The Fine Line Between Imitation and Flattery

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.

photography plagarism

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.

copy fashion photography knock off

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.

rip off art

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?

Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

6 Comments
  1. I love this! A lot of people even think it’s flattering to straight up tell the originator that they have been ‘inspired” to create exactly what they created. The point is to stand out not inspire everyone to be like you. Originally is hard but that’s what makes those people so unique and great! : ) My creative process actually involves not keeping an eye on the industry. I, for the most part , ignore it in order to keep my own mind fresh.

  2. Emily Bailey says:

    I love reading these blogs, I think sometimes one of the problems is that if you spend so much time looking at other images and other photographers work, it is easy to start to borrow ideas and be influenced without even realising. There is of course a line between inspiration and immitation that everyone should be aware of! Great blog!

  3. We have access to the same source of inspiration (paintings, movies, art from museums, magazines, fashion… globalization of inspiration?) so it’s easy that people create very similar images or stories. I’m sure that every photographer, at least once in life, created a “new” image or project, thinking that it was completely original until finding out the very same kind of image had been created ages before.

  4. This is so true! I studied photography and everyone there copied (badly of course) Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin!!!!!!!!

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