Originality

Thanks for the photos submitted to the picture critique so far. I have not been able to evaluate all images so far, but will eventually write some words about the all. Right now I am in the process of packing in order to get back to Norway for the Christmas. I will upload the photos that I still haven’t critique and do it while crossing the Atlantic. As soon as I am back in Norway I will post the picture critique. For anyone else, just keep posting more photos, I will do the critique consecutively and as quickly as possible.

Because I am running out of time, I will repost some thoughts – with some rewriting – I wrote for this blog some years ago. It’s been a while and I think the message could very well be repeated:

Here the other day, I got involved in a little discussion with a friend of mine about originality and how almost everything has already been done before. Or so my friend thought, a little disillusioned. He was bored with so much of what he considered contemporary photography – according to him, it only copies what other masters before photographers of present days have already done. He is a professional photographer himself, and on a certain level, I see that he has a point. However, I have to I disagree. It’s just too cynical a viewpoint. It doesn’t give justice to the individual approach and personal vision.

Yes, most everything has already been photographed – this much I have to admit to my friend. Travellers a hundred year ago or so could come across unknown sights and make complete new photographs of subject matter that nobody had seen before. And if you work in science you can still cross new barriers today if you photograph the latest advancements. Otherwise most everything has indeed been done. However, that is only on a level concerning subject matter, not photography as a personal expression, whether it justifies to be called art or just a happy snapshot by the occasional holiday photographer. The tower of Eiffel certainly has been photographed until boredom from the same perspective again and again. Still every photograph brings traces of each individual photographer into the equation. Maybe not a whole lot but put 100 people with cameras alongside each other and let them shoot the same subject. The result will be 100 different pictures – albeit resembling each other possibly quite closely. The difference will not necessarily be enough to make all 100 pictures strong personal expressions, but nevertheless. If you on the other hand let photographers with a creative vision who are used to thinking in ways of expressing they own ideas, do the same thing, the result will be far more differentiated.

Any photographer has a different approach to the subject or subject matter. We bring our lifetime of experience into the process of making or taking photographs, as well as our emotions, our accumulated knowledge, our technical skills, our understanding, our soul and spirit if I may use such an expression. Take myself. Often have I worked alongside my good friend and photographer Sven Creutzmann in Cuba in particular, and even when we stand side by side and shoot the same subject, we know from experience, that we will come home with completely different pictures. We see things differently; we work in different ways – even under conditions when you would think there isn’t much individual leeway.

Or take a simple cup. How many ways can it be photographed? You may think a cup is a cup is a cup. You may think that Paul Strands photos taken 80 years or so ago have done cups for all times. I think not. I think everyone of us will photograph a cup differently. Again not necessarily better or more interestingly – or even interesting at all. We will nevertheless photograph it with our own vision or even our own limitation of vision – which makes any photograph unique to a more or lesser degree.

What do you think, when it comes to originality? Has everything already been done, or can we add differences and nuances to what has already been made?

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About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Creativity, Photographic Reflections, Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

83 Responses to Originality

  1. I’m not a photographer, but I agree with you that every picture contains the perspective of the person behind the lens. We’ve been using the same words for centuries, but still seem to be able to find original ways to string them together.

  2. Ann says:

    I don’t think everything has been done. Sure, there are cliches and worn-out themes. But, even with those, there are always new way to handle the subject. I think this argument boils down to whether individuals are able to have an original thought when there are billions and billions of us. In some respects, we have “thought doppelgängers” out there. I’m okay with that. It’s still my original artwork even if someone else is doing virtually the same work.

  3. Have a wonderful Christmas, Otto. 🙂

  4. Elaine- says:

    i became very disillusioned myself, it came when G+ first started and all photographers on there, and with processing, everything was oooh and aaaah, i mean EVERYTHING, every picture that came out, it made me give up photography for a while, now i have given up photoshop, and set my desire to take BAD pictures, and this frees me up… when i was a film photographer i once worked for 3 months to get ONE SHOT i had in my mind, i FAILED in the end, but could do that shot in 5 minutes in photoshop now… so yeah, everybody and their dog is a ‘great’ photographer now…. it’s makes originality kind of a hopeless thing….

    • Sounds good that you have found your way back to photography again and fill more free, through a very special approach to the craft and art, I have to admit that. Personally I don’t think Photoshop changes anything when it comes to originality, just shifts it in a different direction.

      • Elaine- says:

        yeah but i’m one of the few who actually PAY for my processing software hahaha, i’m now just using alienskin exposure, for a bit of film nostalgia and glow…. but i have approached many things in my life with a determination to be bad at it, including when i started studying computer science, it took the pressure off and i graduated top of my class haha

  5. sixpixx says:

    I always enjoy this debate. What sets me pondering is that, nowadays in this image swamped world, we often know something or some place by a picture before we know the actual thing – does this image created by someone else influence how we encounter the real thing for the first time? And, therefore, does it limit how we might have seen it or enable us to see more, more quickly? If this makes sense.

    • What you write here about previous taken photos influence how we encounter is an important part of the decomposition of the post modernistic thoughts. Whether this limits us, I think depend on the individual person. And, yes, it makes sense. 🙂

      • sixpixx says:

        Oh no, not post-modernism – too confusing for me 🙂 When you say it depends on the individual, I suppose some would attempt to imitate previous images and others would want to find a new angle? Thanks for making me think.

  6. Mary says:

    My husband and I have this conversation quite often. Since he is a sculptor and painter, it’s always a challenge to find something that hasn’t been done, and done again. But like you say, just a different angle or idea is all it needs.

  7. Jeb says:

    My teacher, who was given to rather dramatic terms, explained the observational skills we had to learn as developing ‘eagle eye’ perspective, that you had to step outside of society and observe. The role of the artist to stand outside of society and look in.

    He described the processes and training not as learning a craft or art but a training for life.

    As you observe, it changes you’re own perspective and vision of the world. That change will alter what you produce and its a continual organic processes.

    I think the observation applies to all art forms at whatever level we pursue them at.

    • You teacher had some goo points. I think part of the training to become an artist – whatever art form – is partly learning the craft, but, yes, more importantly immense oneself in life.

  8. Even something as permanent and immovable as the Eiffel Tower is going to have other elements that would affect the photograph, so I do believe there is always some degree of originality. But it is in the degree of originality that brings so much added enjoyment to a photo. I think talent really comes into play with the artist’s eye and then there’s a chance for really notable originality. I hope you travel well and get home to enjoy Christmas with your family, Otto.

  9. Started a post about this myself the other week and got stuck but I must say that I agree. I must certainly can tell my own photos from others even if it is the exact same angle. Will get back to you on this..

  10. Chillbrook says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly Otto. I love the first comment in response to your post – ‘We’ve all been using the same words for centuries but still find original ways to string them together’. I think there is plenty of room for originality in photography. I look at a site like Lens Culture and I see original work all the time. I also see fashion to a certain extent. Someone will come up with a new treatment and for a while all the ‘original’ photographs will appear to have been through the same processes. However, we are all original so if we are true to ourselves and express ourselves through our art how can it not be original?

  11. Tim Girarde says:

    Well written. My teacher put it this way, photograph with intent and print with intent, consistency and growth will follow.

  12. RuneE says:

    I’ll just have to find a cup and see 🙂

  13. These posts, and the discussions that follow, are always interesting. It’s easy to become disillusioned, particularly in this internet age, as virtually everything seems to have been photographed and photographic trends can result in a lot of samey photographs. However, originality is still there and shines through when we stop trying to emulate what we’ve seen and see the world through our own eyes and have the confidence to show our own takes on familiar subjects.

  14. emeraldwake says:

    i am too old for this , You must feel photography , You can’t learn it ,art is in blood ,in mind,so there is no critique if You dont have collection of good photos ,If You critique something You must know something ,i never write critique because it is not my job ,You must feel it inside ,be good in some areas ,why so many not talented people are on first pages in newspapers ? That is the point,connections my friend, You can be weak but if You pay or You know somebody that you will be Big ,sad i know, world is full of sadness ,open Your mind people ,more feel,less critique ,Bless friend

  15. ninagrandiose says:

    It is the individual’s “voice” that makes the difference in any media. Take the designs of men’s shirts for example. They almost all are more or less the same with collar, cuffs, button front etc.. It is in the details that make them unique and stand out and continue to be a thriving business. So it is with excellent photography. The angle, the light, what the photographer wants to say, not just the subject matter but the treatment and how it is expressed. If there is no self-expression, no point of view then it is banal and just a snap shot. We would all lose interest and never take another shot if there wasn’t such a thing as originality. Interesting subject!

  16. seabluelee says:

    Perhaps everything has been photographed before, but I have not seen all of those photographs, nor all of those things. Therefore something that might seem ho-hum to one person could appear stunningly original to me. Anyway, just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done again. Every person (and photographer) is a unique individual. As you pointed out (and I’ve experienced myself) each person shooting the same subject will achieve a different result thanks to their own personal “eye.”

  17. paula graham says:

    To me, originality is something I now strive towards…indeed, as I have not seen everything everyone has photographed, there is bound to be a huge overlap but…as long as it is original to me , thought through by me, and ENJOYED by me…surely that is all that counts?
    I am well aware , that Artists , throughout the ages have been influenced by what is going on around them..hence in painting the different ‘schools’, movements and groups..it is only natural that that should happen. We are all children of our time.
    Blatantly copying something someone else does…hmmm, cannot admire that.

    • Being influenced by others is just fine. It’s a way to learn the craft and oneself. Copying is OK, too, in the learning phase, but only when you stand on your own feet are you able to create original work. And, yes, I think you are right. What matters is yourself in the creative process.

  18. I see no issue with photographing the same places, subjects, people. Unless originality is something you need to seek, enjoy the moment and let each of your photos – whether excellent or not – remind you of the place, the person, the conversation around it.

  19. Pat says:

    Very beautiful and creative! nothing original to me,

  20. Robin says:

    I agree with you, Otto. We all see things differently. It may not be different in terms of subject matter, but I think perspective can change “nothing original” into something very original.

    Have a safe trip! 🙂

  21. YellowCable says:

    That thought or thinking along the same line has occurred to me as well. It was pretty discouraged feeling to me every time that kind of thinking occurs to me. I guess your friend may have the same feeling more or less. I think you have help bringing the resolution to this line of thinking for me. I got around it by brute force myself (as much as I can) to ignore it. Thank you.

    By the way, the cup picture is fantastic! I like it.

  22. Your posts always trigger an inward critique, and today I thought of a small animal skull that I painted this weekend. I almost ‘did not’ paint it, as it seems that all skull paintings are immediately compared to Georgia O’keeffee’s. “Why try?” I questioned myself then self corrected and began because there was an inner nudge to paint the *# thing!

    Many hours later I finished and silently asked the painting, “Where did you come from?”

    I chuckle. I’m not sure that my WordPress readers are ready for the very original painting!

    Thanks, Otto, and have a wonderful holiday in your lovely country!
    Z

    • You bring nourishment to my argument. Yes, we just need to follow our inner nudge – and who knows what it will become. No need to compare! Thank you for the well wishing, Lisa. I wish the same for you.

  23. Agree with you one hundred percent Otto (as always, I must say!). If you put thoughts into your photographs and let them become an extension of your personality, the photographs are bound to be original. Whether they are technically ‘correct’ or otherwise is a different question, like you pointed out.

  24. lauramacky says:

    I wish I had more originality. I feel it inside but to bring it to the camera and then through photoshop is something I am constantly striving for. I’m growing as an artist and as I grow, I see things differently than before and I can see how I would process it before I even open it in photoshop. I’m one of those 100 people with a tiny difference but that motivates me to push and grow. That’s the fun in it.

  25. Once again you’ve brought to the discussion a subject that can be debated and discussed, discussed and debated. I do agree with you that each of us sees our individual universe from the perspective of our interior experiences. Each moment that we add to our inner core, we are adding to the way that we interpret the world. While a cup is a cup is a cup, it is also a utilitarian object and a thing of beauty and a container for liquid and a cover for a stray insect and…

  26. Patrizia M. says:

    Sempre molto interessante quello che scrivi, dà modo di pensare e riflettere.
    Comunque a mio modesto parere, ogni foto racchiude qualche cosa di chi ha fatto lo scatto.
    E se per molti può essere una delle tante copie della stessa foto, per un occhio attento ed esperto,
    le differenze ci sono e vengono notate.
    Saluti, Patrizia

  27. Roland Theys says:

    I like photo! simply!

  28. Viola says:

    I mostly agree with you, Otto, and believe that each photographer has the chance to show a different view of the world through his/her own eyes. We should not so much worry or bother about what other may or may not have been done by somebody else before us, just try to make all those captured moments and pictures our own. You know, I wanted to write a comment much earlier and just couldn’t really get my thoughts sorted and then, today, I stumbled over a really great article that links to an interview with the landscape photographer Art Wolfe from which I’d like to quote:

    “What’s interesting is that when I return to a place, the likelihood is I’ve evolved – not the landscape but my intellect. I’ve constantly evolved my styles of photography. Not that I’m abandoning earlier styles but I’m just broadening my interest. As you keep staying at it, the more you can look with new eyes at an old subject, finding new styles, new perspectives. You’re always bringing something new to a place you’ve been to. […] The challenge is to constantly evolve your work and not to be so satisfied or self-anoint yourself as ‘arrived’. The success I’ve had over the years comes out of the art school where my instructors would hammer home ‘Never be so satisfied that you think you’ve done it all. Always put the carrot slightly beyond your reach so that you’re always moving forward and evolving,’ and that’s what I’ve done.”

    I think this can also be applied when comparing your work with that of others – it might seem like everything has been done/seen/shot before but this doesn’t mean you can’t try to do it differently.

    PS: Here’s the link to the original article which has a lot of good thoughts about photography: http://www.curiousanimal.com/talking-photography-2014/

    • I totally agree with you, Viola. We should not worry so much about what others think, what they have done or if one’s work is original or not. Just follow one’s heart and do as Art Wolfe suggest: Keep evolving. Thanks for the great quote and the link to article.

  29. Angeline M says:

    There is one Eiffel Tower, but there are hundreds of thousands of photographers. Everything and nothing has already been photographed. We must each go an make our own picture of something that has never been photographed before in our own way.

  30. I usually joined on flickr photo hunting events hold by photographers in Rotterdam. We went to the same place, and took pictures on the same subject. When we updated the flickr group with our pictures, surprisingly, none of the photos have same quality and results. I believe originality comes from individual’s imagination and perspectives that every individual has her/his own characteristics. I agree with your opinion Otto! Have a great trip back to Norway and hope you have a lovely Christmas holiday!

    • What you say only confirms my conclusion. Thanks for sharing your experience, sounds like a fun thing to do, the flickr photo hunting events. I wish you a great Christmas holiday as well, Indah.

  31. shoreacres says:

    Reading your post and the comments, several thoughts came to mind. One is this: seeking originality for its own sake rarely results in compelling art, whatever the field. If a subject seems, to demand a form that breaks every sort of mold imaginable, it still can be compelling as well as original. But to impose form on a subject simply to show it in a way that it hasn’t yet been seen may lead to peculiarity rather than originality. I wish I could put this better, but that’s my initial thought.

    It seems to me that the most original (i.e., creative) photographers, writers, painters, also are the ones most able to enter into dialogue with their subjects. When I began writing, the advice came from everywhere: write what you know. Now, after several years, I’m convinced the better way is to write what I love. I rarely choose a topic dispassionately. I notice something, I become curious about it, I fall in love with it — and only then do I write. I suspect the same is true for everyone engaged in creative pursuits, however they articulate it. The ones who don’t experience love for their subject may be terrific technicians and craftspeople, but a little something always is lacking.

    • I believe you are right on both accounts. Originality for its own sake will surely result in nothing but trite and even pompous art. As for passion and love for whatever you do in arts, this is something I have always believed in and prophesied. Without investing your heart in the creative process it can at best only become a craft,

  32. Phil Vaughn says:

    It’s true that many subjects have been photographed in similar ways by many photographers. That much is undeniable, but you are also correct in stating (basically) that every photographer and every eye is different. There will be variables and personalizations that could distinguish each photo–even if that were in minor ways. I used to struggle with the idea that “it-has-been-done-already”. Now, I would just say shoot it anyway; just do it YOUR way.

  33. Nuances for sure, differ greatly from one photographer to another. Some have a recognizable style while others experiment and just enjoy the process. Love this post.

  34. robert87004 says:

    Sort of like we should all stop creating because Leonardo Da Vinci was truly the Renaissance Man? Unlikely any of us will ever match his genius, but we do not stop because of his prior work and creativity. Instead, he is a source of inspiration. A fine, thoughtful article, Otto.

  35. Dalo 2013 says:

    Agree Otto, there is so much versatility & creativeness behind the lens that there is still so much to new to “see” in photographs. Reminds me of two people shooting the exact same scenes, but walking away with photos that look like they were shot in different places and different times… Never underestimate the creativity of the human mind. Cheers and safe travels…

  36. Andrew says:

    On a good day, I believe that we can find a new angle on absolutely everything, Otto!

  37. themofman says:

    I know all to well that photography today is largely about rediscovery, not discovery. I’ve heard the argument again, and again, and again. Like you Otto, I refuse; however, to use that as an excuse to become bored of photography in general or specifically many of its fields, styles and genres and give up the work. I deliberately use the fact that it is so hard to come up with an image that is so interesting to firstly me, and secondly others as reason to shoot less and be far more discerning and critical of my own work. I know that through that I can OCCASIONALLY come up with images that can impact or inspire.

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