One of the hardest things for any artist, working in any medium, to do is to be an innovator, an original.
This is possibly more true of photography than most other disciplines. The ubiquity of handheld devices with built-in cameras, especially mobile phones, and social media together have increased access to photography beyond any meaningful measure in the last 10 years or so. The sheer volume of photos being taken and published daily numbers in the hundreds of millions, maybe even billions. Many of these are no more ambitious than selfies, or simple snapshots.
Even if the quality of these images has improved immeasurably over previous photographic products that made photography available to the masses, such as the awful 110 cameras of the 70s, one thing that inevitably continues to be extremely difficult to achieve is originality.
The pioneering work of great names, such as Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jane Bown has now become mainstream. It’s not necessarily that photographers today are merely copying them, it’s just that their work laid the foundations for later photographers to build on, consciously or subconsciously. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. An image doesn’t have to break new ground to be an arresting image. But when you find an original vision, that’s very exciting.
A measure of any original artist is for their work to be instantly recognisable, without being told whose it is. Such artists are few and far between. Developments in technology extend photographers’ ability to explore new directions, but the technology can’t do it by itself. The inspiration comes from the photographer.
I’m happy to admit that my own stuff is far from original. I’ve never deliberately aped anyone else’s style, and never would, but comparing my own images with what I see elsewhere – well, let’s just say that there’s a lot of it about!
I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to get a place on a workshop on street portraiture run by Niall McDiarmid, in Colwyn Bay. Niall was running it to fill a bit of time, I suspect, while awaiting his speaker slot at the Northern Eye Festival. Niall’s style is what I would definitely call original. He was very approachable and patient, and did a good job of instructing the 8 participants in the basics of how to go about his craft. Some of the group’s results were surprisingly good, especially considering the fear induced by approaching complete strangers and asking them to pose for a photograph in the street, (more of that in another post…). But none produced anything like as distinctive as Niall’s own work. And why would they?
Have a look at Niall’s work, and decide for yourself whether he’s an “original”.