Is it “Wrong” to Copy Iconic Images?

This question came to me as I was processing my photos from Taos, NM. One of the locations we had to see was the Church of San Francisco de Asis at Rancho Taos. Ansel Adams made famous prints of the back of this church in 1929 and again in 1950. And I really wanted to do the same.

I knew Adams had made photos of the rear of the church, but I could not remember the angle or the shadows, so I made my own compositions, three actually. I knew this was a good subject because Adams showed that it was. I am not sure I would have seen the back of the church as a subject if not for the Adams’ photographs. Let’s call these photos, “inspired by” Adams.

I am certainly happy with what I got given the time of day and conditions. Are they better or worse than the Adams’ photos? They are different and the location is different now I am sure Adams did not have to deal with the same situation as we do now. The rear of the church is a parking lot for a popular Mexican food restaurant and is often full of cars. The area around the church is built up and there are numerous cars, trash cans, and telephone poles and wires over head. It’s hard to isolate just the church.

North Lake, Lone Pine, CA made popular by Galen Rowell

When I first started to learn to be a nature photographer, there were so many challenges and so much ambition to want to be good at it. Just mastering the basics of focus, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO took a lot of brain power and time. Also, switching from Canon cameras to Fujifilm cameras is like speaking American English and British English. It’s close but not the same, especially the subtleties. There were so many great photographers and photographs and locations to learn about. Someone would ask me, “do you know Galen Rowell?” And I would say, “the rock climber?”

Mount Williamson from Manzanar, CA. Another Adams tribute.

Then once you are technically competent, you have to learn to see subjects. I spend as much time thinking about what NOT to include in the frame, as I do what TO include. And there is the whole issue of timing and seasons, and weather, and light, and and and. The artistic side of photography or any art for that matter is hard and hard won through study and practice. Making a unique and artistic and beautiful photo is difficult. Unique is the hardest to do now because there are so many great and good photographers in the world and every person has a cellphone camera and almost every place on earth worth visiting is being visited, a lot.

The most photographed tree in the world. The Lone Cypress, Pebble Beach, CA

I am sure I have shared this vignette before, but here I go again. One time on a photography workshop, a student asked Bill Fortney (a famous nature photographer) how they could make beautiful photos like Bill. Bill is a very kind, understanding, and straight talking kind of guy. He said, “Well, I guess if you practice this craft for 30 to 40 years and you go to the same locations 20 to 30 times in different seasons, years, and weather conditions, you’re bound to get a few good photos.” That’s a simple answer in words, but a complicated challenge to execute. The most visited location Mary and I have experienced so far is Death Valley – seven times. Some of those times were a bust and a couple of them were amazing. But Bill’s right. You have to show up many times to make a great photo.

The Watchman and the Virgin River from Canyon Junction Bridge, Zion National Park, UT. This is usually a Fall color photo, but I was there the wrong time of year for that.

I am not sure that I have seen the 10-5-1 rule anywhere, so I will claim it as my own. My rule of thumb and experience with Mary is that if we make 100 photos in the field and bring those back to the PC at home, there will be 10 photos I might keep, 5 images that are good, and 1 that will be excellent or outstanding. That means we throw out 90% of what we shoot and only 6 of 100 are good or excellent.

Half Dome Sunset from the Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite National Park…a very popular location.

I am not shy about saying that I want trophy photos, not because I think I can make them better than others, but because I want them for myself. I want the experience of making it, and it’s mine, even if there are a bazillion other photos like it on the internet. Getting a trophy shot is thrilling. It must be like hunting (though I’m not a hunter). I admit that it can be a cheap thrill because going to an iconic location is usually pretty easy now and getting the shot by copying a simple and straight forward composition is easy too.

The Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, UT. When I made this photo, there were at least 100 people around me trying to do the same thing.

There are also iconic locations that give you plenty of opportunity to make your own art, as well as imitate previous iconic shots. And some of those locations are over run now and no longer a good place to make photographs. I am happy for Page, AZ in that it is a tourist destination spot known the world over. However, I will never go there again because the crowds at Horseshoe Bend and the Antelope Slot Canyons are intolerable. I’m glad I have my photographs and memories before they became Instagram destinations.

Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills, CA

I do enjoy going to lesser known locations and trying our art, especially if there are no iconic photos to imitate and no trophies to be had. But again, this is getting harder and harder as the world shrinks and we are inundated with photos from all over the world.

That Wanaka Tree, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

I believe that it is fine and even good to want to copy an iconic photograph or photograph at iconic locations. Just realize that you are imitating someone else or following the crowd to the most popular spots. I also think that if you want to be more than just a shooter and you want to be an artist, then you have to find your own vision and your own sight, and maybe your own locations. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it, and in the end, that’s all we can do.

The Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park, West Virginia

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