Giving Composition Credit in Landscape Photography

I will start this by giving credit to Guy Tal for the inspiration to write this post, after reading an essay titled “Where Credit is Due” in his newest book More Than a Rock, I knew I had to write more on this subject and hopefully spark a conversation in the community on this important topic.

On the surface it may sound crazy to give credit for a composition, there are no laws or court cases giving protection to a composition, but I feel we are doing a great disrespect to the originator of a classic composition.

If you know my work, you may think I have no room to speak on this subject. I have been an icon hunter, there is no denying this. I have claimed them as my own, I have made money off of them, all without credit to anyone that came before me. We should not feel guilty over this, it is the culture of landscape photography. In general, none of us would think of giving such credit, but it is time for a change.

Below are some examples from well-known photographers and popular locations, along with lesser known photographers/locations.

Snake River Overlook by Ansel Adams
Ansel made this composition popular and has since been photographed by hordes of landscape photographers (myself included), it is well known that Ansel made this popular, but is he given credit in any 500px or facebook posts you see? Maybe a handful here and there because he is so well known, but the majority claim it as their own.

Fairyland Falls by Marc Adamus
Marc has a knack for finding the most unique locations, this is now a prime destination for the landscape photographer. Most simply copy Marc’s composition and call it their own. I could create a long list just from Marc’s unique photographs that have been copied to death

Courthouse Towers by Tom Till
Tom Till popularized this composition with wildflowers in the foreground of the Courthouse Towers. Every year you see new photographs that are nearly an exact copy of this composition, does anyone give Tom Till credit? How many even know he was the originator of this? Tom was the originator of many, many locations in the Southwest. We should bow down to this man who is a true explorer, he put in the hard work to find and photograph these locations long before they were popular, or some even known.

Chimney Rock Sunset by Jack Brauer
This has not been largely popularized yet, only myself and a couple other people know where this was taken from. I regret not giving credit to Jack for his original composition of this incredible place when I photographed it last fall. I cannot take much credit for my image, Jack put in the hard work of finding this spot, I merely copied it and hoped for good conditions to make my own ‘cover’ of this fantastic image. Thank you Jack for the constant inspiration, you are another true explorer.

I do not believe that we should not photograph these locations, this is not the point I’m trying to make. Going to icons is great, they are icons for a reason. Their grandeur and beauty is something everyone should behold, and there is potential to create new compositions at some of them, but let’s not kid ourselves when we take the same composition as the original, there is little to no creativity involved. We may get better clouds than the original, the post processing may be better, but there is more to photography than epic clouds.

Looking at this from another form of art may help, music is a great example. Cover songs are created all the time, from garage bands, to big name artists. I have no issue with this, in the same way I have no issue with someone creating the same image from Mesa Arch. The big difference in the music world is that musicians give credit to the original artist, mainly because it is the law, but there is also respect involved. If an artist blatantly copies a popular song with only minor changes and calls it their own, there would be uproar. Not only from the music community, but also from the public.

It has become an expectation from the public that you acknowledge a song is a cover, this is severely lacking in the photography community. There is no expectation to credit those who came before us, and this is what I would like to see change.

What is happening in the landscape photography world has already occurred in the music industry, primarily in the 50’s and 60’s. In this time it was not uncommon for an up and coming song to be covered immediately for profitable gain. Here is a quote from the History of Rock  “Covering was extremely profitable because it wasn’t necessary to spend money finding and developing talent. Success was almost guaranteed because the covers were always of up and coming records.” Does this sound familiar? Walk into almost any photographer’s gallery and you will find a photograph of Mesa Arch, the Japanese Maple Tree, or Maroon Bells, depending on what part of the country you are in. I can imagine this as a future article on the history of landscape photography…”Copying compositions was extremely profitable because it wasn’t necessary to spend money finding locations and developing compositional talent. Success was almost guaranteed because there were always up and coming photographs or locations.” I am sure this will ruffle some feathers.

There is a lack of knowledge even within the landscape photography world of who created the original composition, there is no database to look at and no general knowledge of who discovered/popularized it first. I believe a first step to resolve this is creating the database so there is something to reference. I am toying with ideas of a section on Wikipedia that would have the information that could be fact checked.

This will not be an easy task, and there will be plenty of disagreement. Was Ansel Adams the first to photograph Snake River Overlook? Probably not, but his photo was the one that inspired countless photographers to copy it for generations. The question becomes; was Ansel inspired by another photographer to create what he did? Sadly we cannot ask Ansel this question, and this is why we need to face this problem right away. Soon we will not know the sources, as the originators are succumbing to time.

I do not have the answers to this problem, but it needs to be discussed. There is rampant copying occurring in the landscape photography world, with the current photographers being commended on their ‘creativity’, they accept the praise with no credit given to the masters that came before them, the ones that inspired them. I say this knowing that I have been part of the problem. I am not calling anyone out, I am trying to start a discussion. If I took a photo of Mesa Arch, I would not know who to credit the original composition to either. It is not a problem with individuals not giving credit, it is a cultural problem.

Here are my ideas for correcting the problem:

  1. Develop a list of famous compositions (if you can do a google image search on the subject and all the images look nearly the same, it probably qualifies)
  2. Determine who originally created the photograph, or who first made it popular
  3. Display this on Wikipedia or something similar so the public has access to this knowledge
  4. Develop a culture that encourages giving credit where it is due, this will be a slow cultural shift, potentially contacting 500px and flickr to add fields for ‘Composition Credit’ would help.

Let the discussion begin, I want to hear your thoughts and ideas…

About the author David Kingham

David is a professional landscape and nature photographer originally from Loveland, Colorado who is now traveling the American West full-time in an RV with his photography and life partner Jennifer Renwick, and their two cats. David has published an eBook called Nightscape and has in-depth videos on post-processing. David and his partner Jennifer Renwick find joy in teaching others photography in their photography workshops, and through their blog.

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