When Stealing Is OK

Pat O'Rourke og Otto von Münchow på tur i Olympia

In a couple of post over the last weeks, I have brought up some thoughts about what it takes to develop as a photographer. In Starting with the Box I made a point of needing both creative thinking and learning the craft. And in the post Become a Better Photographer, one of the advices I suggested was looking to other photographers.

Let me take this a step further. Because what better way to develop your photography, both inspirationally and technically, than to learn from other photographers? To push it even further: Steal from any photographer whose work you like. Yes, steal (and this goes not only to photographers but to all creatives). I know, you have been told that steeling is bad and dishonest. But stay with me a little longer.

My point is that we all learn from each other. And how do we learn? By stealing. All artists steal from each other. As the singer and songwriter puts it: «The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.» Anyone working creatively – any artist – asks; where do you get your ideas? The honest answer is; I steal it. In the delightful and very inspiring book Steal Like an Artist, the artist and writer Austin Kleon puts it bluntly: «When you look at the world this way [that all ideas comes from stealing], you stop worrying about what’s “good” and what’s “bad” – there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing. Anything is up for grabs.»

The thing is; nothing is really original. Everything has already been done – as I wrote in my post Originality some time ago. The point is: what makes something different and yours, is your take on it. Yes, steal, but add yourself in the process. Or steal to learn before you are able to impose your own vision on it, and then start make you own expression of an old idea.

The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something «original», nine out of ten times they just don’t know the reference or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.

The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch puts it this way: «Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that, which speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.»

Austin Kleon suggests that you collect all, which inspires you in a scrapbook. Thoughts, phone calls, favourite passages out of books, and cut and past things you see around you that speaks to your soul. See something worth stealing? Put in the scrapbook. Then use this book when you need inspiration.

At the end of the day, what this leads up to is getting around the simple fact that nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying – by stealing. I am talking about practise here, not plagiarism – plagiarism is trying to pas someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulating is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing. Then you start to ask the question, what can you add – that only you can add – that makes it different?

All artists think and has worked like this. «We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.» That’s the words of the great filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

So: Steal. But add yourself into the process! Eventually.

By the way, if you feel like you are running out of ideas and are in a creative rut, I strongly recommend the before mentioned book Steal Like an Artist. It’s a quick read and full of positive energy.


76 thoughts on “When Stealing Is OK

  1. Dear Otto, I can almost understand what you mean in here. But to be honest, the word, “steal” is not the right expression for this. Because steal is steal… a kind of wrong manner. It is described on the dictionary like that “to take something without the ​permission or ​knowledge of the ​owner and ​keep it.” So maybe instead of this word we can use “imitate”… or something like that. Because in all creative works, we try to create something looks like what we liked before in an artist works… We try to do the same… of course never been the same… But in times, we find our own creativities. (by the way you know there is reproduction works, print, copy, etc. too) but these are not related with your subject in here. I just wanted to share the word, “steal” didn’t seem to me right expression. Thank you, love, nia

    1. I believe we can argue about the word – and I do think you have a point. At the same time what I say is really that it’s OK to copy from others as long as you use it in a learning process and for inspiration – and certainly don’t pretend its yours. “Steal” I use to make a strong point – and I am not thinking in the terms of for instance photographing another persons photograph directly. That is not OK. But copying his or her idea is. When it comes to copyright protection; no law actually protects an idea as such.

      1. I can almost understand and I agree with you, but once again the word is not steal… It is almost different. Could be misunderstood… Thank you dear Otto, love, nia

    1. A fun movie, but I also have to add, that’s not what I meant in this post when I talk about copy or steal. I am not sanctioning the direct copying of work that is protected by copyright, such as DVD’s or photos for that matter. But thank you for the link.

  2. On the other hand, there is another word too, “Inspiration”… Creative minds are being like a guide/inspiration/master,…etc. to all of us… For example remember the crystal ball! One of the photographers started to take pictures with this crystal ball and now you can find so many when you search on Google… I think every photographer followed this at once… A new ways, for all of us. But again, it is not “steal”… Love, nia

  3. We all are influenced and inspired by others. There’s no doubt about that. But there is originality, and originality is what makes for the best art, of any sort. I’ve been distressed by the movement toward “curation” and the “steal like an artist” movement for several years, and I still am.

      1. I’m especially touchy about this because I have had entire essays taken and posted under other people’s names. Or, at times, they are posted without any attribution. It took time, but I learned how to deal with the DMCA takedown notice process. Things have become more complicated on the internet, since so many people believe that images or words, once posted, are public property. They’re not — as you know.

        I did think of one example of what you’re talking about. Both the etheree and haiku poetic forms have been around for some time — decades, or centuries. I use the form, but fill it with my own content. That’s perfectly acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is for someone to take one of my etherees and post it as their own — which has happened!

        1. Your last example is exactly what I am talking about.On the other hand it is not OK for someone to take an entire essay and post it under another’s name. That’s not the kind of stealing I am talking about in my post.

  4. I do not agree with the use of the word “steal” in you context. But it reminds me about the tradition of apprentice, where aspiring artists work with masters. They actually assist to execute the artist’s vision. Also in traditional art schools painters (especially) are encouraged to go to museums and copy the masters’ works. There is a sense of greater understanding of their vision to replicate their way of seeing. It’s as though we must build a foundation before we build the structure.

    1. It seems like the word “steal” makes people react. And of course, that’s the point. You could use a lot of other description such as borrow, copy, be inspired by, build on – for me what is important is the underlying meaning. It goes without saying that words are important when you want to deliver a message – and that we have the same definition or understanding of them, but also you want you audience to actually pick up what you write. So sometimes you use harsher or more shocking expressions. 🙂

  5. It’s so true, especially in the art world. You can see emulation in paintings, sculpture, and other art in every gallery. It’s kinda the same, but each artists give their work their own twist. Everyone wants that original idea, but it’s not really there.

  6. well i hope that saving your posts to read offline is not considered stealing, as that’s my best option these months/this year for being able to appreciate all that you share.

    you really do have enough material for a very big book.. or perhaps an encyclopedia! as always, i treasure your posts!

  7. Ok, I understand that literally the word “steal” is disturbing, but as artist we should go further and react to the concept. Let’s call creative copying! Ideas do not borns from nothing, ideas born from pour emotions which are generated oft by someone else work. We feel an emotion which is often stored inside us. Soon or later it will come out in our creative process. But we’ll use that together with pour inputs and something new will born. And yes, I have stolen something in my humble creative process…opps, I have creatively copied 🙂
    PS: I did this for an exhibition the title was “this, me too I ‘m able to do it” where we were ask to be inspired, as Nia suggests, by other artists works : https://thequietphotographer.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/thinking-of-man-ray/

  8. I have the same feeling as Niasunset about using the word “steel”. I understand your point completely but the choice of word to describe it does not resonate well at least for me. I use other photographer’s works open books or lessons to learn on. It is not just see others work and just even try to imitate as they do but to understand why “you” like it (not necessary everything about it) and why “you” do not like it (or certain aspect of it). If you do like certain part of it and understand why you like it then, you use that as good lesson to learn from and use them in your works. This isn’t necessary imitation either, in my opinion. You create your own work but using basics that you learned from books or others’ works. Just IMO.

    1. Using others’ work to learn from is part of what I describe here. And it’s not necessarily imitation, either, as you point out. I guess what I am trying to say in this post – or part of it – is that it is perfectly OK to take others’ ideas, more than just analyzing what you like or dislike about it , and use them yourself, as part of the learning process or to turn it around to your own expression.

  9. stealing is good, especially with photography, which is a minimally creative endeavour compared with painting or something like that, it’s framing, or putting God in a box lol…

    i think that my mistake and why i had to give up and do bad work was that i stole from MYSELF.. or my idea of my best self… you know?

    i was always top of my class in physics and computer programming and people used to call me ‘competitive’ but truth is i didn’t care AT ALL what anybody else was doing and didn’t even look around…

    people would say ‘oh you’re just always having to make sure you are better than everyone else’ and i would blink out of my programming reverie and say ‘what?’ totally uncomprehending haha… then i would clue in and say ‘no i’m just trying to be a lot better than i was the second before, every second’

    but where do we get that idea of the best? we grow into it and learn, and choose what would be best for us…

    so i sorta did what you are saying, but i erred. i am going to steal somebody’s style for a while, a person i want to be lol

    1. Isn’t there a fine balance between being competitive and finding peace of mind? I think what you say about your own experience is very telling and interesting. Sometimes it’s good to look outside of oneself, isn’t it?

  10. Another excellent article Otto with some excellent advice. We all have to learn from somewhere and in the creative arts, where better than from the artists you admire, recreate their work, learn in the process, the techniques necessary to achiever the look. You can also learn a lot from artists you don’t admire too of course but will usually come secondary. 🙂

  11. I understand what you are saying. I have jokingly told photographer friends that I was going to “steal” their ideas, and I did…though actually it was more like borrowing. Even when I tried to copy someone else’s work it always became my own. I might begin with their idea, but my own props, setting, light, viewpoint, aesthetic…all changed the final outcome to make my image my own. And…I love your photo above. That was clever, and a perfect illustration of your point.

  12. What an inspiring post, Otto, which just makes my wings grow even further!! Thank you very much for these very true statements which can be applied in whatever field. Very best regards Martina

  13. I like your thoughts in this post Otto. I make extensive reference to the works of painters from the Impressionists onwards. The various ‘isms’ provide a wealth of ideas and information relating to colour, composition and texture. Many of my abstract images have initially been stimulated by the works of particular artists or schools of painters.

  14. Very good points. I do this very often. When I see a photograph I like I try to recreate it with my twist or vision on it as well. As you stated this is how we learn and grow.

  15. Emulating others is a good way to learn about ourselves, because we’re challenged to use a style that we like and make it our own. I agree with you 100%. And sometimes it’s nice if you have the opportunity to let the artist know how they inspired you. 🙂

  16. What a great image, I love how you stole the idea from that statue 🙂 I agree with everything you wrote here and I steal all the time..from photographers, artists, film, television, advertising…you name it. I started a photo inspiration board on Pinterest and add to it every week. I don’t steal the image exactly but rather the idea and always try to put my own take on it. It’s a fun, creative exercise.

  17. I think more than at “content” one should aspire at expressing “style”. New content is often not palatable, while style is often a way to make captivating again an old template, an old subject or an old design.
    Sometimes what it counts is the gesture, as in conceptual art. Incidentally, this is how I interpret your photo and the argument within.

    1. I think that’s a good interpretation. Style or your personal touch is what will distinguish your artwork from previous expressions based on more or less the same ideas. I also think you are right about content, as in a literal understanding of the word. But of course you will still be able to bring about your own interpretation of whatever content you are capturing. And for some very few, even completely new content is possible, I am mean if you work at the spearhead of science, for instance.

      1. Problem is new content is difficult to grab. Carl G. Jung writes that «you get nowhere in life if you don’t talk to the people of what they already know. […] A new ideo or even a new perspective of an old idea can be transmitted only by facts» (translated from german to english – «Memories, Dreams, Reflections of C.G.Jung», to Italian and back to english. I doubt, at this point, Jung really meant this 🙂 ) However, this applies also to visual arts and to art in general.

  18. Thanks, Otto, for this encouragement through your redefinition of stealing – I ordered the book already. And now I have to go to do some more pinching …

  19. Most of my best ideas come from someone else’s work and I don’t think there is a better compliment than when someone says to me, “Oh, you just gave me an idea!” and then runs with it. I think we all feed off of each other creatively and we would starve if we didn’t.

  20. Some of my images were actually resulted after inspiration from other photographers…but somehow the results always totally different 😀 Thank you for writing this topic, Otto 🙂 Have a great weekend!

  21. Yes, another very old and highly valuable art lesson to me. It is inherent human nature to learn through mimicry. Studying other people and things assists with innovation and creation of the new.

    The scrapbook; particularly of pictures, sketches and so on is also known as an artist’s morgue. My morgues are no longer in physical form. They are now electronic files in a program folder on my hard drive or on a CD or memory stick.

    1. Yes, I do most of us have moved into the digital era, haven’t we. I like the word mimicry. It might be a little less upsetting than stealing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic, Allan.

  22. We humans are social creatures, therefore, we learn from each other. We are inspired by others and their creativity. Your message here in the post is good – but “steal” is probably an inappropriate word for inspiration!

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