Thursday, February 21, 2013

How important is originality really?

Last week I got surprised by my wife with two, yes 2, books by Michael Kenna for Valentines Day. I can honestly say that that was the BEST Valentines Day ever.

Over the past week or so I've been absorbing Michael Kenna through these books. Wonderfully printed, probably like 3 colour process with a spot varnish. Fantastic work both on the photography (duh) as the printing process.

Another photographer I really like is Josef Hoflehner. His style is very closely related to Kenna's. Classic minimalistic photography. And amazingly deep portfolios. Check his work out if you don't know him.

But there is one photograph in Hoflehner's portfolios that, let's say, bothered me somehow. I can't help but think, this was deeply inspired by Kenna. There's a few more but this one was, in my opinion, too closely related to Kenna's one.

©1999, Michael Kenna

©2010, Josef Hoflehner

Both originals can be found here for Hoflehner's version and here for Kenna's version of Tsarskoe Selo, Russia.
Ok so there's a clear resemblance where the inspiration came from in my opinion. And that brings me to  the following questions. How important is 'originality of subject' in todays photography where 'everything has been done before'? Are you ok with photographing the 'classics' from the 'classic vantage points', like Inspiration Point in Yosemite, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley or even the lookout over Peyto Lake, just to name a few, or are you looking for subjects that haven't been photographed before?

Here are two versions of Peyto Lake photographed by me. Both photographs are made from almost the same spot. The top image is a photograph I made just a few weeks ago, standing on the edge of what is called 'The Boulder Field', the bottom photograph is one I made from the viewing platform (50 meters up from the first one) in July of 2007.

Well, we all have seen these photographs a million times before. Just do a Google search and see for yourself. Or click this link if you are lazy. So yes, me too, I am guilty of letting me 'inspire' by someone else's work.

I am a firm believer though that subject matter chooses YOU and not the other way around. Let me explain.

I am not a very outgoing person for instance. Heck I am an ISTJ (which basically means, I don't like to play with others). There is a reason why my work tends to lean towards minimalism. There's a reason why I seek out lonely trees for exampleI would go even further and say I go look for them. I don't know why. 
Back home, I couldn't care less about nature. But coming to Canada, and calling Canada my home for the last 4 years now has had a profound effect on my personality. I admit, I am a very different person now than I was then. And that proves to me, that not only your personality but also your surroundings, play a huge role in who you are as an artist. Or what exactly photographically speaking 'attracts you' to photograph it. 

Maybe for me it's the lack of friends here that pushes me to photograph lone things. That's not a cry for self pity or anything, no I love the simpleness of my life here. Not having too many friends (but they are all close friends) cuts back on social priorities a lot. Also I think that photographing in the way you photograph is and should be a reflection of your inner self, not someone else's. But I think that also the subjects we tend to gravitate towards are reflections of our personality or states of mind/mood we are in.

I also believe in photographing what you love. And those interests are directly related with your personality. So as a result, I think, you will photograph the things you like to see, using a visual style that represents your personality. You see the viscous circle, us photographers are really in? 

But when it comes to photography I like to get as less influenced by other photographers as possible. I like to work by Cole Thomspon's 'Photographic Celibacy' rule. You can read what Cole means by that on his blog or click this link here.

But either way, not getting yourself inspired by others means that you have to shut yourself out of everything that is around you. And as people living in a very visual society that is also a very hard thing to do. We are constantly bombarded by images that it is very hard for us not to get influenced by anything. Even the smallest element can spur inspiration or influences the way you see a scene. It's dangerous but can be rewarding as well.

In the end we should aim to be original artists I think. I have copied other photographers work in my early days as well. I think that is a normal step to take. You will understand composition a bit better I think. Or even copy a processing style. Ultimately you will find your own way. But copying can be a valid exercise. But that's where it should stay at, an exercise, nothing more.

That's why I was a bit disappointed when I saw an almost straight copy of Kenna's photograph. It proved to me that one photographer was inspired by the other and was influenced by the previous composition.

Which leads us back to the question, how much does your personality influences your work?

I would love to hear your comments on this and hear your side of things in the comments below.


  1. Great article Olivier. I believe you need to study great images and artists to learn and appreciate how to construct and visualise. It is becoming quite apparent from my own work though, that what is currently going on my life affects how I frame and process images. When I slow down and leave the stress behind, I start to see the beautiful small things in nature. So I believe personality is one part of the equation, the other is the vibe of what is currently happening in your life. Michael Kenna's work is amazing!

    1. I fully agree with your comments. Study the classics, yes. But trying NOT to get influenced by them is ultimately very hard and requires a lot of discipline.

  2. A discussion about how your Myers-Briggs profile affects your photography would be very interesting.

    1. I think that would make a very good follow up post indeed!

  3. Olivier, thoughtful post. I've thought about this to some extent.

    Where I live, the US Pacific Northwest, one of my favorite places is Mount Rainier. Heard of it? Seen photographs of it? Yeah, thought so.

    Marc Adamus. Galen Rowell. Art Wolfe. They all beat me to it (and how). Can I learn from those photographers? I sure hope so! Have I emulated them? Almost definitely.

    Is my journey as a photographer at least in part about how I learn from them and others by (eventually) wield my camera and imagination to produce original images of iconic Mt. Rainier? Absolutely.

    I'm also a big fan of Hoflener. Have been for a long time. His Iceland portfolio is amazing.

    Looking at the two images you shared...perhaps his is a tribute to Kenna, but with his own added flare. I don't know, but I'm not offended by it, or the notion of inspiration in the form of imitation. Hoflener is, by his own rights, a superb photographer. That his work butts against Kenna's or another photographer at some point in the span of a career is OK by me.

    I don't think this stance detracts from the importance of originality, though, and I wonder if style doesn't play a role in this. That is, I wonder if originality is harder to come by when photographing grand scenics versus more intimate portraits.

    1. I wouldn't say I am 'offended' by it at all Wesley. Kenna said it best "There is much to photograph, and so little time. I want to look ahead rather than behind."

  4. I agree with Sue, we need to study great images to learn how to construct them, and visualize them. Most of us mere mortals don't start out as great artists, it takes a lot of time to figure out our own style even. Sometimes that means taking elements from other peoples style, and implementing them into your own work. I guess that also means flat out copying someone elses style, or even taking the exact same photo. After first reading this my thought was "yeah, that seems pretty low of Hoflehner to copy Kennas photo like that" but that got me thinking...How much time needs to pass before it becomes "OK" to retake someones composition? Or how much does someone need to change perspective at the same location before it become original? Because the fact of the matter is, you don't own the contents of your photograph (In most cases anyway, Im thinking more like mountains, trees, lakes) You only have rights to the 2 dimensional representation of the scene that you saw through your camera. Maybe someone saw the same scene but experienced a completely different set of emotions. Maybe Hoflehners photo reflects his experience with the place being full of life, the bird, the trees, everything is alive. And maybe Kenna experienced complete loneliness; all alone just him and the trees. Whatever their true experiences, the photos look the same, but are not the same. However, I still like Kennas photo more. You can tell he was focusing on symmetry and perspective whereas Hoflehner was more likely just trying to capture the bird.
    All in all, I don't think originality is all that important. Firstly because I think in this day and age, it'd be nearly impossible to search the internet everytime you take a photo to verify it's originality. If you know in your heart that it is your photo and not just a copied file or negative, then it's an original.

  5. Hey Olivier,

    I am a big fan of Joesef Hoflehner's work but I was very surprised when I saw the following link and the comparisons with Kennas work...

    Keep up the amazing work man


    1. Until I saw the photos compared at this Flickr link, I might have said that the tree photos first cited in this blog entry could have been pure coincidence. Not being familiar with either of these photographers, had I come across this scene, I might also have chosen to take a photo from that vantage point. But the dozen or so other comparisons make one wonder.

      I will never forget a question that an art instructor once suggested to apply to one's art: "Does the world really need another [painting, photograph, etc.] of 'X'?" There are many pretty pictures of X, but that doesn't make them art. I call them postcard photos. And sometimes I take them. But mostly not. Photography for me is mostly a meditation between me and nature or me and the larger environment, which can reflect my inner landscape as well.

      Now I'm going to go read about Photographic Celibacy.

  6. PART ONE:
    Congrats on the Michael Kenna books!, those are wonderful books to have in your collection, you have a very thoughtful wife!

    This is a very good post, I enjoy your writing in addition to your pictures. I have been thinking of your recent post about the importance of originality. The two pictures by Kenna and Hoflehner are indeed interesting to see side by side, I was trying to find a similar link to an earlier controversy on the internet a couple of years ago, two fine art photographers who both work in the minimalist style each produced very similar landscape images, they were scenes each with a town or city in the distance with big open almost white sky filling the frame, I believe one photographer was threatening to suing over copy write or something like that, I couldn't find anything in my google search, but I did read about it. From my work as photojournalist I do know that in covering things like major sporting events, for example the Olympics where dozens of photographers are crowded next one another similar images are bound to happen, but having known a photographer that have covered such events it's possible that unique pictures can be made. There is the famous hockey images made in the Canada- Russia series one made by, Toronto Star photographer, Frank Lennon, the link is here:
    Its quite interesting to see the almost identical images taken by two different photographers. In my internet search I also found a post by Matt Kloskowsi:
    This might provide your readers and yourself with some interesting insights.

  7. PART TWO:
    I followed and read the link by Cole Thompson , I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Mr. Thompson's work, I'm not sure I would want to isolate my self to that degree that he does by not looking at the work of other photographers, speaking from my own perspective, I love looking at the work of past accomplished and great photographers and those working in the present and on their way up, I suspect, and I am be wrong, that even if one were to live in a cave and not ever see another image by another photographer for the rest of their natural days, subconsciously when they are are out photographing something visually from their prior experience to living in a cave may find a way of trickling in to ruin the purity of making a "virgin" image. I often photograph in many well-photographed locations, for instance, I was photographing at Lake Louise in Banff Alberta, there was a photographer who came up to me ( seeing my view camera on tripod ) as I was making pictures, kindly and perhaps mildly rebuking me for photographing an area that is photographed each day by the thousands, I really don't mind that my pictures aren't "originals" in any sense of that meaning.

    Also producing similar images are bound to crop up in the digital age that we live in, especially now that anyone is a "photographer", with many, many people running around with the latest DSLR or even cell phones, ( the IQ of those phones are very good ) I think its a bit of a slippery slope to be always "original" and photograph places and make it look different from all the other photographers out there, the trend I seem to see is that in order to be different pictures are "photoshopped" far more, there is of course always a balance in order to achieve your vision using post production techniques, or do we go to the lengths of say making mountains bigger, removing trees, adding tree, stretching images or re-ordering the balance of nature elements in a landscape images to make it "original" one photographer's work who does that is Alain Briot his latest essay at Luminous Landscape is very interesting to read: Is this the future or originality? do we sit behind a computer more and more, creating our original images in this manner?, one thing about Alain's work is that not many people can go to the same spot and get a duplicate image, his work is beautiful no doubt about that.

    For my own photography, I am certainly not the most original when it comes to making pictures especially landscapes, some might even say my work is pretty boring!, some will say "I've seen those kinds of landscapes before" or some might say "how many more pictures of rocks and trees ( or what ever ) do we need?" but that's okay, I am happy doing what I do, I like to think of analogy of classical music and say rap music, classical music has been around for a long time, and yes musicians play the same songs over and over but there are audiences that come to listen to those same old classics, even though they might not be great in numbers. Rap music might be considered the "in" or the original music of the 21st century and has a huge following, different but not necessarily better. Finding one's originality or vision is alway the challenge, I have been at it for most of my life and I'm still looking!

    Thanks for reading and allowing me to share my thoughts on your blog.

    Gary Nylander

  8. Hello,
    I found this also a thoughtful text on an interesting and sometimes controversial topic. A long time ago, I read that a photograph is art if it shows something in a new way. If this was correct, an artist must be original. This may explain why some photographers seem to spend a lot of time and effort to argue that they are original and truly artists.
    I have the impression that often photographers think too much about wether something is original (or art).
    There will always be people who copy photographs or even paintings that they have seen and we are all somehow influenced by what we see; including all the imagery that we are constantly exposed to. However, at least for my part I can honestly say that I have never thought about another photograph while I was photographing. It is as you write: the subject somehow has to find me AND I have to respond to it. Then I will be enticed to take a photograph - and not because I have somewhere seen a similar composition.

  9. Great blog!!! Thanks you for writing blogs that help us think deeper about our photography.
    Doesn't the ISTJ do more of an accountant/business type job? It's not traditionally an artist personality. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. Hi. Yes ISTJ are usually accountants, police officers, detectives, Doctors, ...

      One thing is important about ISTJ is Perseverance. :)

      Here's a more complete list