A few years ago, my wife and I were living in Abu Dhabi. We were incredibly fortunate in that we had well paid jobs with plenty of holidays. The downsides were the fact that it was not the most vibrant of places and that for more than half of the year going outside was nearly unbearable. Once, I took a taxi in the middle of summer. When I got in, the driver excitedly told me that the car thermometer was reading 56 degrees Celsius, and it was the hottest day he had ever known. I have no idea of the accuracy of the reading. I strongly suspect that it was not quite that hot, but who was going to begrudge him his excitement? The upshot of this was that a place where you felt like you were being roasted to a less than mouth-watering medium/well done for more than half the year was not necessarily an endless source of inspiration for photography. Fine work could be done there, but I personally found it a great struggle.
As a result of this lack of photographic engagement, my images from this time were mostly made when we were on holiday and travelling. Do not get me wrong. I am not complaining about this. I was incredibly fortunate and privileged to have the opportunity to visit and photograph some truly remarkable places. However, if I am honest with myself, it did mean that the work I produced was consistently unoriginal. I do not think there was anything wrong with the photographs that I took. On the contrary, there are a few that I am still rather proud of, but nobody would ever look at them and think them to be something new as many of the pictures appeared to be cheap impersonations of Raghubir Singh or Steve McCurry.
In truth, this was not entirely accidental. For me, McCurry is a master of formal composition. It is all in there: rule of thirds, leading lines, curves, and so on. Singh was the king of making sense of chaos and breaking rules. It made perfect sense to me to use their styles as a basis for my learning and developing. My image, Jodhpur, is a clear homage to Singh. It is one that I still like very much, but I can hardly claim that it is entirely original. To this day, I still struggle to produce work that I feel is original. I do my best, but I am still wracked with doubt about what I create. This got me thinking and brings me to this article’s central question: is originality dead? As photographers, are we all simply repeating things that have been done in the past?
Before writing, I chatted about this question with a knowledgeable friend. His response? “Originality in photography dead? Was it even alive?” Not wishing to submit to his slightly comedic cynicism, I looked up some articles on several sites that explained how photographers can be original. None that I read came up with a convincing message. One featured on a well-known site talked about originality in mobile photography. The author gave some interesting and thoughtful ideas, but the photographic examples given as “original” were nothing of the sort. They looked like a million Instagram pages. It even featured a whole set of pictures of roads disappearing off into the distance as an example! There are few older cliches in art. The unfortunate conclusion from this and the other articles was that to be original, you should do what the author recommends you do and be like everyone else who has read the article.
There is another problem though: what is originality? If we want to talk about it, we need a working definition. The Cambridge Dictionary, unlike the subscriber only online Oxford Dictionary, is useful here – “the quality of being special and interesting and not the same as anything or anyone else”. For me, this works nicely and sets a very high bar for defining work as original. As I usually do when confronted by problems such as this, I consider the greats of photography. There are some examples that demonstrate true originality, and some of these are from relatively recent times. In last month’s article, I discussed Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility. Whilst some people might find the work somewhat impenetrable, there can be little doubt that it was wholly original. Going back in time a little further, Robert Frank’s The Americans was completely ground-breaking. However, these were works that were original as a body of work rather than as a single image. For a truly original single image, William Eggleston’s untitled red room immediately springs to mind. I would also argue that much of Raghubir Singh’s canon of work is truly original as he made images that are unique in their composition and presentation.
Times have though moved on since all this great original work was created. I look at innumerable images every single day and what I see mostly is cliched and unexciting which generates little spark. This is an inevitable consequence of a world where everyone can be a ‘photographer’ and images are now so ubiquitous that barely a moment seems to go by without one crossing our eyes. Thankfully, there is still a great deal of magnificent photography to be found and whilst very little of it strikes me as meeting the definition of original, it is still wonderful to look at and enjoy.
The two examples of modern images that I present here are, I think, examples that show that originality can still be found in modern photography. Originality may be struggling a little, but it is certainly not dead.
The first is our banner image, Ron Schwager’s Chiffon Fabrics in the Fog. Schwager is a long-time commercial photographer with a background in fine art. Whilst he recognises that the commercial work is vital for paying the bills, he embraces his creative instincts in his more personal work. This personal work has included publishing the book The California Camp Fire-Reflections and Remnants which reflects on the worst wildfire in Californian history.
Chiffon Fabrics in the Fog is a stunning and impactful photograph. It is an image that was pre-planned (Schwager lives far from the coast) and executed perfectly. I adore every element of this photograph from its dream-like quality to the presence of the water and the gorgeous colours of the chiffon fabric. It immediately recalls an historic image that has a similarly phantasmagorical atmosphere, John Cimon Warburg’s 1915 autochrome Cow on Saltburn Sands. Whilst the subjects of the two images are entirely different (a cow being nothing like a washing line of chiffon!), it is the ‘out of placeness’ of the subjects that generates the connection in my mind. That the chiffon cloth, like the cow, belongs somewhere else is immaterial, the image takes me out of time and place and on to an ethereal plane. For me, the meeting and combining of all its elements make this a strikingly original and beautiful photograph.
Our other modern image is very different but is no less original and impactful. JP Appleton’s The Entrance is clever, fun, and playful. It is one that makes me smile every time I look at it. Appleton, a previous winner of Historic England’s Photographer of the Year award, is based on the beautiful Norfolk coast. Working in graphic design in Manchester in the 1980s, he was exposed to a critical era in British pop culture – “Madchester”. This heavily influenced his own creative work and direction. These days, he is most comfortable making images of the beautiful landscapes around his home, but COVID-19 and its lockdowns caused him to retreat indoors and look for other things to photograph. This led to the creation of The Entrance.
What makes the image original for me is the elements that are brought together in its execution: the science-fiction movie vibe, the scale model, the lighting, the colour palette, and the use of negative space. Every time I look at this image, the Imperial March, also known as the Darth Vader theme, starts up in my head. Of course, we have no idea whether the silhouetted figure is good, evil, or morally ambiguous, but who cares? It works for me!
Returning to our original question – Is originality dead? – I think the answer is no which means that there is still hope for those of us who love the medium. It may take more digging to unearth compared to the days of photography’s infancy, but there are still images out there that can make us react with a little bit of surprise and joy. I think the two images we have discussed today both do that.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation.
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