Originality Part II

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David50 Comments

A week ago I left what might have been my shortest post ever: Originality is Overrated. It generated some good discussion, and from the comments it seemed to really resonate and get some thoughts going. My own thinking has been stirring too, but before I tell you where those thoughts have -for now – settled, I wanted some ghosts to have their say:

“Insist upon yourself. Be original.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Originality is the art of concealing your sources”
~ Benjamin Franklin

“Originality exists in every individual because each of us differs from the others. We are all primary numbers divisible only by ourselves.”
~ Jean Guitton

“What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
~ Eugene Delacroix

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
~ Herman Melville

“Millions of men have lived to fight, build palaces and boundaries, shape destinies and societies; but the compelling force of all times has been the force of originality and creation profoundly affecting the roots of human spirit.”
~ Ansel Adams

“Originality is merely an illusion”
~ M.C. Escher

“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.”
~ Thomas Carlyle

“Utter originality is, of course, out of the question”
~ Ezra Pound

“Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.”
~ James Stephens

Not all of them appear to agree. But I think all of them are right in one sense or another.  There are three apparently different things being said by these voices. The first is that originality does exist, and is desireable. The second is that no true originality exists.  The third implies originality is in fact possible, but is not relative to what already exists, but to the artist himself. I think we’re using the same word to mean slightly different things.

So here’s where I’m at on the issue, without over-thinking it any further. And if it seems I’ve flip-flopped on the issue, I don’t think I have, just looking at it a little broader.

I think the search for originality burdens artists. Does it exist? I think so. But I need to qualify that, and that’s hard to do without being prescriptive. But in general I think that making the pursuit of originality our primary pursuit as creative people, results in work that is different, but not necessarily honest. And for many it is crippling, because imitation and influence are among the first steps to learning our craft. Originality is not the greatest good.

I believe in originality in this sense:

Sense A. Creativity is about combining existing elements into new combinations and there are nearly infinity possibilities out there. Yes, all art is derivative, but that doesn’t mean borrowing influence & inspiration, from, say, Monet, Leonard Cohen, and a turnip, can’t result in something new. Something that is, in a real sense, original (even though we’ve not defined the word.)

Sense B. While the basic truth of being human is that we share profound commonalities, we are all different. That makes us, as creators, unique, with the possibility of creating unique work. Being true to that uniqueness and creating work that is honest and imaginative, opens us to the possibility of originality.

My friend Anita, a woman with an artists heart and inquisitive mind, used a great word recently in a discussion about this. The word was possibility, and that’s why I’m using it so much here. We’re trying, in debates about originality to pin things down without defining our terms, all the while avoiding the possibility that originality and uniqueness exist. She said, “I think it should be less about defining originality or debating its existence, and more about being open to possibility, creativity, imagination.”

And that’s where I end up in my thinking as well. Do I believe in the possibility of originality? For me that still depends on how we’re using the word, but yes. I like to believe in infinite possibility. It allows room for my imagination. It implies creative freedom is possible. But it’s still a by-product of a search for something else and not the goal itself. Our creative minds and hearts will flourish more, and create with greater faithfulness to who we are, if we stop making originality the goal and allow ourselves to be overtaken by the pursuit of  honest expression, play, and imagination. Be yourself. Do the work. The rest will follow.

We all do things for different reasons. For me the goal is to create, express, and communicate, my reactions to this life and this world, in a way that is faithful to who I am. Whether it is ever seen as original doesn’t matter. I’d rather it be faithful. I like how C.S. Lewis expressed it:

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
– C. S. Lewis



  1. I can’t express my gratitude enough for the right message and comments, gifted to me at the right time. I was at a point where I was allowing my insecurities over my craft, to convince me that I was not original; enough. That I was insufficient. We ARE all sufficient. We are enough and more. Thank you so much for this post and your good works, David.

  2. As Geir points out, being exposed to great photography inevitably leads to comparisons. I love architecture but I find it extremely difficult to create an original image of an iconic building. More so when time is limited. Anyone talented enough and within easy reach has a tonne more chances of capturing a better image at a better light and upload for the world to see. Globalization made it easy and reasonably cheap to travel. The web makes it easy to get any piece of gear one may wish for or any specialized book for that matter. Great photography is all around. It’s easy to feel frustrated and lack in confidence.
    Fortunately, there are artists like David
    who write inspirational posts and stir the debate.

  3. Having to be different is the same trap as having to be the same. (Robert Rauschenberg):
    great discussion, and lots of fab quotes. this one reminds of a lovely cartoon in the Ottawa Citizen a few years ago: a bunch of school girls walking past, and staring at another group who are all in school uniform. the caption read something along the lines of ‘must be awful to have to wear a uniform every day” – except they are all dressed in identical t-shirts and blue jeans! it demonstrated very well that there can be a uniformity in seeking originality for its own sake, which leads to diminished insight, awareness, vision, as well as wasted energy…

  4. Sorry, I ment:

    If they are not, the reason is NOT that you did not make them yourself.

  5. @Brian Horsey
    I have not seen your pictures, so I cannot say if they are original or not. If they are not, the reason is that you did not make them yourself. It is because they are not enough of you, so to say. Many of the decisions we make when taking pictures were either copied from a book or a lecture, or simply left to a chance. Only with practice we gain the control over the work we do. We make the decisions in accord with our intent consciously or unconsciously, but based on our experience. In that way the pictures become “less general” and more ours – hopefully more original. At least I think so.

    Thanks for the inspiring twist!

  6. Hah – just looked back at my list of quotes and in addition to the two I posted just earlier, David Vestal also said:
    “Don’t Get Equipment-happy.
    Equipment sometimes makes pictures possible or impossible, but it seldom makes them better or worse in any important way. Pick the equipment that lets you do what you need to do , and stop there. Change equipment when you change needs.”

    Hmmmm … sounds awfully familiar …

  7. One David channeling another 🙂

    In “The Craft Of Photography” David Vestal wrote:
    “”Originality” is a much overrated concept. A truly original picture can fail as resoundingly as an imitative one; and either can succeed equally well. Good photography does tend to be original, but seldom because the photographer is trying for originality. ”

    He also wrote:
    “Selves are dull compared to everything else. Self-expression doesn’t interest me. The rest of the universe is so much bigger, more varied and more interesting than any self and, in any case, the self is never left out.”

  8. How about – ‘Art, and being called an artist, are social terms. You do not create art by deciding that is what you are going to do today, and you do not become an artist by proclaiming yourself one. In my eyes, nothing I do is art. For me, it’s expression. It becomes art when other people call it so.’ – Vincent Versace – from Welcome to Oz 2.0
    I think this quote sums it up for me! 😉

  9. One of the (many) definitions of ‘original’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is – ‘thinking or acting for oneself’. I’m a retired engineer, returned to photography (or less pretentiously, taking photographs) after several decades and a grown family. I’ve invested time, some money on gear and some on books and have started taking some photographs I like and one or two I’m proud enough of the put on the wall. They are my ‘orignal’ work, but are they ‘original’ photographs in the sense of this discussion?

  10. I think you are coming up with some very interesting viewpoints on originality and creativity. Like you imply, I think all of us bring originality into our expressions – whatever the media is – by being ourselves – and truly ourselves (this I have previously made a comment about in my own blog https://munchow.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/everything-has-already-been-done/). But trying to be original will only make your work pretentious and as you say, not honest. At the same time there is a balance between stagnation and seeking out new ways to express yourself. As a photographer we don’t want to repeat ourselves, but continue to develop and the question is really how do you encourage your own creative development? Lately I have been seeking out what literature says about creative processes and how the mind works, and I think your ideas about creative development as you have written in your books and on this blog, David, are very interesting. I also think you are right that part of the problem when discussing originality is using the same definition of the word. I do like the connection you put between originality and possibility. For those who are interested in a more intellectual discourse about originality and creativity I can recommend the book The Courage to Create by Rollo May.

  11. Author

    Annie – Great quotes, thank you!

    What a great discussion. Wish I could just grab a coffee and sit around for an afternoon talking to you all.

  12. An enlightening post, Martin! I was muddling through thoughts on that urge to be different versus producing unique photos as a result of authenticity. Thanks for clearly articulating the subject.

    Your post led me to these quotes:

    Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself. (James Stephen)

    Practically all great artists accept the influence of others. But… the artist with vision… by integrating what he has learned with his own experiences… molds something distinctly personal. (Romare Howard Bearden)

    Originality comes from just being true to ourselves and what we value about what we see. (Melinda Collins)

    There’s a certain subtle pressure – even when you think you’ve put it behind you – toward the original, the unique, the novel and the new. It’s easy to confuse this with authentic creativity. (Warren Criswell)

    Let me not follow in the clamor of the world, but walk calmly in my path… (Max Ehrmann)

    I really do not aim at any originality. (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

    The glass I drink from is not large, but at least it is my own. (Alfred de Musset)

    An interesting Picasso quote:

    What I have to do is utilize as best I can the ideas which objects suggest to me, connect, fuse, and color in my way the shadows they cast within me, illumine them from the inside. And since of necessity my vision is quite different from that of the next man, my painting will interpret things in an entirely different manner even though it makes use of the same elements. (Pablo Picasso)
    (Picasso’s friends covered their paintings when he would visit their studios because he would “steal” their ideas, copy their style. They would sometimes lament that his “copies” were better than their originals. Why? When he painted his works he was using the inward process he describes above. And
    thus, the works were authentic.)

    From my favorite artist:
    Having to be different is the same trap as having to be the same. (Robert Rauschenberg)

  13. I agree that originality is a side product of sincerity. Why are we then so obsessed with originality? Well, it is very difficult to quantify sincerity, so we latch on “differentness” as its good indicator. It also explains why we are upset about things different just for the sake of being different. We feel the connection to sincerity is broken.

    The stem of the word original is origin – the birth place, the source, the root. Nothing about being different; rather about being authentic.

  14. Inspiring post, and as always a great set of comments too!

    I used to think photography was about the world out there. So I went out to look for subjects ‘out there’, but somehow I was never really satisfied with the work I produced. In the last couple of years though, I’ve come to realize that photography is really an inner process. It is not about something ‘out there’, rather about what is ‘in here’, about what is stirring deep inside of my self. It is essentially a process of self-exploration.

    The result is that for me, although photography is of course still about the world ‘out there’ since the camera needs light and something to reflect it off, it does not stop there. It’s not ‘only’ about the world, but also and essentially about myself, about who I am, about how I look at and interpret the world.

    If we look for photographs inside of ourselves, deep inside our souls, we are almost bound to be original, because the images will speak of our unique selves, our unique positions in the world, our unique trajectories through life and the world, and our unique trajectories of photographic self-exploration.

    As others have already said as well, for me originality is all about being true to yourself. It is about not focusing on the result, but on the process. It’s not about the photograph, but about the one who takes it.

    So in the end, originality is something that can only be attained by giving it no conscious thought whatsoever. You can only achieve it by letting it go and directing your focus inward.

  15. ps forgot to say ‘jeepers, David!’ Is this the result of the drugs? 🙂

  16. Originality is hiding deep down within your soul, forced to go there to protect itself from the many who believe you should do things a certain way. your job, if you choose to accept it, is to release your soul. that is the only true originality

  17. I love the quotes! I actually collect them. hehe! Anyways, this whole discussion about originality is very interesting. And ever since I’ve started my personal 365 I have found out that it really is about being true to myself and what I feel like saying or not saying at a certain point in time. Most of the time I’m not sure what I mean to say – if anything, really. It’s just that something or a place or light or whatever catches my eye and the idea just comes. I haven’t worried about being redundant, just doing it, one day at a time. And it’s been great! Creativity has shown up almost every day. And I love being able to let my imagination run wild with possibilities. Infinite possibilities – that’s the word, David! :c)

  18. More than a photograph; an experience is something I now live by in my work. Photography gave me the passion to seek out this amazing planet in ways I may never have done without it. There were years when I took photographs for many reasons other than I was loving what I was shooting. Now I shoot what fills my soul and my emotional engagement with my subject creates the originality. Truly experiencing what I am photographing is the purpose of this journey, not the pursuit to be original.

  19. @Scot Baston – I don’t know if I agree – does vision really “find” you? Does style? I don’t think my style “found” me – I think I worked to develop it and cultivate it – I certainly don’t feel like vision finds me – sometimes I have to chase her down, and let me tell you, she’s a fast runner! 🙂

  20. Somehow I’m not surprised the ghosts don’t always agree. It seems to be the case when it involves passionate, creative people and philosophical topics. Personally I love it, because there will always be people our there quick to agree with their favorite artist – but I respect so many different artists, and it’s fascinating when you look at their different perspectives. I think to truly understand the artist, and not just take their statements and use them as you see fit, you have to really understand the time period of the artist, and the artistic climate they produced art in, because those factors will play a role in their thought process as well.

  21. I once used my airplane as a tool to explore my world. No longer able to fly, I now use my camera to fascinate myself.

  22. Dwight really nailed it! I can relate this piece to the actions by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan who was an excellent guitar player (and quite unique and original in his own right). He always paid tribute/homage via one form or other to those from whom he learned. He put in the efforts and the by-product was his uniqueness that shined through.

    Did ya ever notice how damn easy something looks by the person performing when s/he is really good at it; almost effortless in nature. But the back-story is the fact these peeps have placed great time and sweat into the whole magillah of allowing the product to be appreciated for others. Plus there is the occasional luck of being “discovered” and other elements that go beyond the realm of personal appreciation.

    We’ll always copy and attempt to replicate from those works we like. But ultimately, the truly learned solid foundation multiplied by the individual yields the product of our creative effort. It may not be appreciated or liked by others, but it is nevertheless unique.

  23. Very well said… I especially like the Ben Franklin and CS Lewis quotes and because I’m a “quote junkie“ (isn’t it obvious 😉 ) I’ll throw this one into the hat by Galen Rowell:

    “Photographs that we call powerful or dramatic communicate the photographer’s passion as surely as they represent natural features. A photographer who is able to communicate intention consistently is said to have a creative style.”

    I must say, however, that I do feel a image can be very quiet and intimate, and still have great power.

  24. Dwight. You have a gift for brevity. It took me 2 blog posts and 1000+ words to say this, and you nailed it in less than 30. 🙂

  25. Since we are all unique, I believe that originality is the natural by product of the fearless pursuit of sincerity. The pursuit of originality as a direct outcome is pointless.

  26. Truly original would mean no one else can understand what you’re saying. Like siblings or friends that invent their own, original language—fun for them, but they can’t communicate with anyone else with it (unless they go to great lengths to get it adopted by others). So maybe there’s an original part and a common part to all language, including visual.

  27. It has all been done before but the originality comes when we are expressing or seeing something that comes from within, then we turn it into our vision. Sometimes people try to categorize a photo and say it looks like someone else’s style, a Steiglitz, an Adams, or whatever, but if it comes from our own vision, it is ours. I photograph for myself, so I don’t have the added stress to try to be different or original but I think it still comes out. I have a few college photography friends and we will go out shooting together and even though we may be in the same place our photos will all be different. We can even tell each others pictures before the signature is on the print. I think it is finding the beauty in our own work and not comparing whether one image is better or worse than someone else’s. If we shoot what we love, it says something about us as an individual and that is where the originality comes from.

  28. “So now the floodgates are open to the delight of pure form, whatever its origin. Anything goes.”
    Philip Johnson 1900-1964

  29. This is a very interesting discussion. No two events happen exactly the same and no two people see the same thing in the same way, even if similar, just not the same. How we see, and thus express, what and how we see an event or a thing really is our creativity. In some of collaborations we’ve done, it has been obvious. Given the same frame, 6 people will see and express it 6 different ways. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

  30. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there’s nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

    I believe that what we create is a different approach or way to relate to what already is so yes, “Be yourself. Do the work. The rest will follow.” .

  31. Uh-oh I feel a philosophy attack coming on!

    I wonder if it is because I tend not to think of myself as an artist but for some reason I’ve not yet been overwhelmed by the need to be ‘original’ or even to develop my own style. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the artist in anyone else. I just prefer to think of myself as a storyteller, a communicator. In many ways that sets me free. Everyone’s story is unique and yet there are those common themes of human experience that repeat (as Deborah said) but with variety to which the variety of my unique interpretation (as Lou mentioned) can be added. This means that the ‘audience’ can both relate to the story and yet be faced with it in a fresh way. And the artistic challenge becomes how well can I tell the story.

    The kids are off school, it is raining a lot and as a family we have watched two cartoon movies, Despicable Me and MegaMind, during that time which have effectively the same plot – evil supervillian with troubled childhood is reformed when his soft centre is exposed by the faith and love of someone else. Same basic theme but the apporach is different, and I wasn’t bored by the second one and nor were my kids (who watched them several times each!). And if (as my kids insist) you watch all the bonus material you’ll find that both casts and production teams had a blast telling the story.

    So ‘originality’ (in one sense) is less important to me than making sure my target audience receive an ‘enjoyable’ and meaningful challenge. And that in itself helps make the craft side so much more enjoyable.

  32. My initial reaction to the first post was “ahh don’t let the concept of originality get in the way of pursuing authenticity.” Then I thought well it’s hard not have all these other ideas and thoughts and images weighing on your creative mind. Now we have a nice mantra to help keep us true…“Be yourself. Do the work. The rest will follow.” Thanks again David…

  33. “Be yourself. Do the work. The rest will follow.” Orwell would be proud. 3 simple truths. I look at and read a lot of other photographers and writers I admire. Sometimes I get the feeling they’re better than me. Then I realize, they got that way because they did the work, they made it happen. I quit the pity party and get my ass working. Why stand in the same spots Adams stood, make a similar photograph, and then feel sorry for yourself when no one praises it. Use the best two pieces of gear you have: your eyes and your feet.

    Excellent post David.

  34. I always enjoy reading your posts, David, and especially the ones related to originality. Without belaboring the points already made, I’ll simply offer that I look for inspiration in this realm from the One who created each of us unique (original) in His eyes. If I’m aligned here, I’m pretty sure my creative outlet will reflect the same and people will see my work as more original and less like others from whom I admire or may draw inspiration.

    I’m glad your recovery is going well and wish you the very best in all of your upcoming endeavors. Peace.

  35. Personally, I consider ‘originality’ to be a curse. It can never be a verb. If one is truly original, then by definition, no one else can ever recognize it, or relate to it. Carried to its purest form, to be original requires one to be totally alone in that originality. Since the tradition of language is absent/inadequate, originality’s very existence can never be communicated, or exposed for others to consider.

    My preference is ‘authenticity’ in the fullest sense possible… good and bad. If I’m told a lie, I want it to be a really devious and cunning lie… there’s nothing worse than a fake lie. If there’s a trust to be honored, I expect it to be honored, etc., etc…


  36. Part 2: What matters is did I slow down, soak in the moment, respond to it with heart, do the work to shoot a photo that best reflects the passion of that personal moment.

    And then there is the fine line between standing behind my own vision and falling into it.

    It does seem much more essential to concentrate on staying open to possibilities. I can then be open to
    refining my own vision.

    There is always a danger of self-satisfaction rotting the creative impulse to play. Equally hazardous for creative health is only doing what one knows how to do well.

    Chasing originality may be foolish. Continuingto ask “what if”, exploring possibilities, experimenting and taking risks to better express one own’s vision is All of us can take creative journeys that lead to fresh
    discoveries. My motto: If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.

  37. I agree with you Deborah, “What it can be is my view of the material, my interpretation of that hungry child.’
    That is where my creativity is anchored.
    Thanks David for stirring up some introspection.

  38. Thanks for stirring the pot once again, David, and bringing us more food for thought.

    Thinking back to art school where some obsessively pursued originality as a pathway to fame, brings back memories of novelty without personal intergrity and genuine depth.

    It is not that the works were executed poorly in terms of technique (ok, some were). It was that the
    works did not seem to cone from the heart. They felt lacking in heart.

    So I think you are onto something. There is a big difference between simply externally chasing originality versus making the internal effort to find out what moves us personally then telling the truth faithfully.

  39. I write ideas for projects into a ‘think’ book,and when I see an image that fits into a project I have in mind, then I take that image, and add it to my mental list of bits of that project. This made me happy, feeling I was progressing towards a series of goals, creating steps on the way to a body of work I would one day do something with. UNTIL… my inbox directed me to a series Steve McCurry had just published on his website. “MY” series!! We’d had the same idea (only of course he’d probably had it way earlier and did it way better!!). I was frustrated and upset. What was the point of continuing? And so for a long time I stopped. WHY? Because I didn’t want to be derivative!! Not so much as lacking in originality, but in being seen as taking someone else’s idea and using it. When I was doing it, it felt original to me, but then it felt… stolen and rehashed.

    It took me a long time to realise I could continue with my projects. I could continue because I am NOT walking behind him taking the same images, I am in a different country, different scenes, different circumstances, and I will take different images.

    I gradually realised that human activity is shared across the world, therefore if I take a photo of someone reading to their child, thousands of people have probably taken a similar photo. If I take a photo of a hungry child, then these have been taken over many years in many countries.

    No new activities really exist, merely variations of the same few. No new sunsets really exist – just variations of the same sun setting. So my material will never be original. What it can be is my view of tht material, my interpretation of that hungry child.

    BUT the biggest fear remains of being derivative…

  40. Surely originality is something like vision or style.. it finds you, not the other way around.

    Be yourself as hard as you can and look back in wonder

  41. Very interesting article, David.
    I have been contemplating this issue quite a lot lately, as it coincides with a motivation drain in my own photography and creative thinking. There is one word I don’t think was used here, and that is comparativity, that is the place comparison with others play in the creative process. A second word to add here is exposre. I find those two words both necessary and a hindrance to my own creativity.
    I’m exposed to so much great photography all the time, through all the pro and am photographers I follow through RSS and Flickr. But being exposed to it also makes me compare my own images to those I follow. Some times this works like inspiration: I want to do the same. But lately my experience is that every time I see a new opportunity, the thought arrives: This has already been done, why should I strive to capture an image that is a) less creative b) the same as c) only slightly different to all them others?
    And it’s not only me. My students experience the same. First a creative flow the experience of developing, then the creative wall – we all do the same so why should I?
    I think it is important to work oneself through this necessary triangle of words: Creativity – Comparativity – Exposre ans see where one lands. Hopefully you’ll come out at the other side of the tunnel a more creative photographer able to ignore the devil voice on that left shoulder and listen to the Angel muse on the right.

  42. p.s a wonderful book: the art of possibility by benjamin zander is a source of great inspiration for me, with chapter titles such as ” it’s all invented”, “step into a universe of possibility”, “giving an A”, “giving way to passion”, “lighting a spark” etc. enjoy…

  43. i find myself reading through these quotes, all of them interesting and thought-provoking, and for me the bottom line is still:
    creatively, i’ll do what i like doing, working to improve in a way that leads me to better self-expression, because it makes me happy. if it makes someone else happy too – bonus! now, i’ll go back and read and think about those other quotes in more detail, but somehow, it needed to be that way round….thank you for the opportunity to think about these things, david. i really appreciate your thoughtful approach to these topics, as consideration of issues such as these makes a difference to how i see through the viewfinder. hope you are continuing to make steady progress, ciao, sarah

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