Your photographs will always be a copy. Unfortunately, a cheap one, too. There are two main reasons why you're quite limited in creating art.
I’m not writing this to point out that photography is useless, but to indeed proof that photography is necessary. It’s a complement to other media and probably underestimated by many. On the other hand, we have to admit that it’s not perfect. It’s only a very limited copy of reality – just like any other media.
Your Copy Lacks Quality
Reality probably is the most complex topic of all. Research in science as well as humanities try to create models and theories about our objective world and codify them into a common language. It’s always an abstraction, though; a copy of a certain aspect of our reality, squeezed into a medium which enables humans to share information; text, sound, graphs, or maths – they’re all media including only a part of reality.
In photography, we’re even more limited. A photograph can only capture what we perceived with one of our senses. On the other hand, different techniques allow photographers to capture a wide range of information in one image. Sometimes it’s less information than what our eyes could perceive at the time of taking the image; sometimes it’s more. Just imagine that we are able to take images of far away galaxies, which we will never see with our naked eye!
Yet, we never see everything. We only copy part of the information in a photograph. Due to different settings, filters, post processing, and other elementary decisions, we often try to push photographs to look like “the place felt when I was there.” This way, we also try to write a part of our perception from other senses as well as our subjective interpretation into the image.
A Copy of a Copy
When we write this information into an image, we create a copy of a copy. One copy has already been made by the human senses. You don’t capture reality completely. Your physical abilities are limited and your brain filters quite a lot. Our fellow writer Brent Daniel once wrote an elaborate article about the complex processes that happen when you look at something.
When you try to represent the copy that your brain already made, you create a copy of a copy. That’s your photograph. Does that sound too complex? It’s actually quite easy. Imagine you got a copier in your office. It can only copy a three-dimensional object into two-dimensional and onto piece of paper. If you want to copy your face (or butt), you know the copier will only take a certain amount of information. Hence, you alter reality by pressing your cheeks against the surface. That’s your interpretation – a subjective copy paired with the limited copying abilities of the copier. Still, a genuine piece of art.
By the way, the whole idea doesn’t originate in my mind. I copied it from Plato. Quite cheaply…
You Also Copy Your Predecessors
Okay, we’ve got it, reality is to complex to squeeze it into a photograph. Yet, we can try to maximize information by using a certain language in the image. That’s a copy, too. When you use a certain composition, lighting, and settings to influence the overall mood of an image, you follow rules.
Some might yell “rules are there to be broken!”, now. Even if you break a certain rule: Whenever you do it intentionally, you’re trying to communicate something. Communication only works when the receiver is ably to decode your message. In case of intentionally breaking the rules, this might result in an interpretation like this: “The photographer broke the rule of thirds, so I guess she wants to communicate XYZ.” That sounds like a rule for breaking a rule to me.
That being said, it’s not possible to communicate without using a code that’s commonly understood. Sometimes it’s only understood by a certain group of people (like fellow photographers); sometimes it’s only beating around the bush (like pretentious, arty people). Some rules are more common (oversaturated teal and orange for amazing Instagram-lifestyle) and some are hard to understand (abstract art).
You Can Still Create Original Work
Let’s jump over to language for a little while. Language is a copy, too. The words you use have been used a million times before. Maybe, every now and then, you combine them into a unique sentence. Congratulations, that was an original work. Its parts and the rules are not, though. As long as you want to be understood by others, you need to use words and rules which are commonly known. They are a copy.
Considering the active vocabulary of the average American (20,000 – 30,000 words,) your individual language has a high probability of being only a cheap copy of the possibilities (about 170,000 entries in the Oxford dictionary), too. For me, as a second language, it’s even worse (10,000 – 20,000 words). I won’t understand all the nuances and peculiarities when you use words that are only slightly different from each other. Whenever I'm searching for a word in the dictionary, I’m quite uncertain about the precisely accurate meaning. For example, did the word "uncertain" fit into the last sentence or should I rather use ‘unsure’? It’s hard to judge when you learned a language from the dictionary.
Still, most of the readers will get what I'm writing. The unique way in which we transport a message makes every work an original, besides being a copy of a copy. More importantly: It doesn’t always need to be perfect.
An Unsatisfying Conclusion
Everyone uses his or her own language. We love to read great poems, listen to inspiring speeches, and dance to emotional songs. People appreciate different forms and styles of art. Some like to read Shakespeare; others listen to Ariana Grande (who probably uses only a fraction of the possibilities of language).
We often like artists, because of their own, unique style in which they communicate a message. Their artistic vocabulary and the way in which they combine it is everything that counts. Humans don’t only communicate with their voice, but also with almost every act in every second. Yet, no medium is able to transmit a message between two people in 100 percent accuracy. That’s okay, we’ve got to live with it. It’s what distinguishes us from robots.
Coming back to photography, I guess it’s a quite unsatisfying conclusion: Your photographs need to reach the heart of the spectators. That’s all. While you certainly won’t find access to everyone, you can work on your photographic vocabulary and grammar. The more effort you put into finding a way to combine the limited tools of photography, the more unlimited you become to convey your message as a part of your reality. This original and authentic style can become your personal toolbox which will help you reach others.