What is an original photograph? Do you create original work?

I have just read an interesting post called ‘How Not To Be Taken Seriously’ on a blog owned by @GuyTalPhoto that I came by on twitter. Guy tells a story about creating “art” that is a little too much inspired by another artist. The post gives a nice story about a musician who came for an interview and started playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin claiming it was “his art” as he was  “playing it on my Stratocaster, using my top-of-the-line Fender Twin amp…”. The story was just an example and the post was actually about photography so I wrote to Guy saying it was indeed a nice story, but how exactly can a photographer “play someone else’s” image? His answer was “By copying someone else’s composition and calling it their own.”

Two photographers take similar pictures in the same location on two separate occasions. Is it still original work?

Now here is a big challenge. How will you tell if a photograph was copied, if there was any influence or if the two photographers just happened to be at the same place and see the same image? And how will you tell who was there first? Will the senior photographer always get the credit due to his seniority? Will one of them risk loosing his reputation?

I have actually  just seen a good example last week with two photogrphers that I follow on twitter and tweeted it on June 26th:
@FotoWala
: two people see the same door in Jodhpur http://bit.ly/iPFutt (by @pixelatedimage ) and http://bit.ly/kB3N7c by Brett Cole

Here are the images of the same door in Jodhpur shot by Brett Cole (left) and David duChemin (@pixelatedimage) (right)

Dor in Jodhpur, Copyrighted by Brett Cole

Door in Jodhpur © Brett Cole

Door in Jodhpur, Copyright David DuChemain

Door in Jodhpur © David duChemin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So who’s image is it originally? Who saw it first and does it really matter? Do they have the right to claim it is their image? Does this mean that one of them lacks the ability to think independently and creatively? and what if someone else sees the same door and clickes it?

I have another example of my own from Dharavi. It was in 2007 and Dharavi was big in the news all over the world. Many photographers came down to Mumbai to shoot there and I was one of them. I was there for five days and one of the images I loved the most out of the entire shoot was this one of a girl walking on the water pipe in the industrial area of Dharavi. It just so happened that this image was sold quite a few times and was very successful.

Some time after coming back from Dharavi I came upon a great photo shoot done in Dharavi for National Geographic by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen. The Nat Geo shoot was done before I came to Dharavi and Jonas Bendiksen will not be suspected of taking my picture or composition, so what does this mean? Do I have the right to call this image my own? Am I allowed to show it or will I be ridiculed as a plagiarist?

Following a comment by Christopher Paquette I went and had a look at his blog called Photo Arts Magazine and found a great post on the subject of Influence & Originality in Photography that could shed even more light on this topic. You should go and check it out.

  • Rajat Gaur

    Having read this excellent post, certainly a food for thought, I spent almost an hour thinking. Originality (the idea), I see now (after brainstorming) is an exceptional tool for artists to keep pushing their creative limits. Whether be creation from nothingness or selecting to publish, we must constantly try to bring out the genius within. Intent, influence and the demand (yes quite an important aspect), will always see us delivering potentially similar products. Today, I am a young photographer and chances are that my work may seem to have been influenced by other great or senior artists but in future I see myself creating artwork that may influence others. Thanks to you, Sephi and Guy!Cheers!

  • Guy Tal

    Excellent post, Sephi! I do feel, though, that there’s a missing dimension here, which is the photographer’s knowledge and intent. While it is possible for two photographers to be independently inspired by the same scene, unaware of the other’s work, there is the question of intent. When it comes to landscape photography in particular, many photographers knowingly and deliberately seek to copy images and compositions they see in other photographers’ portfolios. While there’s certainly educational value in trying to recreate someone else’s work, there is no justification to claiming original ownership of the copied work.

    • Yes Guy, intent. However, when I was in the US I went to Utah’s monument valley and clicked a picture form a similar position as probably thousand other photographers, including one Ansel Adams (who was probably the first to shoot form that point). The composition was the same but the lighting circumstances where totally different. I shot in color while Ansel Adams shot in B&W. I was surely influenced, even more than that I can say as I was a very young photographer, but it was still a great image and I still feel it is totally mine. It was shot on slide film and I unfortunately have no scan available now. Saying all this, I do of course agree with you on your point 🙂

    • Indipix Images

      interesting post sephi. i do agree that it all depends upon the intent of the photographer. it is very common for young photographers to try and copy an image by a senior photographer to enhance their skills. but unfortunately these copied images get posted all over the net without any credit to the original photographer for the inspiration.

      • Thank you Sanjay. I’m afraid that in the case of the Jantar Mantar image that you attached there is really no way to know who is “the original photographer for the inspiration” as it is a very accessible image. It is somewhat like the door image in the example I gave above, which is, as mentioned by both photographers, on a main street and has surely been photographed countless of times by tourists.
        The fact that you have taken so many pictures at the site does not by any mean suggest that you were the very first person to see this composition so the use of the word ‘original’ should not be applied to your image alone as all the rest are also ‘originals’. You could, for that matter, claim from now on that whoever takes a picture of color composition at the Jantar Mantar is actually a copycat, which might be true in some cases but wrong in the other. The fact that this image is so easy to see and ‘copy’ only suggests that there is very little creative thinking behind it.

  • Guy Tal

    Excellent post, Sephi! I do feel, though, that there’s a missing dimension here, which is the photographer’s knowledge and intent. While it is possible for two photographers to be independently inspired by the same scene, unaware of the other’s work, there is the question of intent. When it comes to landscape photography in particular, many photographers knowingly and deliberately seek to copy images and compositions they see in other photographers’ portfolios. While there’s certainly educational value in trying to recreate someone else’s work, there is no justification to claiming original ownership of the copied work.

    • Yes Guy, intent. However, when I was in the US I went to Utah’s monument valley and clicked a picture form a similar position as probably thousand other photographers, including one Ansel Adams (who was probably the first to shoot form that point). The composition was the same but the lighting circumstances where totally different. I shot in color while Ansel Adams shot in B&W. I was surely influenced, even more than that I can say as I was a very young photographer, but it was still a great image and I still feel it is totally mine. It was shot on slide film and I unfortunately have no scan available now. Saying all this, I do of course agree with you on your point 🙂

    • Indipix Images

      interesting post Sephi. i do agree that it all depends upon the intent of the photographer. it is very common for young photographers to try and copy an image by a senior photographer to enhance their skills. but unfortunately these copied images get posted all over the net without any credit to the original photographer for the inspiration.

      • Thank you Sanjay. I’m afraid that in the case of the Jantar Mantar image that you attached there is really no way to know who is “the original photographer for the inspiration” as it is a very accessible image. It is somewhat like the door image in the example I gave above, which is, as mentioned by both photographers, on a main street and has surely been photographed countless of times by tourists.
        The fact that you have taken so many pictures at the site does not by any mean suggest that you were the very first person to see this composition so the use of the word ‘original’ should not be applied to your image alone as all the rest are also ‘originals’. You could, for that matter, claim from now on that whoever takes a picture of color composition at the Jantar Mantar is actually a copycat, which might be true in some cases but wrong in the other. The fact that this image is so easy to see and ‘copy’ only suggests that there is very little creative thinking behind it. Besides Sanjay, I don’t see anywhere that you have given credit to all the photographers who’s images you gave as examples!

  • Simple, it was the obvious choice for a good eye, and taken at the right moment by photographers with a similar state of mind….

    • This is how I like to think about it but I was supper embarrassed when the photo editor from Die Zeit pointed it out to me over the phone!

  • Simple, it was the obvious choice for a good eye, and taken at the right moment by photographers with a similar state of mind….

    • This is how I like to think about it but I was supper embarrassed when the photo editor from Die Zeit pointed it out to me over the phone!

  • Vivek R. Singh

    Interesting post. The similarities are uncanny, I feel that as long as they are coincidental, the image is still very much yours. Unless the compositions are intentionally duplicated, when something like this happens it merely means that two photographers have similar senses of aesthetics and what appeals to them may be common. Of course, intentionally making an identical copy of an image is pointless in the larger picture. 

    • right, but as a photo editor how will you be able to judge intent, unless it is of course Stairway to Heaven 😉

  • Vivek R. Singh

    Interesting post. The similarities are uncanny, I feel that as long as they are coincidental, the image is still very much yours. Unless the compositions are intentionally duplicated, when something like this happens it merely means that two photographers have similar senses of aesthetics and what appeals to them may be common. Of course, intentionally making an identical copy of an image is pointless in the larger picture. 

    • right, but as a photo editor how will you be able to judge intent, unless it is of course Stairway to Heaven 😉

  • Sarahjbhat

    I agree with Christelle – photogenic is photogenic (for lack of a better word), and it’s perfectly believable that 2 good photographers would reach the same spot at different times and compose a photo similarly. 

    It’s part of the nature of the art. If you were painters, similar ideas & compositions would come out very different from each other, but you’re using a camera rather than a palette and brushes.

    • Thank you Sarahjbhat. Photogrpahers, painters, writers, film makers and many other artists are always influenced by what happens around them and by the works of other artists. It is at times very difficult to pinpoint where influence stops and creativity begins . .

  • Sarahjbhat

    I agree with Christelle – photogenic is photogenic (for lack of a better word), and it’s perfectly believable that 2 good photographers would reach the same spot at different times and compose a photo similarly. 

    It’s part of the nature of the art. If you were painters, similar ideas & compositions would come out very different from each other, but you’re using a camera rather than a palette and brushes.

    • Thank you Sarahjbhat. Photogrpahers, painters, writers, film makers and many other artists are always influenced by what happens around them and by the works of other artists. It is at times very difficult to pinpoint where influence stops and creativity begins . .

  • Jane Appleseed

    It shows the universalness of human nature, doesn’t it. Perhaps any trained photographer would use the same subject, angle and perspective if they were in that area taking photos. It reminds me of times when you read a quote and think I thought the exact same thing yet the person who wrote it and published it first gets the credit. I think it is an original image in both cases. 

  • Having read this excellent post, certainly a food for thought, I spent almost an hour thinking. Originality (the idea), I see now (after brainstorming) is an exceptional tool for artists to keep pushing their creative limits. Whether be creation from nothingness or selecting to publish, we must constantly try to bring out the genius within. Intent, influence and the demand (yes quite an important aspect), will always see us delivering potentially similar products. Today, I am a young photographer and chances are that my work may seem to have been influenced by other great or senior artists but in future I see myself creating artwork that may influence others. Thanks to you, Sephi and Guy!Cheers!

  • Sephi – Good discussion. First, I think the question about whose image it is originally is easily taken care of by a time stamp, no? But is that even relevant? In the case of the image I made, it’s just a door. I wouldn’t so much call it art as observation. But I believe Guy is right, this is about intent and if Brett Cole had seen my image and tried to imitate it, then to be honest that’s not terribly relevant in this case either – still just a photograph of a door. But any time we consciously copy another – unless the point is to learn – we rob ourselves of a chance to do something more than just “click.” We can be original. But I’m not sure originality is the point as much as honesty and expression.

    • Thanks David. No, the time is not relevant indeed, and neither is the door of course. For you it is an image of a door and for me it was an image in Dharavi. I can give countless samples more to depict this conflict but this indeed only highlights the matter of intent. Now the question is what if one creates an image WITH the intent having seen an image of another artist but makes something slightly different. How much different does it have to be to be called original? How many people have created work based on other artists original works? But this is a topic for a completely new post . . 🙂

    • Anonymous

      I agree – if the intent is to copy in a 1:1 fashion then there really isn’t much creative growth as an artist.  But then again we don’t truly know people intentions behind something like this.  I highly doubt, in this situation, one was copying the other –  It’s a damn interesting door and I’d shoot it too because it’s eye catching and has character – I think if I did shoot it, knowing that there are already two images like that out there now, I’d probably try to do it differently or get a different perspective on it.

      We have to be careful because I’m sure I have images that look exactly like someone else in the same place of the same subject without even knowing it (to Sephi’s point).  I didn’t copy anyone and people probably didn’t copy me. Furthermore, I often travel w/ a lot of other photographers and we end up with similar images after it’s all said and done – it would be different if I saw my buddy take a picture of something and then went right behind him to take the same frame – all while asking him what his settings were and tried to get the same shot.  Unless it’s simply to learn and grow in a technical aspect, like David mentions, it’s not stretching my creative muscles much, is it?The point that’s often made is that we are all influenced by something and that no man is an island, even a creative one.  I think we all might be a little bit less original than we think we are but that shouldn’t ruin the love of it all, should it?  One of the bottom lines has to be the ability to take that influence and apply it in an original fashion.  The influence is good, it’s not something we are supposed to necessarily fight against because it’s one of the cornerstones of taste/style.  For example if I saw something David took and liked the composition, lighting, post-process, etc and then applied it to a completely different scenario, I would call that a creative learning process and healthily applying an influence.  If I see stuff I like am I supposed to just forget about it and not learn from it?As both musician and a photographer I find that when I get together with other musicians and photographers that we have been writing and shooting stuff that may look/sound the same w/o being influenced by each other – it doesn’t mean that we have to fight to the death and look at timestamps and have a pissing competition.

      It’s a great question to ask, Sephi, because originality and creative need to be balanced with a healthy understanding of influence.  That being said, copying work and calling it your own isn’t very cool and it’s often missing the point.

  • Sephi – Good discussion. First, I think the question about whose image it is originally is easily taken care of by a time stamp, no? But is that even relevant? In the case of the image I made, it’s just a door. I wouldn’t so much call it art as observation. But I believe Guy is right, this is about intent and if Brett Cole had seen my image and tried to imitate it, then to be honest that’s not terribly relevant in this case either – still just a photograph of a door. But any time we consciously copy another – unless the point is to learn – we rob ourselves of a chance to do something more than just “click.” We can be original. But I’m not sure originality is the point as much as honesty and expression.

    • Thanks David. No, the time is not relevant indeed, and neither is the door of course. For you it is an image of a door and for me it was an image in Dharavi. I can give countless samples more to depict this conflict but this indeed only highlights the matter of intent. Now the question is what if one creates an image WITH the intent having seen an image of another artist but makes something slightly different. How much different does it have to be to be called original? How many people have created work based on other artists original works? But this is a topic for a completely new post . . 🙂

    • brianhirschy

      I agree – if the intent is to copy in a 1:1 fashion then there really isn’t much creative growth as an artist.  But then again we don’t truly know people intentions behind something like this.  I highly doubt, in this situation, one was copying the other –  It’s a damn interesting door and I’d shoot it too because it’s eye catching and has character – I think if I did shoot it, knowing that there are already two images like that out there now, I’d probably try to do it differently or get a different perspective on it.

      We have to be careful because I’m sure I have images that look exactly like someone else in the same place of the same subject without even knowing it (to Sephi’s point).  I didn’t copy anyone and people probably didn’t copy me. Furthermore, I often travel w/ a lot of other photographers and we end up with similar images after it’s all said and done – it would be different if I saw my buddy take a picture of something and then went right behind him to take the same frame – all while asking him what his settings were and tried to get the same shot.  Unless it’s simply to learn and grow in a technical aspect, like David mentions, it’s not stretching my creative muscles much, is it?The point that’s often made is that we are all influenced by something and that no man is an island, even a creative one.  I think we all might be a little bit less original than we think we are but that shouldn’t ruin the love of it all, should it?  One of the bottom lines has to be the ability to take that influence and apply it in an original fashion.  The influence is good, it’s not something we are supposed to necessarily fight against because it’s one of the cornerstones of taste/style.  For example if I saw something David took and liked the composition, lighting, post-process, etc and then applied it to a completely different scenario, I would call that a creative learning process and healthily applying an influence.  If I see stuff I like am I supposed to just forget about it and not learn from it?As both musician and a photographer I find that when I get together with other musicians and photographers that we have been writing and shooting stuff that may look/sound the same w/o being influenced by each other – it doesn’t mean that we have to fight to the death and look at timestamps and have a pissing competition.

      It’s a great question to ask, Sephi, because originality and creative need to be balanced with a healthy understanding of influence.  That being said, copying work and calling it your own isn’t very cool and it’s often missing the point.

  • Anil Rao

    Two different photographers shooting the same door in Jodhpur seems like a big co-incidence. Perhaps this door is located in a popular spot where a lot of visitors arrive.

    • As I said above it’s on a main drag and it’s a pretty striking door when you see it in person. I shot probably a hundred doors in Jodhpur though, one of those irresistible cliches

  • Anil Rao

    Two different photographers shooting the same door in Jodhpur seems like a big co-incidence. Perhaps this door is located in a popular spot where a lot of visitors arrive.

    • Guest

      As I said above it’s on a main drag and it’s a pretty striking door when you see it in person. I shot probably a hundred doors in Jodhpur though, one of those irresistible cliches

  • Brett

    Certain things have obvious graphic appeal. That door is one of hundreds in Jodhpur that scream out shoot me, and it’s also on a fairly main drag, and has surely been photographed countless times by tourists. It’s also one of 8,000 photos I took in Jodhpur over almost a month, and a pretty uninteresting photo on my part really. The door is a pretty awesome work of art.

    I think the difference would lie in foreknowledge of another’s interpretation. If the Natty Geo guy saw your image from Dharavi and said, awesome, I’m going to replicate that, or I need that vantage point, with a girl walking down the middle, to me that’s pushing a boundary to me since he works for probably the preeminent photo publisher on Earth. If a hobbyist in Mumbai saw it, took inspiration, and copied it, I say great. Really anyone that isn’t going to publish and it and make money or fame from the artistic interpretation, great. Imitation is flattering.

    If two people shoot the same the unkowing of the other, as with the doors, I think it’s always original work, even if the subject is unoriginal.

    Brett

    India portfolio – http://india-photographs.com/portfolio/main/index.html

  • Guest

    Certain things have obvious graphic appeal. That door is one of hundreds in Jodhpur that scream out shoot me, and it’s also on a fairly main drag, and has surely been photographed countless times by tourists. It’s also one of 8,000 photos I took in Jodhpur over almost a month, and a pretty uninteresting photo on my part really. The door is a pretty awesome work of art.

    I think the difference would lie in foreknowledge of another’s interpretation. If the Natty Geo guy saw your image from Dharavi and said, awesome, I’m going to replicate that, or I need that vantage point, with a girl walking down the middle, to me that’s pushing a boundary to me since he works for probably the preeminent photo publisher on Earth. If a hobbyist in Mumbai saw it, took inspiration, and copied it, I say great. Really anyone that isn’t going to publish and it and make money or fame from the artistic interpretation, great. Imitation is flattering.

    If two people shoot the same the unkowing of the other, as with the doors, I think it’s always original work, even if the subject is unoriginal.

    Brett

    India portfolio – http://india-photographs.com/portfolio/main/index.html

  • In nature photography you’ll find places and exact framings/vantage points that have unknowingly been done the same way by hundreds of different people, especially scenic pulloffs on scenic highways. I have an old photog friend that knows the West like the back of his hand, knows nearly every valley in Alaska, and he can look at the portfolio of any nature photographer from Europe who’s made one sweeping trip through the western US national parks, and can tell you precisely where every photo was taken, and usually has a photo that looks pretty much just like it.

    • Exactly! Which brings me to my next post coming up soon 😉

    • Anonymous

      Don’t forget that many of Ansel Adams’ famous shot locations have holes where you can place your tripod w/ the settings he used to try and replicate his shot.  If I saw an AA composition hanging in someones house that looked just like the original, I probably wouldn’t immediately stone the person – I’d actual think it would be kind of cool, though a bit hoaky.

      But in that case there’s no argument over who took it first and who you were copying.

      • Thanks Brian. Funny that you mention Ansel Adams, or actually probably very obvious, as I have just completed the post about intent and Adams is of course one good example of influence. Wait for the second post . . 🙂

        • Anonymous

          Apparently I’m just reading your mind for the second post – are we allowed to have the same ideas or is that plagiarism as well?

          • It happens with my wife all the time. I’ve decided to take her to court over violation of copyright 😉

  • Guest

    In nature photography you’ll find places and exact framings/vantage points that have unknowingly been done the same way by hundreds of different people, especially scenic pulloffs on scenic highways. I have an old photog friend that knows the West like the back of his hand, knows nearly every valley in Alaska, and he can look at the portfolio of any nature photographer from Europe who’s made one sweeping trip through the western US national parks, and can tell you precisely where every photo was taken, and usually has a photo that looks pretty much just like it.

    • Exactly! Which brings me to my next post coming up soon 😉

    • brianhirschy

      Don’t forget that many of Ansel Adams’ famous shot locations have holes where you can place your tripod w/ the settings he used to try and replicate his shot.  If I saw an AA composition hanging in someones house that looked just like the original, I probably wouldn’t immediately stone the person – I’d actual think it would be kind of cool, though a bit hoaky.

      But in that case there’s no argument over who took it first and who you were copying.

      • Thanks Brian. Funny that you mention Ansel Adams, or actually probably very obvious, as I have just completed the post about intent and Adams is of course one good example of influence. Wait for the second post . . 🙂

        • brianhirschy

          Apparently I’m just reading your mind for the second post – are we allowed to have the same ideas or is that plagiarism as well?

          • It happens with my wife all the time. I’ve decided to take her to court over violation of copyright 😉

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • This is great…. you did a very good job. Looking forward to your next post.

  • Sanjayausta

    Another very informative post there Sephi. Thanks

  • Sanjayausta

    Another very informative post there Sephi. Thanks

  • Sephi, Photojournalists can often shoot the same image at the same time and sometimes from the same angle while covering an event. The famous Bhopal Gas Tragedy photograph `The Burial of the Child’ comes to mind. Both Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew shot the almost similar photograph. Attached below ( First picture by Pablo Bartholomew . Second by Raghu Rai.)  Even the hand seeming to close the eyes of the dead child is almost at the same position. While Raghu Rai’s image went on to represent the tragedy it was Bartholomew’s pic in color that won the World Press Photo of the year in 1984. 

    • Great example Sanjay. Thank you for this comment. So are you saying that I still have a chance to win the WPP with my picture although it was Jonas Bendiksen’s pic that was published in National Geographic? 😉 LOL

      • Yes most definitely :-). I think your photograph is much better. You have caught the girl balanced on one foot with her body and arms at a very nice angle. 

  • Sephi, Photojournalists can often shoot the same image at the same time and sometimes from the same angle while covering an event. The famous Bhopal Gas Tragedy photograph `The Burial of the Child’ comes to mind. Both Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew shot the almost similar photograph. Attached below ( First picture by Pablo Bartholomew . Second by Raghu Rai.)  Even the hand seeming to close the eyes of the dead child is almost at the same position. While Raghu Rai’s image went on to represent the tragedy it was Bartholomew’s pic in color that won the World Press Photo of the year in 1984. 

    • Great example Sanjay. Thank you for this comment. So are you saying that I still have a chance to win the WPP with my picture although it was Jonas Bendiksen’s pic that was published in National Geographic? 😉 LOL

      • Yes most definitely :-). I think your photograph is much better. You have caught the girl balanced on one foot with her body and arms at a very nice angle. 

  • Christopher Paquette

    You might find this interesting…. A piece I wrote about Influence & Originality

    http://photoartsmagazine.blogspot.com/2011/07/thoughts-on-influence-originality-in.html

  • Christopher Paquette

    You might find this interesting…. A piece I wrote about Influence & Originality

    http://photoartsmagazine.blogspot.com/2011/07/thoughts-on-influence-originality-in.html