The Imitation Game

A photography tour to Japan with Michael Levin, visiting some of his favourite locations, started me thinking about the tricky subject of imitation. 

‘Imitation’, the act of mimicking or replicating the techniques, behaviours or actions of another, is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Whether imitation flatters an artist’s talents or infringes on their intellectual capital depends partly perhaps on the spirit in which the new work is created, whether it has been produced for commercial gain, and whether the original creator is credited.

But even if imitating another photographer’s work doesn’t overstep the boundaries of professional courtesy, why, when many photographers angst about ‘finding their style’, would anyone want to mimick someone else’s work? The simple answer is that imitation is a fundamental stage in learning and development. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, considered imitation to be a defining feature of being human because of our inherent ability to copy, more so than any other species.

In fact, so important is imitation in the learning process that, for centuries, students at Europe’s most acclaimed art academies copied famous works of art as part of regimented training programmes (the featured image, an engraving by Winslow Homer, shows art students copying paintings in the Louvre, Paris). More recently, Jack London admitted to writing out pages of Rudyard Kipling’s works to try to absorb his style. “I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been. True, true, every bit of it“. Rather than being the exception, London’s method is one employed by many writers.

For photographers, standing quite literally in the footsteps of people whose work has influenced and inspired them can be a valuable experience. It can help them understand the choices the photographer made, train their eye to see the potential in a location, and help them understand how what is captured in camera can be transformed into the finished article. It’s as close as you can get to being inside another photographer’s head.

But whilst imitation can teach how something was created, it cannot teach why it was created: “copying does not help you to perceive, it can only help to show you how something can be expressed after it has been perceived.” (‘The Painter in Oil’, Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst). Eventually, we must find our own path, by taking what we’ve learnt through imitation and developing into something that is recognisable as our own. Clark Terry, a jazz trumpet player, neatly summed up the artist’s creative cycle as ‘Imitation. Assimilation. Innovation’.

So if you find yourself imitating the work of people you admire – whether consciously or unconsciously – don’t fret, but do bear in mind Herman Melville’s words: “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”.

The Creative Cycle. This diagram is based on an article, ‘Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate. The Creative Learning Cycle’ by Donald Giannatti at

Creative Cycle

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