Yohji Yamamoto once said, “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find the self.” In other words, until you figure your shit out, you’re going to be a phony. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some would say that copying other artists is completely necessary for creative development. Of course, plagiarism is a whole other story. According to Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist” there is a right way and a wrong way of copying someone. “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.” So the point isn’t about a specific technique or color palette, “the reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knock off.” So the question is, do you think the below images knock offs or inspirations of their originals? Below you have Terry Richardson’s campaign for Aldo Shoes, drawing obvious inspiration from Guy Bourdin.
So if imitation is supposedly a mark of a developing talent, then why are there so many knock offs floating around the internets? What possible explanation is there for established photographers like Mert and Marcus or Terry Richardson to be ripping off their predecessors? A theory that has been floating around is that we’re all running out of ideas. Everything that could possibly be done has been done. We’re finished. Welcome to the apocalypse.
Another theory suggests that between Facebook, Pinterest, and Flickr we’re practically drowning in images. It used to be the case that artists seeking inspiration for their next project had to somehow draw it out from themselves. But now, given how quick and easy it is, the temptation to look at other people’s work is irresistible. Someone in need of a good idea can have a look at Fashion Gone Rogue, or a million other websites just like it. But then even in this case that last and most crucial step in the process isn’t taking place: Reinterpretation.
Above left you see fine art photographer Jeff Bark’s “Woodpecker” series, and on the right is Mert and Marcus’s “What Lies Beneath” shot for Love Magazine. The editorial is so similar to Jeff Bark’s work that there remains no doubt that Mert & Marcus were directly inspired by it for their shoot. But is this still within the range of acceptable “imitation as flattery” to the original artist? Is the Love Magazine editorial sufficiently different from it’s inspiration to be considered original? Where do you draw that line? How territorial can we possibly be about an idea? And, most importantly, why even bother walking that line when you can just come up with something new?