to you.  That sense of newness is probably lost somewhat if you spend some time looking at the Calla lily photos done by Imogen Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe and everyone else.  No one else can have the experience I’d have if I photographed Calla lilies, for the simple reason that they’re not me.

10 Responses

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  1. Rosie Perera said, on June 4, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you for your comments on photos of calla lilies! I had no idea they were clichéd and had never seen the ones by Imogen Cunningham or Robert Mapplethorpe before I did mine. So I was truly having my own original artistic experience, even if what I produced looks like a rip-off of someone else’s work.

  2. julie said, on June 5, 2007 at 4:28 am

    Isn’t it all leading up to the question of what you actually do with the end result?

    All this pondering just brings me back to the fact that the thing it affects most is the process itself, and what I get out of it – and whether the phsyical (by) product is actually any different because of it I honestly don’t know, but I’d err on the side of ‘not really’, if I’m honest.

    It all depends on your motivation and your intentions – whether you want to enjoy photography as a process (this is, after all, the source of the ‘art is a verb’ theory) or you want to be revered for ‘inventing’ something, or just create an image that’s pleasing to the eye.

    I suspect this is the most complicated aspect for most photographers, and so, why we can’t seem to agree on stuff like this.

  3. Chuck Kimmerle said, on June 5, 2007 at 9:07 am

    This whole issue seems a bit of a paradox: the more we study the work of other photographers, the more we risk limiting our own potential creativity and enjoyment.

    In my case, I would have loved to photograph half-dome in Yosemite were it not already done so well (and much) by Ansel Adams, and subsequently by thousands of….imitators. Because I have become familiar with AA’s work and have seen the images of the hoards of fellow photographers walking in his footsteps, it is now the LAST place I would want to shoot. Same for slot canyons and the countless other scenes and subjects of which I am now all too familiar and which have been photographed ad nauseum. My enjoyment with photography comes from the creative process, and since there is little creativity in simple duplication, there is for me no joy.

  4. Bryan Willman said, on June 5, 2007 at 10:32 am

    It’s hard to call it a rip-off if done independently.

    It shouldn’t be called rip-off or imitation if it’s really “inspired by”. Just don’t call it “inspired by” when it’s really “slavish copy of” or “attempt to milk the fame of”

    Besides, lily’s are very nice, they deserve lots of attention…

  5. Scott said, on June 5, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    To me, the technology analogy is interesting. Most creativity and innovation in technology is using something that already exists in a way it has not been used before, or taking something that already exists and modifying it to improve it. Technology builds on itself, and needs to work off of things that have already been done.

    Take the telephone example. The telephone uses the same physical principles as the telegraph. A magnetic field moved in a conducting coil will create a current, and a current applied to a conducting coil creates a magnetic field. This is what makes a telegraph work, and a telephone as well. The difference is that the telegraph needs someone to press it down to create an electrical signal, and a telephone relies on pressure waves in the air. The telephone is essentially an improved telegraph.

    I’m not sure how this applies to art though.

  6. Frank Armstrong said, on June 6, 2007 at 8:13 am

    I once read an interview with Minor White where the interviewer asked about the constant pressure to do something new in photography. His answer was something like this: its all been done a hundred times before, and it’s not rational to assume that every photographer would know every image that’s ever been made of a particular place or subject. What counts most is how heart felt was the image you made.

    Think about the Tetons image with the Snake River in the foreground shot first by Adams and later my White. I would swear you can still see their tripod holes….

    P’taker

  7. Federico said, on June 9, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Interesting. It’s inevitable to come up with such questions when interrogating oneself about one’s work. In my case, although I try not to be afraid of being unoriginal (in itself more limiting than knowing about the work of others) I can’t help but being aware of (hypothetical) originality or the lack of it in my work. I too think that the process, in the end, is what counts. And I agree with Chuck about the half-dome in Yosemite (it’s hard to do that again, innit?), but I think that sometimes it’s possible to learn from strategies of other photographers, especially when they are not very clearcut.

    For example, let’s take a clearcut strategy, as the one developed in “In the American West” by Richard Avedon. Even in that extreme case, I think that one could create an interesting -“new”- body of work just by re-using (with the necessary skills, of course) his strategy. It would suffice to apply it to a different place -let’s say, Botswana or France. Just the rendering or “creation” of a possible (arbitrary, because the subjects will be chosen by the photographer) French or Botswanian human typology would be of interest in itself. Of course, if one also uses a white background in the process, and northern light (southern light in the case of Africa), and an 8×10 camera, the aesthetics of the work could be too close to Avedon, but even in that case the final result would be different. And if one makes one or two subtle changes, more so.

    Avedon’s “In the American West” is an extreme example, by which I mean it’s very easy to pinpoint each one of its components (this is independent of the complexity of his final body of work). But perhaps there are other photographers with less clear cut strategies, and one can get a little inspiration here and there, from different artists, and apply them to a different content, and the result will always come out different and new. I find it tremendously inspiring to study the work of other photographers. In a little place here an idea might ignite, in another place there another idea, and I will possibly follow a certain avenue thanks to this insight provided by the combination other peoples work. This is certainly much harder to do with something as specific and limited as calla lillies, I’m sure, and more adequate to art photography that has an element of documentary.

  8. Federico said, on June 9, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Simon Norfolk’s work in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban, for example, cannot be but original and new. It’s photography of a particular place at a particular time. And this is independent of the fact that he was surely influenced by (and was acutely aware of) many predecessors that worked in similar ways.

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