The Limitation of Imitation

Sand Patterns at Uluru

There have been a number of thought-provoking articles in the last year regarding the issues of copying, imitation and the never ending-stream of iconic views appearing on photography websites. Although the issue has been on my mind, I have not felt compelled to participate in those discussions till now. A recent blog article by David Leland Hyde has brought these thoughts to the surface again and prompted me to give my perspective.

Let me start off by stating how I personally operate. I’m not interested in imitating the work of other photographers. The goal of online research is to see what has already been accomplished at each location so that I’m not repeating similar shots taken by others. I have never contacted another photographer to ask where he or she made a particular shot. If someone volunteers information about where I can find a ‘great shot’, this will make me less interested in the location. I don’t want to do what has been done by others before. My preference is to scout, explore and work locations on my own. Being resourceful and learning how to assess the photographic potential of a location using your own eyes is a skill in itself. Those who constantly ask others for coordinates hoping to shoot something similar do not develop these skills and will always follow in the footsteps of others, figuratively and literally.

I believe that these concerns about copying and iconic locations becoming tarnished by over-exposure are a response to being bombarded by the glut of competent but often uninspired landscape photography. These are not new sentiments specific to the explosion of interest in photography during the digital age. In my research of street photography in Paris, I found this rather disdainful comment about photographers shooting Place de la Concorde by Robert Doisneau in 1962 :  “Like moths, photographers are drawn to the lights of Place de la Concorde. They circle around the splashing fountains, trying to get the perfect shot. This they will then foist on dinner guests back home.”

Magic Hour Concorde

While I have more original interpretations of Place de la Concorde, I think the glorious sunrise does enough to make this a distinctive view of the icon. 

It is important to note that many of those sharing their views in blog articles are very experienced and accomplished photographers who are well advanced down their creative paths. On the other hand, just like Doisneau’s photographers, most people are not seeking to become the next Galen Rowell. They are are just aiming to make a few prints that they like enough to put up on their walls. Even for those who have loftier goals in photography, during those first years of photography, one is consumed with developing the technical aspects of one’s craft and making aesthetically pleasing images rather than being concerned with originality or sharpening one’s vision. I know that in my first couple of years as a photographer, I regarded making a technically perfect postcard standard image in nice light as an accomplishment. Nowadays, unless I have something new to say about Uluru, or the Twelve Apostles, those images will never see light of day on my website galleries. I’ve photographed enough iconic locations to know that sometimes you do luck out on some unique conditions. And being able to come up with something out of the ordinary or an original take of a classic view can be very satisfying – the equivalent of pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. However, if the conditions are ordinary or I’m lacking in inspiration, it’s often more satisfying to enjoy the view than go through the motions of getting ‘the shot’ to complete the collection.

Supernatural

I used my car’s headlights to ‘light paint’ the grasses in the foreground to create a unique look to this Uluru photograph.

The Island Arch

This photo of the Island Arch was one of the most famous landmarks on the Great Ocean Road. I’ve only visited the location once and was blessed with a spectacular sunset. Given it’s popularity as a ‘standard view’, I was not too fond of the shot at the time. However, shortly after my visit, the arch collapsed and the fact that this view is no longer possible makes me treasure the photo a little more.

The question to ponder when you’re lining up that classic shot is whether imitation will be merely a stepping stone towards a more creative approach or the end of the road. If the latter is acceptable then there is no problem with shooting what thousands have done before and many more will do in the future. However, if you’re seeking to distinguish yourself as an artist, learning to harness your personal vision should become a priority.

Forest Echoes, Blue Mountains

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3 Responses to The Limitation of Imitation

  1. A nice article to read and digest Kah … Part of the fulfilment of producing a stunning capture for me is putting in the work to find the location and then the pov that captures my view of the location, and when it all comes together with great light to produce something special, that is why we do it …

    • You said it very well.
      Even if we start out chasing images from the iconic shots, we realize a certain emptiness when we can’t stand to see one more photograph of Antelope Canyon (Arizona, USA).

  2. It must be hard to cull all the great photos only because it is of an iconic location. You are very selective in your gallery’s and it obviously works for you. I think photographers often imitate as time on a location is limited, they lack in creativity, or there is really only one composition that works.

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