Originality in photography

Being original in photography became almost impossible — that “almost” leaves the door open for the dream, but I confess I don’t believe in it. I think we can’t create anything radically new in photography. This brings at least two questions: why is it pointless to pursue originality, and what’s the point of taking photographs then. Let’s start with the first, much easier question.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

Why it is pointless to pursue originality.

We live in a time when pretty much everyone has access to a camera. In many cases we have one in our smartphone, always with us and capable of providing surprisingly decent quality.  The number of people taking photographs at any time is huge: statistically. there will be someone that is good enough, with a camera good enough, in the right place at the right time, noticing the irony in that juxtaposition, capturing that decisive moment, documenting that event. It’s a matter of numbers. Statistics indeed.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

When the masters of the past were building their impressive portfolios, cameras were infinitely less common, let alone good cameras. To buy a camera — the decision of buying one — that was quite an act of faith, need and curiosity. There was no Internet, so it was still possible to actually travel and document a place or event no one else was documenting or documented before. It was possible to do something new, to explore a new road, to find a new subject, a new application for the photographic process.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

A lot of people today will look at Egglestone’s photos without much care, but at the time they were revolutionary because he embraced color and used it to characterise the scenes. Before him, color was seen as inadeguate for the artistic endeavour. Many will similarly find Weston’s or Brandt’s nude details boring, because Instagram is filled with millions of similar ones: what makes Brandt and Weston so great is the fact that they did it before the Instagram crowd, in a moment of discovery and research. When Sieff decided to shoot fashion using mostly 21mm and 28mm wide angles, that was also quite revolutionary. Today everyone has a wide-angle in his pockets and we use for documenting everything.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

I feel inspired by the masters of the past because in them I see the revolution, the research, the beginning of a path. William Klein is inspiring me, not the thousands of copycats posting that kind of street photos on social media. I can shoot all the contrasty black and white photos I want but I will never be Moriyama. And so on. I believe studying the significant steps in photography evolution is precious and meaningful, much more than passively absorbing social media feeds.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

So, if we look at pure photography, thus excluding mixed arts (painting + photo, illustration + photo, cgi + photo), we see that at this point in history, the chances of creating something original with photography are slim, euphemistically speaking. It is sufficient to look at Instagram for finding literally millions of high quality photos covering pretty much every possible topic.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

I mention Instagram a lot not because I like it — on the contrary, I quite despise it — but because it is the radar of modern photography. Apart from rare cases, photographers must exist on Instagram if they want to get discovered and if they want to work. And once we look at Instagram we are bound to easily find photographers that are much better than us, that have access to better subjects or locations, that are doing what we want to do but even better. I think Instagram became the greatest source of bitterness for photographers!

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

So what’s the point of taking photographs?

What about the other question, then: if it is so hard to create original photography, if it is close to impossible, then what’s the point of following this passion?

Sieff once said that photography for him was fun, and that fun was the reason why he loved to shoot. This can be true for some and it is in part surely true for me, but the big meaning in that sentence is that the motivation for pursuing photography comes — must come? — from what lives outside photography. 

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

Outside photography there is us and them.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

The outcome of the photographic process will inevitably be similar or identical to something that already exists — what is different is how we felt during the creation, our intent, the fragment of society we are injecting that creation into. So the product may be the same, but the source and the destination can be different.

I think it is still worth taking photographs, if we focus on the source and the destination of our photos. My words may seem sophistic but I do believe things are pretty much like that. 

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

Being obsessed with the originality of the final photo is not healthy nor useful. I often hear young photographers talking proudly about their personal quest for creating original photos, and how they want to build a unique style. All these attempts of defining themselves, in a desperate fight for emerging from the golden noise of beautiful photography we are immersed into. Inevitably destined to copy or adapt to what is popular at a given time, because that’s what Internet fame requires. Focused on the final product and its market possibilities. Browsing Vogue in anxious search for someone that could make them say: look, this seems innovative! There is hope! But the truth is someone else already did that too before, only slightly different, and everything is being rediscovered and reused all the time.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

I propose this instead: let’s enjoy photography in the same way we enjoy a glass of water: we are thirsty and we drink it. That’s so simple, and there is so much beauty in simplicity. We must be thirsty for seeing, experiencing, capturing and sharing. The photos we shoot are just some water we drink.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

Let’s look at what we are, the lives we live, where we want to go with our future days. That’s the source: in there lies part of the motivation for photography, not in the utopia of a new style, of a new original composition, of a moment no one ever captured before.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

The other part of motivation — the destination — lies in sharing photography with others: so, print your photos! Hang them on your walls, give them to others. Look at them on paper. Use them as bookmarks. Lose them and find them 10 years after. Everything looks different outside the bright screens we live into. Social media networks are wells where we throw all we do. It is nice to also escape them and bring our photography in the physical world, printing it. Nowadays we can easily create magazines, books, portfolios, and enjoy them and share them. This is important.

Ricoh GR II. Straight out of camera.

Our photography may be not unique, but we can be. The people we share it with can be. And maybe at some point some magical combination of unique events will happen, and you will discover you indeed found yourself, your style, and you actually created something original.

6 Comments

  1. You have hit the nail on the head! I believe looking at other photos whether in books or blogs is educational and if you study them you can learn what works for you or what you want to try! To me books like Atget or HCB or Robert Frank or any of current photogs are meat with the potatoes. Isle Bing work really opened my eyes. Thank you for my Sunday dessert. I have forwarded this article onward.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment John, and thanks for introducing me to Ilse Bing, I didn’t know her and I find her story and photography very interesting!

  2. I do enjoy reading your posts Andrea. They are thoughtful and mind provoking. You also touch on ideas that have also been floating around in my head in regards to photography.

    1. Author

      I am glad we have that convergence of ideas. I believe the richness of photography can ultimately only come from ideas.

  3. Been thinking about your post. There is a Magnum photographer Matt Black who did a project called if I remember right, the Geography of Poverty, he only Magnum photog I know of that uses B/W by a small camera like the Ricoh, uses Sony RX not sure which version, 2 3 4 whatever. His trip across US almost mirrored ROBERT FRANK, America route, and uses high contrast B/W. Whether he chose route on purpose or not again I don’t know. You should check it out and I think it will add the idea to your post that this is an example of doing this imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    1. Author

      Matt Black is an outstanding photographer indeed. I think his case somehow supports my concept of originality coming from outside of the photo itself: he has a strong intent and motivation and he has a destination for his documentation, and the power of these two elements is so strong that the outcome does include an original approach to documentation, even when he is mirroring the work of another photographer, as you noted.

      It is also interesting that he uses a 1″ sensor camera for his work. There are other Magnum photographers also using smaller than full frame sensors and I like this. The average photography enthusiast will lust after the greatest and latest camera tech because what he focus on is the final product, the image quality… while the truly great photographers, the ones still capable of some originality and of truth, are focusing on what is outside the final product, and can create with cameras that produce less than ideal quality. This is food for thoughts!

      Thanks again for your comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.