Copycats and Creative Commoditization

The famous Ansel Adams photograph, “Maroon Bells” (1964), is possibly one of the most replicated photographs among nature photographers.  Run a Google images search on “Maroon Bells” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  Walk into any art store in Colorado, and you will find at least a dozen photographs of “Maroon Bells” on sale.  Some will be in black and white, some will be in different seasons, and some of them will be night shots.  The composition, however, will not vary by much.  In the photography business, this phenomenon is known as commoditization.

Photographic commoditization is when multiple photographers replicate the same image, and, therefore, decreasing the value of that image.  Photographic commoditization happens everywhere.  In New York, for example, you will find dozens and dozens of photographers selling photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and Central Park.  Sometimes, the photographs will look identical.  Online stock photography is another form of photographic commoditization.

Creative commoditization is when multiple artists replicate a similar idea.  Think of how many glass artists are now trying to replicate Dale Chihuly, or how many vampire franchises have popped up.  Even in music, the majority of the bands out there getting weekly gigs are actually cover bands, singing music someone else wrote.

An Ansel Adams or Dale Chihuly original will always sell more than any replica.  A copy of a copy will sell always sell for less.  It is always tempting for an artist to do creative commodity work because it brings in easy money.  The cost, however, is that the artist will no longer stand out from the hundreds of other artist doing similar work.  The only way to be the next Ansel Adams or a Dale Chihuly is to stop being a copy of a copy.  The only way to stand out among a crowd of replicas is to start creating unique work in both content and style.  The only way to be original is to be original.

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