Picking up a thread from my earlier discussion, I occasionally get email telling me about a photographer who has done the same work (or something very similar) as someone featured on the blog, often with the implication that someone is ripping someone else off. For me, the issue usually is not about whether there is a rip-off going on (especially since two people, in different countries and without actual contact with each other, can easily create the same kind of work), but, instead, which of the work is more interesting. I think it might help if I gave an example.
This image was created by Idris Khan, and its a digital assembly of all the spherical gas tanks ever photographed by Bernd & Hilla Becher. When I saw this image for the first time, I thought it was absolutely brilliant (and I still think that), since it takes the original, very conceptual idea of the Bechers, and it employs what I would call a visual remix to it. It’s a wonderful example of when a technical idea is applied, the quality of the result is not determined by the technique but, instead, by what you achieve with it (just as an aside: yes, you can take very bad photos with a large-format camera, and a photo taken with a “toy camera” is not automatically great because of light leaks and/or blurriness).
When I linked to Idris Khan’s work, I received a few email, all of which pointed me to Jason Salavon’s work. None of the people who emailed me was aware of the fact that I had linked to his work earlier (I ended up updating my entry to stop people from sending me more emails). One of his images shows the technique used by Idris Khan applied to photos of homes for sale:
His website also shows Every Playboy Centerfold, The Decades and more, done (if what I can find on the web is correct) before Idris Khan did his work. But for me, who did what first here is not nearly as interesting as the fact that while I do like Idris Khan’s combined Becher photos very much, Jason Salavon’s montages are not nearly as interesting. It’s the same concept, but the result is just so vastly different. For me, it simply doesn’t work. It could be anything really. Homes for sale? Sure, I believe it. I can’t see anything anyway: It’s a digital blur.
Which is then pretty much the same problem that I have with some of the other images that Idris Khan created (find some samples here), say if you look at “every… William Turner postcard from Tate Britain” or “every… stave of Frederick Chopin’s Nocturnes for the piano”. Sure. Whatever. I can’t see anything. The visual trick is back to being, well, just a visual trick - quite unlike in the Becher photo cases.
Coming back to the whole idea of a “rip-off”, it’s extremely tricky to decide when a rip-off is a real rip-off (which would then involve a copyright problem) and not just an application of the same technique. But just as I wrote in my earlier post, I think that it is very important to avoid conclusions based on superficial similarities. If someone has done something already, I do not see why someone else shouldn’t be allowed to use the same technique. There always is the chance that something new or better or more interesting might emerge. It’s a chance that is worthwhile taking - as long as one has to be prepared to admit that nothing new has actually been produced.