Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Fuzzy Line Between Inspiration & Copying

Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California
Does this remind you of an Ansel Adams photograph?
There is very little originality in art. Almost all art is derivative of someone else's work. It's nearly impossible to find art that is truly original.

Take Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow at the top of this article. Does it remind you of the work of perhaps the most well-known photographer ever, who captured Yosemite National Park in black-and-white from every angle and light imaginable? Ansel Adams isn't the only famous photographer to capture Yosemite in monochrome. So is my photograph inspired by those other images or is it a copy of those other images? Where is the line drawn and who decides it?

While I've seen many photographs of the Cathedral Spires in Yosemite, I've never seen one exactly like mine. That doesn't mean that such an image doesn't exist (there are tens of millions of photographs of Yosemite that I've never seen). If I believe that my image has at least some element of originality in it, is that enough to make it original?


Austin Kleon wrote a book a few years back called Steal Like An Artist. He tells the story of an art project he did involving newspapers. He thought his idea was original, but it was pointed out to him that someone else had already done this. He did some research and found out that other people had done some very similar things going back hundreds of years. His work wasn't really original, although his exact take on it was somewhat unique.

But that's not a bad thing. He discovered that we can and should take a little from different artists (things that you love about their work) and incorporate it into our own work. Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." David Bowie, who described himself as a tasteful thief, said, "The only art I ever study is stuff I can steal from." T.S. Eliot said, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." Albert Einstein said, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

Since we are all unoriginal, what we can do is take a little from this person and a little from that person and combine the ideas of others with our own ideas. You take things that aren't new and mix them up into something that is new. In this way we create things that are somewhat unique, and aren't carbon copies (or, worse, poor copies) of others.
Preserving An Afternoon Downtown - Salt Lake City, Utah
I bring all of this up because of my new Project: Preserved series, where I photograph jars and urban/street/industrial scenes in double-exposure images. I stole from another artist who photographs jars and rural/mountain landscapes in double-exposure images. The concepts are very similar, yet are applied to completely different genres of photography. And that is not the only difference. He uses film while I use digital. He has his own techniques and vision and I have my own. The results are similar, but his project and my project are not the same.

This photographer (who I have mentioned before but won't mention here) wrote to me publicly on social media and said, "I just saw you are making a whole project of these. To be honest, I'm not very happy about that--I find it to be too similar (far above just inspired) to [my] personal ongoing project."

I've gone through a number of thoughts and emotions since I first read that. Does this person really think that his idea is original? A quick Google search revealed two other photographers who have used jars in double-exposure photography, both of which I believe predate either mine or that guy I stole from. Others may have done something similar in years past before the internet. His work is derivative. Why should he have a problem with someone deriving images based on his? What makes him think that he is the only person allowed to use double-exposure photography and jars?
Red Chairs - Cambria, California
And I've thought about it more and more. I examined some of my other photographs and tried to define the fuzzy grey line between inspiration and copying. I photographed the starry night sky after seeing someone else do it. I photographed abandoned buildings after seeing someone else do it. I photographed Yosemite after seeing someone else do it. I photographed some red chairs against a green landscape after seeing someone else do it.

I don't know if that fuzzy line can be fully defined, that's why it's fuzzy. But I think that there are some lessons and things that I need to consider and reconsider. Am I defacing the other person's idea, or am I making it into something better or at least something different? I hope the answer is that I am at least turning their idea into something different. Maybe I should try just a little harder to make it different. Perhaps I need to hide my sources just a little bit better.

I never meant to offend the photographer who I stole from. I love their idea and wanted to incorporate it into my own photography. But their idea isn't exclusively their own, and so the lesson for them is to not be so easily offended. The lesson for me is to be more careful to ensure that the ideas I steal are better or different enough that it isn't obvious that I stole them in the first place. Maybe this is an indication that I'm a good artist and not a great one. My goal is to be a great artist, and that is what I strive for.

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