Creativity and Copying

In previous posts I have talked about the issue of what I call “chasing icons,” the inclination of many of us to chase after existing images already taken by other photographers. I want to talk about this subject some more, and to introduce the discussion I will start with a picture of my own – my version of Tom Mangelson’s iconic “bear eating salmon” from Brooks Falls in Alaska. I would venture to say that virtually every photographer who has visited that legendary bear-viewing platform in Katmai National Park has made an effort to capture their own version of Tom’s picture. I am no exception.

I took this a decade ago (on Velvia!) and have rarely published it, largely because I felt it was essentially derivative, e.g. a conceptual copy of Tom’s image. I never really felt that this was my own original creation, but essentially a copy. Yes, it represented a personal challenge – the challenge of coordinating timing, light and technique to capture a “decisive moment.” And it is substantially different from Tom’s image. But it was not something essentially new. No one can look at my picture and not think of his, or of his priority.

The issue, then, is this.  Is a “copy” of a legendary photograph an homage, plagiarism…or a legitimate exercise of creativity? You will likely find as many views on this subject as there are people posting comments online (and I look forward to seeing more here). Some consider the idea of “copying” a classic Galen Rowell photo (like “Sunset on Horsetail Falls” – a picture I consider so perfect as to repel improvement) simply a learning experience, much as fine artists may copy the work of the Great Masters to learn something about their technique. I don’t fully buy this argument, since it seems to me that there are vast numbers of other subjects in which you can test your mastery of depth-of-field or exposure other than by trying to replicate a well-known David Muench landscape.

However, in discussing this subject with a friend of mine, a talented and hard-working amateur photographer, I gained another point of view. In his opinion, this issue is directly linked to the photograph’s end use. As an amateur shooting for his own pleasure and for a “hang-on-the-wall” image, there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to capture an icon for himself. It is an excuse to chase, not just a picture, but a beautiful location, or a beautiful moment, in nature.

The problem, then, is when photographers try to pass these images as original creations and offer them for sale, as prints or in publication, knowing they are entirely based on someone else’s original work. We would not condone copying a chapter from someone else’s novel – so why do we give photographers a pass that slavishly copy someone else’s picture? It seems unethical, but more than anything ,it lacks creativity. And in a creative endeavor like photography this, in the end, is the greatest crime.

In the end, the best, most exciting images will continue to push visual boundaries, to show viewers something new and exciting and different. Yes, this is getting more difficult than ever, with the vast numbers of photographers prowling our parks and refuges. But I cannot help but think that there are still plenty of thrilling images still to be taken, pictures that show us something, or somewhere, we have never seen.

I welcome your thoughts on this subject.