Rule 42: It’s All Been Done

“Well,” said the Inspector, “I’ve seen better.” (Photo by kind permission of Dan Phelps)

As you read this, you’re probably no more than an hour’s drive from some kind of major landmark. Maybe it’s something world famous, like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Maybe it’s something better-known within your state, or just to the locals. Whatever it is, you may very well have despaired that it’s been photographed to death. And this isn’t something that’s limited to landmarks, either. No matter what your bailiwick is, whatever your subject of choice may happen to be, you probably feel that it’s all been done.

In a sense, you’re right.

Nearly every genre of photography, until someone goes and devises a new one, has been done, and then done some more. How many views can we possibly get of the Grand Canyon, of cars, people, products, or any of the thousands of other things we’ve put in front of the camera?

As if that’s not bad enough, if you’re just getting started and you’re even reasonably visually literate, you start to realize pretty quickly that it’s not only been done, but someone else’s done it really, really well.* Yes, you can always find someone whose work isn’t as good as yours, but really, what good is that? We should never aspire to be as good as, or better than, someone who’s not that good to start with, ’cause that’s not setting the bar very high.

So anyway. Here you are, realizing that someone else has beaten you to your favorite subject. If you let it, this can be discouraging, to say the least. So don’t let it. Yes, Ansel Adams made breathtaking photos of landscapes. Sure, Herb Ritts did fashion like nobody’s business. Hell, even if you want to photograph toys, there are people out there who make Legos look like high art.

The essentials are all packed. (Paul Bogan/The First 10,000)

And at some point, they probably had the same thought you did. Somebody else got there first. And damn, they’re good. Then they went ahead and did it anyway, and proceeded to find their own way of working, their own voices, and their own vision that made what they had to say stand out from the rest of the pack.

Photography didn’t end with your favorite photographer. Hell, it didn’t start there either. Rather than letting those antecedents — your ancestors, artistically speaking — be a source of frustration, be encouraged that someone else could start off on the same well-trodden path and still find ways to take it in new directions. With time, patience, and practice — all of these things — you can, and will, do the same.

*A phenomenon that is by no means limited to photography, by the way

Postscript: Thanks to Dan Phelps for permission to use his photo. To see more of his photography (which is great, and which is also much more than Lego), visit his site ( or his Flickr photostream (

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