During a recent discussion about the value of originality in photography, a fellow photographer asked about a situation in which an original image is ‘trumped’ by another photographer, suggesting that the value of the original composition may be diminished if someone else managed a technically superior version of it.
This highlights several issues facing photographic artists when it comes to recognition of their creative efforts. The first is an apparent division among photographers, who consider “getting the shot” a primarily technical or competitive challenge, rather than a creative one; and those who seek meaningful expression as the main goal for their work, rather than technical qualities.
Put in a different perspective, if someone produced an expertly rendered copy of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and added a trace of the arc of the Milky Way to the sky, would anyone suggest that he or she “trumped” Vincent’s masterpiece; or, how about a superb copy of the Mona Lisa with the addition of rainbows and butterflies above the enigmatic portrait? Would Leonardo have been ‘trumped’? If such work is made with any seriousness, it may well possess some artistic value, but I doubt anyone will consider it as anything other than derivative, and taking nothing away from the original. Not so with photography, it would seem.
Such attitudes also highlight photography’s growing pains as an accepted medium for expressive art, perhaps best illustrated by comparing it with music. Musicians make a careful distinction between composers and performers, singers and songwriters, rewarding each for their individual contribution. Even the most celebrated performer still takes great care in crediting the composer for the score. Whether performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra or the Utah Symphony Orchestra, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos will be credited always to Bach. Moreover, credit is given separately to acknowledge virtuoso violinists, pianists, conductors, etc., celebrating their individual contribution to the performance, rather than claiming the entire piece in the name of one person. When was the last time you saw a photographer crediting the composition of an image to another whom they know to be the originator?
When modern day musicians render their own interpretation of work published previously, their performances are regarded openly as ‘covers,’ rather than originals; again, taking nothing away from the creator and claiming credit only for the performance. When an old movie is re-filmed, it is always dubbed a ‘remake.’
When a theatre troupe performs the work of a known playwright, they never proclaim themselves the writers or owners of the narrative. When dancers perform a ballet, they credit themselves for the choreography and the performance, never the score.
Derivative work and individual performances may be every bit as deserving of credit for their own contribution to a work, while still crediting the original composer for their creative effort. Why should photography be any different?
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 27 of Landscape Photography Magazine.