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.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Three Photographers. One Week. One City

The passed week I spent in Naples, Italy. The purpose: nothing but photograph people of the city. Once before, I have been in Naples. It’s a hectic and chaotic city, with proud inhabitants. Although such a description fits many, if not all cities, in Italy, Naples is more so than any other I have visited up through the years.

I didn’t travel alone this week. We were three photographers who had decided to make Naples into a common photo project. We arrived respectively from Sweden, Germany and Norway (me that is). At times, we photographed side by side, all three of us, or only two. At other times we photographed on our own.

Being three on such a photo project is both inspiring and pushes each of us to do more than we maybe would have done single-handedly. It’s something about the energy in a group, the group dynamics and maybe also a little competition between the three of us. The latter however, wasn’t more than we respected each other when shooting together, and helped each other whenever that was needed.

I have noticed with amazement before, when photographers photograph next to each other, how different they (or we in this case) see the world and capture it in the images. Even when standing side by side, the photos come out quite differently. And often I saw one of my colleagues and friends photograph something I thought would be rather boring or uninteresting, only later to see an astonishing result. We all have our independent, well developed vision and voice. Experiencing this is maybe the most inspiring part of photographing together during a week such as this.

Apart from the photographic experience, it was not the least good to be able to be on the road again. For two years travelling has been quite limited, if not nonexistent. Being able to travel again feels like being liberated.

Here I have posted some of the images I captured during the week in Naples.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Book review: The Mindful Photographer

This is an abbreviated version of the review. Here you’ll find the full version.

It’s with great pleasure I have read The Mindful Photographer. It’s the latest book by David Ulrich and takes a different route on photography than most photo books. It explores in depth the relationship between the photographer and the world he or she photographs.

This is not a book so much about the practicalities of the craft, but rather about the thinking behind the execution of the craft. It’s about the need to be mindful about the approach in order to capture images that goes beyond the superficial and beyond the quest for simply high impact imagery without any deeper connotations or connections, so prevailing in the popular photography—according to the author.

The Mindful Photographer emphasizes being open to the subject and being present in the moment. Many of the ideas in Ulrich’s book can help the reader to forge a dialogue with the world and culture through a camera. At the same time, and maybe even more so, he advocates the need to know yourself—as fully as possible and in an ongoing manner. As he writes, “all art is a dialogue between oneself, one’s materials, and the world. It is often a journey with only a hazily defined destination.”

The writing resonate very much we my own approach and how I have come to think about photography. It doesn’t mean I am in agreement with all Ulrich’s writes. The fact that I disagree with Ulrich on some of his thoughts, strengthens the value of his writings and makes for a much more constructive and comprehensive reading experience. Because we sometimes disagree, reading the book turns much more into a conversation between the two of us.

Having said that, some readers will most likely reject Ulrich’s approach to photographing. He draws a lot from a Zen way of life, and I am sure a few will not feel comfortable adopting the tenets of an eastern religion to their photography.

Nevertheless, if you feel provoked by his philosophy and his writing, I still believe reading the book would or could be beneficial—if you don’t reject it without giving his thoughts any consideration. One doesn’t have to agree, but going in a dialogue with his ideas might enlighten the understanding of yourself and make you become more mindful about your own approach to photography.

Ulrich’s writing and style at times feels high-flying, esoteric and a little wishy-washy. He is at his best when he is concrete and writes about or draw upon his own experiences and practice, rather than expressing overarching, spiritual ideas in what I see in somewhat bloated and bulging terms.

Sometimes I also have a problem with his ethical standpoints, not that I actually disagree with his values, but the way he raises them to universal truths. Take social media, he is very critical of them and how many people use for instance Instagram. Again, I totally agree with his sentiments, but I still think his moral enforcement and his disregard for other values than his own ethical drive, sway how others may approach social media and what justifies their use.

Despite some objections on my part, The Mindful Photographer is a book I can truly recommend. It’s inspiring, it brings a deeper understand to the connection between the photographer and his or her approach to photography and what it can be, and, as the title indicates, it empowers the way to think about photography. In the end, it will make you a better photographer.

Buy The Mindful Photographer at Amazon
Thank you for using my affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and really appreciate your support..

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Learn to Live with Self-Doubt and Fear

Self-doubt. Fear. Insecurity. Inadequacy. Not being good enough. Marginalization. Disempowerment. Depression. Despair. Cynicism. Egotism. Have you ever felt your artistic attempts are not good enough? You feel you lack talent and can’t express what you really want?

Trust me when I say we all do. Even the best and most talented artists do. It’s part of being creative and as such, I believe it’s actually a good sign. If you didn’t doubt yourself and your creative attempts, it only shows that you are standing still and not challenging yourself. As I have written many a time, challenging yourself is crucial for all creative development.

Here is the thing: Trying to express ourselves creatively in any art form, will place us squarely in the sights of our fears, doubts, and insecurities. It reflects back to the inherent quality of any creative art and their insistent necessity on going inward. Remember, in art, we express ourselves. Our only hope to be successful in art, any art form, is to learn to be unerringly what we are, flaws and all. We cannot destroy our demons all at once, but can accept our circumstances as part of our unique identity.

Everything that you are is fodder for your creative work. Do not run; do not hide from your gifts, your shortcomings, and your background. Make them part of your creative approach.

Each of us arises from our own blend of circumstances and has unique gifts. There is nothing new under the sun to art. Therefore, your unique vision and expression can only grow authentically from yourself. There’s no one else on earth with your particular mixture of talents, gifts, obstacles, fears, inadequacies, and unique insights.

Words from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke comes to mind. In his book Letters to a Young Poet, he writes: “You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart.”

From this quote, you can substitute “write” with any artistic pursuit that refers to you. Go into yourself, no matter what you do. With that comes self-doubt and fear. But it’s part of who and what you are.

Thus, take a hold of your vision. It’s yours and yours alone. Don’t try to be good, just try to be real. Each person has some genuine place of genius in their constitution, and you are not going to find it by trying to please others: teachers, parents, admission committees, or peers. Trust your own process. Take responsibility for everything that you are or are not. Your joys, struggles, trials and tribulations, longings, obsessions, and passions are all fair game for your creative exploration.


Photo Workshops and Tours in 2022
Now that the world seems to return to some normalcy and slowly opens up again, I and Blue Hour Photo Workshops hope to get our photos workshops going again.

“The Personal Expression”—a weekend in Bergen, Norway with focus on how to develop your personal, photographic expression. June 10th to 12th 2022.

”Telling Stories with the Camera”—five days in the beautiful village of Bleik in Northern Norway. A dream spot for any photographer. The focus will be on storytelling and the visual language. September 21st to 19th 2022.

”Photo Tour in Granada”—a week in Nicaragua for the adventures. We will explore the colonial city and its extraordinary countryside. November 5th to 11th 2022.

Are you interested in developing your photographic skills? Do you like to travel? Do you want to make your photos tell a story in a much stronger vocabulary? Find your own expression? Develop your vision and become more creative? Any of these workshops would take your photography to the next level. I promise you, you will be in for an amazing experience. Click any of the links for more info.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Creativity Is Being Alive

Have you pondered about why you have this desire to create? In asking, I take it you are pursuing creativity in one form or another—otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog. I also presume you find some pleasure in creative endeavours, again, in whatever shape and form you fancy.

Plenty enough people think that art and creativity is for pleasure only. It’s something some people do when they have enough time to spare and don’t need to brawl for survival. It’s an activity out of luxury. Those who create do it for some pretentious urge of self-expression. These people may think the world would go on without art and creativity for its own sake.

I think not. I think being creative satisfies a basic instinct in most people—if they haven’t shut that door completely down. Yes, biologically, our basic needs are threefold and quite mundane. Being able to find food, having a habitat to thrive in and, finally, being able to reproduce. However, there is more to life than these bare needs. One such is the drive to make.

When I create, I am happy. But it’s more than that. I feel in touch with something bigger. I immerse myself in a sea of ideas and inspirations and a void of unlimited wonders—a path in which nothing is fixed or set. Everything is possible. What more is, something tangible comes out on the other side. In creating, I make something, something of which is all my making. It makes me feel alive. I live when I make.

Why are human beings driven to make?


There is a mundane answer, which is we need to expand and develop—which we do by making—in order to survive the threatening world we find ourselves in, whether back when we were hunter-gatherers and needed to protect ourselves from saber-toothed tigers or now as the contemporary human needing to solve the climate crisis (albeit induced by ourselves).

But there is something more fundamental to it.

Since the beginning, the universe has bend towards entropy—ever more chaos and disorder. Every act of creation on our part is an act of defiance in the face of that evolving disorder. It’s almost like an intuitive response, long before science gave us the language to understand what universe and entropy mean.

When we pick up a paintbrush, or compose elements through our camera viewfinders, or press fingers into wet clay to wrestle form from a shapeless lump, we are bending things back toward Order and wrestling them from Chaos.

There is satisfaction in making this Order. But making things is often not enough in and of itself.

We also want the things we make to be filled with meaning. We’re each trying to describe what we know about life, to create a collective sense of “safety in numbers.” When we reach the end of our traditional descriptive powers, it’s time to weave meaning from poetry, painting, writing, dancing, photographing, filmmaking, storytelling, singing, animating, designing, performing, carving, sculpting, and a million other ways we daily create Order out of the Chaos and share it with each other for a deeper and more fluid understand.

Finding “the meaning in the making” is the ultimate fulfilment. That’s bliss and that’s when we feel alive more than ever. Thus, keep creating!

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/