When Stealing Is OK

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

In a couple of post last year, 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 David Bowie put 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 long 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 speak 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 practice 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.

10 thoughts on “When Stealing Is OK

  1. Otto, my husband and I were talking about this subject the other day. When had an original idea come about? I don’t think we really know the answer, since everything appears to have been built or inspired on something that had been done before. But like you have mentioned here, it is ok to use a template of something that has been done before and then inject your own spin, insight. Your unique voice and personality.
    I love your idea of creating a scrapbook of ideas and inspiring things that we come across. I usually write things randomly on pieces of paper and then forget where I have written it. Definitely need to be more organised.

  2. Dear Otto
    we absolutely agree that the time of originals is long gone and even more so in the age of mechanical reproduction (Walter Benjamin). It’s good so, isn’t it? In our times ‘original’ is mostly connected with the Romantic concept of ego. ‘Stealing’ means to be open to others.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Perfect advice for almost anything we do in life, Otto 🙂 And I love the way you present this: “Steal from any photographer whose work you like…” while it sounds so horrible, as you lead to this is how we evolve to some extent. Finding out something that works, a piece of progress, and then others continuing on with this progress to create their version of it. The examples you use are wonderful in explaining that even the greatest creators of our time understand that the creative work they have done builds on what came before. Wishing you a wonderful summer ahead!

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