Originality is dead: or is it?

_8038501 copy

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.

_8038563 copy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

_8036389 copy

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!

_8036133 copy

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.

_8035818 copy

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.

_8035061 copy

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.

_8035004 copy

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!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Reblogged this on saturn1ascends.

  2. Interesting article – thanks for sharing. Reflecting on what you have written here, I have to say I don’t agree with your initial premise. When I frame a photo and capture an image, my goal has nothing to do with capturing something unique or being innovative. That would imply that I am comparing what I see and photograph to what others have done. I don’t really care about what others have done or how I stand up against them. That is not my goal. It is perhaps a selfish attitude, but whether someone is paying me to take the photo or I am taking the photo for the sheer joy of making pictures, I am always doing it only for myself. Perhaps if I have been there before, a walk around my familiar neighborhood, I might try to see something new, but only because I want to see something different than whatever I saw before. Me me me….not much in life where you can say that! I can’t honestly say I am not trying to do something unique or different, at least by anyone else’s standard. I’m just trying to capture a moment that reflects who I am.

    This doesn’t ‘t mean that if I am doing a paid assignment, I am not going to care about meeting the needs of my client, but the photo I take will be my vision based on how I view the world and I wouldn’t take on an assignment unless my vision was aligned with that of the client. This also implies the client trusts me and my vision. To me, the more each of us works on our personal vision and being true to ourselves, the more our photos start to take on a uniqueness and style that can only be our own. Every photo we take is a unique reflection of who we are and how we see the world. That implies that every photo we take will uniquely reflect who we are as long as we take it for ourselves. While this might mean that making photos is a very solitary activity that we must do only ourselves, not for others, it also means that when share our photos, we are sharing ourselves and what is unique about us as individuals. I think that is a good thing. It brings us closer together and helps us understand each other. Something that is often in short supply.

    • Good points – arguably the outcome of that selfishness would ideally be something unique…but to determine uniqueness we’d have to make the comparison in the first place…

  3. andygemmell says:

    Interesting article Ming.

    I think it boils down to genuinely making and selecting images that are either taken with 1. your heart and mind engaged in the moment – in this case the viewer who appreciates the moment captured and initiates an emotional response will not care…it will be original in it’s own right; or

    2. when creativity is clever enough from the artist to slightly “tweak” the image away from the main stream….

    It’s part of the challenge I love about photography as difficult as it can be and personally it’s put new standards on my subconscious selection process of what is “acceptable”and what is not.

  4. Ming, I would call your art “hypersharpness-ism” 🙂

  5. Very interesting read, as always, Ming.
    Your comments on originality vs. influence immediately brought to mind the essential book by Harold Bloom, “The anxiety of influence”, which I analyzed in my master studies. Though Bloom talks about poetry and literature, it’s easily translated into any other art; the way the “soul” of an artist works is, I guess, the same, independently of the medium they chose to express that struggle.

    • Interesting…would you say you see the same personality coming across in my written essays/ articles as in my images?

      • That’s a good point. I guess art, as a form of self-expression, has its own paths and peculiarities, and I understand they will lead the eye in similar directions, no matter the means (pencil, camera, brush, strings), so, without a serious analysis, I would say ‘yes’, definitely I can see a coherence and harmony of styles/intentions/sensibilities in both your pictorial and written forms.
        But English is not my mother tongue, while photography is a universal language, so I’m a bit unbalanced in my judgement here! :p

        • It’s a slightly unfair question on my part, really – you can’t compare the two because they do not use the same building blocks; it’s like comparing the design of two things with total different purposes and different materials…then again, I suppose if the various designers can put their own stamp on things, why not?

  6. There are so very many photographers counting amateurs and artists, and so vast a number of images captured daily that I can — and sometimes do — find the situation discouraging.

    Making images sometimes reminds me of trying to author new cookbooks: there’s a constant parade of “new” ones, they blur into a mass given only a short time looking (in spite of attempts at differentiation), and they consistently help fill the clearance table at the bookstore. Then there are the constraints imposed, too: cookbooks generally need to contain recipes to be recognized as cookbooks.

    I didn’t mention romance novels because it occurred to me there might be addictive demand for those…

  7. After reading the first half of your title, I expected the second half to read: “Long live originality!”

  8. A set of very nice photos there, Ming. It seems to me that film is really opening up new avenues for you.

  9. That art & subjectivity thread was fun to read back. Amazing: seems like a lifetime ago. I barely remember contributing; but I’m glad I did—we have a name-drop of Lipizzaner stallions in the site’s history now [thanks to me /brushes fingernails on shirt]. And we established that Larry Kincaid’s brother is not Thomas Kincade. Useful to know.

    Every time we frame up an image, we ostensibly try to capture something different, unique…

    So, this isn’t true for me, at all. I think it’s just one thing I’m after. I don’t know what it is [if I did, I wouldn’t be taking photos]. But I do have faith, that I’ll know it when I see it. Or, I’ll half know it, and viewers may confirm it with their own, similar, reactions to a work. When that happens, I think it’s safe to say some art has gone down.

    But it’s just one thing I’m after. Only that.

    • I’m now starting to think art is doing something for the sake of doing it – not necessarily because it’s got social (or worse, commercial) value…whether that results in originality or not is perhaps not so relevant.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        The returning wanderer
        of unknown lands
        wide awake,
        with eyes of wonder

        Has hard work before him,
        singing his stories
        in the wind
        that carries his people about.

        But their children,
        holding their parents hands,
        stay to listen
        wide awake,
        wile their parents eyes
        widen with wonder.

        – – * – –

  10. Originally would be obsolete if our lives here were eternal. But as death ensues and new generations arise, the “old” origional is forgotten and becomes simply origional. And then there is something to be said about an inate human fascination with asthetics – aren’t we bound to eventually re-capture things which are appealimg to the humaan eye?

    • Sure – but the interpretation is always going to be different, since each interpreter is also different…

    • I agree with the observation that generations after generations have been forgotten. I’m susceptible to feeling that on a grand scale this makes all of human activity seem banal. When someone says “I created original artwork,” taken at a high level that’s not something original or new to mankind. Ecclesiastes seems to describe that perspective rather well (although I find it a weird book that’s probably best not to take as stand-alone.)

      Ming’s comment about the uniqueness of the interpreter seems, to me, to make a helpful counterpoint.

  11. A most refreshing set of photos!

    And thanks for a thought-provoking article.
    Especially as it applies to (almost) all aspects of society (the eternal struggle between conformity and individualism – in society as well as inside the individual).
    – – –
    “People – society as a whole – attaches value to the unique.” . . .

    Yet there is this thin line between being applauded as a genious treading new paths and having your head banged for being a fool to stick your neck out – unless you already have a “name”.

    A nice illustration:

    But, sadly, the ensuing laugh was not loud enough to humble the art critics.

  12. Stewart James says:

    Ming, another timely article (for me) as I ponder how to create a niche among the countless submissions of ‘safe’ photographs
    nesting in stock libraries. Clearly, thinking too far outside the box – for e.g.; shooting isolated products on alternative background choices to white, appears (statistically-speaking) to result in lower downloads (royalty payments) – despite products looking ‘far better’ and ‘more interesting’ for the treatment.

    I admit that at present, I find it challenging to tow the creative-line. Oftentimes during a shoot I’m torn between my photographic-vision (of what could be) and the need to go with the flow (putting bread on the table). Maybe; accepting that conformity is simply (par for the course) in ones journey to becoming commercially-successful isn’t, such a high price to pay after all?

    Perhaps selling-out (creatively) carries an altogether (unforeseen) incalculable price in the long-term?


    • Perhaps specificity is a luxury only afforded by budget and creativity – when you have to make a generic image that works for everybody, white is safe. Red may go with your corporate theme colors, but nobody else’s – lower applicability thus results in lower value.

      I don’t believe that towing the line is necessary for success; if anything, the opposite – you’re not going to stand out by being the same. Undoubtedly there’s a long term price to creative compromise; I just don’t know what it is yet; I’m not even sure those who ‘sell out’ know either – probably because they’re unaware of what they’re missing. I personally see the disconnect now; I see it widening, too.

  13. William Rounds says:

    I agree. But why do I (why does anyone) want to create images? Or to put it another way, why is there an “artistic” urge, as opposed to an “intellectual” urge? I think it is because it makes us happy, it makes us feel alive, it makes us think, it is fulfilling to be on a search, to try to discover. I once heard someone say that, aside from music, all art is visual. He obviously had never spoken with a French chef.

    • Is there any reason it has to be one over the other? Artistry requires some intellectual mastery in order to have the right tools to execute, at the very least. I also don’t think writing/ language are visual…

      • William Rounds says:

        If “mastery” is a level of achievement, then it’s not really inate. If it’s talent, then maybe it could be. But I didn’t mean “opposed” in the sense of contrary to, but in the sense of different, in terms of motivation. If the intellectual urge is a search for “answers”, isn’t that different than the artistic urge? Or is art an answer?

        • Different definition of intellectual urge, I think. The search for a different answer or endgame can also be an artistic desire; the art portion is required to go beyond the logically obvious and create something of beauty that appeals to a our consciousnesses on a different level. A Lada is functional, but an E-Type Jag is beautiful. Why? They’re both cars. One is illogical, the other is logical – it doesn’t necessarily follow that illogic makes art or beauty, but since both art and beauty stem from that which is different, perhaps there’s something to trying the unbeaten path.

  14. Ron Scubadiver says:

    OMG, craftsman vs artist, I think about this all the time. I see so much craft photography, at one end it is weddings and portraits of plain looking people who are willing to pay, at the other it is bird watchers with expensive telephotos. It is all in the mind and the concept.


  1. […] also read some remarkable stories written by photographers about that topic. Like John Griggs, and Ming Thein. John cites Galbraith […]

%d bloggers like this: