Originality is the single most celebrated quality of the artist. Craftsmanship may rank a close second, but it is originality that typically draws the most praise and causes an artist to be remembered. Nonetheless, there are several good reasons why the creative photographer may be better off forgetting about originality during the process of making photographs.
1) Personal motivations are more productive.
If we set out to make photographs with the goal of being original, we are focusing on what others have done already. The emphasis becomes a matter of what to avoid rather than what to pursue—a process of moving away instead of moving towards. Therefore, the concept of originality can amount to a terrible distraction for an artist. By concentrating on our own interests and motivations, we can allow the process of creation to run in a more positive direction, one that originates from within instead of merely diverging from external considerations.
2) We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Photography, like any artistic medium, is one of the world’s great unfinished projects and always will be. Since inspiration plays an incalculable role in the process of art-making, we should recognize that we are all taking part in an ongoing collaborative process. Art’s inherent combination of personal expression and creative exchange is what makes it culturally powerful, and we should embrace opportunities to develop both ends of that spectrum. Therefore, it is helpful to acknowledge the works of other photographers as part of our collective foundation, to realize that we draw upon them, and to think of our own works as responses rather than as departures.
3) Originality is inevitable.
Unless we set out to produce deliberate replicas of existing photographs, we are bound to put something of ourselves into everything that we create. Every photographer, by the virtue of being an individual, has unique ideas that are at least germinating with the creation of every photograph. Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen wrote forcefully on this topic when he used the metaphor of a bus transit system to describe the creative process. He explained that all of the buses in his town cover the same route as they depart from the central station, and if you want to reach an area that is unique to a particular bus line, then you have to stay on one of the buses for a while. Such is the case with creativity, he explains. If you practice your art long enough, you’ll reach that unique area eventually, and it will then become apparent that your line was distinct from the others all along. In other words, so long as we allow our own interests and ideas to guide us, we will inevitably produce a body of work that shimmers with originality.
For these reasons, it is probably best to think of originality as a wonderful result but to forget about it as a goal. Concentrating on more constructive concepts, such as interpretation or expression, will help to put the focus where it belongs: on what each of us invariably has to offer as an individual.
Erin Babnik is a landscape photographer, speaker, educator, and author. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks worldwide. Erin is honored to be a Canon Explorer of Light. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com