We've all done it, we've all denied it, we aren't proud of it, but I guarantee that at some point on our creative journeys that each and every one of us have copied somebody else's work.
It's one of those things that we tend to feel bad about though, its like invisible theft, nothings changed hands but you now have something that somebody else had. Because of this feeling of stealing we all vehemently deny it and desperately scramble to try and find differences in the work.
I personally feel that copying others is at an all time high in the photographic industry right now and there's a few reasons for this. Firstly we are all becoming visually saturated by literally thousands of images every day now with Facebook, Instagram, Pininterst etc etc, the list is huge so it's only natural that we are going to produce an image like we've already seen. Secondly though, and I think most interestingly, we copy one another far more now than ever because of the pace that the medium of photography is evolving at. 'Photographers' can take images within the first week of owning their first camera that would not of been possible by masters of the craft 25 years ago. Technology is filling in the knowledge gaps and giving a helping hand where needed and the affordability and accessibility of the equipment is within reach of even the most basic consumer. So why all the copying? Well I think it comes down to a mindset and a false sense of security within the medium itself, we've bought all the gear, I want to use it, I don't want to have to learn how to use it at University for three to five years. I want results today. And why not?
Photography is not alone with this modern need for instant results, in fact nearly anything that employs technology to garnish results has fallen foul to this idea, we've spent good money so we expect outstanding results. Technology enables us to run before we can walk, so we inevitably run regardless of the consequences. So what does this actually mean for us photographers? Well it means we get stuck-in and start using the equipment without be taught how to use it, the only way, and I mean the only way this technique can produce results is to copy others. There, I said it, it's out there.
A while ago I was interviewed by a University and one of the questions I was asked was 'Do you still feel a formal education in photography is an important factor to success?' The following was my response;
'I think formal education in photography is extremely important and I would recommend it to anybody. Formal education provides you with the unbiased tools to help any photographer realise their own individual creativity. I see a lot of photographers announcing they are 'self taught' like it's a badge of honour. Not only do I find this ironic, 'yeah I'm self taught by hundreds of other photographers on YouTube' but it's also stating that 'look at my work, its good and I taught myself'. I know personally that my photography would be nowhere near as good today had it not been for my formal photographic education. I guarantee that a lot of great photographers out their today who actually have their own individual style are the ones who were formally educated. The people copying them were not.'
I think its pretty clear to see where I stand on the topic, and granted there are some bold sweeping statements in there but please, just let me briefly elaborate and hopefully explain what I mean.
I was fortunate enough to be taught what the tools can do, not how to use them. There is a very small but very important distinction here, once I am aware what can be achieved I am left to figure out how to achieve it. This by its very nature builds individual style, something that is very difficult to maintain with technology. For example, if I was to put five photographers in a room with five cameras, five tripods and five light meters and asked them all to photograph the apple on the table in front of them, how different do actually think those images would really be? The technology is going to get in the way of the creative process and the results will reflect that. Now imagine putting five artists in the same room and asking them to produce an image of the same apple but all they had was a brush, a box of paints and piece of paper, imagine how varied those paintings would be in contrast. Technology is getting in the way of our creativity by distorting what it means to be a photographer. It is diminishing our individuality and thus our personal style.
If you've read this far then congratulations, you're nearly there but let's just quickly recap the ranting and refocus the point of this article. Photographic technology is empowering us to be 'better' photographers, we don't need to go to school to learn how to use the kit and get all smelly in elbow deep toxic chemicals we can take a 'great' photograph very easily on our own, the camera does that. So now we can take 'great' shots what's next? Well now we need to look at other photographers work to get ideas on what's possible because remember, we haven't been taught what's possible we've only been taught how to get there and the cameras doing that bit for us. So finally the copying begins.
Copying has been around forever, its only now that with thousands of people seeing our images that it's become so difficult to get away with it and hide. So don't hide it, be open about it, embrace the copying because you will not get away with it, we are all just too connected these days to hide it, somebody will always catch you out. That's exactly what legendary photographers Mert and Marcus did, they were honest about it right from the get go and they were proud of where they were coming from.
To round up the Mert and Marcus back story then, they are an incredibly famous fashion photography duo that specialise in photographing nearly every female icon of the past two decades and imortalising them on every front cover imaginable. Their work is bright, bold and they always portray their female stars as powerful, sexy and glamorous icons of their time. You will have seen their work even if you don't know it but how have they carved out this style? Well, they copied it, self professed copycats at that, they aren't shy about it and why should they be, their work speaks for itself. Its harder to see now but twenty years ago their inspiration came from the legend Guy Bourdin. Bourdin was their 1970's equivalent and a quick peruse over his work will show you that he photographed the exact same qualities from his female subjects and portrayed them in bold, brash super saturated colours, making them leap from the page. But Mert and Marcus didn't stop there, in fact they have actually made a career out of openly copying others and adding their own personal evolved style to it and usually to great effect.
So if Mert and Marcus are self confessed copycats how can this be morally acceptable and what makes them different? The catalyst comes from the fact that Mert and Marcus aren't classically trained, I think they had backgrounds in music and graphic design respectively so the only way they could photograph at first was to copy. So how do you copy somebody but remain unique? Well Mert and Marcus took Bourdins style and simply evolved it, the biggest change they made though was to add the huge string of technology to their bow. Their work pushed the digital medium right from the beginning and they made sure that their images stood above the rest by simply being ahead of the curve with their digital manipulation and it became their style. They took the Bourdin style of saturated colours that he achieved with filters and added the new era of digital to create their 'hyper real' look. In an interview with them in The New Yorker in 2004 Grace Coddington (director of Vouge at the time) spoke about their style and referenced a shoot they had done the previous year in Dubai '
They do not hide the fact that they do so. “It’s very fakey, fakey, fakey, but that’s what it’s supposed to be,” Coddington said. Even real things seem fake: a year ago, they traveled, at great expense, to the desert of Dubai to shoot a campaign for Louis Vuitton. In the end, the dunes looked computer-generated anyway.'
So its fine to copy, like I mentioned at the start we all started out doing this but if we accept we are copying we have to evolve past it. The key is to not hide it, especially at the start, don't deny you're copying somebody if you are. It's part of the creative process and for those who are 'self taught' you have to copy whether you like it or not because nobody is showing you how to create, you are only left to copy what you've already seen. By accepting this I think it enables us to move past this copying stage far faster and your personal style can emerge on the other side far quicker and far more defined. It's just human nature for us to reject and feel bad about copying, if we acknowledge we are copying we are forced to move on very quickly because although we've acknowledged we're copying we aren't proud of it. We all inherently want our own voice.
So I'd like to caveat my earlier sweeping statement in my interview, 'I guarantee that a lot of great photographers out their today who actually have their own individual style are the ones who were formally educated.' I would like to add that although a formal education can actually quicken the process of an individual style I do believe that copying others and accepting it as such can also be the seed of an individual style.
I personally get sent photos all the time from photographers who are practising my techniques, sure they're copying me, they're acknowledging it and they're telling me. It's a great process, we discuss the shots they've taken, they reshoot it and without exception the next shoot has evolved and an individual style is starting to already emerge. But it doesn't stop there, I share my techniques, people send me their shots using my techniques and I see new ways of developing my own style too, it's win-win so I love it when people send me their copies.
So go ahead, please send me your copies and allow my style to evolve too :D
Photographer: George Hoyningen-Huene
Photographer: Mikael Jansson
Photographer: Patrick Demarchelier
Photographer: James White
Photographer: Guy Bourdin
Photographer: Mert & Marcus
Photographer: Erwin Blumenfeld
Photographer: Jeff Bark
Photographer: Edit April 2017- The photographer who originally took inspiration from my work at the end of this article has asked for his name to be removed from this article.