Thoughts on Influence & Originality in Photography

In light of recent disputes and legal actions between photographers such as last year's Sze Tsung Leong versus David Burdeny (see PHOTO/arts Magazine 3/2010)

Sze Tsung Leong  2006

David Burdeny  2009

and the recent headlines regarding  Janine "Jah Jah" Gordon versus Ryan McGinley (see Did Ryan McGinley rip off Janine Gordon?)

left side...  Janine 'Jah Jah' Gordon
right side...  Ryan McGinley

I thought it would be interesting to show some historical context to the fascinating and thought provoking issues surrounding coincidence, influence and originality in artistic creative practice. I've written about this topic many times and I'm surely not the only photographer who struggles with the fine line between using artistic influence as a creative impetus versus being just another follower of a well known school or style. Ironically, my own Collected Horizon series was directly influenced by the work of Sze Tsung Leong, but no one would ever say that my images look like Leong's. The only similarity is in the presentation of minimal repetitive horizon lines. On the other hand I have an entire body of work that consists of flat planar and contemporary architectural images that a portfolio reviewer once told me looked a lot like the work of Lewis Baltz. At the time I had never seen Baltz's work, but when I looked it up I  felt slightly nauseous , the sense of imitated style seemed so obvious, and yet it was pure coincidence. I've also written previously about what I see as the influence of Walker Evans upon the work of Zoe Strauss, (see Photo/arts Magazine 4/2009) but would we accuse Zoe Strauss of ripping off  Walker Evans? Of course not.

A wonderful book on this subject is Double Take: A Comparative Look at Photographs by Richard Whelan..

Double Take
A Comparative Look at Photographs
by Richard Whelan
forward by Cornell Capa

Whelan writes brilliantly in the introduction to the book, touching on historical context (Monet /Renoir... Picasso/Braque), the subconscious, the relationship between style and subject matter, coincidence and originality...

"Whether or not he has been influenced, every photographer legitimately claims every image he makes as uniquely his own. After all, even the acceptance of certain influences and the rejection of others is determined by- and revealing of- the photographer's background, circumstances, temperament, sensibility, and self awareness. Each viewer must decide for himself exactly how interesting he finds the claim that the photographer has staked, at which point the subjectivity of the viewer's taste and his knowledge of the history of photography come into play.

The choice of subject matter, even if it has already been exploited by someone else, is a statement of personal vision at a given moment, whether the tangible result of that vision strikes the viewer as innocent, calculated, trite, or revelatory. One sure sign of genius is the talent for giving new life to subjects, styles, and ideas that everyone else thought were exhausted. It is, in fact, precisely this revivifying spark that we seek most assiduously when we look at art. Doing something passionately can count for much more than simply doing it first-although real innovation, however crude, is never without a certain passionate brilliance."

The following pairs of images are from the book, and help visualize these issues and questions and put things into perspective. Don't forget about some other iconic repetitions that I have not included simply because I think we can all visualize them in our heads... Canyon de Chelly by Ansel Adams and many others... Flatiron Building by Stieglitz and Steichen... Ranchos de Taos by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams

Atget vs. Kertesz...

Eugene Atget  1907

Andre Kertesz   1928

Laughlin vs. White...

Clarence John Laughlin  1952

Minor White  1958

Sheeler vs. Evans...

Charles Sheeler  1927

Walker Evans  1947

Rodchenko vs. Erwitt...

Alexander Rodchenko  1932

Elliott Erwitt  1977

Weston vs. Ray...

Edward Weston  1920

Man Ray  1923

Shahn vs Lange...

Ben Shahn  1935

Dorothea Lange  1938

Lange vs. Frank...

Dorothea Lange  1938

Robert Frank   1955

Frank vs. Winogrand...

Robert Frank   1955

Garry Winogrand   1959