There is a minor ongoing Internet kerfluffle regarding the images of David Burdeny and whether or not his images, particularly his Sacred and Secular series, are copies of the work of other photographers. (As an aside, I’m a fan of Burdeny’s work generally). I first heard about this from the Conscientuous blog – posts here and here – and this issue is explained in much more detail, with many sample images, on the PDN blog here and here. The details of this particular case are not what I am concerned about here. (Though, for the record, my initial take was that the images were sufficiently different to be perfectly acceptable – but Burdeny’s own defense hurt his case in my eyes as it convinced me that he is very possibly in the wrong here. The similarity of the gallery installations, and the remarkable coincidence of so many shared locations, also worries me. And please note that I am only talking about the ethics of the situation, not any legal issues.)
So what am I concerned about? I think this is an issue that impacts all photographers, particularly ones that photograph images centered on place. If you are a serious photographer, you likely study the works of other photographers and many of those will influence you, either directly or subconsciously. If you photographing relatively famous subjects, whether it be the Bubbles in Acadia or Half Dome in Yosemite, you certainly will be walking in the footsteps of other photographers (or positioning your tripod right next to someone else) and therefore run the risk of copying the work of others, subconsciously or otherwise.
For me it all comes down to intent. If you study photographers and go to some of the same locations as them, many of your images will likely be similar to ones you have seen. If you intentionally try to copy someone else’s work and pass it off as your own, however, you are the one who has to look in the mirror each day as such an action is clearly inappropriate. Of course, many photographers emulate previous shots for legitimate reasons, such as having a record of being there, for educational purposes (what do I need to do to replicate this?), or just because of physical limitations (using the same pull-out in a national park looking over the bend in the Snake River). Some similarities in photographs, particularly those taken from more common locations, can be completely appropriate, but photographers should take care not to mimic the work of others as, beyond any ethical issues, I believe it can stunt the growth of your own unique and personal style.
As you develop your own personal style, I believe that images will start to become unmistakenly yours even when taken from the same iconic locations. I know for me, when I go to a well-known location, I try to take photographs I don’t think anyone else has taken – and because I can be somewhat competitive, I try to better what I’ve seen before. Building upon the work of others, after all, is essential to the history of art itself.
So, what do I recommend? Don’t worry about “polluting” yourself by studying the work of others – because to do so you will sacrifice one of the best ways of improving your art. Go out and take photographs and, if you have to, get those iconic shots that “everyone has done” out of your system. After that, though, seek out images from those locations that are different from what you have seen before. And, with some luck and skill, maybe you can surpass those early images or provide a fresh perspective. Or, simply try to find less iconic locations and make them your own.