the democratization of photography via digital cameras is not quite finished, as people move from compacts into dSLRs and/or phone cameras — for example. it would not be a stretch to think that most people in this wave, myself included, did not do a formal training in photography. nor its history.
when I started, at the end of the last century, there was no easy way to view a vast amount of photographs. (books! but you know, I am busy learning the gadget I just bought.) actually, I did not start looking at photographers until the later part of the last decade. yes, some photos are famous beyond the art, but I could not name photographers, let alone know about styles and famous photographers. to this day, this is a big gap in all things photography for me.
while I took photos at the beginning of the last decade, I would post some photos in Livejournal, and then I made the move to flickr in early 2005. when I got to flickr, it was a huge shock in two ways: I could see what others were doing in vast amounts of photo being served, and what I thought was my not-too-common way of viewing the world was quite clichéd. I mean, the raindrops on glass, and so many others. with time, flickr was a teaching tool that was missing... on what not to do.
people wanted to "develop a style", and have unique photographs. but it is rather obvious that photographs are hardly unique when it comes to some styles. long exposure minimalism? New Topographics? overly-yellowed portraits in an open field? most famously: wide open ƒ1.4 lenses bokeh photos. photographs to be enjoyed, but hard to escape them on the site.
it was hard not to imagine that all photos were taken already. so what to photograph?
except, that is the wrong view. the problem is not repeating photographs, but immersing oneself in anonymity. whoa! how can that happen? one can look to New Topographics, and the minimalist long exposures, to see that, for the most part, it is very difficult to discern who took the photo. that is, the implied rules/aesthetics of the styles govern the photo's composition and printing/processing that it is (generally) difficult to discern between photographers immersed in that style. in some instances, one can discerns the photographer if one is presented with a series, but a single photograph makes it difficult — unless one recognizes quirks about the photographer. in some ways, I think I can discern some photos by Lewis Baltz [ link ].
these two photo styles can be readily "plagiarised" with some equipment knowledge and placing the camera in the another photographer's "tripod holes". there was the case of David Burdeny versus Sze Tsung Leong a few years ago. (many links to PDN and other sites are now 404 Errors.) is this a problem? I do not think so, as it is more indicative that photos are not unique, and some styles more than others are susceptible to "plagiarism." the market/internet will deal with how acceptable plagiarism is tolerated.
aspiring photographers would become popular on flickr by servicing a consistent style. to me, this was not a style that was presented, but a persistent photograph and/or post-processing and/or theme — something new for the internet age in terms of frequency and almost industrialization of the results. flickr users seem to love that consistency and flock to the account to provide (mostly) platitude comments — which rarely exceeds three words — and rack up the fave/like count. this social currency is quite effective to move into a commercial realm of photography, so it is not to be dismissed. now we can see the same behaviour in Instagram and 500px. in the latter, the "style" is pervasive through the entire site, casting a sort of anonymity to the entire site.
ok, so we take photos others have taken... and?
the refuge for others is to take the photos that we want, and realize that what is missing from most of these trends in photography is an indelible mark that, after some time, makes an impression on the viewer of who the photographer is. this is not unreasonable, as we can consider that if we converse with someone, we need to speak for some time before the other person gets a sense of who we are.
quite simply: the idea of the photographs is not to tell a story of the scene, as most people like to praise a photo by such an accolade, but for the photographs to tell a story of how the photographer sees the world. to some extent, some photographers in long exposure minimalism and New Topographics achieve this mantra.