A riff on ‘originality’

This posting starts from Matthew’s (my tutor) comments in formative feedback on Assignment 2.

The question that arises is a fundamental one of originality and at what point does work produced become imitation. In the world were millions of images are produced daily we may have to question if there can be such a thing as originality. It is conceivable that at some point we may have to draw a line in the history of photography at the point where originality stopped and to consider imitation not only as a form of flattery but as the only means of producing work.

I propose to take up the ball and, if not run with it, stroll around with it for a while. I don’t expect to come up with any answers but I hope to ask some of the right questions.

As a starting point we must heed Humpty Dumpty’s comment to Alice (Dodgson, C.L. as collected in Gardner 1970, 269) ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. It is possible to create a problem, or escape from one, depending on how we define our key words. However, for a bit of objectivity, I start with COED (1964) which gives ‘originality‘ as the adverbial form of ‘original‘ inter alia thus:

… that has served as a pattern, of which copy or translation has been made, not derivative or dependent, first hand, not imitative, novel in character or style, inventive, creative, thinking or acting for oneself …

I suspect that Matthew is using a quite strong definition of originality, meaning something on the lines of ‘nothing like it has ever been done in the history of photography’. This is analogous with the concept of priority in scientific research – whoever is first to publish takes the credit. As time goes by, new research covers increasingly narrower points – effectively filling-in the gaps but whole new fields do open up from time to time. Similarly, in photography it is increasingly difficult to find something that has not been done before but I like to think there are ‘gaps’ to be filled, and the occasional conceptual leap.

I believe there is a legitimate, weaker form of originality in the dictionary definition – based on the phrases ‘not imitative‘ and ‘thinking or acting for oneself‘. An idea, concept or photograph may be original to a particular photographer even if it has been done by somebody else, somewhere else, so long as the author was not consciously aware of the previous work. (Work based on subconscious memory is a grey area in this argument). To continue with the scientific analogy, this is similar to Wallace and Darwin describing natural selection at the same time,  Newton and Leibnitz inventing the calculus, or Swann and Edison independently inventing the electric light bulb.

There is also a stronger interpretation, by which it could be said that no photograph is ever original. Every photograph (rather than piece of digital art) requires a subject to be present; the photograph is, effectively, a copy of the subject. This is obvious with a piece of 2-dimensional art such as a painting or a piece of graffiti. It is less obvious, but I believe no less true, that a photograph of any object is a copy of the surface form of that object.

On that basis, is a photograph of a photograph, such as Richard Prince’s copies of the Marlboro Man (example) or his ‘New Portraits’ exhibition (link) any more of a copy than his subject is? My own view is that they are blatant plagiarism, but this appears to be controversial in the art world. (Parkinson 2015)

In the absence of direct plagiarism we can still ask how similar one photograph must be to another before we consider it an imitation, and whether there are other factors in play. Is it simply the subject matter, or is context relevant?

Consider the images above, made decades apart. All are unique. All are of gardeners posing in their gardens.

I made the left-hand image today. Nobody in the history of photography has previously taken a photograph of my wife, wearing that outfit and standing in that corner of our garden. Indeed, the potting shed is only six months old and it is the first time it has appeared in a photograph. The image is unique, but does that make it original? My answer is ‘no’ because it is a conscious imitation (albeit in colour) of the sort of image used by Keith Arnatt in his ‘Gardeners’ series, discussed in previous blog postings.

Is the central image original? It was taken at about the same time Arnatt was making ‘Gardeners’. I regard this as original to me (the weaker form of originality described above) as I was not aware of Arnatt’s work (or indeed his existence) at that time.

Similarly, the right-hand image was taken by my mother some 15 years before ‘Gardeners’. Does that give it priority over Arnatt’s work? Does it refute his claim to originality? I think not, for similar reasons to the previous paragraph.

At this point, I run out of steam without any real conclusions except that ‘originality’ is a slippery concept and the question of its eventual demise depends entirely on how it is defined in the first (original?) place.


Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1964) 5th edition. ‘Original’ definition. Oxford University Press

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Parkinson, H.J. (2015) Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age [online] at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/18/instagram-artist-richard-prince-selfies

Tate (s.d.) Search Art and Artists, Keith Arnatt [online] at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/search?aid=666&limit=100&sort=date&type=artwork (accessed 3 April 2016)


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