Has Everything Been Done Before?

“Most expressive discoveries are made in old familiar subject matter.” ~ A. Hyatt Mayor

I came upon this quote while reading Robert Adams’ Beauty in Photography. Adams goes on to say that “Photography is by nature on intimate terms with old familiar subject matter; all that remains now is for us to create new illusions in the service of truth”. It set me to thinking about originality in photography and the subject matter we choose. In a way these quotes reinforce the old mantra that “everything has been done before.” It doesn’t take someone with a keen eye to observe that most landscape and nature photographs we see today are from tried and true subjects, be it a place, an object, weather phenomena, you name it. Can you name the last landscape photo you saw with truly original subject matter? I know I can’t. I look at my own body of work and see little if any truly unique subjects. But, is that a problem? I think not.

I am in agreement with the belief that most landscape photographs fall into either one of two categories. There are those that are objective, meaning that the image is a literal recreation of the scene as observed by the photographer. Fidelity to actual appearances is the goal with these types of images and very little if any of the photographer’s personality has been projected into the image. Think of a grand landscape scene. Then there are subjective images, those that go beyond mere appearances and reflect the photographer’s thoughts, feelings, and personality. These are creative, personally expressive images in which the object in the photo is not the subject. Granted, rarely is it as black and white as I have described it here, for most objective landscapes have a subjective element to them and vice versa. Still, there are differences between the two, not only in appearance but also in approach and intent.

When it comes to landscape photography it is entirely possible that everything has been done before. But, what do we mean by “everything”? Do we mean all subject matter? Or could it mean all the ways of seeing, which is in reality infinite. It doesn’t take original subject matter to make an original, unique image. In a creative, personally expressive image the subject really only matters to the photographer, serving as a catalyst for inspiration and perhaps even a metaphor what what the photographer is trying to express. The real subject is the photographer’s response to the literal object or subject in the scene and what she/he is trying to say. The challenge for the landscape photographer is not to find new subject matter, but rather to discover new and original ways of expression.

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