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Are There Any Truly Unique Photographs?

Of Philosophy

This is truly one of those “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” discussions, in my view. Years ago, at the dawn of the computer age (well maybe thats a bit melodramatic–but at least in the early days when home computing was relatively new and the internet and AOL were synonymous for many of us), I joined an AOL photography board. I recently touched bases with one of the “boarders” there who I hadn’t spoken with for some years, and he told me it is now extinct. I haven’t been on AOL for years, now, but there were some great conversations there and some lasting “cyberfriendships.”

The first time I ever got involved in a discussion about “unique” or “original” photographs was on that board. We went back and forth, sometimes quite vigorously. After weeks of discussion, we all agreed on the same conclusion.

NOT! The discussion is, perhaps, one without the possibility of resolution. So why discuss it? Simple. Its MY Blog and I CAN :-). Seriously, just because there isn’t universal agreement on a subject doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting or worth discussing. This is a discussion I expect will be one for “the ages.”

There are a number of levels to approach this. With regard to nature photography, which is my primary focus (sorry for the pun) as a photographer, it is even more so. Because nature is an ever-changing and evolving, as a scientific matter, it can be argued that it is impossible to take the same scene in nature, even only seconds apart. Over time, this becomes more obvious. In the introduction to my Photographing Scenic Vermont PDF, I talk about how the landscape of Vermont has changed over the years, presenting — alternatively — new challenges to photographers trying to find and photograph certain well-known, iconic scenes, and as well, new photographic opportunities.

Trees and vegetation grow and formerly cleared farm fields are let go. Buildings fall into a state of disrepair, or are often replaced with newer, less photogenic structures. I read, recently about a photo workshop in the Palouse region of the upper Northwest to photograph old barns. The workshop materials speaks of there being less and less of the old, photogenic barns and the opportunities to photograph them becoming fewer and fewer. And, how about moving water. Can there ever be two identical photographs of moving water, or of the erosive changes it makes during its inexorable movement? Plants and wildlife become extinct and new (often invasive), non-native species overtake.

Of Practical

One AOL board member argued, persuasively, that once a particular scene (for example, Mt. Rushmore, one of Ansel Adams NP scenes or one of Kaplan’s Vermont Photo-Scenics) has been photographed a few times, there are really no “new” and unique photographs that can be made. Some of us disagreed. I still do. While on one level you can look at some of my photos of “iconic” subjects and say, “ho hum,” (someone else has) “been there, done that,” I believe that each of us brings our own particular vision and approach to photographing a subject. I travel and photograph with my good friend Rich often. It always amazes me, when we are back in the room, downloading to laptops and reviewing our days work, how we could have been standing in the exact same spot (sometimes we will just switch cameras onto the same tripod) and he will have “seen” something I didn’t!

I really believe (perhaps in the nature of Don Quixote), that I can bring my own particular perspective to a scene that someone else has already successfully photographed.

One of the reasons I am so firmly in “the camp” of sharing location information with other photographers is that I really believe (perhaps in the nature of Don Quixote), that I can bring my own particular perspective to a scene that someone else has already successfully photographed.

It has been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton, 1820). I have had a number of discussions about Intellectual Property Issues with some of my photographer friends recently. A good friend and frequent visitor here, recently noted on her blog, that the most often visited blog posts are the ones she posts on trademark and copyright issues. It is indeed a fascinating topic (and one which I will blog on in the future–hopefully with its own unique approach to the subject). During the winter, I got an e-mail from someone I didn’t know, telling me that Walmart was using my East Orange, Vermont photo as their store brand tissue box (as you can imagine, a post like that has a tendency to make your heart race–take a deep breath, Andy, and get the facts). I asked him to photograph and send it to me. On looking at it more closely, it was quite similar to mine, but clearly not my work. My photo was taken because Arnold John Kaplan published a book telling me about it and where to go to photograph it. So much had changed from when Arnold first took it and my visit there that you couldn’t take “Arnold’s” photo again. I thought, amusingly, how ironic it would be if the person who shot the photo on the Walmart box could have been standing next to me that day (he wasn’t — I was alone). What if he waited until I was done and then place his tripod in my old tripod holes? What if he saw my photo online, and traveled there himself. Maybe he even got the directions from my “Photographing Scenic Vermont PDF.” In my view, so What?

A couple years back, I got a brochure on some professional business or legal seminar being held in the “Upper Peninsula” of Michigan. One of the treasures up there is the “Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore,” where a particularly photogenic sandstone formation stands just outside of Munising, Michigan, called Miner’s Castle. Again, my heart skipped a beat. That was my photo! Or was it. On a second look, it clearly wasn’t and when common sense kicked in, I realized that there are hundreds who have photographed it from many views and perspectives. The day I took my first photo of Miner’s Castle, I stood with another photographer, our tripod legs almost entangled and chatted for almost an hour, waiting for the right light. Could have been his. Or–could have been someone who read my “Photographing Michigan’s UP” PDF, giving directions on how to get there. Again, in my view, so what?

A photographer’s photograph was just that: his photograph. Absent a copy stand or the ability to copy my image from the internet and call it his, he (or she) has every right to photograph the scene. And I don’t own the rights to the “model.” I can say he “copied” me or my photo, or my view. But the reality is, he didn’t. Nor was I likely the first to photograph the scene. Did I photograph it from a unique perspective? Artistically, I hope so, but the viewer will be the ultimate judge of that. Intrinsically, of course I did. Its my photo.

I am sure some of my IP lawyer friends will roll their eyes when they read this and tell me to stick to estate planning and business succession, where I might know something. But I do think there is substantial grey area in the IP domain. Here are a couple excerpts from a recent e-mail exchange with my brother, who is a graphic artist by trade, with a degree in (and wonderful talent for) art: “In some ways, art is extra-legal, it kind of exists on a different frequency. Picasso, in fact, is suspected of several museum thefts of African masks.

Igor Stravinsky even said ‘Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.’ I don’t know that he meant brushstroke-for-brushstroke theft, more that art is a war of ideas, and when an unfair advantage is perceived it is often seized.

John Denver tried to make himself the co-writer of the then-unknown song “City of New Orleans” by adding a few lines to it, Arlo Guthrie caught wind of it and released the song a few weeks in advance of Denver, attributing it to the original author. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are notorious for claiming credit on public domain (and in several cases, protected) songs. Along the way there have been a few legal settlements, but many more instances where they’ve been essentially given a pass or have successfully claimed that they authored songs with striking similarities (for example, Jake Holme’s 1968 song “Dazed and Confused” vs. Led Zeppelin’s 1969 song “Dazed and Confused” — same chord progression, similar words and melody. Courts denied Holmes’ claim of authorship of the Led Zeppelin song.) I bet a close inspection of any musician would reveal any number of conscious and unconscious borrowings.”

We don’t agree on everything, but my brother and I do agree that the subject of our art is out there for the taking and it is up to each of us to be the artist and bring our own talents to the photograph.

Thanks for reading . . . .

6 Responses

  1. Since I don't have a(nother) job (yet), I'm usually the first to respond – often without thinking before I write. So here goes…I assume there have been many posts (including one here?) about looking at a scene "outside the box" or from a different perspective. Some have suggested things as simple as moving around to the other side (if possible) or literally bending down for a different perspective.My simple comment is that a scene can be different due to what we're seeing or thinking when we take the shot. I think we consciously (or subconsciously) change the framing based on what we want to emphasize (whether it's centered or using the rule of thirds).There is a bit of a complication here. The photographer hopes the viewer can detect the subtle change in perspective and get the point (unless they're playing coy). But as with art appreciation, some need to actively look to see what the photographer (or artist) had in mind. For many, it's an acquired skill/mind set.Regardless of whether a viewer sees the difference between two photos taken from the same vantage point – I think the photographer sees a difference. And since we primarily shoot to please ourselves (even if it's for a client) – it is a unique photograph – even if it's only in our mind.(Again, if I've misunderstood the question (as I often do – because I'm so new to photography) I apologize and hope I haven't thrown off the discussion again.)

  2. Great post, Andy. I couldn't agree more. I think each of has our own spin. In fact, having our own spin is a requirement in my opinion. Having a carbon copy of an image is of no interest to me. It's been done. Photography without a component of thinking or creating seems pretty boring and utilitarian.

  3. Thanks for your comments, guys.Phil: I have always appreciated your ability to bring your own, unique, POV to any discussion, so no :-), you didn't misunderstand the question (which, I am sure you appreciate, was rhetorical), no take the conversation "off track." Indeed, it is a conversation which doesn't, in my view, have a well-defined track.Dan: As I commented recently on your Blog, you always bring your creative imagination to your photographs in ways that give you a unique and amazing style.But, to some extent, as I wrote this, I was thinking on a less "conscious" level. Like Phil notes, I think I bring my own vision to a photograph and though it may, at first glance, look like the "ho hum" been there done that shot, I like to think it rarely is and that I have brought something different to it. With the "Mt. Rushmore" shots, its more difficult, in my view. I recently saw a shot Phil made of the Washington Monument from a unique perspective with a unique (to me anyway) foreground. I used to walk that area on a daily basis, and never saw that shot. That is what you are talking about, and it takes some talent to get those views.My thought was more subtle differences. If you are familiar with either of the shots on my post, you know they have been "done" hundreds of times. I wanted to take those "iconic" shots for my own library (and as well, have other perspectives).I appreciate your comments and views . . . .

  4. Andy, I agree with Phil. I've set out to take some of those "iconic" photos and ended up with something quite different. Last summer I shot Mesa Arch in Canyonlands and Turret Arch through the North Window at Arches National Park. THE photo of Mesa Arch is the rising sun lighting the underside of the arch. That's the photo I was after but when the clouds covered the sun for two sunrises in a row I was discouraged, but by wandering around, looking for a different shot, I had the good fortune to have the sun peek out from the clouds which created a sunburst for me. I don't think that shot will ever be duplicated. At arches, I shot the North Window on a morning when I knew the full moon would be setting. While I didn't get the shot had imagined, my North Window shot with the moon in the sky through the window makes this "iconic" shot unique.Another area of uniqueness is in macro photography. I have a macro photo of a passion flower that is one of the best shots I've ever made. I've tried to recreate that shot many times and I just can't seem to do it. The most beautiful places on earth have already been photographed, so it isn't like we can discover some place nobody has ever seen. We just need to look at those places from a little different perspective to get a unique photo. But if we can't find that perspective, we can still get a great photo of a beautiful spot, just like somebody else made. That's not a bad consolation prize.Al

  5. Good thoughts, Al — and pretty much in concert with mine! Thanks for commenting

  6. Andy — I love this topic — it is near and dear to my heart. I even wrote a blog about it today after receiving my latest issue of Outdoor Photographer yesterday. Yikes — why can't that magazine find any unique photos for the cover???? The incessant repetition of photos in the magazine perpetuates redundancy.We can all take our own unique vision into the field and capture our own photos — or we can take the same old same old. It is all in what you want to do.

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