Today’s post is going to be something of a counterpoint to yesterday. Every time we frame up an image, we ostensibly try to capture something different, unique – in essence, to take a photograph that has never been taken before. But more importantly, the resultant outcome must actually look like it has never been taken before, by appearing quite distinctly different from anything else. That’s the part which is not so easy.
Each of the images in this set represents the outcome of a new experiment for me: subject, idea, execution, processing, equipment or something else. They are almost certainly unique, but I cannot say that they have not been attempted before, by somebody else. Take, for example, the fact that they were all shot on film: film is not new, even to me. But developing my own film and looking at the tonality achievable undoubtedly influences the way I process my digital files. Just as composing in squares does affects the way I see the world, too; and so on.
Let’s look at originality from both sides of the fence: as usual, I think the reality is somewhat more grey, ill-defined and lying between the two extremes. Why does it matter? Simply, intention. In a post a few months ago about photogrpahy, art and subjectivity we resolved a few things:
- Art is a message; the medium is just a means of conveying it. It is largely independent so long as it does its job – just as a plate may enhance presentation (and thus enjoyment) of food, another may do just as well in its place – but the food would still taste the same. Yet without the plate, we cannot eat the food.
- The intention of the creator must of course be related to the message: if you’re trying to show a product as being classical and refined, you’d use very different lighting and props to something that’s meant to be simple, avant-garde and cutting edge. Think of the difference between product photography for watches and say, skateboards. Or Apple products.
- Those with money make the decisions: they pay the bills of the creatives. Whether this results in the most creatively pure work or not is a different discussion. But fortunately, in the world of photography, attempts are not that expensive, so there is a lot of independent work going on which is self-funded; more so than say gemsetting. Just because somebody is paying for something does not mean they want something different: often, quite the opposite.
- The profesional photographer is a craftsman; the artist is a different different species of man most of the time: one creates what is asked of him; the other creates what he sees fit. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to be both. Intersection is extremely rare; in my career so far it’s only really happened perhaps once.
As a photographer, do we try to always follow the path of the different, or to impose our own stamp on a scene or image? Isn’t that in itself actually repeating what has come before – even if it’s ourselves? How can we make a unique image if this is the case? More importantly, if we try consciously hard not to repeat ourselves, to work in different and discordant styles, what does this say about our skill level and quality/ consistency of work? How does an external observer even identify the work as being ours?
For: “Without innovation, there would be no point in doing anything: it would simply all have been done before.”
This is actually quite an easy position to defend, by the simple fact that no two moments are the same – time is linear – so it’s theoretically impossible to capture the same image twice. Even in fully controlled setting, two images may appear identical at first glance, but there are plenty of arguments involving quantum mechanics that say they cannot be because the subject itself has changed by the mere function of viewing/ measuring/ capturing it – whether we can resolve this or not (we can’t, at least not yet) is a completely different question. By definition: every image is unique.
No two people are the same, and by extension, neither are two photographers; each person has their own set of biases/ preferences/ experiences/ skills/ aesthetic sensibilities, and even if they’re standing in nearly the same place, they almost certainly won’t get the same image: timing, framing and position matter. And their cameras cannot physically occupy the same position in the universe without being the same. In practical terms, it means that what I see and compose isn’t what you see and compose. That, in itself, should be enough to create a different image; in fact, it’s this very process that frequently leads to some astonishment amongst my workshop students: something along the lines of “but I was standing next to you, and I didn’t see that!“
People – society as a whole – attaches value to the unique. If it is attainable or achievable without effort or cost, there is no point in doing so. Since money really does make the world go round – and it is effectively a necessity for survival because it is an enabler – we spend time in pursuit of the new. There is commercial value to this, and therefore incentive. If big diamonds were commonplace, would people steal/ kill/ pay exorbitant sums to own them? No. We are afraid of being bored, or merely ordinary: but when everybody and everything is different, and the different is ordinary, how does one stand out? By seeking extremes, because these outliers are more instantly recognisable as being exceptions.
Ah, but what about the value of the classic? Ansel Adams’ work, for instance? Part of that is scarcity: there will be no more ‘new’ images; there will be no more original prints made. Part of it is uniqueness for the era: it is much easier to have something stand out when there are few competitors; photographers today have a very, very tough battle in making their work stand out simply because there are so many images out there. (We must resort to other means, like writing about philosophy.)
Finally, there’s what I like to think of as ‘cultural amnesia’: if something goes out of fashion for long enough, it’s forgotten. And eventually becomes in vogue once more.
I’m now going to take each of the points above and offer a counterargument.
Against: “To begin with, there is no such thing as an original idea: everything that is new is merely an evolution of something that has already been before.”
Let’s start where the last point left off: surely, if something goes out of fashion and comes back again, it can’t be new, can it? If it has already existed but was forgotten – only to be rediscovered – does that make it original? An archaeologist may be revealing things that have never been seen before, but nobody mistakes him for being an inventor. Even in areas of human endeavour where people have extremely short memories – take fashion, for instance – nobody can argue that high-waisted jeans are a new invention, even if they have been out of season for a few years.
Individuality and trying to stand out: a person only stands out if they are being compared in relation to others; this is true of all things. Nothing has a point of reference in a vacuum: certainly not people. And if people don’t exist in a vacuum, this means that they must have their own points of reference to judge relative merit or success or whatever metric it is they happen to be competing on today: an artist always sees the work of others, and in doing so, is influenced by it – consciously or subconsciously. Even if he or she makes a conscious effort to ignore the work of another artist: that is influence, too. It’s one of the reasons I can never decide if I want to see other people’s photographs from a place before I visit: if I do, I’ll be conditioned to look for or expect certain things. If I don’t, I might miss something and regret it later. Especially if I cannot easily return again.
The upshot of all this is that inspiration must come from somewhere; ideas are thus evolutions and nothing is truly and entirely original anyway. To claim otherwise is rubbish. There may be a leap in logic required to connect two concepts together and execute them for a purpose that might not initially have been envisioned, but this is hardly the same as being original. Take the digital camera, for instance: curiosity of man lead to observation of nature, which in turn lead to quantitative experimentation and the scientific method; one of these experiments lead to the discovery of electricity, which in turn lead (via theoretical physics) to photovoltaics; photovoltaics in conjunction with semiconductors, miniaturisation and various industrial processes lead to the construction of the light sensitive array; photography, the arts and the economics of film development influenced this towards the creation of a working digital camera. Add a few more steps, and we’ve gone from cavemen to hipstagram*. There were definitely breakthroughs along the way that happened because of external influences and breaks in logic; but it’s not as though a caveman suddenly started taking digital photographs when others were painting their walls with ash.
*One might argue quite strongly that this is in fact regression from an artistic standpoint; it probably required a lot more intention and jumps in cognition to create the first cave paintings of animals than it does to take a lousy photo of your lunch to inflict on the world. And they were certainly more unique as both idea and physical object, too.
Even if our caveman did make his Rockoflex-D, it would have been an instant failure: nobody else would know what it was, simply because the concepts required were far too much of a leap for most (though perhaps not all). Like anything else that isn’t understood: it’s either feared and destroyed, or abandoned because of a lack of recognition and commercial success. I’ve seen this in commercial photography, too: you cannot be too different. There is no reason why things must be photographed in a certain way, but if you try to force something too unconventional on a client, they’ll usually land up hiring somebody else. Evolution and easing in is required; people have to be comfortable with an idea; drastic changes make us uncomfortable, because we are psychologically programmed to have acute reactions to sudden change – it’s a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, this applies to ideas, and not just natural disasters. In effect: your pictures can’t be too different anyway, because otherwise nobody will know what the heck they’re looking at. And you won’t sell any work, or be encouraged to keep photographing, which means that line of artistic evolution has become a dead end. Howard Roark’s struggle in The Fountainhead is a good example of this.
Clearly, originality is not required for success: even ignoring outright fakes, the proliferation of copycat design is astounding. We’re not even talking fundamental things here like cars all having similar layouts and concepts; but say Apple v Samsung phones. Or Rolex and every other Rolex-a-like. The same may not necessarily apply with art, but I’m pretty sure it does in photography: who hasn’t been tempted to try street photography after seeing the work of HC-B? Or landscapes after Ansel?
The most fundamental counterargument is that uniqueness doesn’t automatically imply instant recognizability: two things can be subtly different, but unless you’re looking for it, they will probably appear the same. And most people are bombarded with such a visual overload that they’re almost certainly not looking for those differences. We therefore have to work harder to create that difference; but not so hard that nobody understands what they’re looking at. There has to be just enough of a trace of recognition for a photograph to be successful as a new idea: draw on the collective cultural consciousness and back catalog of influences. In effect: evolution is still the way to go. But I firmly believe that the direction and pace of change are within the control of the photographer: I keep saying this, but if I showed you my first work and my current work, you wouldn’t recognize it as being from the same person. Even now, when I insert an older image into a post to illustrate a point, most of my regular readers can tell something is off. As an artist, I want to be different, and recognized for that difference. But I’m also fully aware that I’ll have to lead a little to get there. MT
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved