Man Ray On Art And Originality

May 19th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

One of the World’s Most Recognized and Unusual Artists, the Painter, Sculptor and Photographer Man Ray, Brings Insight to the Creative Process, Art and Originality

Man Ray did not pursue Recognition, Fame or Financial Success. He was broke most of his life.

Are you in it for recognition? For money? Why are you a landscape photographer?

Salvador Dali and Man Ray, Paris, 1934 by Carl Van Vechten. Public Domain image. This photograph was made in Paris while Philip Hyde was there at age 11 with his little brother Davy age 5, his sister Betty, age 16, his mother Jessie and his father painter Leland Hyde, who was studying at the world famous L' Ecole de Beau Arts, one of the art hubs of Modernist Paris.

A hot topic recently in the landscape photography blogosphere has been this variously defined idea of “copying,” that is: one photographer copying another’s photograph by standing in roughly the same place under roughly the same conditions and capturing essentially the same image. While the laws of physics prevent the making of an exact copy, many photographs come close enough to bring the intent of the “copying” photographer into question. I made a few comments on some posts on the topic.

Photography Blog Posts Discussing Copying Or Related Themes Recently:

“The Art of Copying” from Guy Tal Photography Web Journal

“Copying Other Photographer’s Images; Good, Bad, Legal?” from Pro Nature Photographer Blog

“Moving Past The Repertoire” by Greg Russell here on Landscape Photography Blogger

“Make Your Own Tripod Tracks” by David Leland Hyde on Alpenglow Images Blog

“Originality – A Matter of Perspective Revisited by Jim M. Goldstein on JMG Galleries Blog

“Creativity and Copying” posted by Kevin Schafer on the Outdoor Photographer Blog

“Iconic Locations and the Making of Art” from Little Red Tent Blog

“Copy/right and the Nature of Art” from Pomeroy Photography Blog

“Photography and Icons” from Skolai Images by Carl Donohue

“Art; an Exploration of the Unknown” also from Skolai Images

Some photographers have proposed that any photograph that is copyable is not art. Others say this is preposterous. Indeed, one could just as easily argue that any photograph that is not copyable is not art, but is merely a documentation of special effects or techniques and manipulations that go against the nature of photography to stand on real subjects. Is a clean simple, unaffected photograph of nature not to be considered art just because some smart aleck bought a topo map or used GPS mapping to find the location? Either argument may be just as theoretically vacuous and irrelevant to the actual act of making a photograph; except that the photographer’s intent and purpose behind his photography may be the underpinning not yet examined in this discussion.

This Generation Must Do Something Entirely New

As I commented on Guy Tal’s blog post, “Copying Discussion Follow-Up,” we all from time to time can benefit from some introspection. Current landscape photographers and landscape photography in general would benefit by getting away from photographing the icons in the same old ways. Here’s part of what I wrote:

…The next generation must do something else entirely. We have to ask ourselves, why we got into photography in the first place? We have to dig for our own meaning and direction. We must at all costs, eliminate anything that even hints of copying the copiers. That’s my take, anyway, for what it’s worth, and my idea of what is necessary to make any contribution to the art of landscape photography.

More on this and a related discussion on what keeps landscape photography going here on the Landscape Photography Blogger blog post, “Is Landscape Photography Thriving Or Dying.” On a similar note, a few photography bloggers recently called for discussions on the creative process. Greg Russell on his Alpenglow Images Blog raised concerns about creativity and the use of Photoshop in his blog post, “Where Does the Creative Process Stop?” You may find the comments on this post interesting as well as on the insightful post, “Was That Photoshopped?” from the Landscaping! Blog.

Man Ray’s Shocking Originality And Poverty

One of the world’s most famous photographers, a sculptor and painter, Man Ray, may be one of the most original artists ever. Man Ray was so creative that nothing he ever produced in any medium looked anything at all like any other art that ever existed. Man Ray was not interested in producing photographs that looked like previous masters to learn. He made his own style in everything. He broke all the rules and set the trends. Man Ray also had his work rejected by galleries and the public for many years. Near the end of his life he became accepted by the wealthy art establishment in Paris, France where he lived most of his life. He earlier had become known for his portraits of famous people and soon-to-be famous people such as Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Antonin Artaud and many others. He gained a measure of success but it was not until after his death that his original Dadaist sculptures and paintings became highly sought after and sold for millions in auctions.

The point is not that landscape photographers now must be starving artists, it does not matter if you are rich or poor, only if you are unique. The point is to put originality above making money or gaining recognition. Some will starve doing this because they believe that to make money they have to do whatever everyone else is doing. Some will become wealthy through their unique vision.

In a video called Man Ray: Prophet of Avant-Garde from the PBS American Masters series, the modernist painter, sculptor and photographer said:

I never think about art and I don’t think the old masters ever thought that they were creating art. They had to express the spirit of their times and they would then start to invent. What seems to be the tricks of the day, will be the truths of tomorrow. Students ask me, ‘How do I make something original?’ I tell them, be yourself and you will be original. Who are you?

Why are you a landscape photographer?

For a blog post by Jay Goodrich that makes a similar inquiry and features some interesting responses see, “Why Do You Photograph?” To see some new, innovative photographs see also the blog post, “Breaking New Ground With Digital Photography Creations.” To learn more about a pioneer who went far beyond innovation to influence all of landscape photography see the blog post, “The Hidden Brett Weston.” To look beyond creativity to photographic tools such as film and its influence on the direction of landscape photography see the blog post, “Did Velvia Film Change Landscape Photography?



  1. Erik Halberstadt says:

    Hi David,

    I suspect our fathers had this discussion more than once — I have no idea if that premise is true, but judging from what you’ve said here, I suspect they held somewhat opposing views. At least publicly, anyway.

    I think it was during the angst of my third attempt at having a creative career that had me asking Hal how to succeed (which is to say “make a living”) creating “art”. He had a lot to say on the subject: most of it boiled down to one simple, unhappy fact: “It’s all been done.”

    Now that I’m older, I may begin to understand, at least as pertains to photography. I believe that all photography is copying — we don’t make the landscape or the nude, we make them tangible. In that sense, we may be the first to capture an image, or the first to promote it, but we are not Creators in the sense that a painter or sculptor might be — our visions are less what might be than what is, and perhaps less creative in the semantically literal sense than the other arts.

    Somewhere there’s a quote of your dad saying that he didn’t wait for the light — it was that statement that brought me here, and an echo of something Hal said to Ansel, in public: “Landscape photography is easy; you just stand there and wait for the light.” Needless, I hope, to say, that that was not a popular statement, but the truth in it, painful as it may be to some, is clear — a goodly hunk of the practice of landscape photography is not of our own doing.

    What I do when I’m doing “art photography” is to try to capture a moment or feeling of the awe and wonder (or pain and despair, or… ) I experience from the universe -and- to preserve and communicate it. That some few have seen and like my work is my validation… and the echoes of my meager efforts that I see reflected in other’s works is all I need of promised immortality.

    Copying is educational — from the first caveman to spray ocher around his (or her) hand on a wall (and that was probably an accident (“What’s that in your mouth, Ogg?”)) we’ve learned by trying to reproduce what we’ve seen others do. We have the evidence of their efforts, and the tracks of the methods used as waypoints to mastery of our craft. Without copying, we each must blaze the technical trails that others have already cleared, and paved solid in granite and Dektol, as it were. Even if those waypoints are now programmed into our cameras, we copy by way of those who followed others’ paths to mastering the mechanism and chemistry that is painting with light.

    And yet copying, for most who practice it, is futile. 99% of the millions of people who park their tripod in Ansel’s spots utterly fail to make images that are more than poor reflections of the original — even in those Yosemite workshops he taught. That the direct-copy crowd enjoys any success at all says more about the audience than it does about the images — for every educated art consumer there are a hundred thousand who don’t care how an image came to be, only that it looks like “That One” and costs as little as possible.

    The techniques we share, be they large sheets of silver in gelatin or CCD sensors; Arca or Instamatic, aren’t really significant to my way of thinking (and Hal’s way of teaching)– it’s all just stuff. The tangible results aren’t truly that significant, either. In a thousand years most of it will be, at best, a memory, a reflection in some -other- pioneering eye, making copies of Ansel and Man Ray, who were translating those who went before -them-, should we be so fortunate as to have any technology remaining.

    And then there’s the unstated question (if it was stated, I missed it!) “What is photography?”

    To me, photography is what happens in the camera — I do my best to get the image I want to see in the exposure, not what I might do in the darkroom or on the computer. I learn to see what the camera sees rather than force what it captures to fit what I think it should see. Maybe that’s a failing on my part as an artist, but I think it’s a strong point as a photographer.

    Post exposure manipulations, be they 20 steps in the darkroom to print Ansel’s “Moonrise Hernandez” or HDR stacking in Photoshop are something else that isn’t exactly photography. They either save a bad exposure or use it as a foundation to create something else. I love getting a good print out of a marginal negative, and I spend a lot of time playing with Photoshop, but that’s not photography, whatever it is. (Ducking into my flame-resistant bunker now.)

    So, to cut my likely not very sensible ramblings short, photography and copying are Siamese twins. The Art in it arises in how we use that faithful reproduction of What Exists — there is as much Art in a purposeful print from an Instamatic (or my current choice, an iPhone) made with due consideration to the image as there is in a straight print from a ten zone 8×10 negative as there is from a heavily Photoshopped image-construct, all other things being equal. It’s the intent and the result rather than the “Stuff” used to get there.

    Oh, just one last rambling thing… not to name drop as much to make a point: I was fortunate enough to hear Ansel play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the Steinway more than once, both in San Francisco and Carmel. I would not trade that hearing for all his prints and all the tea in China. As much as I love his photography, it pales by comparison to his music.

    He was **copying** Bach when he played — not just the notes on the page, but the breath, the blood and bone of the music… there was more of his passion evident in those few moments than in all the lovely images he produced. For me, his photographs are only the dim light reflecting from his music.

  2. Hi Erik, thank you for this powerful contribution to the discussion. There seem to be a number of Halberstadt’s associated with photography. Piet Halberstadt of New York wrote me a delightful e-mail a while back talking about my dad and Ansel Adams and some of the others. If you don’t mind me asking, what relation are you to Piet? He’s on my e-mail list. Also, will you e-mail me your contact info because I would like to ask you a couple questions including: can I post your comment above as a separate blog post?

    Now, to respond: My father at one time in his life when he was teaching at the Ansel Adams workshops wrote in a letter to one of the lead staff. In that letter he expressed similar sentiment to what you have: It’s all been done. However, near the end of his life after he had lost his eyesight in 1999-2000, as part of an exercise from a memoir writing book, I asked Dad to dictate a letter to his grandchildren. I am still without children and thus he is without grandchildren, but the principle is the same. In his letter to his grandchildren Dad advised them above all else to find their own voice, to see their own vision. This appears somewhat contradictory to “it’s all been done,” but perhaps not. Perhaps even though it has all been done, those of us in art now can still take heart that we will be able to find our own voices. People who are young or new at something need to have reason to be optimistic, though I don’t necessarily perceive “it’s all been done” as entirely pessimistic either. Shakespeare said it and look what he created. Most, if not all of his plots were borrowed from other sources, but he certainly found his own voice. Also, it is quite evident in Dad’s early work that he often borrowed, or even “copied” as you call it, from his mentors Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and even Dorothea Lange and other early 19th and 20th century landscape photographers. Yet in my opinion, he succeeded in heeding his own advice to his grandchildren. Of Dad’s images my advisers and I have assembled for the website, the majority were selected mainly because no other photographer could have made them. I am in accord with working photographs in Photoshop, but with subtle, less saturated taste, just as Dad’s dye transfer prints. Fundamentally though, I agree with what you say photography is. I like your statement, “I learn to see what the camera sees rather than force what it captures to fit what I think it should see.” You are right on with, “That the direct-copy crowd enjoys any success at all, says more about the audience than it does about the images — for every educated art consumer there are a hundred thousand who don’t care how an image came to be, only that it looks like ‘That One’ and costs as little as possible.” That’s for sure. Those who merely wait for the light are not producing the landscape photography that will stick with mankind over the long term. There’s much more to landscape photography than picking a pretty scene and waiting for the light. Many of the same qualities that make other types of photographs great are the same as what make landscape photographs great. The idea in any art is to transcend subject matter anyway. Edward Weston said it best, “To photograph a rock, have it look like a rock but be more than a rock.”

  3. I really like to read this kind of post very interesting, thanks for this!

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