When Your Idea Is Too Close (For Comfort) to Someone Else’s

I have always had a special attachment to this photograph. It was taken on the boardwalk (actually concrete-walk) in Hollywood Beach, Fla., a place I have been photographing for many years. During this time, I have walked past this bike rental shack many times, always peeking through the window to the ocean, hoping something of interest would fill my frame within a frame, and it finally happened.

About four years ago, as I walked by, I noticed the surfer filling the window frame and snapped the shutter. This time, it worked — everything was perfect, and I was delighted with the result.

Photographer David Saxe writes that he decided not to publish this image because it was too similar to another he saw after he shot it.

Photographer David Saxe writes that he decided not to publish this image because it was too similar to another he saw after he shot it.

That is, until I received my copy of Leica Fotographie International two years later. I had been subscribing to this magazine for years and always loved the quality of print, interesting articles and of course the wonderful photographs from photographers both well-known and almost well-known.

When the Idea of Plagiarism Hits Home

In this issue, was an article on the work of Constantine Manos — a photographer whose work I have admired for over 30 years. It was a series of pictures he had taken in Hollywood Beach, Fla., and one of them was this same rental shack that I had photographed. Although both images are somewhat similar, what most concerned me was that we both saw the same thing — that is the frame within a frame.  Where I had a surfer filling the window, his version contained a woman facing the ocean. I was devastated. I actually liked my version better, but this did not matter. It did not matter that my photo was probably shot before his. It did not matter that my photo may have even been better, at least in my eyes. It did not matter that I had never even seen his version before I shot mine. The only thing that mattered to me was that because he was a very well-known Magnum photographer, and I was an almost nobody, that no matter what the actual facts were, I may be seen as a plagiarist — someone who had seen his photograph and then set out to reproduce his vision through my own eyes.

Actually, I was devastated for only a short time. I got over it. I got over it because I knew I had better photographs in me than this one. I got over it because in spite of what people may think — that I had acted honestly, and had not plagiarized anything. I got over it because although there are distinct differences between both photographs, it would still bother me if I were to publish it. I would just feel it’s not “quite right.”  Constantine Manos has always been one of my favorite photographers and I would never allow myself to be accused of copying his work no matter how far-fetched the accusations might be.  The simple fact was that his version was published/exhibited before mine. These days, that is all that matters.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

He is right, of course, but let’s not interpret him literally. There is nothing original or creative in viewing someone else’s photograph and then going out to copy it (same place, same situation) and claim it as your own. However, using my example, there is nothing wrong in taking the frame within a frame concept and using it somewhere else, such as a shopping mall or city street. It has been done many times. Many photographers, i.e. Henri Cartier Bresson, have done this brilliantly without any suspicion regarding their motives.

I suppose I am not the only photographer to have ever been in this position. Over the past few years, the proliferation of photography on the internet has been astounding, and I’m sure many of you readers may have been in similar situations. It is bound to happen and when/if it does, you just have to suck it up and move on. If it is your work that has been copied, go after them by all means, but if you feel you are too close to someone else’s work, just back off.  You will feel better about it in the long run.

Every day I seem to read or hear of photographers whose work has been copied by other photographers or painters and no due credit is given (as if that really matters). These stories are about fraud and theft — nothing more, and every good photographer or artist should be above that. Personally, I have nothing but contempt for photographers who copy from others.  After all, IMO the thing that gives us the best in photography is originality of vision — nothing else really matters.

5 Responses to “When Your Idea Is Too Close (For Comfort) to Someone Else’s”

  1. Great article, well thought out and written. I have shared this to a Google+ community I moderate where a member had brought up the subject of plagerism and I was telling him how I had torn up a photograph, that I had spent a few hours printing for my final Photography examination, after I found out it was an almost exact replica of one that had been published years before.

  2. I really think your paranoia is a little overthought here. The examples shown here are unique images. Based on your thoughts, people should also stop publishing pics of the Eiffel Tower, their cats, latte sups on cafe tables. Which would really suit me fine.

  3. I had the opportunity to study with Manos and the important thing I try to remember is to internalize what he taught, which for me was a truly new way of seeing the world while at the same time applying my own vision toward subject and composition when making the capture.

    One could argue there are no more unique images out there as surely someone has shot everything in just about every possible situation from every conceivable angle. Further as students of the craft we've all marveled at imagery from the Masters, but does that not mean that one shouldn't attempt to look into someone's sole like Walker Evans, or frame subjects like Vivian Maier (one of the the truly great photographers of our time), or compose nature with the simple majesty of Ansel Adams? The list of possible influences is endless and depending upon how much photography one has seen is very rich indeed, but does that mean one cannot exhibit unique expression because we live in the 21st Century and stand on the shoulders of countless others? Of course not. I've found that by studying others work I have broadened my own expressive vission. Strong imagery is strong imagery pure and simple.

  4. Nice thought and I understand your point but if every artist did this well to be honest at some point we would have little to no artist and the fact is it has all been done at 99% of it and it will be done again. The point is to do it better or do it your way and share it who cares what the masses think who even cares what the "critics" think it is your work share publish and prosper from YOUR hard work and if questioned tell them to piss off it is your work. If we spend all of our time trying not to be someone else we will never discover who we are.

    Just a though

  5. As an aspiring artist in college many years ago I took the required art history class, and then I took many more because as a young artist I was amazed and delighted with how many wonderful images and things there were in the world. Everything worth making has already been done, and many times over for that matter. Many cultures make the same traditional images over and over. Our western culture celebrates new and different, even though most of us know that our creations are influenced by what we see and what we know. Picasso was correct, we all steal a little inspiration from what we see and what we are exposed to and hopefully what we "borrow" comes out as a new and different thing. Unfortunately, these days I see a lot of young "artists" who either find nothing wrong with lifting an idea as is and thinking they created it, or making an image that they think is new and different and not realizing their little reptilian brain has captured an image along the way and its coming out unchanged. Knowing and admitting to your influences is a good thing, denying you have any makes you a fool or in some cases a plagiarizer.

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