Excellent Article for All Artists

Guy Tal has written an eloquent essay that can serve as a roadmap to authentic artistic development for budding photographers (and a few straggling, self-described ‘pros’ and ‘amateurs’).  Dismayed and no doubt irritated by requests from photographers digging for information not only on where an image was made but also the steps taken to develop it, Guy explains his position on this kind of ‘artistic shortcutting’.  I am in complete agreement with him.  Having met Guy on two occasions and followed his writing, he always struck me as a fair and quietly passionate person with high ethical standards and a developed morality.  In a day and age where the ease of being able to do something (like pirate movies or music off the internet) tends to make it morally acceptable, Guy’s integrity is welcome.

After reading all the comments to date, it is clear that some people are not understanding his message, which is quite simple.  Guy is not against giving out location data, or any particular data about his images in and of itself; rather, he is against assisting photographers who merely wish to plunk their tripod legs into the holes in the sand where his tripod just stood.  In other words, he is against artistic plagiarism:  photographers seeking to reproduce his artistic vision and call it their own.  I know what he is getting at having seen not copies of my work (a compliment or an insult :P?) but of Darwin’s, especially his famous ice cracks and bubbles at Abraham Lake.  I’ve seen two photographers make images that were stylistically so close to Darwin’s that they could not be told apart by Darwin himself at first, yet no mention of their inspiration was made at the time the images were posted publicly.  These photographers were very skilled (just try and copy one of Darwin’s compositions!) but sadly lacked the honesty to admit their inspiration and the integrity to state that they were working in a style that was fairly obviously that of a particular artist.  While it is easy to make an image of the infamous ice that is recognizable as Darwin’s stomping grounds, it is difficult to make it look like a Darwin image.  And I can appreciate the argument about lack of time to do your own scouting, but this does not run contrary to Guy’s point.  If you’re on a business trip, or just concerned with resources, by all means ask a local some details on potential images.  But that is a far cry from copying another artist’s ideas.

Having studied art, I agree with Guy that there is great educational benefit to re-working another artist’s vision.  The point is to see what you can learn by getting into that artist’s head and to develop your own ‘hard skills’ with your artistic tools of brush or pen.  But we always noted our inspiration on the artwork itself (“after the style of…”) and we were always encouraged not to make a copy but an interpretation of the piece.  Copying and taking credit for something that was not yours was really, really bad.  You would get kicked out of school.

Why this level of integrity has not carried over to photography is strange to me.  I think it has something to do with the ease with which a photograph can be made in a technical sense.  Learning how to paint like Picasso would take some talent, but learning exposure is less challenging.  Having someone else show you a magical composition in a beautiful place…and voila!  You have your own masterpiece.

Except that you don’t.  And this is Guy’s ultimate point.  The loser in that case is always the copycat.  Photographers, and other artists, who knowingly copy the artwork of other artists are draining their own creative juices.  In the end, they’ll end up like the moths in the image below: dry husks empty of their own creativity because all they did was fly at the light behind another artist’s vision.


~ by Samantha on January 6, 2011.

19 Responses to “Excellent Article for All Artists”

  1. I loved reading this, my mum has always said to me, there’s creative people, and then there’s people who copy and fool themselves into believing it’s them. Be the creative one.
    I’ve never gone out to take photographs with an idea, images present themselves, ideas come later. Thanks 🙂

  2. Before I head over and read Guys post, this was nicely said. However I don’t think this is restricted to just the photography industry. It’s fairly easy to view source, save a website, and rename a few titles.

  3. Great post, Sam. I’m constantly amazed how many emails I get wanting to know “exactly where to go” or “where I took that shot” and how I took it.

  4. Well said Sam! It’s one thing to see an amateur photographer follow in the steps of a seasoned pro as a learning experience, but when other pros duplicate original works it is inexcusable. When an image is obviously inspired by another artist it should always be noted.

  5. Thank you so much for this discussion, Sam! You are absolutely correct about my intention and I regret that some of the responders may have missed it. Hopefully my clarification helped.
    I appreciate you writing this!


  6. Point Across Well Taken……..

  7. “Guy’s integrity is welcome.”- it most certainly is, and very refreshing as well!

  8. Very nicely written. I am always interested in discussions about photography and how the same rules that apply to other visual arts are not applied to photography.

  9. Your comments are excellent. Guy Tal is a very prominent artist in our field and the way “newbies” copy style is very likely to stifle them in their own creative growth. If they only copy another persons work, what value are they likely to achieve within their own knowledge base. I am pushing HARD on 70 years of age and have seen many excellent photographers in my time. They all read prolifically (as I still do) and go out and try their own interpretation of what they have read. This makes them confident and will allow them someday to achieve the respect that Guy Tal now enjoys. Be original but study hard from our masters!

  10. Although it rides on Guy’s, your piece here is every bit as good as his, Sam. And I love the image!

    The “democratization of photography” has also meant the democratization of locations, subjects, and concepts. It’s sad, but true. I suspect that many “photographers” have no real interest in the art or craft of photography or investigating any genres beyond nature/landscape. Trophy collecting seems to be the thing…

  11. Oh, no..Are you talking about me. One of the my image and Darwin’s photo posted weekly photo July 16 are really similar…..I know this is not you are talking about. They are taken at the same timing but different location. I am just joking.
    Some people seem to mix up plagiarism and being inspired. I think technology allow everybody to be PROFESSIONAL, but it does not give enough time to develop moral for some people. On the other hand it is real joy to find real ARTISTS and to be inspired by their work. As I have commented before in Darwin’s blog, I do not care about beautiful photos or WOW images. I like images beyond that. Great arts usually make me “think”. I believe those photos imitating the someone’s works do not have such powerful quality.

  12. By the way, I like your photo, Sam. So many things are going on in the image and again, it makes me think. I wouldn’t have stoped this location even if I had been at the same plcae the same time. See…being inspired is good thing.

  13. Great article Sam… And now I feel a little guilty! We share a wordpress theme for our blogs!! Seriously tho’, your article is so accurate in so many ways. Even as a relative “newbie” in the field, I have already been approached several times by people wondering about exact locations, settings, etc. I don’t mind at all relaying the technical components that might have made the shot, but I sometimes begrudge them the assumption that there is nothing more to it than that. Well written – well said.

  14. Well said Sam! Inspiration is acceptable – duplication is not.

  15. Great post Sam. I think your moth analogy sums it all perfectly.
    I’d like to share a short story if I may. Shortly after I got in to photography (several years ago now…) I was in an art gallery in Canmore, Alberta and I saw what I thought at the time was the most amazing photograph I had ever seen. The photo was of a well-known mountain near Canmore and I very much wanted to have the “same” photo in my collection. I knew it was shot at sunrise so all I would need to make it happen, was to figure out from where it had been photographed. For the next several months, whenever I drove through Canmore I tried to think where that photo could have been taken from. Finally one day when I was again driving Canmore I decided to pull over on the side of the highway and go exploring. I spent the next few hours bushwhacking through the woods and in the end walked around 5km but I eventually found the EXACT spot that particular photograph was made. It even looked like the photographer had “marked the spot” by breaking off the tip of one of the small spruce trees where he must have placed his tripod to get that particular composition.
    Now I thought that I’d be very happy if and when I found the spot, but when I actually found it I felt something completely different. To my surprise, I felt dejected! At that very moment I realised that if I had photographed the scene as I had seen it the art gallery, the resulting image would never be one I could call my own. Sure, it would be a nice image, but it would still belong to someone else. I walked away from there that day learning a very important lesson.
    Since then, I have never tried doing anything so foolish. I still have on occasion asked other photographers for location advice, but never to intentionally try to re-produce their images. There are always so many compositional possibilities when approaching a scene that I’d rather try to come up with my own. And when others email me asking where I had photographed a particular image I gladly tell them. What they do with the information is up to them.

  16. Its funny that as I am learning there have been a handful of photographers I have admired and as my proficiency has improved the closer I have been able to creating the images that I loved seeing from those photographers. One morning I was looking at Mt Rundle at sunrise and I couldn’t believe the colours but all I could capture were images that I had seen time and again. How miserable it was to get so close and not find my own interpretation of the scene. I struggled and failed that day but I can only hope that the images I create now are starting to stand by themselves and not in the shadows of others. I wonder if some photographers miss this step in the creative process or if they have reverted back to it in the absence of inner creativity. I can’t see the pride one can take from images you know are replicas. Maybe those photographers work part time at Xerox!

  17. […] on Personal Expression… Following up on my last post, which of course springboarded off Guy Tal’s inspiring thoughts on creative development, […]

  18. This happens in so many areas of the artistic world.

    Several years ago I had painted some decorative pieces and placed them in a crafting venue. They were selling very well. I’m meticulous in my work, stand behind it, and price it accordingly. Some might call me a perfectionist, but there you go. Anyway, another ‘artist’ copied one of my pieces, but copied it very poorly. Her pieces weren’t selling even though they were priced $10 below my own. The new shop owner actually approached me and asked me to lower my price so as not to compete with the other vendor.

    Uh, no. Not only had I been in this particular shop for over five years, I asked her why I should lower my prices when my pieces were selling as listed? I refused. I would not assist another artist in her theft!

    As for photography, I worry every time I post a photographic image online. I’ve heard horror stories from photographers about how their images have been pirated and claimed as someone else’s work. We sign, we copyright, and we hope it’s enough.

    I’ve never understood people who feel that it’s okay to steal and copy so blatantly. I never will.

    Great article.

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