Derivative

Wotans Throne stands bathed in sunrise's golden glow as seen from Cape Royal on a July morning in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Wotans Throne stands bathed in sunrise’s golden glow as seen from Cape Royal on a July morning in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Years ago, my sister-in-law gave me a copy of Stephen Trimble’s, Lasting Light ~125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography, for Christmas. This coffee table art book tells the story of Grand Canyon photography from the late 1800’s to the present day. It is filled with stunning images by great landscape photographers. Ansel Adams, David Muench and Jack Dykinga are just three of the artists featured. The book is well worn from years of loving use. I’ve read and re-read every chapter, scrutinized each photo, and still review the images before heading out to shoot landscapes. In fact, when I’m at Grand Canyon to make landscapes, I’ll often visit then nearest gift store to browse a display copy of Trimble’s book. Flipping through the images, I am looking for inspiration and guidance.

I’m not ashamed to say I’ve attempted to reproduce several of my favorite images in Lasting Light. If I’m being honest with myself and with you, I must acknowledge that the act of reproducing a previous work is, to some extent, derivative. To quote from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, it is “something that comes from something else.” To call an artist’s work, derivative, is generally considered a criticism. At best, it suggests an absence of originality.  At worst, it suggests a plagiaristic quality . While the act of reproduction can be derivative, it also has the potential to be creative. If something new comes from the act, that work can accurately be described as inspired and original.

With this article, I want to explore the arguably fine line separating the inspired from the derivative. I’ll start by asking the obvious question: why reproduce another photographer’s image? To understand my motivation, it is worth pointing out that I reproduce only those images I consider to be great photographs. Making an homage to a past classic is an accepted and time honored practice in many circles. If one paints in the style of Monet, one is called an impressionist. If one incorporates a musical phrase reminiscent of Miles Davis, one is called a jazz musician. The writer whose work is inspired by Allen Ginsberg is called a Beat poet. The quality all these examples share, is that the inspired work contributes something new to the art form.

Panorama of Grand Canyon with Butte in Foreground. Photo taken by Ansel Adams and used courtesy of the National Archives

This tradition extends to photography, as well. If you look on page 32 of Lasting Light, you’ll see Ansel Adams’ iconic photograph of Wotans Throne taken from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon. On page 54, is Dick Dietrich’s image of the same subject. Dietrich is widely considered among the great landscape photographers of the 20th Century. His image was taken from nearly the same location as Adams’ and with almost identical framing. However, Ansel Adams made his photograph during morning light while Dietrich made his at sunset. Dietrich’s decision to shoot at a different time of day and his use of color film stock produced a photo capturing a very different personality of this iconic scene. In making these choices, Dietrich produced an original interpretation. His image was inspired.

What this illustrates, is that the real issue is not that photographers sometimes reproduce elements of prior great works. There is no debate, here. It happens and with greater frequency than some would care to admit. The real issue is this: in taking inspiration from past work, is the resulting photograph essentially a reproduction or does it contribute something new. Is the photograph derivative or inspired?

Finding the answer to this question is not as simple as one might think. A photographer may start by mimicking a master’s work. Over time, however, the nature of creativity often conspires to lead the photographer in new directions. In other words, the act of reproducing a prior great work may be where artistry begins. But this is not where the artistic process ends. To understand this process, let’s consider the act of reproduction within the context of my growth as a photographer.

Key to what makes a photograph great are the choices of time of day, perspective and composition made by the photographer. The act of reproducing a great photograph deepens my understanding of the effect lighting, location and framing have on the resulting image. Two of the biggest mistakes made by casual photographers are arriving when everybody else arrives and standing where everybody else stands. Sunsets are awesome but everybody is up at that time of day. An overlook railing identifies where good views – and photographs – can be had but everybody stands at the rail.  Climbing over the rail to set up a tripod at the edge of an abyss in predawn darkness is where you begin to separate the merely derivative from the inspired.

The Golden Hour light of sunset pours into Clear Creek as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

The Golden Hour light of sunset pours into Clear Creek as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

On a recent photo excursion, I spent four days and three nights at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. I had a goal of reproducing the images Adams had made of from Cape Royal of Wotans Throne and from Point Imperial of Mt Hayden (Lasting Light, page 33). Each evening, I arrived at Cape Royal two hours before sunset to select an optimum spot from which to capture the magic of the late day light working the landscape. Each morning, I awoke at 3:00 AM to leave camp and drive to a chosen overlook in time to catch the first glow of predawn twilight.

On three consecutive days, I drove to Cape Royal for sunset. I would walk to the overlook, climb over the rail, walk to the edge of the Kaibab limestone platform and make a five-foot downclimb to a shelf offering an unobstructed view of the scene. Each night, monsoon rain clouds blocked the golden glow from kissing the landscape. I could have been so frustrated by the weather that I simply packed my gear and returned to camp. Rather than giving up, I worked with the available light and experimented with composition in an effort to make good images.

Mt. Hayden basks in early morning light as seen from Point Imperial on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Mt. Hayden basks in early morning light as seen from Point Imperial on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The first two mornings I went to Point Imperial to photograph sunrise. The clouds were less dense at this time of day, which allowed nature’s light to paint the landscape. Reproducing Adams iconic image of Mt. Hayden was on my To Do list. With that shot made, I was then free to explore the scene for other images. The reproduction was something of an aperitif, a drink to stimulate my creative palette. You see, the act of reproducing a great photograph is, for me, a first step in the process. It’s almost as though I need to get that image out of my system. With that image made, I am free to let my creative eye wander and seek its own frame.

Having experienced the dingy gray of seasonal rains at Cape Royal, I returned there on the last morning in search of magic hour light. Nature cooperated and sunrise’s deep golden glow elicited rich red hues in the stone layers of Wotans Throne. I made my homage to Adams’ image and, with that task out of the way, there was room for my compositional eye to step forward and assert control over the balance of the shoot.

Of course, there was no guarantee my choice of location, selection of framing or determination of the decisive moment would produce an image as good – let alone any better – than the iconic image inspiring my effort. At the very least, however, the resulting images would be original. Yes, they were inspired by another photographer’s prior work. But my images reflect my interpretation of the scene. They are mine. Nature’s light never paints the same landscape, twice.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | July 2014

Leave a Reply