Making a brand new artwork in response to an older image isn’t a new idea. In fact, many photographic artists have done exactly that. There’s even a whole genre of art called “appropriation art”, in which artists make new work out of pre-existing images.

Using iconic images as reference points, artists can raise awareness about contemporary issues, vividly depict how society has changed, or explore new modes of creative expression provided by photography and photo editing.

Here are a few examples of how artists have used pre-existing images to make new works of photographic art.

OpheliaAdad Hannah is a contemporary artist based in Vancouver. For some of his projects, he recreates iconic paintings using models and elaborate sets, and then captures the image either as still photographs or subtly moving video works. If you’ve ever seen John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia, the tragic character from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, then you’ll recognise Hannah’s Blackwater Ophelia instantly.

Moroccan ManFor Omar Victor Diop, re-creating classic paintings is an issue of representation and identity. Diop is a fine art and fashion photographer from Senegal. For his series Project Diaspora, Diop looks at how black men have been represented by white painters. He then re-creates these paintings in a series of photographs, positioning and styling himself as the subject in each one. By doing so, Diop reclaims his heritage: an African man, depicting African men. Turning these portraits into self-portraits has a strong, even political message.

HokusaiJeff Wall is a celebrated Canadian photographer, known worldwide. Many of his works contain allusions to paintings. This particular one, A Sudden Gust of Wind, is a modern-day interpretation of Yejiri Station (c. 1832) by renowned Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. In this photograph, Wall takes the same subject matter as Hokusai – important papers being swept off in the wind – and re-imagines it in the twentieth-century. Looking at the two artworks side-by-side, we can see that even though our society today might look quite different, its values – and challenges – remain the same.

How would Wall have made an image like this? A Sudden Gust of Wind is quite intricate. Wall used sets, actors, and special effects, almost like a movie, taking over 100 photos and combining them in order to give the impression of a single moment in time.

Don’t forget: before we had cameras, people depicted the world through painting. Don’t be afraid to look to other art forms besides photography when thinking about your projects. Because honestly, how is that Instagram post of your Sunday brunch really so different from a Flemish still life?

If you’re interested in art history, or are looking for ways to further develop your ideas, start by looking at your original social media image. Ask yourself: what genre does this image belong to? Is it a still life? A landscape? A portrait? A self-portrait? Do an Internet search, and see what you can find out about your genre.

Why do artists make still lifes, or self-portraits? Where do these traditions come from? Can you think of a reason why you’d like to work in a particular genre? We want you to tell us. Remember: when making an artwork, a pretty picture isn’t quite enough. There has to be intention behind the work, too!

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