Early this morning I read through a series of instagram stories from a well-known photographer friend, Matt Payne, discussing inspiration the ethics of a phenomenon known as “compstomping”. This is when someone (I won’t use artist here) basically copies another photographer’s composition by visiting the exact location and using the exact perspective of the original. In the non-photographer world we call this plagiarism. Apparently there are some “artists” that do this and do not give credit to the original composer.
Copying has long been used in many forms of art and life as a catalyst for learning and inspiration. I have used it myself as a means to understand the mechanics behind something I’m learning. A good example of this is in cooking. I like to exactly follow a recipe that someone else has created. I see the amounts needed of different ingredients and learn the technique to cook them properly. In the process I make mental notes of how I want to change anything. I’ve also done this with music, woodworking, sewing, knitting, etc. In fact, just about EVERYTHING I’ve ever created has been copied before creating anything remotely unique.
With everything I create, I like to ask myself, what do I want? Sometimes my goal is to just learn a few technical things and I’m happy with that. Often I want to put my own “spin” on something I’ve copied. And, a few times I have desired to really create something that is unique to me.
Last year I made a YouTube video, “Creating Art from the Heart” that discusses the steps to take in creating art that reflects unique vision. Rarely is this done without following this formula:
- Authentic Creation
If I want to create authentic work, I actually NEED to copy/mimic first. What a relief! I actually NEED to copy to end up creating unique art. So, if copying is part of the artistic process, what’s so bad about “compstomping”?
The problem lies in the ethics of giving credit. Did I copy someone and try to pass it off as my own? Or did I credit the original artist and recognize their brilliance and work to follow the above mentioned process to create the final product? Truthfully, I would never exactly copy anyone and share it publicly in any way. That practice would be for my personal benefit on my way to integration, step 2 of the formula.
Integration is probably where I spend the most time. I consume alot of art and, because of that, I can’t help but have memories of what I have seen. This is great when it comes time to make art because I draw inspiration from a variety of sources. I integrate some copying with my own ideas inspired by others. This happens A LOT when I’m photographing in the field. If I find myself at a location where I have seen work made by other photographers, I may try out how I think they created their work. I’ll then combine that with my own ideas as I feel the inspiration. Eventually, if I trust the formula, I’ll create art that is authentic and unique to me.
Back to “compstomping” without giving credit. Since these are my personal musings, I want to be clear and say that this is wrong and unethical. And, as you create and copy from the brilliance of others, I’d like to offer a simple question to ask yourself in the process: WHY? Is it to gain inspiration on your way to make art you love? Or, are you merely trying to create the appearance of authenticity without actually having it? Are you copying to make yourself look “good” without having to do the work? Or, are you mimicking on your way to integrating that knowledge to create your personal vision?
Making “good” art takes work, passion, experimentation, practice and time. These things HAVE to be experienced and there are truly no shortcuts on our way to creating authentic art that completely represents our unique vision.
So, next time you find yourself tempted to “compstomp” try doing a “scene glean” instead. What is it that YOU can glean from the scene around you? What is your eye drawn to? Take in your surroundings. Pause, listen to your heart and your creative intuition and then get to work.
For more on this topic check out my podcast conversation with Len Metcalf in our episode titled “Inspiration” and “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon.