Many creators hold originality to be one of the biggest values in their art, whether it is music, painting, photography or any other subject. Concerning photography, what is even original when billions of photos are taken and uploaded each day?
Originality is basically the aspect of invented or created works, which are new and can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries, or derivative works. It is neither copied from or based upon the work of others and is unique in both substance and style, at least according to the definition, I got from Wikipedia. Google continues with the ability to think independently and creatively, and the work should have the quality of being novel or unusual.
Being original comes with a lot of limitations and is one of those aspects of photography only few photographers master.
In our age, we are more social than ever, we exchange more information than ever, and we influence each other more than ever. Photography is arguably one of the easier crafts to learn, as all learning material is free online. On top of that, you do not even have to have a diploma to call yourself and work as a photographer. However, we are also all basically learning the same thing.
My co-writer here on Fstoppers, Jonathan Reid, put into words what I have been struggling with for some time in one of his newer articles: “Are You Guilty of Formulaic Photography?" It is a great read. I and many other photographers are guilty of exactly following the formula Jonathan points out.
The question is not if that is a bad thing in itself, the question is can you even be original when you follow a formula?
Before I went to England back in 2017, I did a lot of research on where to go and what to visit. Besides seeing what other photographers photograph, I like to have a look at tourist and community homepages. Here, there are often many natural wonders, which are more or less unexplored by the landscape photography community. One such wonder is the sea stack arch Blackchurch Rock along the North Devon Coast. Before going, I had not seen any typical modern landscape photographs of this rock, and finding any information on this location took me more than one Google search.
In this regard, or at least to me, it was an original location in the sense I had not seen anything but tourist snapshots from here. However, being there, I used the most obvious formula for composing the photo. Foreground, leading lines, symmetry and the strong focal point of the rock. Very unoriginal approach.
Is it an original photo then? Can we divide the photo into different aspects, such as foreground, composition, location, light, etc. and make some aspects of a given photo original, while others are not?
From my tour through western USA, I got a photograph from a very unoriginal location, Yosemite Valley, using an unoriginal focal point, Half Dome, yet I would argue the photo is fairly original.
My intention was to photograph the super moon above Half Dome (unoriginal idea), but just before the moon came into view from behind El Capitan, it threw some strong moonbeams into the valley, making a fantastic separation between El Capitan and Half Dome. The lighting was unique and created a unique moment in time, and I got a photo, which almost looks like graphical art. Unoriginal location and subject, yet original light. Original photo?
Another photo from my US tour is from Arches National Park. I wanted to photograph Landscape Arch with a sun star. However, because of the time of year, I could not get that photo. It had been photographed before, so the idea was not original. Being in the park around full moon, it dawned upon me that I could get something similar but with the moon instead. It was a technically hard photo to pull off, as I had to use a small aperture to get the “moon star”. The moon was also very bright, making the contrast between the foreground and the moon very big. I had to start the exposure when the moon was behind the arch and only have to moon come into view in the very last part of the exposure, as to have the foreground exposed correctly. That was hard, as I had to make a long exposure because of the small aperture. Timing was essential. Unoriginal idea, turned into something original using an original technique. Original photo?
Som what does it take to make original landscape photos? Is it enough to just go to an unknown location and use unoriginal compositional techniques?
Can you go to a famous and iconic location, take the “hero shot” and just wait for unique light?
Do you have to completely give up the formulaic approach and invent your own way of displaying what you see? Can the technique used or formula be unoriginal, yet the intention of the given photo be original, making the photo original?
In the photo below, I “just” found some interesting patterns and colors in the rock. I have never seen a photo like this before. Maybe I am just looking in the wrong direction? Does pointing your camera towards a random rock, which no one has photographed before, make it original?
Does photography even have to be original?
After all, originality is just a value, and values are by their very nature subjective and dependent on time, location, and culture. According to the same Wikipedia article I referenced above, originality, as we understand it today, is an ideal developed in the 18th century. The great Shakespeare himself avoided “unnecessary invention,” as it was a bigger value to appreciate similarities with admired classic work. You, of course, do not have to do original photos. It is solely something to strive for as it is valued by many creators in our age.
I am not sure there is an answer to the problem or if it even is a problem. In the end, I guess it comes down to you and your purpose. If your purpose is business and selling art or working for travel agencies, there are great arguments for being unoriginal and doing what works, such as following trends and making impactful yet formulaic photos. Let us not even start on the trends of Instagram. It certainly does not have to be original to work.
If you value original and unique photos, it seem to me to be one of the hardest aspects of photography to pull off. Yet, maybe also the easiest: just do whatever no one has done before you. But does that automatically make a great photo? Certainly not, just because you are unique does not make you useful. Yet again, does art have to be useful?
And can we even be original when we are influenced by other people in the amount we are?
So many questions. I know I am throwing a lot of balls into the air. I am very interested to hear your thoughts down below; it is something I have been thinking a lot about: originality, values in photography, etc. Let us exchange some thoughts.