Where does Influence End and Creativity Begins?

My recent post about the question of originality ‘‘ showed a couple of examples of similar images shot by different photographers raising the question of influence and intent. The comment thread on this post brought up some new angles and questions about originality and creativity that I thought would be interesting to keep debating. Someone had mentioned painters as opposed to photographers, while another person mailed me and said that a lot of her writing work often soak in other worlds and is influenced by them but she likes to believe that she writes in an original way. So, I think the questions should be where does influence stop and creativity begins, and is it really a question of intent? How old or famous does the work need to be before it can be counted as influence?

A learning process, a homage or a matter of misrepresentation?

When I was a young and inexperienced, yet-to-go-to-school photographer, I loved the amazing landscapes captured by Ansel Adams in the US southwest. I actually took a road trip to go visit all these locations in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and all over the southwest. I remember trying to find the exact angle that was used by Ansel Adams and take the exact image he took. Naturally I was not working with a large format camera and used color transparencies, but the idea was the same. Unfortunately I have no scans of these old pictures but there are many others who have done the same and shot the same kind of images in Monument valley, Yosemite national park, White Sands and all of those incredible locations. This was a great learning experience for me and I must admit that I printed and presented some of these images in my portfolio for the interview at the photography school. I presented these images as my own. Others must have done and still do the same. As a matter of fact, my friend Brian Hirschy tells me that many of Ansel Adams’ famous shot locations have holes where you can place your tripod with the settings he used to try and replicate his shot. I honestly think that it is normal and healthy to study the work of other artists, and even imitate their work as a means to explore one’s personal vision. Things have worked this way throughout history in all mediums of creative expression, and remember that one advances, as Sir Isaac Newton said, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Ansel Adams, Yosemite valley 1942. How many people have take their Yosemity picture form this exact location? 

I grew up and studies the history of art and the history of photography and found some new inspiration in the works of other artists. One of my all time favorite works of art is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

This masterpiece had influenced some of the greatest artists, from Pierre et Gilles, David LaChapelle, Andy Warhol, Joel Peter Witkin and many, many younger and less famous artists and photographers, to create their own work using the same perfect composition.

image © David LaChapelle

Joel-Peter Witkin – Gods of Earth and Heaven, Los Angeles 1988

and even this:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/benchilada/4271629393/#/

Birth of Venus by Nathan Stein via flickr

There are hundreds and thousands of other examples one can bring to illustrate this point but I think this is enough. It is of course a part of a learning process for some, a homage for others and at times a matter of misrepresentation. Where does the line go? Is this a question of age? experience? We are not talking about a village of technician painters in China working to reproduce copies of fine art work to sell on the streets of Paris here. This is a matter of one on one. It does seem, however, that in this recent time of digital photography, where anyone with a buck can get himself a great camera and everything photographic suddenly seems possible, that it has become easier and easier to duplicate what has been done before, and get away with it without any acknowledgment. It is then the standard of ethics and integrity that is being redefined. But can a person really re-create the same exact image as the source of his influence? And at the end of the day, does it really matter? Living in India where the issue of copyright and originality gets a different perspective than in the west one needs to admit that when your work is copied it actually means you are successful! Yes, flattery wears thin after a while but the true journey of photography means that one should work hard and with passion towards finding his or her own voice and style. It could be extremely difficult, at times almost impossible, to stay creative and keep producing original work but the pleasure and satisfaction lies in the journey itself and not in the final destination. Stop worrying about copies and about being copied as there is really no way to fight it. Focus on your next step and produce your next original work.

  • another great post Sephi, as said earlier and IMHO the best way to learn is not just to imitate the work you like or you have seen, but also to improve upon it and in the course of doing that you discover your style taking pictures. Developing your own style and also realizing that it is your style,  can take years. But these are just my thoughts . 

    • Thank you Akhil. It is all a thought process and your thoughts are as good as anyone else’s. You are right. Photography is a long journey and the idea is to experience it fully. Imitating is a step but if we stay there it will simply get boring at one point. cheers

  • Siddharth Siva

    its also good to bear in mind that the examples above are not just mere imitations but are comments on the original work within a context which is contemporary to the ‘imitating’ artist. The viewer is being made to use his/her familiarity with the original work and keep it in context while experiencing the contemporary ‘remix’. My favourite is the Nathan Stein one (via flickr) .. all that american suburbia!

    • Good points Siddharth. Not just imitations of course. Naturally it takes a certain amount, if not more, of creativity and knowledge of the history of art to produce such work. It also demands more from the viewer to be able to recognize the influence or he/she will only understand the work very partially.

  • Namrata singh

    gud work