There’s a famous anecdote about Christopher Columbus which I’ve always enjoyed. According to the story, after his return to Europe from one of his voyages of discovery to the New World, Columbus attended a dinner party and was given the seat of honor for his accomplishment. A courtier at the table, jealous of the attention given to the explorer, remarked that he did not think the feat to be all that impressive—after all, anyone could have pointed their ship west and hit the New World. Columbus did not respond directly, but instead passed an egg around the table, challenging his fellow dinner guests to make it stand on end using only their wits. Of course, being oval in shape, the egg predictably rolled over each time someone tried to stand it on end. When the egg returned to Columbus, he smashed one end of the egg on the table, standing the remaining unsmashed portion of the egg up in the yolk. Locking eyes with the courtier, Columbus stated that the solution now seemed obvious, but only because he had pointed the way.
This story—which, in my opinion, has a whiff of the apocryphal and so shouldn’t be taken too seriously—is meant to demonstrate the power and rarity of original thinking. There is a lesson here for photographers, one that encourages us to find our own path and to seek to create images that reflect our own personal vision. I think that we can all agree on that.
There is another lesson, however, that emerges from this anecdote. Assuming, for a moment, that this story is true (although I doubt that it is), I can’t help but think that Columbus’ dinner party claim to discovery and originality is a bit on the presumptuous side. First of all, Columbus’ exploration was derivative of the impressive journeys of exploration of many others which had come before him, especially the Portuguese who had already rounded the Horn of Africa. In essence, he had already seen someone else smash the egg, he merely further refined the smashing process, so to speak. Second, let’s not forget that he thought he had traveled to the Far East—he landed in the New World by mistake, and it took some time for someone to realize that an error had been made. Finally, recent archaeological evidence suggests that it is likely that many outsiders visited the New World long before Columbus, including Vikings, Polynesians, and possibly others. And, of course, what about all of the people already living there? I suspect if they had been at the dinner party, they would have simply shaken their heads in total disbelief. If someone with more wit and armed with the facts had been at the table, the egg might have ended up on Columbus’ face.
Originality is a good thing. Originality is something that all artists should strive for. In this sense, originality is something that is positive and laudable. Unfortunately, the quest for originality too often becomes a bad thing. This happens when folks start bashing other people over the head with it. Over my years as a professional photographer, I’ve frequently heard people claim that they “invented” a particular photograph, even going so far as to claim that others are “stealing” their shots. Most of these accusations all seem to have a common thread: one photographer thinks that he or she was the first person to ever discover and photograph a particular composition, and they assume that anyone else who then photographs the scene is a copycat. Much like Columbus’ dinner party antics, I find these claims amusing and presumptuous.
To me, the biggest problems with these “shot stealing” claims is that they don’t take into account the possibility of independent discovery, and they often erroneously assume first discovery. Columbus was certainly not the only person to come up with the idea of pointing a ship west (or, in the case of the Polynesians, east) and sailing until he hit something, and mounting evidence suggests that he wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea. Clearly, the Vikings, Polynesians, and the Europeans weren’t communicating with each other about their respective discoveries—they certainly weren’t posting to Flickr—yet they all managed to end up in the same place. Similarly, many photographers can travel to the same location and come away with very similar shots, even if they have never seen each other’s photos (or any other photos of the location) before. Some scenes are fairly obvious, and while we all have our own unique artistic vision, it is likely that many of us will be attracted to similar things.
For example, if Ansel Adams had never photographed the Snake River Overlook in the Grand Tetons, how long would it have been before someone else figured out that it was a good composition? My guess is that it wouldn’t have taken long at all: it is, after all, fairly obvious, which is likely why Ansel was attracted to the shot in the first place. Besides, how do we even know Ansel was the first person to photograph the overlook? Perhaps he was copying someone else. Although I usually avoid photo icons as much as Columbus avoided asking for directions, sometimes I find myself in front of them. If I end up at the Snake River Overlook, I’m going to take a picture, and I’m not going to feel ashamed for doing so. I’ll try to put my own personal spin on the scene, but let’s face it, that s-curve jumps right out at you and it is clearly the reason to be there in the first place.
I’m certainly not advocating being a copycat. I think everyone should try to find their own personal vision, rather than simply going from icon to icon and taking the same compositions that were originally developed long ago by other people. I’ll be the first to admit that when I see a self-proclaimed “pro” with a portfolio full of what are essentially other peoples’ images, I am inclined to be somewhat dismissive of that person’s abilities as an artist. Originality is a good thing, and we should all strive to achieve it as much as possible.
Lest we get too proud of our creative vision, however, I think we all should be humbled by the truth that we stand on the shoulders of giants—many you know by name, and many you don’t—who have been photographing our natural world for decades. They have made an indelible stamp on the art of nature photography as we know it, and because of their dedication, there are few places in this world that haven’t been photographed before. Like it or not, all of our work is derivative, to some extent or another. While I believe there is still room for originality, the truth is, our natural world seems to be getting smaller and smaller all the time. Many of the unexplored photography frontiers of the past simply don’t exist anymore—they have long been tamed and cultivated by an ensnaring net of tripod legs. Unfortunately, as this continues to happen, these debates about originality are likely to get more contentious over time—as the pot shrinks, more scuffles will erupt over the porridge within.
So even though I think we should all strive to try something new, I guess in the end I just don’t have any patience for those who cry foul whenever someone takes a photo that has been done before. To me, their accusations too often end up sounding shrill and jealous of the attention someone else is getting. Besides, we shouldn’t have to travel to the ends of the Earth just to ensure that we come up with something truly original. There’s plenty of room for all of us to enjoy our passion for photography, and if on occasion we end up tripping over each other’s tripod holes from time to time, let’s not get our knickers in a twist.
And by all means, if someone passes you an egg during a fancy dinner party, please throw it against the wall.
Technical details: Canon 5DIII, 61mm, 2-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30 second.