A final (?) follow-up to my recent series of posts on similar photography (1, 2, 3, 4): This subject matter obviously can only benefit from the input of as many active photographers as possible, so I decided to email a few (I wasn’t aiming for a representative sample, whatever that might actually be) and ask “As a photographer, how do you define plagiarism? Where do similarities end, where does plagiarism begin? How can we approach the issue, given that some images might be too similar for some people, whereas other people insist that similarities are unavoidable in this day and age?” Here is what I got back. My thanks to all of them for taking the time and willingness to share their thoughts with the readers of this blog! If anyone wants to add their voice, email me, and I’m happy to have the post grow in size.
Ian Aleksander Adams: “For me, the most important context is the personal one - while copied statements and gallery installation styles can damn you in the public eyes, as the artist you know if you’re being creative or not. I’m sure there must be awareness there.
“It’s not illegal, not in the art world, to make derivative copywork, but it is sad. I can’t imagine that it’s very fulfilling. It seems like the flailing defense of plagiarists might be even sadder, but by then I usually prefer to divert my eyes.”
Peter Bialobrzeski: “I wanted to write to you anyway, since I am twice the subject in this issue. First: For my money there is too much Simon Roberts bashing going on. Simon is a friend who was a student in the World Press Masterclass when I was teaching there in 2003. We stayed in touch ever since and he repeatedly told me how influential he found my Heimat book. The idea of what he realized in We English is much broader and in some ways more courageous than what I was doing in Heimat. The visual structure and aesthetic patterns of his work borrow like I did from many sources, photography and painting. Was it Martin Parr who was saying ‘I always steel from other peoples ideas and take them further’? And that’s it, taking it further. I was forced into a legal binding statement that I will not comment on what [the] Zielskes did with their Shanghai images. […] everyone is welcome to make up their mind whether those images take the idea further. With that attitude I would look also at the other images you have published on your blog and the photographers who come second must ask themselves why they waste that film. Well, maybe it sells well, which I very much doubt. In the end, whether the term is plagiarism… (I learned [that] the hard way; legally, at least here in Germany, it is next to impossible to use the term, you ll get sued and loose, because a photograph is always a separate event (abgeschlossenes Ereignis).”
Michael Mazzeo: “I’m not troubled by similarity. As more artists gain access to the same equipment, the same schools, the same locations and the same pool of collective work, we can expect more déjà vu, more glitches in the matrix. And, as appropriation becomes more acceptable and ingrained in popular culture, we need to adopt new attitudes to recognize, understand and evaluate art.
“Similarity is only troublesome when we judge work from a singular vantage point. Works that appear very similar on the surface often show distinct differences upon deeper inspection. With the extraordinary number of artworks, particularly photographs, being created daily, it is our responsibility as artists and viewers to become more discerning critics.
“We should accept similarities, but look beyond the surface. Try to understand what the artist is doing and why. If it is plagiarism, it will rear it’s head somewhere in the process. It may be easier than ever to consciously copy or reproduce someone else’s work, but it is getting harder to deceive viewers. There are simply too many watchdogs, thanks to the internet. It is only a matter of time before an offending artist is embarrassed and discredited.”
Jonathan Saunders: “It’s a huge question and I am sure any answer I give will just lead to more complex questions and this easily becomes worthy a books worth of conversations that I can take any angle on or counterpoint to.
“I am just not sure I have much of an opinion and skip many of the articles I see popping up on how awful it really is becoming as I just cannot relate to people that are so comfortable tracing so clearly in someones else’s endeavors or think themselves somehow clever reappropriating other people’s hard work. Life’s too short and too hard to do anything less then my best. Much of these appropriations are clever, but so what?
“Clever only goes so far; what did the artist invest, what did they make and how did what they make change me simply because I viewed what they made? I want to be a different person after viewing a book, a show, the work.
“I suppose to some circles, that cleverness translates into great theory and exercises, but really it just doesn’t hold my respect or attention enough to give it much thought as I try really hard to have whatever I am up to be unlike any one else’s creations. Sure, we all have inspirations and escaping the history of photography before us is one of the hardest endeavors that can be undertaken, but setting out in some of these situations arising where it’s so clearly beyond happenstance, I just can’t relate to or care about or respect the people doing this appropriation. I found myself in a town where I knew a famous photograph had been made and I tried to rephotograph it from memory, but this was more a lark then trying to make a point or career because I saw someone else do it similar once.
“I had a difficult assignment in college once that was two weeks long, week one first critique, I was the only one with work on the wall. Week two, someone had gone out and done exactly what I had done, exactly. Then we got bogged down in this same conversation. It’s just not interesting to me. Life is too short to chase one another’s efforts so simply and to an informed viewer of both works, for me, all the work kinda seems dead from then on or I just feel for the person who unknowingly had their work become a farce for someone else.
“Then at what level does this conversation stop? For me, it’s endless and uninteresting and unanswerable. Clearly some people want to undertake this endeavor of attacking or manipulating or somehow letting their life revolve around other people’s work. That’s fine I guess and because its becoming easier to steal or alter or mess with other people’s work, its only going to get worse. I have a designer friend whose entire body of work he’s shown as personal or for his work portfolio is all from stolen Flikr images usually altered beyond belief. Nothing I can do about it, but knowing that’s how he did it, really makes the work mean less for me. History of creation is strife with these issues and it seems some become more known for a work they maybe slightly altered then the person who originally made it. This to me just seems tragic and I lose respect and interest in the secondary work. All I can do is not give it my attention, buy their prints, go to their shows or own their books.
“Legally, it’s a mess and to the most wealthy I am afraid go the spoils. As I work as a photographer and deal with the rights to my images often, I can tell you it sucks to walk into a store and see your image on the wall (with my name even still on it) and know it was stolen and used without permission. I cannot imagine the frustration in knowing (or seeing this of a personal piece or non assignment) - it could of been someone else just reshooting it to look like mine and know that it would cost me years of my life and potentially more money to fight then I could ever realistically get for the infringement, similarity or otherwise ‘insert clever word’ to get around a vague copyright law.
“The conversation is a circle, life’s too hard and too short already, it’s a situational dilemma I am sure I will feel different on as I understand the facts of any specific situation you are actually asking about. People are smart, once informed, they can see who maybe made the real efforts of originality and who is just making a farce for the sake of the farce. The scarier question to me it why don’t people actually care more instead of just celebrating the conversation or being so comfortable someone added very little to something and thus received the $, notoriety or credit?”
Brian Ulrich: “I have to say I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my more recent work on Dead Malls. Much of this relies on a fair amount of research online. I’ve been using many websites such as retail business news reports, dead mall fan-sites and Flickr to in a sense ‘scout’ out locations and get an idea of what I may find or what may be worthy of a trip to photograph.
“With all this preparations to make a picture, I’ve found that in some cases sites, such as the Dixie Square Mall among many others, as ripe with documentation by all sorts of photographers from amateur (jonrev) to professional (Christopher Trice), as well as many in between. To be honest I’ve caught myself a few times reacting to a subject when on site based on something someone else has done at the location. Sometimes it happens unconsciously, sometimes I may even start with where the last photographer I looked at stood and attempt to deconstruct why.
“Though I will often make attempts to make a different photograph than what others have done I personally think there is something inherently interesting and profound in retracing steps by other artists. I’m often reminded of how many painters will study from old masters, replicating; understanding and grasping with their craft.
Richland Mall, Stephen Shore
Richland Mall, Brian Ulrich
“This becomes obvious and layered when for instance I rephotograph the Richland Mall from the same perspective (and perhaps lens) as Stephen Shore did in Uncommon Places. His picture taken when the mall was just opening reflects the optimism of affluence, made all the more apparent by the biblical name of the store, ‘Lazarus’. I returned there in January of 2009 during a blizzard. The store had closed. The parking lot mostly untouched save for a few cars who took advantage of the vast open skidding opportunities. Their was no trace of the ‘Lazarus’ sign which 3 decades ago beckoned shoppers to take shelter. Hopefully this gesture extends the meaning of Shore’s picture.
Winrock Shopping Center, Prange Way/Labelscar
Winrock Shopping Center, Brian Ulrich
“Where this gets problematic is when you have photographers replicating the work of the ‘amateurs’ and potentially profiting from it. (One should preface this that the word ‘profit’ in fine art circles has a vastly different meaning than in business circles). Last month I took a trip specifically to Albuquerque, NM to take a photograph. The picture was based on a post on a wonderful website called Labelscar. The site is based on cataloging and documenting many of the retail centers across the country, (they’ve even posted on my work). A few months back they posted on the Winrock Shopping Center in NM. The post was prefaced with this wonderful picture from a high vantage point of the dead mall surrounded by mountainous western landscape.
“This in many respects was a picture I’d been aching to make. Needless to say I couldn’t help myself and certainly there was more to find at this spot than simply this one picture. So with some quick research I got a pretty accurate idea that the photographer took the picture from a hotel across the street, which is really the only place nearby to get this sort of vantage point. Over the weekend in Albuquerque I photographed from a slightly different vantage point (but the same hotel) and attempted to find something the other didn’t by photographing around the clock, dawn, sunrise, mid-day, evening, sunset, etc… After some initial editing, I’ve been working on this version.
Here’s one where I simply am not sure it trumps the original in any way. Which is OK, I may end up editing it out. It seems where feelings really get hurt is if I exhibited this picture and sold it. The intellectual argument stops fast and the commodity one begins there. Plagiarism begets ownership and so forth…. But I can’t help but wonder why this isn’t different than the Shore picture. Is it OK to re-photograph a Shore, Jackson or Atget because they received their accolades and Flickr user eyeseeyou hasn’t? With content based photography the issue is a tough one irregardless and like the readymade will always be rife with arguments. Though rather than curb your curiosity, why not face the issue and investigate these ideas further? At worse it’s a trip to NM.”