Over the last few weeks, I’ve come across lots of different people talking about originality in photography. Its come up in articles, recordings and general discussion. Some has been photography in general and other comments fine art in particular. As a result, I’ve been pondering about originality in my work and that of others I know and follow.
I think we can all agree originality is hard; after all, as the saying goes there are only 7 stories in the world. My Instagram feed is full of lots of great images but how original are they? Some leap out as feeling very close in term of style and content to well-known photographers’ work. Others are definitely of an established type and this is particularly true of lots of commercial photoshoots. The maternity shoot with wafting fabric or Christmas photo of the kids in front of the window pointing to Santa is far from an original concept. It doesn’t have to be though as these images are about beautiful memories for those involved. However, fine art is about a personal vision.
There is a strong tradition in visual art of copying for learning. Indeed, Michelangelo’s first solo work was said to be a reworking of another image. I can see that copying another photograph can be purely an academic exercise to learn a skill. The issue for me is when that work gets shared rather than remaining a private learning exercise though. Even worse when it is shared, there is no acknowledgement of the original and credit is falsely taken. Why not shoot a concept of your own inspired by the style, learn from that and acknowledge its source instead?
Sadly, we still see people copying images with minor tweaks or worse even stealing the original images and claiming them as their own work in the photographic world. What I don’t understand is why someone would do this or persistently and intentionally seek to replicate the styles of others. Whilst originality is challenging, surely it’s still the correct goal?
Of course, there is cryptomnesia. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “The phenomenon of perceiving a latent or subconscious memory as an original thought or idea; latent or subconscious recollection.” It is essentially copying without realising that is what you are doing. I’m sure we are all guilty of this to some degree at times. I do recall having a really great idea for an image only to realise later that I was remembering a photograph I’ve seen. There is an interesting video about it here.
I guess this is where having one’s own distinctive style can make a real difference. Fine art photography is about your vision not someone else’s. There are so many sources of inspiration to draw from. If you come up with a concept, pull together the component parts, set up, shoot and process your own images then they should have your own unique look and feel. So even if you fall short of ‘originality’ your work will be distinctly yours and bring something new.