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Where Credit is Due

When the work of great artists is being reproduced, those artists always are credited by the person who makes the reproduction. However, does this happen when it comes to photography?

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.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

1 Comment

  1. I think the article is flawed at the fundamental level. Comparing photography to music is ludicrous. Musicians credit the composers because they are totally different entities in the presentation. You cannot compare one photographer to the composer of music and the other photographer to the musician playing the composition. Instead let’s compare two musicians playing the same piece. In reality musicians rarely credit other musicians for the piece they perform. They may mention on occasion being inspired by someone’s style, but they are not out to copy someone’s performance. I think the same is true of photographers photographing the same landscape. Just as thousands of musicians may play the same music, thousands of photographers may shoot on the same spot at the same time of day over a period of decades. It’s foolish to think of crediting all those that preceded them or any one person who may have taken a specific image.

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