The Value of Originality

The following article was originally published in LensWork Magazine.

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution. ~Rollo May

It is rare that I find reason to disagree with Minor White, but a statement he made in what was to be his last interview, in 1976, gave me pause. When asked by interviewer James Danziger about the dilemma facing young photographers whose work may be too similar to that of their better-known predecessors, White responded: “At this time in the history of photography, everything has been done. All the novelties have been done … All we have to look for now is, as a picture, does it move my heartstrings? If it does, why should I condemn it just because it happens to look like something Weston did?” Today, forty years later, the suggestion that everything in photography has been done by 1976 surely seems as shortsighted as it likely was then to proclaim that everything has been done by, say, 1936. But more intriguing is the question: if a photograph is successful in evoking an emotional response in viewers, should it matter whether it is original or not? I propose that it does, if not unequivocally, at least in some important ways.

Preempting an obvious question, there is no denying that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. To expect one to create entirely original work—free of any and all influences—is hardly realistic, if not outright impossible. Originality, to be sure, is a matter of degree. However, it is hard to argue that photographers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at some well-known overlook aiming to capture near identical compositions of the same view, are much less concerned with originality than those who deliberately pursue novel expressions, subject matter, or styles.

Oscar Wilde proposed that imitation is “the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” And I find it very telling that so many who quote Wilde choose to omit the latter part of his statement. If true, it also cannot be ignored that, among artists, photographers perhaps “flatter” each other more than any other group. Photographs known to be cover versions and repeat performances not only are frequently made with little critical response and presented with no attribution to anyone other than the photographer; they also often win awards, or are entered into prestigious publications and exhibitions. It is hard to imagine this happening with copies of masterpiece paintings or with plagiarized writings. In music, virtuous performances of known works are revered, but still no performer is likely to be taken seriously if he or she did not also credit the original composer for the score or the lyrics.

The fatal flaw in disregarding the importance of originality, in my opinion, is in placing disproportionate value on the aesthetic appeal of the resulting image, to the detriment of the photographer’s inner experience in the process of making it. All considerations of art and value aside, studies show that creative expression is correlated with states of happiness and satisfaction. Other studies suggest that the production of creative work activates parts of the brain known as the default mode network, whose functions are associated with psychological health in general. In particular, becoming immersed in creative work is conducive to the state of flow, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Csikszentmihalyi explains, “Because optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.”

I believe that creativity and originality are most important not as conditions for art, or for any bearing they may have on the perceived value of an image or other product, but rather in elevating the emotional and intellectual experience of the person making the art.

Canyon Path

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23 thoughts on “The Value of Originality

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  1. As usual, Guy, I read your writing with interest. I typically agree with you but in this case I have to take issue with conflating originality and creativity. One can revisit familiar themes with creativity. While the broad brush strokes may be ones we have seen many times, The details can be particular to a specific work or artist. When one “covers” a subject, styling and unique voice can make it fresh.

    On the other hand, commercial success has less to do with originality than with marketing. Most clients I’ve had don’t want original. They want a known formula applied to their particular product or or portrait. That is the real challenge a photographer who wants to create art faces, not lack of originality, but lack of public imagination.

  2. Very fair points, Michael. However, commercial demands aside (no argument there), speaking from my own experience, an image emerging out of a sense of discovery and personal kinship with a subject, or even a random stroke of unexpected insight, rewards me in ways that derivative work, no matter how objectively good, cannot. I don’t presume that this is true for everyone, but I suspect that it may be true for some, perhaps even some who don’t know it yet. My hope is to encourage divergent thinking: not deciding the results in advance and instead allowing the thoughts of the moment to lead to potentially novel outcomes. This is a mode of thinking known to be closely linked with creativity, and can be deeply rewarding.

  3. Very interesting read Guy. I’ve never felt a need to comment on a blog post before but this has struck a chord with me.

    Over the last couple of years or so, it seems landscape photography has exploded in popularity and our social media feeds are swamped with millions of images, many of them mediocre to say the least, of the same old locations. Those locations are now getting overrun and riddled with tripod holes as thousands of photographers fight for space to get that shot that will be ‘original’. It’s become so now that where once I would stop and look at images of those ‘iconic’ locations and study the image to pick out the nuances of that particular image and want to visit those locations for myself, where now I see a hint of those locations and scroll on by without even a glance. Even now amid tales of snow in the Scottish Highlands, a place I’ve visited and wish to again, photographers are gearing up ready to set out to capture their own ‘original’ images of the usual places. It is almost disheartening to know that my feed will soon be filled with more of the same images as photographer friends clamber for space. There are a few photographers on my Facebook friends list who I know will be going too, but they always return with originality and a beauty in their images, so I look forward to their efforts.

    Where I would love to be able to visit many of these iconic places, I cannot afford to, so have to stay more local. Luckily I have a National Park on my doorstep so am not short of locations to go play. What I’ve found though is having a smaller patch to work I have more time to explore in detail and find those hidden gems that are overlooked in favour of the more popular spots. I’m not saying all of my work is original, but I do think that, because of my monetary limitations and my desire to explore, I’m more likely to come away with something that has either never been photographed, or has very rarely.

    So maybe the originality issue has more to do with ease of accessibility or a lack of a sense of adventure. Maybe we should take a look at what’s on our doorstep instead of joining thousands of others on ‘adventure’ trips to the places that many have been before, to come home with photos of mountains that have been shot to death from the same position in the hope that theirs may be the one that sells in amongst the millions. Maybe it’s a good thing for those of us who are restricted as we’re forced to find something new, instead of churning out average copies of the same old.

    I guess it depends what we’re after in terms of our photography. If we’re happy rubbing shoulders with thousands of others visiting those beautiful places and trying to get an original take (that the guy stood next to you will have too) then that’s fine. If you want to progress as an artist in your own right then those places are good to visit for inspiration and to find out what others are doing and then go off and explore to see what else is about and get something different.

    One of the issues I’ve found with being original (if indeed I am) is that it’s not popular with the masses, unless you’re established. Unless you capture something out of the ordinary then be prepared to suffer on your social media pages. Occasionally I’ll try something completely different and it’ll flop as my audience aren’t used to it. (Think of it like a futuristic car design… There’s a reason we’re not driving around in space-age looking cars as the masses won’t like it; it’ll be too different so won’t sell.) As soon as I revert back to my usual style the ‘likes’ return to a more normal level. Even then, my photography isn’t full of iconic popular places so I struggle to climb the ladder at any speed, but I’m in it for the long haul. I enjoy what I do and I’m happy with [most] of what I produce.

    1. Thank you for this, Alan! You said a lot, and I agree with practically all of it. My original intent was to cut through whatever judgments have to do with art or popularity, and to focus on the inner experience of the photographer (which, I believe, alone is reason enough to avoid imitating others too closely, as to me it is the primary reason to engage in photography at all). However, since you mentioned overcrowding, I also want to bring up a point I recently discussed with another photographer regarding the identity of places, which is this: I photograph things and places that are personally important and meaningful to me. In my mind there is little reason to travel to some faraway place to photograph some feature—be it mountain or waterfall or the northern lights—that I don’t have the same kind of personal interest in, and reverence for, as those places that make my own home (in a large sense) dear to me. As such, I am also far more concerned with the welfare of the places than with any photograph of them—original or not, mine or not. I would rather they remain wild and unphotographed than yield beautiful imagery at the expense of turning them into tourist attractions and caricatures of “nature.”

      1. Thank you Guy. Maybe the reason images made closer to home portray more emotion is because there’s a more personal connection to them. After all, those places are home. I can understand the reasons for visiting the iconic places as when I’ve visited some of them there is a sense of wonder at the beauty of them, which is why they’re photographed so much. But I’ve also been to a few and been underwhelmed and disappointed so the connection isn’t there. Like you said, it’s the experience of making the photograph and that is why we make them, and hopefully those feelings come across in the final image. So arriving at a much photographed location with many others wouldn’t be a particularly personal or even enjoyable experience in my mind. I can think of nothing worse and it pains me to see those places being destroyed by humans. On the flip side though, if everyone keeps going to those places, the more personal and remote places will remain peaceful, meaning we get to enjoy the experience of photographing.

      2. This article sings to me so poetically and justly, I love it! Way to go Guy, you once again put into words what so many of us were already thinking. We discuss this on my podcast almost every week and I think the subject is an important one to discuss at length. Photographers need to get out and explore their own locations – failure to do so only makes you an unoriginal copycat whose sole mission is to exploit the wilderness for personal gain. Great work Guy!

      3. Thank you, Matt! Both for the comment and for making this a topic of discussion. I think it is important in an age when technology brings people closer together, which is good in a lot of ways, but also risks encouraging conformism.

      4. I couldn’t agree more. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve come to love and appreciate the prairies near my home. These beautiful places are largely overlooked by most photographers. Not a lot to see for 11 months of the year. But for me, each spring and summer brings a new landscape on which to feast my eyes, and to point my camera. There is so much to enjoy about prairies. They offer freedom from the masses and the freedom to create original artwork.

  4. I believe White was correct, across every aspect of society not just photography. Literature, music, the performing arts, painting, everything has been done. So if everything has been done, what is the point. Well the point is everything has not been done by you. As an artist, in this day, that is about all you really have. I have seen photos of El Capitan for most of my fifty-seven years. I have been to the park twice. If I ever make it again I will bring my camera and make some images. Will they be as creative as I can make them? I would hope so. Will they be art? That’s not really my call. Will I enjoy making them? Absolutely. Will the people viewing the images I make feel a speck of the beauty? If they do then I will have successfully made a statement. It may only be for a moment that the image “moves [their] heartstrings” but after all we only live in the moment.

    1. I must say I have a very hard time accepting this position. Almost every day I see at least one or two images that are unique and novel in some way that impresses me. And, any time I go for a walk in the landscape that I love, I see things worthy of being photographed that I have never seen photographed before.

  5. Tunnel View is usually lined up with expensive photographic gears and camera phones alike. It can still be magic to me when condition’s right that I forget all about those around me (I don’t do well with crowds in general). Once a while an image from this location still strikes me – presents something that I’ve never noticed/paid attention. The natural landscape all around us are changing rapidly and one can never step into the same river twice. I feel iconic places are worth of visiting with our own eyes, to make a connection with that is personal and to contemplate.

    On the other hand, there are “new” locations such as the “reverse tunnel view” location that has been copied so rapidly by many, there yet to be one image that moves me.

    1. I confess I am much like Alan. When I encounter an image of a familiar view, I rarely spend much time examining it. Sometimes, conditions make it spectacular to behold, which may stop me in my tracks for a bit, perhaps even elicit a “wow.” But this is rarely enough to satisfy my desire to see a truly meaningful image and I likely will continue to search until I find one that is entirely novel to me. When I find such an image, I will spend much longer studying it. Sometimes I will stop looking at/for other images for a while, just to savor what I had just felt or learned. As an artist, this is how I hope for my own images to be appreciated, too.

  6. not sure what happened, but in a blink I lost my original post… so here is attempt #2…

    When you write Guy, I try to read very carefully, like viewing your images, I want the next layer of understanding.

    My brother recently wrote a book about grief. He attempts to point out that due to our individual differences we will all follow our own path and that recipe solutions do not exist… kind of like photography too…. he uses an example that often comes from well intended friends…. “I am so sorry, I know how you must feel.” Although well intended the person may not have a clue about what I feel or why, but felt their need to say something.

    When you write Guy, I try avoid judgement. I try to understand the message. It is not up to me to decide if you are right or wrong, but rather to consider the message and how it can help me better understand my photography, my approach to art and life.

    In the thread there are two of your replies that really struck a chord… 1) My hope is to encourage divergent thinking…” and 2) My original intent was to cut through whatever judgements have to do with art…”

    I see your posts as invaluable in getting me to reflect…not to become involved in debate…. Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Dave! What an interesting comparison between art and grief, both being intensely subjective. As social beings, we are inclined to emphasize and and to attempt to feel what others do (we actually have specialized mechanisms in our brain, called mirror neurons, that have evolved exactly for that purpose). But you are right, in the end all we have is projections filtered through subjective sensibilities.

  7. Guy,
    This is a fascinating topic and I must say I appreciate your approach. I found that your suggestion of the importance of originality was proposed gently. It would truly be a shame if someone felt less inspired after reading your article. Everyone should be so lucky to experience the positive emotions that come along with creating. I don’t disagree with the premise of your article and yet I am left with more questions. While I don’t expect you to provide solutions I suspect you’ve considered these topics and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
    Do you feel that social media is influencing the fascination with certain destinations and compositions?
    If so, is it not human nature to desire to visit and photograph a location that has been portrayed in glorious light?
    Is it sustainable for there to be literally hundreds of people offering destination specific workshops that glorify these destinations?
    Doesn’t the photographic community share the blame for the lack of originality?
    Often times these workshops include tutorials of editing techniques with an implied promise that one can learn to edit the same way.
    Can artistic technique be commoditized?
    Who is the arbiter of when a composition is worn out?
    As a community of photographers, how do we deal with the underlying hypocrisy of using fantastic and often unrealistically edited images to promote destination specific workshops and then calling foul when the location is overrun?
    Does unrealistic editing glorify and thus contribute to the hypocrisy?
    Is it realistic for the hundreds of people that made a mark shooting iconic locations to make a living promoting originality?

    1. Curious if you are a “concerned photographer” in the sense proposed by Cornell Capa.

      I shared my thoughts on social media in a number of other essays. Suffice to say that, yes, I think the online culture has led not only to a fascination with repeating some compositions but also in some cases the utter destruction of some places.

      Human nature, at least in this context, has one characteristic that cannot be ignored: it can be overcome and resisted with conscious effort. And, it can be changed by deliberately pursuing original work and realizing the benefits of doing so. Quoting Erich Fromm: “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues.”

      No, it is not sustainable to have this many people visiting the same locations. As I mention above, I have had the misfortune of seeing several such places destroyed as a result.

      I don’t know that there is such a thing as the “photographic community.” Certainly some ways of pursuing photography are more popular than others, but there’s no shortage of people who advocate for (and practice) ethical photography and conservation. The blame, ultimately, is with each individual offender. Blaming damage to sensitive locations, or lack of originality and creativity, on a community is at best lazy if not outright hypocritical.

      I’m not sure why you made the jump to processing. Workshops span a large gamut. A good teacher will teach tools and attitudes, not demand that they be applied in one way or another. But certainly there are a fair number of “workshops” that are little more than trophy hunting expeditions where most if not all participants return with identical images. I think this is lamentable.

      Can’t answer for what the community can do. As individuals, which I think artists should be to a great degree, we can lead by example.

      I don’t have a problem with unrealistic editing. There are many paths to expressive art. The hypocrisy is claiming an unrealistic (or unoriginal) image as a realistic (or original) one.

      Not sure I understand your last question. People find many ways to make a living. Especially in artistic pursuits, I find that there’s a great deal of diversity in business models. There’s nothing prohibiting anyone, regardless of their history, to alter his or her attitude and to come up with novel ways of earning an income. Many things we today consider despicable used to be widely acceptable ways of earning money at some points in history.

      Perhaps more pertinent: am I optimistic that attitudes will change on a large enough scale? No, I’m not. But if my words help even one person find a more satisfying, and more ethical, way to pursue photography, then it’s worth my time writing about it.

  8. Guy,

    After reading many of your essays I have found that for me, just being out in wildness, satisfies my soul. I don’t particularly worry about likes and kudos from others. You really don’t know the impact you have made on my life, which to me is more fulfilling both photographically and life in general due to your writing.

    Is has been a great pleasure to read every word and place myself in your essays.


  9. Photography for me has long been a tool of exploration and being (mindfulness?) if you will. The visualization process and more technical analytics of photography re wonderful tools from which to try and make sense of my surroundings (whether I have a camera in hand or not.) And at the same time, some training in audio mixing allows me to make sense of the surrounding soundscape and merge it with the images I am seeing.

    When I capture images I bring them back for detailed exploration to examine the details of where I was and what I surrounded by in that very brief, perhaps, 125th of a second..And yet I can explore every pixel of that 35 million pixel image at my leisure, be surprised at what I find and over much more time than the original 125th of second come to grow morph what I visualized and perhaps enjoy creating — and more important for me — learning from the whole process.

  10. I am loving your desert-in-winter images. Evocative and transporting, and original like fresh tracks in new snowfall. I can’t help wanting to “correct” the Csikszentmihalyi quotation to something like, “Because optimal experience depends on the ability to surrender one’s limited ego-consciousness to the transcendental moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts, openness to creativity, and skill in communication.”

  11. I live in a jumbled up city, Las Vegas, the exact opposite of all I seek in life, and must leave town to find the voice of Nature, so I travel. Even when surrounded by tourists or avid fellow photographers, I try to hear the music of Nature. So I stray as far away as I can and stand still and listen. My purpose is to bring home just one small memory of a time, a place, a light, a reaction, an emotion, so I can experience it once again when I return. I have little interest in what man has built (or destroyed), but long for the aria of the land, the music for my soul.

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