Somewhere out there, right now, sits a photographer who wants to throw in the towel, discouraged because they haven’t yet found their thing, their niche. I know this because I’ve been that photographer. Some of you have told me you’ve been there, too. Many photographers are still there, frustrated by how hard it is to be original.
“It’s all been done,” they say.
If that’s you, you’re right. It has all been done.
If what you’re hoping for is originality in terms of the subjects that appear in your photographs, then I can see why the lack of some new subject you might claim as your own could be discouraging. After all, find something that has never been photographed and your images might never need anything more than their novelty for them to succeed. Photograph Sasquatch—I mean really photograph him—and no one’s going to criticize the light or your composition before gladly slapping it on the cover of National Geographic. You wouldn’t really need to have much to say other than, “Look! Here he is!”
There is probably nothing left that hasn’t been photographed (other than Bigfoot). Novelty is no longer the reliable crutch on which we could once lean for our photographs to be considered good or find a wider audience.
It’s all been done.
And yet, despite that, compelling photographs are still being made. People are still writing interesting novels, making great movies, and creating music we’ve never heard before. Books and songs have been around for much longer than our relatively young craft; surely they should have run dry long ago, especially if the writers and musicians had thrown in the towel, saying that “it’s all been done.” But nope. They’re still cranking out novels and songs about age-old stuff—like love, for example.
Hasn’t love, as a subject, been done to death at this point? Shouldn’t we move on, find something new to write about? I don’t think so.
We have an insatiable appetite for what is new, but it’s not new subjects for which we hunger, but rather new experiences.
New combinations of old things. New perspectives. New voices. And so long as there are new voices giving us unique points of view on love, it will never get old. Has love been done? Yes. But overdone? We haven’t exhausted it yet, and we’ve been at it for as long as stories have been told and songs have been sung by voices intent on doing so.
Elliott Erwitt photographed Paris beautifully, but he wasn’t the first to photograph it. Not by a long shot. Paris had been “done” by the time he got to it, but Paris according to Erwitt? It was still there, waiting for him to arrive and say something uniquely Erwitt about the place. And it’s still there (if that’s where you want to take your camera), waiting for you to see it—and photograph it—in new ways.
Actors and actresses. Hollywood. Fashion. Done for decades. But not through the lens of Annie Leibovitz until Annie brought it to us in her distinct voice. No one shot the streets of Vancouver like Fred Herzog. No one painted lilies like Claude Monet. If Monet had relied on new or original subjects, he’d still be looking around his garden in vain for something new to paint rather than getting on with painting what he loved in the way he wanted to do it—that is, in his own voice.
Lilies had been done before. But Monet had not.
There’s a risk in trotting out the so-called greats as examples. The obvious reaction is, “But I’m not Monet or Herzog. I’ll never be Annie or Elliott!” But that only proves my point. Of course you’re not them. They have been done.
What hasn’t been done is you.
Those artists don’t have a voice because they’re well-known or recognizable. They’re recognizable not because they’ve found new subjects but rather new things to say about those subjects we all claim “have been done,” and they say it in their own distinctive way.
They found their voice, and you will find yours, though I don’t think you’ll find it by looking around at what others have done or how they’re doing it. You probably won’t find it on Instagram, either. Voice is found elsewhere.
You won’t find individuality by returning your gaze to the crowd, nor will you find it by asking if they “like” what you make.
Voice is about your taste, not theirs—though that doesn’t mean we need to be contrary about it. Voice is not found when we try to be unlike others, but when we get closer and closer to being most like ourselves. The former is comparative, a never-ending movement away from what everyone else is doing; it’s being different for the sake of being different. The latter is a movement towards something much more specific: our true selves.
How different you and your art are from others is not the same thing as how faithfully you and your art resemble yourself. You: that’s the thing that hasn’t been done yet.
Others have photographed Venice, India, Kenya, and bears and underwater beasties long before I could get to them; I am no pioneer where subjects are concerned. Few people are, and you probably won’t be, either. But you can find—in those familiar subjects, the ones already “done”—new ideas, new moments and juxtapositions, and new ways of visually representing your personal tastes and preferences in combinations that are distinctly yours.
The big challenge of the photographic life (and probably, life in general) is not to get to first place, but to find your place. The greater task of the artist is not to make something others like—the crowd is fickle—but to make something that you like.
There’s a great scene in the 2006 film Art School Confidential that keeps coming back to me as I write this to you. John Malkovich stars as Professor Sandiford, a washed-up artist who never quite made it big and now teaches at a community art school. Sandiford paints (and is known for painting) triangles. Just…triangles. At an event at his home, someone sees his paintings and asks, “So how long have you been painting triangles?” to which Sandiford replies, “I was one of the first.”
First (maybe), but irrelevant. To paint triangles—before others or not—is not the same thing as having something to say about triangles. To cover one subject or another, whether you are the first to do so or just one among many, is not the same as having a voice.
The most compelling photographs do not resonate with us because of the subject but because of the unique way a subject gets expressed by one particular voice or another. So yes, you’re right: it has all been done. But it doesn’t matter because an original voice will always be more creative and more meaningful than an original subject, and while the latter will be elusive to most, the former is within reach of all of us.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
Words of wisdom. Enjoyed reading it a lot. Thanks.
Martin Belmont photography
Words I needed to read right now. I think social media has hurt artists more than helped as we find ourselves comparing more than learning. Once I realized this, I’ve changed how I use it to help me try to find my voice as a photographer. I’m not there yet, but I can feel my brain is less clogged with thoughts like “I could never be as good as “fill in the blank”. ” Thanks for sharing!
I think boredom can creep into photography because most people approach things the same way out of habit. I think it’s a great reminder to always challenge yourself and try to look at things from a different perspective.
The great choreographer, George Balanchine said: ” There are no new steps, only new combinations.”
Couldn’t have put it that succinctly or poetically. Thanks for sharing that quote, Lou!
As have the other commenters, I want to thank you for this blog. I think all “artists” must struggle with this subject. But particularly now in the age of the cellphone when anyone can get a reasonable good photo, it is exacerbated. I try to not let it get in my way and just shoot for the sake of improving and or/ the love of it. Keep those articles coming.
Great message. Thank you
Just wanted to say Hi🙃 Also to say your bit about finding your own “view” is encouraging.
And I need that in this financial/ artistic struggle. The root word of encourage… cour , means ❤️, from the heart . So thank you for caring.🥰 We all need encouragement to move forward in our creative goals.
Love this! I will step down from my 30 year finance career and travel Japan to do my photography. “Never a let a disaster go to waste!” is what my father told me….and this pandemic helped me realize and understand that i love landscape photography (and just photography!). Im 51 and just doing what i think looks cool to me, it is so refreshing to my soul!……”david.berteaux” is my IG account
Fantastic, David! Best of luck in your new career. Sounds like a wonderful adventure!
PERFECT sentiment. Thank you!
As always your message comes just as I need it!
Again, thank you.
So much in agreement David, and also thinking that looking at other photographers’ perspectives is a fertile ground for new ideas, combining different approaches into one. Thank you for your insight and your beliefs.
Thanks, David. We need to be reminded that we are individuals. ‘Do you and do you well’
Dzień Dobry Panie Davidzie a właściwie powinienem napisać Mistrzu. Bardzo dobrze że poruszyłes ten temat. Fotografowie i nie tylko oni bo też inni twórcy maja okresy wypalenia zawodowego lub twórczego jak kto woli. Mnie osobiście też to kiedyś nawet kilka razy dopadło mimo iż jestem tylko fotoamatorem.. Jest nawet taka teoria mówiąca o tym żeby nie ogladać dzieł innych bo zostanie sie kopistą badź naśladowcą. Tylko tworzyć to co ci dusza podpowiada nie ogladając sie na opinie innych osób. Fakt jest to proste gdy fotografie traktujesz jako hobby a nie źródło zarobkowania, gdzie klijent oczekuje takiej a nie innej fotografii oczekując fotografi podobnej do stworzonych przez fotografów bedących aktualnie na topie. Często tez osobiście cytuje wątpiącym w swoje siły fotografom słowa Susan Sontag ” Czas stawia większość fotografii, nawet najbardziej amatorskich w rzędzie dzieł sztuki ” Czyli po prostu że za kilka dni a może lat twoja fotografia nawet marna technicznie moze zostać zauważona i stanie sie dziełem sztuki a ty wielkim twórca czy artystą.
Bardzo Ci za to dziękuję, Marek. Miło, że moi polscy czytelnicy witają się. Mam nadzieję, że masz się dobrze!
The Google translation: “Good morning, Mr. David, I should actually write, Master. It is very good that you brought up this topic. Photographers and not only them, because other creators also have periods of professional or creative burnout, if you prefer. Personally, it happened to me a few times even though I am only a photographer … There is even a theory that says not to watch the works of others because you will become a copyist or a follower. Only create what your soul tells you without looking at the opinions of other people. The fact is simple when you treat photography as a hobby and not a source of income, where the client expects such and not another photography, expecting photos similar to those created by photographers who are currently on the top. Often, he also personally quotes the words Susan Sontag to doubtful photographers, “Time puts most of the photographs, even the most amateur ones, in the line of works of art.” That is simply that in a few days or maybe years your photography, even technically poor, can be noticed and become a work of art and you are a great creator or artist.”
Excellent article. I find your comment that you won’t find your voice on Instagram particularly interesting, because I am finding that actively participating on a photo sharing site – ePhotozine – extremely helpful in this respect. Not by finding something to copy. Not by defining my style as different from others. But, by understanding what I want from a photograph, and what I find lacking in other people’s images. To make that concrete, because of the pandemic, I have been photographing flowers. At first, I was like everyone else and tried to take the most superb image of a single blossom. But looking at the flower pictures on the web, I realise that such images do not satisfy me. I want something more,something even as simple as adding a second or third different flower to make the composition. Its like a businessman identifying a gap in the market, and making a product to fill that niche. Except in this case, I am the businessman and the market.
It’s so moving . so very true .I’m crying reading it ”
” the big challenge is not to get to first place, but to find your place.”
To find one’s voice , can sometimes take a life time .
Thank you for this very inspiring text
Morning, Peter. Well, it’s inevitable that any time I say something like “you won’t find your voice on Instagram” there’s going to be an exception. I think there’s a lot to learn from what you can find on Instagram and any other source for that matter, but I don’t think that’s the same as finding your voice. Perhaps part of the process, but not where the real discoveries are to be made.
I’m still searching for my voice, but I’m certainly glad you have found yours. Always inspiring, educational.
I have a coin that says: TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE.
But the whole line is from Hamlet: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ …. especially to myself.
Thank you for reminding me.
Thank you for that, Scott. I think it’s less a case of me having found mine as always searching for it. As we change so too does what we say and how we say it. I think I’ve found a groove in which my voice travels, but I’d hate to settle on it and find one day that my voice hadn’t changed as I have evolved. To thine own self be true, indeed!
Timely. I’m in the weeds lately being seduced by that voice that says some exotic destination will provide the “first place” images. Shooting the next hundred in my backyard is most likely a better journey to embark upon. Thanks for the nudge.
I feel where you’re coming from..
Always appreciate hearing your view and insightful opinion on and “for the love of the photograph”!
Thanks once again!
Yes!! Perfect timing for me personally.
And excellent nudge to keep going!! Thanks David.
Really feeling this one! I sent a very similar message to my own mailing list back in March:
“Our world is awash in images. In terms of sheer numbers of photos, we might see in a week’s time what our grandparents would have seen in a lifetime. But more than that, we will have seen images from every corner of the map.
In some ways, the greater world has become much smaller and more familiar to all of us due to the ubiquitous presence of internet-connected cellphone cameras.
Before the age of Instagram, how many people had ever seen Horseshoe Bend in Arizona or the DC-3 plane wreck on the southern coast of Iceland? Now we can find hundreds of photos taken at each of those locations almost every day of the year.
So here’s your photo inspiration for March…
In a world where the uniqueness of your subject is less and less attainable, concentrate your efforts on the uniqueness of your own vision. Focus on the way that you and only you observe your subjects and how you interact with them aesthetically and emotionally. Make pictures that give voice to your unique vision of all subjects from the most banal to the most exquisite.
Be aware of light. It has a color, a shape, a direction, and a quality. And it can take the most mundane subject and turn it into something glorious if you look at it with the right eyes at the right time.
Change HOW you see, not WHAT you see. There’s nothing new under the sun except you.
Great photography comes from WHO you are, not WHERE you are.”
Thank you, David, for the great blog. You sent this out at the exact time I needed to read this. Your insights are terrific 👏
Thank you for sharing 😊
Spot on Jeff with the comment about our grandparents and what we see in a week. I’ve been trying to drive that into my students in an attempt to help them slow down and really look. The image tsunami has on one hand raised the bar, but on the other it has created increased visual numbness.
Great final line, Jeff. “Great photography comes from WHO you are, not WHERE you are.” Beautifully put.
What resonated with me is the idea that being original is not about trying to be different from others but just being true to my own way of seeing things, my own way of sharing the way I see things. Then there is also the idea of making photographs about our subject matter, not of our subject matter. As always, thank you for making me think.
“A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of the Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.” ~ Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière
“Perspective IS Everything.” ~ MNP
Teacher Tom Brown, Jr. of Tom Brown’s Tracking, Nature Awareness and Wilderness Survival School maintains that most people aren’t aware of 99% of what goes on around them. He then goes on to prove his point. Imagine, if you could lower that to missing only 90%,how much your view of the world would change?
Thank you David, you answered one of my hardest questions of why I photograph. Please keep sharing you hope and inspiration.
It’s all been done? Thank you for this, David. Just thank you.
Right on the nose again, David.
What we choose to shoot, how we shoot it, and how we process it is unique to us, individually. I tell people that when I show you one of my photos, I’m showing you a piece of my soul.
Whoops. Typo in my web link. https://www.talespinmedia.com
I was just thinking about this when I was out for my early morning walk. Finding the new in the “old” is part of the process as I age and as I take hundreds more photos of much the same thing. So, I ask myself, “What is there in the familiar that I haven’t taken quite like that before?” That question opens my eyes to new possibilities. And, yes, as you state, it reflects who I am.
I’ve been a photographer pretty much all my life (and that’s adding up to a long time now). I confess, the notion “it’s all been done!” has crossed my mind. Your insight here is brilliant. You’ve inspired me again and I’m sure you’ve inspired others too.
Cam! What a surprise to see you name here! I hope you and Nan are well.
Great article! I just recently did a photo expedition to a location that made into images countless times. But I went to make images that added my spin on it. Might even use it to make my first monograph.
I’d love to see that monograph when it happens, Steve.
Good morning David…
You elegantly stated the concept of “Steal Like an Artist.” In short, it’s all been done before, but not with your personal brand and/or style.
Thank you very much for this great, much needed article! I’m in the beginning of creating my photography website, and after reading your ideas on originality I’m inspired to push on and express myself in a way I’ve never done before. Yes, it’s has been done, but not by me, and I’m super excited to just put myself out there and have a place of my own! I recently listene d to the SFP podcast with Ben Hartley, and your episode really resonated with me, and you ideas on social media. It was really the thing that kicked me in the pants to start working on my website! Again, thank you very much for your inspiration and advice!
Wow! This article came at the right time to this particular person. You cut right to the heart of it. Thanks for your shared wisdom.
My two cents: There is a finite number of musical notes, but an endless variety of music can be created from them. Same with any art……
A perfect metaphor, Tom.
I love your viewpoint on this subject David. We may have heard it before, but it’s always good to hear it again, especially from someone as talented as you that we should find our own voice, express our photos in our way. Many thanks for a great article!
Just read this. It’s WONDERFUL! Thank you.
You’re welcome, Nancy. Thanks for being here. 🙂