Too similar? A follow-up


General Photography

My thoughts on how to approach photography by different artists that looks very similar generated a higher than usual number of emails. I am always happy about emails with feedback, and I seem to have put my finger on something that many people have been concerned about.

As a first, I received an anonymous email from someone who, it appears, was worried I’d quote him (her?) on the blog. To get this out of the way, if you send me an email then that email will be treated as confidential. If I want to quote from an email I always ask the sender about it, and I also ask whether or not (and in what way) s/he wants to be quoted (the options: full name, initials, or anonymous as in “a reader”). I will, however, never quote someone whose name I don’t know myself.

That said, some people have clear opinions about the various cases I mentioned in my post, and some others were brought up. I did refrain from voicing my own opinion about those in the post for a reason: If I had said anything, my post would have gained attention as “Colberg accuses XYZ of plagiarism” instead of as an attempt to look at how to approach the topic in a general way. There might be a time and place to talk about specific examples at some stage in the future.

Matt Niebuhr emailed me to ask me about what he had outlined in this post. Talking about work he had seen on Mrs Deane (and then later here) and about his own work he writes: “Frankly, I found Collette’s photographs - somewhat lacking in the sense that I felt there could be a stronger sense of invasion - perhaps even alluded to by the opening photograph - that of one of the more successful invasive species (hint: the early settlers via the Oregon trail).”

If my impression from talking with photographers - especially students - is correct, this is not an uncommon situation. I don’t see what’s wrong with approaching a subject matter seen elsewhere and trying to improve it. For the photographer, there are two possible outcomes, namely the project succeeding and the project not succeeding. In both cases, the photographer learns more both about his (or her) work and about the other body of work.

Of course, there’s a risk (and it’s a big one), namely that the work, even if it’s an improvement in the eyes of the photographer, still ends up being very similar to the original work. Then what? Well, it could easily get iffy in that case. Ideally, given there are two photographers working, the resulting photography will also show that, so that there won’t be much of a problem.

It all depends on what the photographer ends up with, and I don’t think one can always decide a priori whether or not one should not touch something that someone else has already worked on. Of course, there are enough details here that some cases where one really can’t imagine seeing anything different (think sticks in water).

And as a photographer, one clearly has to be able to accept the possibility that after spending a lot of work and time one something it still doesn’t work. This might be a bit of a frustrating situation, but as I said before, it’s a chance to learn something.

What I tried to make clear in my post was that I think there are many variables that enter when talking about photography that looks similar to some other photography; and in general, I personally like to judge each case individually instead of giving some general answer.