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Curious Frame - Issue #16 - Does Originality Matter?

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #16 - Does Originality Matter?
By Leanne Staples • Issue #16 • View online
I used to come across people on a regular basis on tours who wanted to take the best photo of this thing or that thing. (Enter the pandemic and tours have all but ceased.) Often it’s to take a photo of something that’s been photographed to death. In other words, not very original.

Often it’s of a landmark that you can buy a postcard of for a dollar. Why bother? That’s my feeling about it. Many years ago, I gave up trying to compete with photographers who get paid large sums of money to shoot photos that are used in glossy magazine spreads.

It’s like trying to compare apples and oranges. They’re both fruit as photos are still photos. But the similarity ends there. It’s great to see your photos in public! Yes, I still have 9 photos covering the windows of a vacant commercial space on Madison Avenue.

But they are my photos. They existed before and were not commissioned or made to appeal to the client. So much photography that we see in public everyday is designed for a very specific purpose. Typically to get us to part with our money!

My style of photography is to make a photo my own. That is to say to have it reflect the way that I see the world. It’s taken me years to figure that out! And to allow myself to draw outside the lines which is actually my natural style. And the unexpected bonus is that others appreciate it.

It is of course a common method when you first start shooting to imitate photos that you like. It’s really no different than learning to play a favorite song on guitar and wanting to play it “perfectly.“

But at some point it’s time to leave the imitation behind and find your own style. I am not interested in being a cover band. My goal is to create that which makes my work unique, including its flaws.

If I’m able to create photos in my own style, why would I even want to copy others or even take photos at all? So what does originality have to do with it?
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Readers comments:
Curious Frame exists for you, the readers. It is fabulous how so many people are involved in the dialogue and with so many different opinions about what photography means to us. 
Let the dialogue continue! Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required. Comments below are from Issue 15 - What is Art?
All you need to do to join the dialogue is hit reply. You can even reply about earlier issues as well.
One reader wrote:
Well, your proposed theme is the path we are taking in what we set out to be or do as photographers.
What is art?
Have you asked google this?
Let’s forget about dictionaries, wikipedia, google and express here what I feel and think about it.
Feeling and expressing yourself in some way is the first step!
A footprint on intact sand can be art!
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Curious Frame Newsletter | Exploring Photographic Possibilities
Originality & Appropriation
This is a double exposure. Which is one method of creating an original image. 135 St Station Uptown, 22 October 2020.
This is a double exposure. Which is one method of creating an original image. 135 St Station Uptown, 22 October 2020.
Can we even talk about originality and photography in the same breath? And is it important if a photo is original? Whether we are talking about film or digital photography, the idea of an original isn’t really a consideration.

There are two ways of looking at the concept of original. In the art world, the question would be is it the original or a reproduction? But in photography you are free to continually print from the same negative (analog or digital) over and over again until the negative is lost or destroyed.

Yes, you can sell limited editions of photos. But there isn’t one photo that has more monetary value as a result. Perhaps this is one of the ways that photography differs in the broader category called art.
In a preview of celebrity magazine cover techniques, a popular image of Abraham Lincoln is actually his head grafted to the more majestic body of John Calhoun, a senator and vice president. Library of Congress.
In a preview of celebrity magazine cover techniques, a popular image of Abraham Lincoln is actually his head grafted to the more majestic body of John Calhoun, a senator and vice president. Library of Congress.
The monetary value of a photo or a painting is one of the most important reasons why curators and others feel a necessity to label something as an original.

Someone will pay more money for an original, and perhaps the only real reason to call a photo an original is to emphasize its monetary value.

While I won’t be going into the concepts of frauds, fakes and forgeries in this issue, the above photo of Abraham Lincoln is an early example of photographic manipulation. Oh, seeing isn’t always believing.

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see. John Cage

Then there’s the idea of original as in the actual image itself. As if you can take a photo that someone else can’t. I question whether that is even an important aspect of why we take a photo in the first place. So this issue attempts to tackle the idea of originality and what it means for photography in general and street photography more specifically.
Reflections are a favorite method of adding an original perspective on a well know landmark. New York Public Library Reflected, 17 November 2019.
Reflections are a favorite method of adding an original perspective on a well know landmark. New York Public Library Reflected, 17 November 2019.
Is there anything new under the sun? Obviously, the word original stems from the word origin. Which tends to put a heavy emphasis on the idea of originality. It feels like a burden that you must create something that hasn’t been done before.

Photographs are, of course, artifacts. But their appeal is that they seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects. Susan Sontag

It is entirely possible that nothing is new when it comes to both photography and art. It’s all been done before. And there is even much debate about who took the first photo. Does this bother me? Not a bit.

When we create/make a photo, we are translating our own experiences and vision. We are owning it as it represents part of who we are and how we view the world.
Andy Warhol, “Jackie,” 1964 (Four individual works) Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas with handmade frame 1968 Each signed, titled and dated verso 2.75″ x 2.5″.
Andy Warhol, “Jackie,” 1964 (Four individual works) Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas with handmade frame 1968 Each signed, titled and dated verso 2.75″ x 2.5″.
Which brings us back to Warhol again. It isn’t so much about liking his work. But I think that Warhol is one of the most important artists to have had an affect on the art world. He changed the rules of the game in so many ways.

You could say that a very large portion of Warhol’s work was the use of appropriated images like those of Jaqueline Kennedy in the above series. He didn’t pretend that he took those photos. What he did was to repackage them in a way that has become as iconic as his Campbell’s soup cans.

Photography is always about context and the way that we view photos changes over time. So when photos are presented to us in a new form it perhaps gives us the opportunity to see them in a new light.

But even before Warhol began repurposing photos that were well known by the public, Marcel Duchamp played a stunt on the art world by signing a standard urinal and having it shown in an art exhibit. Giving birth to the readymade.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.
I am not going to tell you that I entirely understand the whole concept about the idea of a readymade. That is the stuff that doctoral theses are made for. But it did open the doors and give a kind of license for others, like Warhol’s appropriation of photography.

What it signals for me, is that artists like Duchamp realized that maybe many of the previous methods to create art have been exhausted. Just maybe we try too hard to create something original.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and, therefore, like power. Susan Sontag

So it should follow that the idea that you are going to go out and take a photo like no one else, is at the same time true and not true. On many many occasions when providing a workshop, I took a photo and another person took a photo of the same thing and guess what? Our photos were both different.
Reflections are fun and you can create images that are unique. No fancy equipment or special tricks here.
Reflections are fun and you can create images that are unique. No fancy equipment or special tricks here.
New photography and art are best seen as reinterpretations of what came before. It is like a form of dialogue with the past. Much of the new photography relies on technology in a very big way. Some of it is drone photography others are created through AI.

I’ve never thought of myself as being old school and stuck in the traditions of the past. But it’s possible that I am moving in that direction. Technology is a secondary consideration for me. Not primary.

You can now see giant photos with fancy processing as if that makes them original. I guess we like to wed art and originality together as if they always exist together in a happy union. 

Just because a photo is original doesn’t necessarily make it art. And the reverse is also true. Just because it is considered art doesn’t mean that it’s original. Fortunately, we have our own opinions which aren’t always those of others and the mainstream.
Tableau Rastadada (Rastadada Painting). 1920. Cut‑and‑pasted printed paper on paper with ink, 7 1/2 × 6 3/4″
Tableau Rastadada (Rastadada Painting). 1920. Cut‑and‑pasted printed paper on paper with ink, 7 1/2 × 6 3/4″
Perhaps some of the most interesting uses of photography these days is the resurgence of collage and photo montage which appropriate photos and put them into a new context.

But collage is nothing new. The above image by Francis Picabia was made in 1920 during the Dada and Surrealist art era. I quite like how collage is able to provide a form of original expression. Taking pieces from here and there and combing them into a single piece.
This is a recent piece of collage and photo montage that I did and it is part of my ongoing project, Sitting the Edges, 29 January 2021  #1
This is a recent piece of collage and photo montage that I did and it is part of my ongoing project, Sitting the Edges, 29 January 2021 #1
While I have been doing quite a bit of both collage and photo montage lately, I have not quit straight photography. But I should say that for me, photography has always been an activity first and foremost. I enjoy it. It’s what I do.

When I think of originals and appropriation, I immediately think of rap and hip hop music and the idea of sampling. There’s a history there and it’s an acknowledgement of working with something from the past and rearranging it. Bringing it forward into the present day.

The fashion industry is also a good example of appropriation. Every 25 years or so, old fashions return in a slightly different manner. They are refashioned.
Sales on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 21 January 2021
Sales on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 21 January 2021
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Susan Sontag

When it comes to street photography, if nothing else, it is always about chance and the happy accident. Of the not knowing what you will discover. Of the pure act of witnessing life in motion with the hope of capturing that.

Every photograph is in a manner of speaking, an original reproduction of the world that we live in and through our eyes. It is another form of communication in which spoken language is not important.

So why is it important for photography to be original? I think that it isn’t really an issue per se. Don’t worry, be happy and continue as we were. If a photograph has the ability to move you, that is all it really needs to be. And if someone else appreciates it, that’s a real bonus.
Photography is - Part Ten
The Great Believers, New York City, December 2019
The Great Believers, New York City, December 2019
Photography is a facsimile.
It is a miniature view of a much larger picture.
Even a 360 degree photo misses more than it captures.
It represents the fleeting moments in life.
Reading list:
  • Sontag, Susan. On Photography, Anchor Books, 1977.
Further viewing:
I had hoped to find a good short video about Susan Sontag and specifically about her book On Photography. There are many long videos.
So instead the link here is for a video of Elliot Erwitt presenting some of his incredible and vast collection of photos. There is much laughter by the audience viewing them and it provides much to think about when taking or even just viewing photography.
EG5 Elliott Erwitt, photographer
You can also find me at:
You can also find me at:
Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Leanne Staples Shop
Art, Etcetera | That Other Space Shop
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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