Originality Is a Conservative Argument

A few weeks back I put together a review of Looking at the Land, a multi-venue curation project by Andy Adams of Flak Photo. One paragraph in particular has drawn some praise, some fire, and some confusion. I'd like to expand on it to see if doing so can forward the conversation.

Here is the paragraph from the original post:
So many photographers today are making strong, but related images in terms of aesthetics and production methods. I'm actually building to a point that’s not critical or dismissive around the point of originality, a point that's back on the conversational hot plate in articles like this one. I've felt more questioning recently, personally and by others, of the idea of photographers in the 21st-century as individuals. I'm coming around to the idea that all of what we're doing is a collective project, it’s group research into aesthetics, formal and conceptual ideas, and cultural themes. 5,500 submissions? Hundreds of them most likely interchangeable? The common approach seen in much of the work – but by no means all of it – to the landscape in Looking at the Land leads me to wonder just how valid the individual really is in photography anymore, assuming it really ever was valid. We are in some sort of photographic Golden Age – the number of photographers today and the quality of images produced, as shown in this exhibition, is unprecedented, even if finding truly new and fresh ideas and territory to explore is increasingly a limited proposition as the medium enters adulthood. I'd just as soon do away with individual names, contests, and the fetishism of certain work. What does it serve beyond the market and egos?
Bryan Formhals of LPV Magazine clipped out a section of this paragraph and posted it on his Tumblr page, called Photographs on the Brain. Some of the aforementioned fire came as a reply to his posted clip by a photographer who goes by santosha65 on Tumblr and as Nick Ruechel in real life. He wrote:
That’s the most asinine, deluded thing i’ve ever heard. We are in a shit storm as far as photography goes. Corporations are taking over content and the parameters in which we create it. Do away with names? FUCK YOU. 
Upon reading his reply, I had a feeling he might be based in New York City, and indeed he is.*

A more textured, but even more damning reply came from Jörg Colberg on his Tumblr site Conscientious Redux:
To quote John Berger: "After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying away in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before. This something amounts to more than our memory of the incident represented, and also more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist has used and arranged. What we take away with us – on the most profound level – is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world. The representation of a recognizable incident (an incident here can simply mean a tree or a head) offers us the chance of relating the artist’s way of looking to our own." ([Colberg's] emphasis, from the introduction to Toward Reality, taken from Selected Essays of John Berger) To "do away with individual names" is to essentially do away with art. Art is inconceivable without the individual artist, even if there are many (or, as some might argue, too many).
I'd like to clarify and expand on the original post and, given both Ruechel and Colberg singled out the phrase "do away with individual names," I'd like to focus on the last two sentences of the original post that include this phrase in particular.

It's interesting to note how salient the overlap of formal appearance and thematic concern is through much of the work of the photographers in "Looking at the Land" and, one can theorize, among the thousands upon thousands who applied to be part of it. Most of these photographers, working separately, sent in work to be considered for the exhibition that reflects, according to Adams, a shared common thematic concern of a vanquished wilderness and an acceptance of the man-made suburban landscape. They produced images that - in many cases - are approached formally in a very similar way and made with color 6x7 aspect ratio film by similar cameras. Part of this has to do with curation for the sake of coherence to be sure, but the show could also have been comprised on the same theme made up, let's say, of almost entirely 35mm black and white work. Or "toy" cameras. Or images curated from Flickr or Google Earth.

How does this square with the idea that part of being an artist is to avoid solipsism by offering through our vision or voice something unique to the artistic dialogues of our society, the - to return to Berger - "artist's way of looking at the world"? We have chosen to pursue our passions and to make financial sacrifices to engage a pursuit that frequently involves isolation in rooms lit by Lightroom or Photoshop. We have turned our back on more conventional life choices and carved out our own way. We go into the field alone, we edit alone, we maintain a sense of our act of creation as an act apart from others before its presentation, an act shared with others.

It's easy to see how we feel singular, special, and unique given our choices in the context of societal norms and our work structure. And the current glut of competitions heightens this feeling, highlighting individuals, and so does the market as investors have a stock in our names and want to maintain the value of their investments. Art becomes about the individual artist, about you, about building a brand and circulating your name. There's some common sense to this: we're all entrepreneurs in a tough racket. In order to survive we do need to make our name in order to have money to continue to pursue what we love.

There's an issue however. The pure lone wolf artist is part of artistic mythology and always has been, along with natural geniuses and beret-wearing café bohemians who spend their spare time lounging around the Left Bank with naked lovers. It's one of the stories we tell ourselves - and that is imaged by others of us - about our role and relationship with the rest of society.

Behind the frequent feeling of having our own unique vision and "brand" in reality lies layers of interconnections. We build our foundation on top of a large and rich photographic history others have provided. We have formal and thematic debts to our branch of photography. Almost every single photographer in history and every project that they have ever worked on has precedent and references. Our connection and debt is also to each other as well as to our predecessors. We have dialogue with what's happening in the photography art world (and other areas of photography). We respond to it, even if it's a rejection or attempt to steer away from the rest. Our work overlaps. The images we see shape our own aesthetic decisions consciously or unconsciously.

Your sense of color, your obscure project subject matter, your tilted framing, mysterious dark developing, and lens refractions in your prints? Not "yours." You are cutting, combining and pasting visual language and recycling from larger thematic concepts others have also worked with as well. Your particular way of recombining those elements? Yes, it's yours, but let's qualify that correctly. A definition of "progress" in our medium should be based in a photographer’s ability to present fresh visual conversation from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, and a consideration of the context in which its made. That being said, don't forget you're working with deep interconnection with, and deep debt to, other photographers and that your uniqueness comes by adding a twist at the end in your combination of elements defined in relation with others.

To say your work is original is to see yourself as removed from history and context, to see yourself in a vacuum and alone. This is why I say originality is a conservative argument. To say your work is truly original is to argue along the lines of conservative political arguments for everything from not paying taxes to cutting social spending. It's seeing the contemporary without history and the individual as separate from the fabric of society, responsible only for themselves.

It's odd that in a field traditionally dominated by liberal minds - and still dominated by liberal minds judging from Twitter feeds and Facebook comments - when it comes to our own field, most get conservative. We forget our interconnection and our debts and that what we use comes in large part from our predecesors and from each other. We get defensive of "our" territory, our stomach falls when our cherished "unique" image shows up in a very similar form by another artist in a magazine or on a blog. We protect our ideas and this alone is an admission that we know somewhere inside ourselves that our work is not actually "original" - we fear another can and will make "our" ideas. We cling to the idea that we've done this alone and that our voice is a singular one.

American artist and writer Chris Wiley is a recent article in The Guardian is quoted as saying, "Everything and everyone on Earth and beyond, it would seem, has been slotted somewhere in a rapacious, ever-expanding Borgesian library of representation that we have built for ourselves. As a result, the possibility of making a photograph that can stake a claim to originality has been radically called into question. Ironically, the moment of greatest photographic plenitude has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion."

Going back to my original post paragraph, why would I suggest getting rid of the focus on individual names, the emphasis on personal accolades, and the fetishism of certain work? Because we're doing this together, our visions are interconnected, and we owe debts. Our "original" visual ideas borrow, interact, and react to those of others. There's no need to be focused on individual canonization and aggrandizement. Photography should have a feeling of collaboration, not of competition. Why not conceptualize what we are doing as a common project into aesthetics, formal and conceptual ideas, and cultural themes? Like doctors across hospitals sharing information in their investigation of cures and causes?

Let's also take my original comments with the appropriate grain of salt. I'm talking about shifting emphasis, remembering what's important, and understanding the limits of the idea of originality. I'm not suggesting there's not any space for visual innovation or that we should never mention or talk about names in the absolute. I'm also not saying all visions are equal or that there's not any difference between how we see things. There is, obviously and thankfully. It's just that those differences have to be seen in their appropriate historical and cultural context.

What I am saying is the experience of the image is what's important, the interaction around the image, the collective investigation between images between different people and over generations of photographers, the connection photography can make between us. The collective project is more important than the individual - and photography is something that we have created together, not any individual alone. Photography is the qualities of the photograph in the context of other photographs and in its cultural context. People forget this in our ever-increasing world of ever more contests, Grand Prix, winners and losers, reviews, and success through who you know.

In fact, as I suggested to Colberg via Twitter, I believe the Berger quote actually supports my point of view. Berger writes about the vision of the photographer and how we receive it - without mentioning the photographer's name. He focuses on a description of the interaction of the observer with the work. Perfect. The chance and experience of relating to that particular vision is what's important, as is remembering the context for that vision.

As I sat down to start to write this the other day, in a moment of procrastination I checked Facebook and saw a post written by Heidi Romano on another photographer accusing her of copying her work. Her post serves as a case study and conclusion for this essay.

First, let's look at a few images. (Image credits are at the end of the essay in order to keep names out of these examples.)

Image by artist A [below]

Image by artist B [below]

Image by artist C [below]

Artist A has accused C of copying her images, but has not accused B of the same thing, even though the image by B was made after the image by artist A. Why? Perhaps because A is aware that B - internationally known and respected - has been working with books, including damaged books and with twisting and distorted and water damaged books just as A does in her projects, since the early 1990s - or roughly 10 years before A started her project.

And now let's look at a second group of images by various artists as well as objects sold by crafts vendors, installation images of works by a sculptor, and an image of a window installation at an Anthropologie store in Manhattan:

Artist A claims that HER image - the fifth down from the top - is being ripped off by artist C in work such as the final image in the above sequence. I hope, simply by showing those two photographs surrounded by images by other artists, craftspeople, as well as dudes paid $7 an hour to put stuff in the windows at Anthropologie, the emptiness of the claim of artist A - Cara Barer - against artist C, Romano.

In sum, originality has to been seen as a question of degree and in context. This is even more true in today's photography landscape as finding fresh ideas and territory to explore is an increasingly limited proposition. Going back to the Wiley quote, we now work in relation with a Borgesian library of visual images. Ideas are driven back and forth over. There are going to be overlaps. To be sure, there is copying; that's not what I mean - and of course there is innovative visual content, but let's keep the idea of individual innovation in an appropriate frame.

To tie together these two visual examples with the earlier points in this piece, Barer is ignoring her own artistic debts, forgetting context, oddly hanging the banner of originality around a well-covered and broad idea of working with damaged books, and working against what should be the spirit of the community project of photography. In a conversation you overlap ideas sometimes. That's OK; it's part of the dialectic process between all of us in order to advance our investigation of visual ideas.
*Mr. Ruechel and I subsequently engaged in a back and forth email exchange that, while not necessarily bringing us to any agreements, brought us to a cordial understanding.