The tale of two worlds
In photography, there are two types of remixing and appropriation: the visible and the invisible. As photographers, whether we consciously realise it or not, we’re always remixing, appropriating, collecting or sampling concepts, texts and images by others, however, it’s often guise under the word ‘inspiration’. And that inspiration is by and large, visually invisible, and as such, poses no real threat to the naked eye. Like the great painters of the Renaissance who were inspired by mythology, religion, literature and politics in creating their masterpiece paintings, renown photographers have remixed these very ideas to produce conceptual narratives that live on as originals. This invisible remixing and appropriation of ideas is an art, a skill that when used well often leads to establishing the photographer as a legitimate master, an original.
But today the most dominant form of remixing is not these invisible set of inspirations, but the visible form of remixing and appropriation. Interestingly while remixing in photography may seem to be relatively modern, it’s existence was flourishing in the early 20th century when photographers and artists like Man Ray and Philippe Halsman whose extensive collaboration with Salvador Dali brought surrealistic images to the world. This famous collaboration was before Photoshop, the magnitude of what Halsman and Dali achieved by the remixing of ideas in art, philosophy and psychoanalytical theories, changed the photographic portraiture forever.
Decades later came the rise in technological advancements trusted remixing and appropriation into the limelight once again, with Penelope Umbrico’s “541,795 Suns From Flickr” (2006) appropriation work. “541,795 Suns From Flickr” is a hallmark in the evolution of photography where the photographer can create an image without actually physically taking a picture. Umbrico’s remixing, appropriation of photos taken and uploaded to Flickr of the sun, would not have been possible without the advances of the digital era. An era where real democracy of the image has become part of the air we breathe, the birth and rebirth of the photograph continues its cycle of excess.
Today there are hundreds of billion images online, and every day over 1.8 billion more images are uploaded, last year a staggering 24 billion selfies were uploaded online. It’s not an exaggeration to say we can imagine a trail of images to the moon and beyond, it’s a true example of photography’s democracy. With such abundance of images online, it was bound to happen that remixing would rapidly evolve.
The visual form of remixing has taken its place in the evolution of photography. The increase of social media apps have further fostered remixing of images in seconds, using filters and texts, have created a dry well for photographers hoping to achieve originality.
The urge to be recognised for individual uniqueness has led many down a path with false armour, where watermarks are useless to the determined viewer and unnecessary to the thoughtful. As we strive to be original, we overlook the simple fact that our images can never original. Instinctively, we’re inspired by existing ideas, thus forfeiting any claim to originality in its entirety. Although, the ‘unreadiness’ to accept that others can and will remix or appropriate our work continues to challenge our notions of ownership, copyrights and permission. As the digital world grows, so does the access to the ‘unknown’ and ‘unseen’ imagery - making it more challenging to create images that are truly pure, an original specimen. The power of originality photographers had in the past, is virtually impossible today. And while there are many successful image-makers, the silent realisation that originality is dead is met daily with Instagram likes of the world’s wonders, captured on smartphones and cameras.
Apart from marking their brand, some photographers, use watermarks to reassure the mind that this invisible armour will prevent a ‘theft’ or an influence from taking shape. And while I’m against any form of image theft or pilfering of ideas, I’m not against the idea of remixing it, reshaping its meaning, providing the inspiration of the ‘originator/s’ is acknowledged. It’s the decent thing a society should do and have done for the thousands of years as mankind shared its knowledge – we acknowledge the author. History books, a form of social and political record keeping, acknowledge contributions made individually in a collective format that presents the reader with a collection of knowledge that may one day serve his or her creation. The art we create adds to the embodiment of knowledge, and knowledge cannot be owned. Ultimately, we’re all receiving our images from somewhere; they’re not originated in a vacuum of space. And if someone is inspired by your work, to use or remix it, however contradictory to the original, it would good to think of it, as a shared collaboration between advancing contemporaries.
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Figure 1. HALSMAN, PHILIPPE. 1948. Dali Atomicus / Salvador Dali A [image]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salvador_Dali_A_(Dali_Atomicus)_09633u_(original).jpg?uselang=en-gb [accessed 20 June 2017].
Figure 2. UMBRICO, PENELOPE. 2006. "Suns from Sunsets from Flickr". [online]. Available at: https://mylandscape2016.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/umbrico_notes-on-suns-from-sunsets-from-flickr-and-related-work-2006-ongoing_low-res.pdf [accessed 20 June 2017].