Discover more from Savana Ogburn
The Pinterest Trap
On "originality" and the endless feedback loop of online imagery
This month on the free letter, I’m talking about one of the topics that I spend the most time thinking about: originality. The idea of originality has plagued me for, no lie, almost my entire life, and comes up in therapy constantly. I’ve bitched for years online about how much I resent sites like Pinterest, idea sharing sites that often become little more than a feedback loop of the same images over and over again (but of course I’m a bit of a hypocrite- I have an account that I use frequently). In this letter, I’ll take you through the depths of my thoughts on the subject, Magic School Bus Style. I am Ms. Frizzle and this newsletter is my bus!
In the paid letter, which will come out before April, I’ll be talking specifically about the structures that I have in place to keep my work feeling as close to “original” as possible—this is a super nuanced topic, though, so please be gentle with me as I’ve only shared a sliver of my thoughts! You can sign up for the paid letter here, for $7/month.
Also, make sure you check out the recommended reading list at the end of this email—I referenced all of them while writing this.
Just one for ya this week, and it’s a reminder that I’m speaking on this panel at Junior High in Los Angeles THIS WEEKEND! 3/25 at 7pm, tix are $12. Moderated by my friend, Kim Hoyos, founder of The Light Leaks. Can’t wait to see you there!
From 2016 to 2017, my freshman year of college, I probably spent about $100 on plastic tinsel, which is a lot considering it costs $5 for enough to cover a 10 foot wide stretch of wall. I was buying the stuff constantly for shoots, lending it to friends, buying more. Booked a job? Buy some more in a new color. Need something quick and easy for a photobooth? To Party City I go!
In my silly little opinion, 2016-2017 was peak time to use the 70s/80s prom photo booth-esque aesthetic as a concept for photos…sometimes because the photos thematically had to do with prom, and sometimes…not. A model stands in front of a party tinsel backdrop, or a giant anthropomorphic Victorian-style moon, with the model likely wearing a sash and a crown. This is the classic image, plucked straight from the 70s and popped into an Instagram feed.
I did a multitude of takes on this aesthetic when I was in college; the $5 Party City tinsel photographed so beautifully, the giant moon was truly so cheap to make, and it was such an easy way to make a super impactful set for close to nothing. Putting a model in a crown and asking her to camp it up was easy; it was beautiful and fun and silly, and having a final image that evoked all of these images that had come before me gave me a sense of satisfaction, like I had created something worthy of going on my own mood board.
I’m not dumb—I know how trends work. And I know that this aesthetic was very much a TREND. But it’s interesting to look at the above timeline–that is by NO means exhaustive as I made it in 10 minutes based on memory alone–and see how incredibly similar all of these images are. Yes, there are differences, but the vibe remains the same: pretty model looking wistful and/or crazy, holding a bouquet/wearing a glittery gown/sash, standing in front of sparkly tinsel. In culling these 11 images, my eyes twitched a little at the hollow feeling some of the images from this period of time/trend evoke in me. Would one really go shopping at Nordstrom to purchase a…Nike sportsbra…for prom? Ads are fantasies, I know. But it just kind of says nothing at a certain point. And I truly think it’s because it got Pinterest-ified: a tale as old as time. Something is cool and fresh and new, and then becomes too popular, and then is robbed of all of its original meaning. See: almost any subculture ever.
I know how vital it is for young artists to straight up copy their influences in the early years of creating–it’s the foundation upon which we build our own work. WTF would my art be if I hadn’t tried so hard to copy Tim Walker or Gustav Klimt or Petra Collins or any Flickr photographer with a lot of followers and ample angst (omg I even linked the OG in this–I made a corny picture but now it serves as a great example!) in my early years of making art? Imitating taught me so much–what I liked and what I didn’t, what I was naturally drawn towards, and how to use my tools effectively.
At a certain point, though, we hopefully move beyond copying our influences. My thesis is as such: at this point, true originality is basically impossible, but careful and thoughtful curation of references is certainly not. And it’s extremely worth trying to do. Being thoughtful with references gives your work a depth and a richness that emulating contextless images that you’ve encountered on image sharing sites just doesn’t, and can’t.
Before I get too in the weeds here, I feel like it’s important to mention that if you couldn’t already tell, I am an ideas-obsessed, process driven, fanatical, deep diving, “cerebral” (my therapist’s word, NOT mine!!! brag), little freak. I really care about creating work that feels fresh and new, and building my portfolio/life’s work on the premise of following my curiosity into the depths. I have always resented being copied, and thus have a nasty aversion to the idea that I could be perceived as an imitator (though I’ve certainly done my share of imitating, see above). I vividly remember in kindergarten, I brought a truly spectacular Groovy Girls brand zebra print purse to school. I was LIVING it up, a little sauce queen, getting all sorts of compliments. Then the next day, another girl in my class brought a similar purse to school. And I wanted to throttle the b*tch! I was FIVE. I still remember this because it is just part of who I am 😌
I didn’t used to be so obsessed with overthinking everything I made, though. Since I started making art as a young teen, I’ve been called out for copying (when I was really, really young and posting everything I made online), and I’ve called people out for copying my art before when it maybe didn’t matter. Queue Fiona! So it has been pretty ingrained in me for a while now that it is important to make work that evades accusations of plagiarism, not only to protect my ego, but more importantly to have a chance at making things that are truly f*cking SICK and FRESH and feel good to give birth to because I’ve never seen them before. And though I know you wanna hear me write more about my neuroses sooooo bad, I’m going to focus on the practices I have in place to hopefully make my work feel fresh and freaky and new. Onward!
I sometimes feel like I can’t walk 10 feet in any direction in Los Angeles without bumping into some dude who’s making “a (short/feature/music video/Instagram reel) inspired by Kill Bill”. All of these dudes are so excited to make their film, convinced that it’s going to be groundbreaking, star studded, and will be their breakthrough. I think it’s wonderful to have influences that you admire, but often I bristle and wonder: how do you expect to break new ground with (1) piece of source material that already broke said ground? It’s broken! Ms. Foot Fetish herself, Quentin Tarantino, already broke it for you! Why wouldn’t you try to break new ground instead?
My hypothesis for why this keeps happening is as such: it’s SCARY to make art that doesn’t closely resemble something you’ve seen before. It’s legit terrifying to make things–whether it be the art itself or a career–without a roadmap. It’s so warm and cozy to look at something you already love and pick it apart and figure out how to have it for yourself. But, I believe that people crave to see things that feel new to them–we all want to gasp and say, “holy shit! I never could’ve IMAGINED that I could be so inspired by a film whose visual language resembles 2012 viral videos! And that it could sweep the Oscars! Because I’ve never seen something like this before!”
A faithful, “accurate” recreation of something that may have been revolutionary in its day rings a bit hollow for me. Sure, a photographer can have success recreating a photo of yesteryear with a new, hot, young celebrity, but where’s the real fun in that beyond the quick hit of validation when people say “wow! This is amazing! It looks just like that other thing, and that’s why I like it!” (TW if you click the link above–it turns out that image of Kim Kardashian has an incredibly racist history, thanks to d*ckhead photographer, Jean Paul Goode. And this opens up a whole other conversation about the importance of context. No suprise, unfortch.)
A side note: I think one could really make a career, however short lived, out of rehashing the same preexisting, once exciting, pretty shit over and over again. Clients will always want a cheaper version of the top artists they can’t afford–I’ve seen it happen over and over. But where’s the integrity in that? Don’t each of us have something to say?
In my brand new, completely fresh and unique opinion (tharcathm), real “original” art comes when you exit the comfortable space of re-making something that’s already been made before. Step off the edge into the UNKNOWNNNNNNN! Dip your little toe in the waters of MYSTERY! In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron personifies the artist’s internal critic and calls it “The Censor.” She states: “The only sentences/paintings/sculptures/photographs [The Censor] likes are ones that it has seen many times before…Listen to your Censor and it will tell you that everything original is wrong/dangerous/rotten.”
So lately, I’ve been asking myself these questions: what would happen if I made it a priority to create work that spooked me a bit? That made me feel a little nervous, because it feels new? This is what excites me about all of the artists I love. I believe that artists with staying power are those that follow their curiosity without hesitation. That means we won’t always be on trend, our work might not go viral, etc. (or maybe it will!). But taking this chance is the only way to potentially hit on something new and exciting. The work I make in this spirit might not always be super popular, but I think that maintaining my creative dignity is worth it. The people who like my work will like my work, and ideally will want to be challenged by it.
But Savana, if even great art often has the mark of influence, how am I supposed to make work that feels fresh?
I saw a quote one time that said something along the lines of, “originality is just the obscurity of your references.”
You can and will be inspired by anything, and you can’t really control that. But I know from experience that what will have HEAVY pull in my work are the images that I 1. look at every day and 2. intentionally use as references for projects. I’m not making a case for being a pretentious little shit and only using the most ~obscure~ and ~highbrow~ references for your projects, I’m only gently positing that perhaps we dig a bit deeper into what piques our interest and try to understand the context of the images we love.
If our art is comprised of all of our inspirations–our life experiences, culture, what we watch and look at online and off–I’d like to make a case for conscious consumption. What do you want to feed your art with?
“Filling the well involves the active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs. Art is born in attention. Its midwife is detail…In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do—spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.”
-Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Of course I’m overthinking this–sometimes I need to just make the work and evaluate it later. I’ve literally blocked myself as a result of thinking TOO hard about this stuff–if that’s you, f*ckin forget about all of this and just make whatever you need to make in order to feel good and onto the next creative stepping stone. But for those of us that find it a little too easy to hop on Pinterest and find the reference for our next project in one scroll, I think it’s worth getting offline, or maybe diving deep into an online museum archive, old blogs, et cetera. Something off the beaten Pinterest/Instagram/Are.na path where you might be able to find work in the context it was intended. (I’m talking specifically about how I do this in the paid letter this month).
Anyway, I’ll leave you with this list of questions in case it’s helpful. Obviously this is a super nuanced topic and I only covered a teeny tiny sliver of my thoughts. I’m curious to hear if any of you have thoughts on this–I talk about it with my therapist ALL the time because I have a big beautiful brain that loves to think and think and think itself into a hole. So give me your perspective! I can’t wait to see what we all make next that SCARES us because it’s so new and beautiful and unexpected and weird!
Thank you for being here, as always 🙂 Hopefully I’ll talk to you next week in the paid letter, but if not, still a big thank you <3 Talk soon!
All Advertising Looks the Same These Days. Blame the Moodboard by Elizabeth Goodspeed
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron