Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal, Lazy Artists Rip-Off

That idea has been floating around in my thinking in one form or another for as long as I have been a photographer. Studying the history of photography, or the history of any creative medium really, is a pretty explicit way of embracing that idea. I have been following a controversy on line involving a photographer I know, copyright rules that I value, an on-line lynch mob that prompted me to wince and the larger question of influences, appropriation and finally flat-out theft.

Picasso is supposed to have said either “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” or a variation on that “good artists copy; great artists steal.” In researching that quote I was reminded that the theme is universal even if the specific delivery medium is unique. That is true for most art work, which almost always echoes a few great themes while using a particularly unique medium of expression. That uniqueness comes in the use of different physical media, stylistic strategies within the same, medium, etc.

For example, in the medium of “writing” we have the Picasso quotes. But I also found “Art does not imitate, but interpret” attributed to Giuseppe Mazzini. The writer, T. S. Eliot, is supposed to have written “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I can go on, but I think you get the idea of great themes reappearing across mediums.

So what do I think they all meant, in saying essentially the same thing in a variety of different ways? I suspect the idea is that every creative practitioner is influenced by whatever work has been done before they created their work. The point, it seems to me, is that borrowing is closest to copying, which can be slavish and unimaginative. Stealing (to me) suggests getting to the essence or value of a piece of art, taking that precious core and then making it your own.

Over the years I have done a number of my “light studies,” photo-essays on the light and atmosphere of different places on assignment for various publications. A couple of my more successful ones built on an idea I stole from Joel Meyerowitz. For one of his early projects, on the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, MO, he went around St. Louis photographing the landscape. He always included some part or view of that same arch in every image, placing the structure at the center of St. Louis. The introduction to the book described the arch as “… an inverted three-sided catenary curve, a shape arrived at by hanging a chain freely between two supporting points and projecting this curve upward to form an arch.”

Since seeing that photo-essay I used his motif in my photo-essay on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence. Both structures are intended as landmarks at the center of the cities where they sit, so my strategy works well in making the photos always centered around those landmarks. I stole the idea from Meyerowitz, but I am guessing he stole that idea from the architects and builders who always want their creations to be at the center of attention in the cities where they created their work.

I have regularly borrowed the motifs used by other photographers and I teach my students to do that, to steal the best part of another photographer’s work and to make it their own. Let me illustrate what I mean by that with some of my own images. In both of the following pairs you will see the work of a known master photographer. Then you will see how I stole the essence of their work and yet made it my own.

Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photography by David H. Wells

Photography by David H. Wells

Photography by W. Eugene Smith

I am perfectly comfortable with this. I think that what I did in the final images was different enough that I was not slavishly copying what others had done before me. What I really stole from both was the understanding of what makes each image work and not the image itself.

In the case of the images of men running, in both cases there is a peak of tension as the men seemingly float over the place they are about to land. In the case of the woman with child images, in both cases their heroism and love moves out of the darkness and into the light. That is what I stole and frankly, I am happy that I understood that intuitively back when I made the images. I am equally happy that I can finally articulate that process now.

(In my next blog entry I will follow up on this and will explore a recent example of what I think of as “Lazy artists rip-off.”)

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