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.
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.