Is Copying Sincere Flattery in Street Photography? – John Lewell Photography

Like everyone else, photographers learn from the experiences of others.

If you want to be successful — in cooking, carpentry, or rattlesnake venom extraction — you need to remember how people did it before.

The real problem arises when an original idea is at stake, as is often the case in the creative arts. So it’s okay for the nick?

Glorious Past
The great painters of the past did not hesitate to borrow ideas from their teachers and colleagues. Some of them, like Raphael, even borrowed from their own students when a very talented apprentice joined their studio. That said, the whole “invention followed by imitation” process can be annoying, especially if you haven’t had a chance to exploit your original idea yet.

I remember slaving under the hot sun, strolling around Thailand’s fabled “Ancient Siam” – a 200-acre tourist attraction also known as “Ancient City” or “Muang Boran.” This is my favorite place for personal reasons rather than because of its great location for street photography.

On one occasion I found an unusual but effective angle to take a shot, only to be interrupted by a few DSLR-wielding tourists. They noticed my point of view and crouched beside me to get a similar image.

I know I can’t claim ownership of the camera angles, but, even so, such blatant imitation is annoying. Photography is about “Look at this…look at this” — and even more about “This is how I see this…this is how I see this.” However, even acquaintances who watched me take pictures, would sometimes walk back to the same place and take them themselves. That’s a good reason to work alone.

Inspiration or Imitation?
If you imitate a photographer in the process of taking a picture, you are slightly better than a karaoke singer singing “My Way” in the style of Frank Sinatra.

Don’t be silly: you did hers method!

But what about someone seeing your work, being inspired by it, and then trying to create something similar? Do you complain about it in a mean blog post, or do you happily accept that “copying is a genuine form of flattery”?

There are major differences between inspiration and imitation, the first of which is the time lag. It’s okay to be inspired by the masters of the past. After all, their days are in the spotlight. They won’t mind if you learn from their work, or even if you imitate some of their ideas. That said, you would be foolish to copy their style in its entirety as critics will quickly point out your plagiarism. But you don’t mind when critics say: “He was influenced by….” or “He builds on works…”

A Spirit Transfer
Inspiration is much more specific than imitation. It is a transfer of passion that leaves you free to express yourself, using the uniqueness of the moment to create something fresh and new. Imitation, on the other hand, is excessive copying, an attempt to reproduce the effect of the original by seeking the same composition and using identical techniques to record it.

Even so, there is a fine dividing line between inspiration and imitation.

If you jump in and photograph a dog walking beside its owner, are you imitating Elliott Erwitt or inspired by him? That’s a good question because you may not have heard of Elliott Erwitt but you may have seen one of his most famous photographs and incorporated that experience into your understanding of visual language. The whole process of “copying” can occur below your level of awareness.

Not so when I took the featured image (at the top of this post). Only before I took it, I muttered under my breath: “I can’t help it. Sorry Mr. Erwitt.” In fact, I don’t think I took a serious shot that I could use. But then, looking at the photo on my computer, I couldn’t help but like it.

Yes, I know it’s derivative, but there are significant differences between it and Erwitt’s photo. For starters, the color. The dog looks more festive and carefree than one of Erwitt’s sweater chihuahuas. My dog ​​goes places, not only hanging around looking smug but also cute. Looking at the picture I can recognize my own style, not just the pale remnants of Erwitt’s style.

Mind Region
Novelists have a habit of lurking in certain “regions of the mind” that often correspond to regions in reality. Think: Thomas Hardy and Wessex or Emily Bronte and the Yorkshire Moors.

In this respect street photographers are no different.

Martin Parr began his career making the English seaside resorts “the territory of the mind”, then colonizing other places at home and abroad where he could photograph similar subjects with slight changes to his style.

Before even looking for confirmation on his website, I could detect that Martin Parr was heavily influenced – inspired – by the late Tony Ray-Jones. He, too, photographed the British on their beach holidays and did it with such success that I would have been inclined to leave the subject alone, had I taken up street photography in the 1970s. It’s to Parr’s credit that he is unshakable.

I hasten to add: I was never inspired by Tony Ray-Jones or Martin Parr.

Another example is American photographer Berenice Abbott who took her lifelong inspiration from Eugène Atget. You can see his influence in his composition, for example, in the way he shoots the front of the shop, not facing up but slightly to one side. (I’ve always done that—see below—but not because of Berenice Abbott or her mentor).

mannequin peeking from the shop door

Cultural Transference
I don’t think you can accuse Parr or Abbott of copying the photographers who inspired them. They are only participating in cultural transference, a phenomenon in which we all take part.

However, there is a real danger in visiting a place where an accomplished photographer has taken shots that have earned him critical attention and acclaim. If a place and its inhabitants don’t change much, you’ll have a hard time photographing it in your own style.

It’s easier in prose. Writing allows you to dig beneath the surface of things that cameras can’t. In his book “Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words,” Charles Caleb Colton – the 18th century English writer who accidentally coined the expression “imitation is the most sincere”. [form] flattery” — wrote: “There is nothing more common than hearing directly contradicting reports from the same country. The difference is not in what is being reported, but in the reporter.”

We can take heart from Pastor Colton: there is no permanent ownership of territory, either mind or place. You can be inspired by others but take a fresh look and trust your own judgment.

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