The Value of Originality

I’m posting this article, originally published in LensWork Magazine, in response to Irina Drelciuc, who sent me this Ask Me Anything question: “have you ever felt like there is nothing new or fresh to be ‘told’ through photography, what is the use of doing it unless you come up with something striking different?”

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.” I find it very telling that so many who quote Wilde choose to omit the latter part of his statement. If Wilde is correct, 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 of those made by others, not only are made frequently with little critical response, and presented with no attribution to anyone other than the unoriginal photographer, they also sometimes win awards, or are entered into prestigious publications and exhibitions without credit to the original. 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 tried to claim them as originals and not 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 diminishes activity in the brain’s default mode network, whose activity patterns affect psychological wellbeing. 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 [emphasis added].”

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.

Shadow Dancer

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