There’s a growing belief about photography, that it has all been done. Whatever genre you can think of, whatever style or technique, every perspective has been covered. What helps fuel this belief, is that almost everyone nowadays has a camera. They may only be built into mobile telephone or tablet devices but as the saying goes, the best camera available is the one we have on us.
Thus, whether photographing subjects into the sun or backlit, with studio lights or without, shooting reflections in windows, from behind glass, or in puddles, capturing shadows, highlights, textures, lines and angles, they’ve all been recorded within photographic frames. The scrums of paparazzi photographers shooting politicians and celebrities, or crowds of tourists all snapping famous landmarks; aren’t they all just taking the same pictures? And to take an extreme example, how about the mountain climber who scales Everest and takes a photograph from the summit. Even if this person has become part of an exclusive group of individuals, hundreds of Everest summit images have been captured before, either by other climbers, or by photographers in fly over aircraft, or by technology – drones or satellites. What’s new? Where’s the originality?
There’s nothing left. All that photographers can hope to do now is regurgitate pale imitations of what’s gone before.
Well, I for one don’t believe that. In fact, quite the contrary. For me, originality thrives and will always be present in photography, if only because of one thing: nobody takes photographs like you do.
Whether you’re a casual snapper or experienced professional, in the very moment you press the shutter button, while occupying the space you’re in at the moment of capture, you’re in a unique, never to be repeated set of circumstances to create an original photograph.
At the same time, your uniqueness can’t be matched: no one sees the colours, the light and dark, the shapes and textures quite as you do. And no one appreciates the story in front of you as you see it, nor can anyone else grasp the moment in the scene as you interpret it.
Imagine yourself in one of those paparazzi scrums outside 10 Downing Street as the politician of the day steps out. Your standing space, distance from the subject, angle of view, available light, while similar to your fellow shooters, is unique to you. Now add to this your creative, even artistic, choices of how to capture your images: film or digital, colour (or black and white) settings, camera orientation (portrait or landscape), hand-held or tripod mounted, preferred exposure settings (ISO, aperture, shutter speed), focus preference (sharp or soft) and so on. Then, after you’ve captured your shots, what of your editing choices? If unrestricted, how will you ‘improve’ your shots (if you feel you need to)? What software will you use and how will you apply its tools? If shooting for a particular journal, what is its editorial policy and how will that affect your final image edit? Most importantly, how were all of these creative choices influenced by the story angle that unfolded, or which you were specifically there to capture (which may have been slightly different to the other shooters present)? Suddenly, taking photographs of the same politician as everyone else around you, from the same relative location behind the same barrier, becomes ever more unique. No shot now will be identical: every photograph will be original.
The same originality argument stands up if you are a landscape photographer. Take a look at the attached photograph of the cliffs along Newhaven beach in East Sussex. These cliffs have been photographed, no doubt, hundreds of times. How can I possibly claim that this is an original photograph of the scene? Well, I could argue that I captured the shot at a specific time on a specific day, which no one else could possibly have done from the spot I was standing in and this alone makes the photograph original. But for purposes of this blog I won’t do that; I’ll set those factors aside.
What makes this photograph an original, is that while I have the same potential ability as any photographer out there, I used my limited skillset in my way to capture it. I brought my own unique vision to what I saw; my own interpretation based on the story that the landscape in front of me unveiled at the time. This photograph came from my feelings that I got from the scene, which helped me determine how best to capture what the seascape was sharing with me.
The cliffs are high, white and bold. They’re layered from millions of years of deposits and also scarred from sea and weather erosion. Fallen lumps of rock show evidence of on-going corrosion. Just before the foot of the cliffs, the stone beach slopes steeply towards the sea, showing how high the English Channel can rise and how fierce it can be. The beach also provides evidence of weather damage to a man-made structure. I chose a 4:5 aspect ratio for the frame to help illustrate the steep angle of the stone beach and the grandeur of the cliffs. This also helped keep the main subject, the cliffs, central to the photograph with no excess of sea to distract the viewer. Perhaps most importantly, I decided to make the image a black and white. It was a very bright, high-contrast scene and this combined with the colour range nullified the epic, historic story of the battle between the land and the elements, so clearly shown in the lines running across the cliff face, the jagged clifftop edge, and the stark contrast between the white of the cliffs highlighted by the day’s strong sun and the threatening darkness of the sea, calm for now but with tiny waves acting as a reminder that the battle will continue as winter approaches.
So, whether or not others have been out and shot what you’re thinking of shooting, it doesn’t matter. No one ever photographed your potential subject how you will. Moreover, no one will ever quite feel how you will about the scene when you capture your images. Which means photography hasn’t all been done and needs all of us out there to keep pushing the boundaries of originality.