Seen It Before vs Completely Original

- - vs

I found these two blog posts interesting and worth contemplating head to head:

“It is all too easy to cry copy-cat or rip-off and refrain from wondering why it is so vital for your appreciation that ’something hasn’t been done before’. Of course I can’t and won’t claim to be free of this obsession, but I notice an increasing hesitation in myself to follow the lure of the game, and a need to think about different things to look for in a work. Novelty is nice for the novice, but once the jaded feeling of ‘been there, seen that’ crops us, it is time to reconsider my responsibility – if you can call it that – as viewer.”
—-Via, Mrs. Deane.


“Platon has an entire portfolio of photographs, mostly portraits, titled Service in last week’s edition of The New Yorker. An extended selection of images can be seen online.”

“Listening to an audio file on The New Yorker’s site, I learned that Platon is now officially signed on as a staff photographer.”

“I haven’t heard anything about this before and frankly I’m surprised. It’s not that I think Platon is a bad portrait photographer but in my mind I don’t see how Platon can replace Avedon. His portraits shot from below against a stark white background are too indebted to Avedon’s. Maybe the magazine doesn’t see their selection as a replacement for Avedon but I certainly do. ”
—-Via, Horses Think.

There Are 20 Comments On This Article.

  1. I think the more knowledgeable you become, about any field, the easier it is to find the influences on a work of art. I don’t think it detracts from the work itself. I think a better question would be whether any of us can find something that is truly original, shockingly out-of-the-blue, without precedent or influence.

    I just looked at a slideshow of Platon’s work on the site and the portraits are compelling. They seem more emotional to me than Avedon’s. More honest indications of the people in the portrait. Avedon’s are so posed– you are always aware that He is behind the camera. With each of Platon’s portraits (I’ve only seen the military slideshow on the New Yorker site) I get such a sense of each subject’s personality that it makes me wonder how he was able to engage them so well. They are being themselves, instead of who they want us to see (as Avedon’s subjects do).

  2. What is wrong with taking something some one else started and moving it further along down the road? Helen Leavitt has many images that are similar to work from Henri Cartier-Bresson but more complex and layered. While not novel in the same way that his are, they carry the conversation forward. As for Platon and Avedon, it seems a similar thing is in place. Platon’s images are no less stylized, but with the color and the forced perspective perhaps they point to how constructed Avedon’s work really was, regardless of how he presented it.

  3. Whenever I get my free copy of Rangefinder magazine, I am left wondering how many new copycats will be created by each article. There is more to being a photographer than throwing a camera around, even for those that just do weddings, or portraits. That is not to say that I think commercial photography is more creative, nor looking down upon the wedding and portrait shooters; there are just as many hacks in both realms.

    I think what is needed is being true to your vision, rather than chasing the latest fad. Many of us like the latest in technology, or the latest post processing tricks, but that should not mean we need to use them, nor use them immediately, nor use them often.

    The camera points both ways, and ultimately I think that is why we continue in our careers. Clients can often want a more conservative or predictable approach, but those shots rarely make the portfolio. The uniqueness of vision, the innovators, will be more memorable. I think that leads to more work.

    On Platon, I think his way of working with his subjects brings out something different than where Avedon went with his images. The influence is there, but I think what Platon does stands on it’s own merits. Perhaps when he nears 80 years old and has decades of images, our opinions might change on Platon. Now is his time, and I wish him well with it.

  4. when i was younger in my career, i used to stop and think about “oh wait, does this look like something so-and-so would do…” and try to be consciously “different”.

    It’s easy to fall into that if you assist several other photographers, whose techniques will be on your mind.

    but, thinking like that kind of strangled things though, and rarely led to good work.

    eventually i returned to my pre-career mind about photography and stop thinking about whether it had been done before and just do it.

  5. I’m sorry. I think you’re quite possibly a genius. However in this case i think you’re making a mistake.

    I see the first comment being a statement of exasperation on the accessibility of technique (strobist, lighting seminar crowd) and inexpensive gear creating a vast number of rip off “artists” who figure out an innovators methods and use them with no consideration of what the (original or ripped off) image is communicating. They just “like the light” and don’t want to spend the time to come up with their own method of communicating through images. These are the same weekend (microstock) warriors who are diminishing the quantity of “great” photography we see and replacing it with our current crowd sourced over saturated market. The result: Someone makes a great image. Another someone sees and dissects it. Two weeks later everybody with two strobes on Flickr has a set in that “new hot style”. So some give up, and stop looking for exceptional work, or stop taking the time to get upset with plagiarism.

    The second sounds like someone who doesn’t particularly like Platon looking for a reason to justify that dislike. While Platons portraits are influenced by Avedons work. I can not say Platons work is so directly derivative that it looks like plagiarism. Of course Platon can not replace Avedon. Just as Avedons early work is not a replacement for Brassai.

  6. the one thing i learned in photoschool ages ago: its all been done before. whatever “great” idea we came up with it took one of the teachers less than 5 minutes to draw a masterpiece from his collection of photobooks.

    and then the latest Platon pictures (the series titled “service”) look way more Albert Watson than Avedon. a white backdrop doesnt make an avedon.

    theres only so much shades of grey we can choose from….

  7. This is timely. I was talking to someone about this just yesterday. I have mixed feelings about Platon’s work but one of the things that I admire him for is that he is never afraid to embrace the obvious. And I mean that in a wholly positive way. He is the photographic equivalent of the songwriter who seems to be able to knock out classic pop tunes. Yes, they are only pop tunes, seemingly throwaway, but they are CLASSIC pop tunes and the very thing that renders them throwaway is, in the end, the thing that makes them meaningful and resonant down the ages.

    Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey?

  8. Ken (#8)… Nail on head with your paragraph about the first comment! You said it better than I ever could. Also, Grubernd (#9) makes a very good point, one that most of us are probably well aware of.

    Thing is, haven’t we all seen ‘Life Through A Lens’, the latest Annie Leibovitz documentary? She stands there with a print of Ballet Society (Irving Penn) in one hand and directs Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Al Gore (super dooper serial) and Robert Kennedy (well okay, they’re not all in the room at the same time) into very similar positions when shooting that cover for Vanity Fair. Is that plagiarism or homage… Or neither? Whilst we’re at it, what about Tarantino…?

  9. The other part of this is working with photographers like Platon and Schoeller (another NY’er staff photog) who’s work is so ubiquitous that it feels unoriginal to hire them but I was absolutely floored by that Texas Monthly cover of Willie Nelson that Platon shot so I wonder if the thrill of novelty will stand the test of time. What did people say in 1992 when Avedon was hired as the first staff photographer?

  10. the cinemascapist

    Ken #8 wrote: and inexpensive gear creating a vast number of rip off “artists”.

    you saying rich kids with no creativity that graduated with an art degree from Yale can’t be rip off artist because they technically mastered medium or large format? That’s a lot of malarkey if you ask me.

  11. I haven’t seen original prints of any of Platon’s work, and I mention this first off because I think he walks a fine line. A fine line balancing personal and commercial, bare bones and over production, original and derivative. The last pairing is probably the weakest and recalls to mind the pornography definition of knowing it when you see it. I think what he personally brings to the table content wise is distinctive and unique enough to silence any similarities of technique. Perhaps if I saw original prints, I might tip in the other direction and think it more flash than substance. Reduced to less than original reproductions, I can only assume that the gloss of technique and production is at disadvantage here, and the content shines through of its own merit.

    The fact that rarely has the name of the mighty Avedon been invoked when comparing photographers speaks highly of the wunderkind. Decades hence, we may be saying of yet another that he’s no Platon. But I tend to doubt that, not so much because of any potential lack of talent on his part, but because of the increasingly rapid turnover in taste, style and media attention.

  12. Platon is dope…the man got Clinton to spread his legs….he made ozzie cry….come on! i have never looked at a platon photo and thought avedon…….what they communicate in terms of emotion are complete opposites in my mind…..

  13. Since I’m rarely “ahead of the curve” on anything, I’ll point here to my blog post of last week when the issue in question hit my mailbox and I wrote a semi-flattering review of the series in my blog where I expound on my very popular “cake vs. icing” Theory of Art..

    Platon’s pastries seem to balance the cake/icing equation nicely if only because they are not OVERLY stylized (the b/w & contrast help) but he does need to be careful with the fondant. A little powdered sugar goes a LONG way in the Fiscus Syndrome Era.

    The redeeming factors in Platon’s work for me come more in his 35mm-looking documentary images (the sailor on deck is beautiful) than in the lit portraits. The fact that he can do both gracefully is important. He’s not above the cheap-shot, though, like when he pulls a semi-Greenberg and sticks a fisheye in the face of a pompous preacher. I watched the interviews on his site and he seems a bit humble and centered regarding his place in the photo world. A worker, not a poser. A picture maker not a world changer. I like him, as long as his next book isn’t titled “In The American East”.

  14. In almost every case, the reason someone is declared to be an innovator is because they are imitated. It’s call being influential.

    All innovators were imitators at some point in their development, but they had the talent, confidence and determination to create something that can be considered innovative.

    To me, the way to judge the “artistic” merits of a photographer is by the unique quality that comes through in their work.

    But as a former photo editor, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire a photographer who emulates the style of an innovative photographer I either couldn’t afford or wasn’t available. I wouldn’t buy a coffee table book of their work but I would give them an assignment.

  15. You can’t replace Avedon.

    You can only take the ball from someone else and move it forward.

    Thus Avedon begat Platon begat Next.

    God Bless Evolution

  16. In considering the question of originality versus imitation it’s interesting to consider other art forms. For instance, Hemingway definitely learned from Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein — they influenced his writing in ways that are relatively transparent. (Whether or not you like it is another matter.) Emily Dickinson read the Bible and the dictionary and sang church hymns; all three influenced her poetry, yet it remains highly original, nothing at all like her sources. Faulkner and Whitman were also highly original writers. Writers read, photographers look at other work, and what you take in invariably influences what you create to a greater or lesser extent — it can’t be helped. The real question is whether or not an artist is just doing a riff on someone else’s really good work or taking it to another place that is unique, to uncharted territory. The question isn’t just whether or not an artist is derivative or original, it’s a matter of degree as well. I find Platon’s work different enough from Avedon’s to be considered original, but not highly so. (Whether or not I like it is another matter).