Originality is Overrated

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David54 Comments

There is much talk in artsy circles about being “original”. I’m not even sure I know what that means. (Or if it exists.)

Of all the places to put our energy, I think this is among the more futile. It’s the wrong answer to the right question.

Is desiring originality (insert vague personal definition here) a good thing? Yes. Of course. If we can agree on the meaning. But however you define it, it’s merely a by-product.

You are already unique. If you do the work you do with honesty, integrity, curiousity, boldness, and courage, you will find your work as unique – and original – as you are.

If you aim for originality you may produce work that is indeed original. It’ll be unlike anything else, including you.


  1. Pingback: Being Original « from my notebook

  2. Excellent post David!

    It might have been done before, but it was done by you with your insight, heart, emotions… Do it again! Your way! Bring to it what you will. Take away from it that you created it your way, even if the idea wasn’t a new one. You brought your “originality” to it just by being you, and the fact that those before you were not.

  3. Standing in Musee d’Orsay in front of Van Gogh’s copy of Corot’s Siesta I was wondering why I can’t seem to be able to move away. I mean it’s just a copy, right?

  4. This is a topic that can keep people up all night discussing if originality really exists or not. It’s a tough one. David, I see you point that nothing is original, but I’m not sure how I feel about that. At some point it was original, right? Many ideas and concepts start from somewhere…look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates…coming up with a personal computer was a pretty original idea. I think as we evolve as people, more and more ideas are expressed, either through books, artwork, music, and photography, and over time it becomes much more difficult to come up with something original. I think it’s possible – rare, but possible. What about the photographer that introduced the Harris Effect? That was original, creative, and different. I don’t think the goal for most people should be to be original though. I think the goal should always be to be true to yourself, to your inner voice, to your soul. If you are creating something that touches you on some level, that means something, and if you are pushing yourself to new limits as you go, and learning from your mistakes, then an important goal has been met. I can honestly say that in my time as a photographer, I have never focused on being original, not once. That thought hasn’t ever really crossed my mind. I started with photography as therapy of sorts, because taking pictures makes my soul happy. So I guess maybe that makes me a selfish photographer, but it sure beats the alternative of beating myself up worrying about if I am creating something original! Who cares? For me, photography is more spiritual than that..

  5. I started a similar dialog with myself recently while composing an artist statement for a exhibition submission. In our quest to distinguish ourselves, to make our work stand out and get noticed, it’s possible to work ourselves into a knotted ball of BS. Some people take that to an extreme and pretty soon, the conceptual BS tail is wagging the artist dog. I found the less I tried to embellish, the plainer my language, the more true the statement became and consequently, more accurate. Real honesty will always be original… and refreshing.

  6. I’ve been reading a book about Georgia O’Keeffe this week. When asked about blazing her own path as an artist, she said:
    “I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking. […] I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself.”

  7. To put it another way, originality is a thing. It is a point in time creation lacking a means to repeat consistently. Essentially, it’s gear. In contrast, authenticity, is a process. Authenticity evolves as you better understand yourself, your craft, and the message you intend to communicate. As you better grasp authenticity, your ability to create meaningful art becomes more consistent. Authenticity is vision.

    Hmm, gear and vision. You know anyone that might have an opinion on those?

    Not much original in this reply, but it helped me get my head around your post a little better to restate it. Thanks for the opportunity.

  8. I think I’m getting what you mean. Wait, wait… It’s OK to be me photographically?? COOL!! Your on a roll David. (Having been a philosophy major I tend to “gravitate” towards the tongue and cheek–phenomenologically speaking. ;^)

  9. David, I do think we are saying similar things using different words. But I think I still disagree that originality doesn’t exist, it is just rare. If you create something that has never been done before, how is that not original? Perhaps this is where your call for re-definition comes in.

    As for your question, if I did create something that the art community agreed was original, but wasn’t true to me, I suppose it may be valuable to others (something new for others to learn from and build upon), but not to me. However, I would hope that if one is true to themselves, they will not try to create something outside their own truth, even if it is to be original.

  10. to me, the goal isn’t originality – it’s honesty. i work with a landscape, light, composition that speaks to me. if there are other honest artists out there, i may find that i’m not being particularly original, and sometimes, when i look at the work other people produce, with same wonderful subject matter (like lake, rocks, reflections, mountains, sunrise/set), that ‘worries’ me. but why fight the fact that we all respond to beautiful scenes? what’s the alternative? produce something that isn’t me? i can’t do it. i know what i find to be beautiful will appeal to other artists/photographers, and our visions may be similar, but never identical. i guess that’s the best that it gets. being original maybe means trying to avoid the obvious beauty to come up with something different just for the sake of it. what is the point ?

  11. Tom

    > I have accepted that some will love what you do, some will hate it and most won’t care.

    Reminds me of what another photographer told me once:

    Some will, some won’t. So what?

    It’s very freeing. We can’t please everybody, but we can try and please ourselves.

  12. Hmmm. Interesting comments… what’s the difference between originality and creativity?

    Seems to me if one is true to oneself, the rest follows.

    I have always hated “Photography” contests, cause why do you think you have the ability to “judge” my work?

    Sure, we are all influenced by what others have done, I mean why reinvent the wheel, but when I work, I still “see” the subject with my own eyes, experience, personality, preferences, etc., etc.

    So, although I don’t strive to be original per se, much of one’s work does become unique to one’s personal vision, call it what you may. When it satisfies me, I don’t much care if it doesn’t satisfy someone else (unless I’m working for a client).

    I have accepted that some will love what you do, some will hate it and most won’t care. The truth is, if you are true to yourself, you will find like minded people that will support you in one way or another.

    The real joy is the work itself. How wonderful when you nail an image so that it represents just what you were seeing and/or feeling at the time you captured it!

  13. Hi David,

    Your post today really, really resonated with me. Guess it was, in part, timing. Reminded me of a conversation I had recently and a few things I was told that just didn’t sit right with me.

    I’m a passionate person and well… I just had to have my own say (ok, well it was more of a rant) about it.

    It’s on my photography blog


    Thanks for stimulating the thoughts and discussion. Cheers!

  14. Author

    But Joe, I’m saying Originality doesn’t really exist. And if does it needs re-defining. How would we define it? And in the end what if you create something the art community agreed was original but wasn’t true to you? Would that be valuable?

    I think we agree on this but aren’t on the same page with the words we’re using.

  15. I must admit that your blog today has really started me thinking (a sign of a good blog) – thank you for that!

    But I’m not so sure I agree with you David, at least about originality being overrated. True originality is so rare, it should be celebrated (provided of course it is pleasant to look at and not just nonsense). The problem, perhaps, is not that originality it overrated, but that the all the advice out there saying to strive for originality misguided. While I refuse to believe everything in photography has been done before, most things have. Focusing too hard on being original will just lead to frustration.

    Instead of focusing on being original, we should focus on being our unique selves. Here your thoughts are right on in my opinion. Learn from others, take what you learn and make it your own. Maybe what you end up with has been done before, or maybe not. But as long as it is true to you, it is good work. And if what you end up with is truly original, that is all the better.

  16. “Originality” ranks right up there with “Artist Statements”, two piles of steaming bovine excrement masquerading as profundity.

  17. David, that is very well and concisely said. The desire to be “original” at any cost has filled the art world, in all media, with some pretty god awful stuff!

    What you said is so completely true, you don’t have to try to be original, just be yourself. Each of us is original and once you refine your craft and vision, you can’t help but be original!

    Thanks for stating it so well, people really need to hear it.

  18. Author

    Travis – That’s perfect, thank you. Great quote. Chase is an under-rated thinker on some of this stuff – people reduce him to a hot-shot photographer but dude’s got the chops intellectually too. Scary smart at times. 🙂

  19. That is so true! The way we see and process things, even the masters, will be unique to each of us. I think I am losing my fear of being too influenced by other people’s work. Instead, now I see it as inspiration.
    I’m still plagued by doubt sometimes but I guess that’s part of the process. As you have already said in other posts so eloquently what’s important is that we stay true to ourselves. That in itself is unique.
    Not sure I made sense here… :c) But hope so!

  20. “One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.” – T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism

    True originality was derived from the first uncaused cause which for many of us is realized in our faith of religion or science. The cavemen were inspired and built their cave paintings off the gazelles and zebras of the African wildlife. Our photography is all a “by-product,” to use David’s words, of preexisting structures whether it be nature, culture, theory, style, or technological advancements.

    So as David and T.S. Elliot both have written, my goal is to honestly build upon prior and present experiences to be unique and unto myself. I do not want my photography be to assimilated into the likes of Ansel Adams, Gallen Rowell, David Muench, Art Wolfe, or Peter Lik; “oh that looks like an Ansel Adams.” If gaining that comparison is the height of my success then I haven’t reached my goal in being unique; “that is a John Robert Pennington.”

    As always, keep it up David.

  21. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this David, and everyone else. I’ve often had this nagging feeling that originality is somewhat overrated. Everything under the sun has been photographed. It’s not always possible to be original, whatever it means. Recently I’ve learned to just go with my gut feeling and photograph what comes naturally, and I can see my “style” developing. Just be yourself.

  22. David, this is really thought-provoking. I’ll be mulling it over today. Thanks!

    By the way, watching (or reading) you go through your recovery is inspiring and encouraging (and a little convicting). I ask myself if I were in the same spot, would I bust my butt to keep moving, or would I stay in bed and complain about my situation? Here’s to you being back on your feet!

  23. David,
    This is such a freeing post. It frees me to be me and not get stuck in the mire of originality. I spend soo much time not doing because of trying to be original. Come up with that idea no one has done before. Yet somehow; or, some element of it has probably been done. You have loosed the chains- now its time to do.

  24. I gave up worrying about originality after someone reminded me that even God created Man in His own image…

  25. Hi David. Hope you’re doing much better.

    The pictures that I make make me happy. Whenever I press the shutter, I never think whether I am being original or not, I only think about whether the picture I will make will make me happy. It’s an added bonus if others will appreciate my work.

    I think most, if not all, great artists do not think about the kind of audience when they set off to make a masterpiece. I think, primarily, the artists are making their pieces for themselves.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  26. I guess this means there are still more Rocks in lake-reflective lake-Mountain-Sunrise/Sunset photos out there. These are beautiful I loved the first 100 I saw but I’m getting the urge to scream!!
    Don’t mean to sound negative but I have been waiting for a chance to comment on this.
    Love all of your ebooks!!!!

  27. Simple, concise, and so true. For a long time I felt I needed to find my own “original style” for my work. The harder I tried to find the style, the more derivative my work became ( go figure). I feel some of my best and most “orginal” work has been when I stopped worrying about being original and just shot.

  28. I’ve worried a lot about whether I’m original or creative or not. I feel better when I just relax and don’t try to be the next Ansel adams or Edward Weston. Thanks, David!

  29. THanks David it is all to often that we hear that has had been over done and it can be quite defeating at times. I have seen many photographers photograph places that have been over done and yet they capture it more beautiful than any photographs I have seen of the same subject hundreds of times. Your own unique vision brings new emotions to what you see and capture.

  30. Good one, David, and oh so true. Just make the image and the rest will look after itself.



  31. I echo your comments about originality, David. I really get a bee in my bonnet about it. I don’t understand what all the hoopla is about ‘all the effort to make your images “original”. I recently had a discussion with a photography colleague of mine so critiqued some of my photos and said ya, they’re ok, but they aren’t original. How ‘origina’l can you make a photo of a treefrog if you’re a nature photographer? You can alter your approach – e.g. strict natural history shot, more artsy approach etc. – but it all comes down to what message you are trying to convey with your images.

    I take my photos from my own unique perspective. In my books that = originality. I don’t think we need to ‘try’ to be original. Each of us is unique – our DNA, our personalities, our experience and our perspectives on life. Why do we need to TRY to be original? We already are!

    I think what is a useful concept is that of your individual style. I think if you shoot enough, you eventually develop a distinctive style. To me, that’s a good thing (as Martha Stewart would say…). You get to the point where folks can look at an image and say, hey, that looks like a David duChemin photo. But I think that ‘individual style’ (read as, originality) develops with time and experience. It is also fluid, not static. Your style will change somewhat over time but certain elements will always be there.

    I know that making a living in photography is damned difficult these days because there is so much competition out there. And we need to find ways of making names for ourselves and being ‘differen’t or offering something unique. But why don’t we spend less effort on forcing ourselves to be ‘original’ and more time on shooting, letting our indivudal styles develop, and most of all, doing the photography that makes US happy.
    Bottom line… life’s short, do what you love to do. Stop spending all your time trying to please someone else or trying to ‘invent’ yourself so that’s you’re different. You alread are. Be happy with that.

  32. This was interesting. I have learnd that it is more than good enough to copy the Masters of an art. And I think that it will always have my signature after all, the sun is not right compared to the original photo, the sky is different and even the tree is slightly older than the original. I started with the idea of being original, diffrent, perfect – but that ended with no photoes, no ideas, no nothing – there is always someone who has done something like what I am doing. And now that is great. For me that means that I had a great idea, if someone else has done something like me or I have done something like them.

  33. Great post. You summed it all up in 3 words. All there is to it now is stop myself from making excuses and go with my intuition. Thanks David.

  34. I used to worry about originality. Now I just worry about whether the image I make moves me. Everything else falls into place, just as it should.

  35. “You are already unique. If you do the work you do with honesty, integrity, curiousity, boldness, and courage, you will find your work as unique – and original – as you are.”

    When I saw the title of this I had a similar thought 🙂

    Just be YOU people! 😉

  36. Author

    GregR – All art copies, juxtaposes, makes new things from old. Study the masters or don’t, you can’t avoid the influence. There is nothing new under the sun. Seek to do work that is honest and a part of you. Don’t worry what your subconscious is up to.

  37. Hi David, hope your healing is progressing well! I’ve often wondered if I am hurting my creativity by studying the photography of others I respect. Am I losing some originality by subconciously mimicking others work?

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