Way too similar?


General Photography

PDN reports on a case of images being very, very similar, involving photographer David Burdeny, various of whose most recent images look like almost exact copies of works by Sze Tsung Leong or Elger Esser. These images indeed look like a case of similar being too similar (I mentioned Burdeny in that post, but unfortunately, I missed finding these very similar images).

(Updated below)

What I find striking about the case is Burdeny’s reaction, as quoted in the post: “More often than not I am standing next to someone who is taking the same image. So in a sense I’m taking things where basically, there might as well be a ‘scenic viewpoint’ sign. There are hundreds of copies of pretty much the same viewpoint.” This sounds like a good defense against the allegation of plagiarism, if it wasn’t for the fact that the artist basically describes his own work as being little more than postcard photography, of course implying the same for the other photographers. Amazing, isn’t it?

And to pretend as if he was just being “singled out” - Burdeny’s actual words… Just read the full quote: “It’s not that I want to divert attention away from myself. To imply that I am somehow the first person who has ever made a similar image, even if I was aware of that image—that’s the climate that everybody else works in… People appropriate other people’s images, people are aware of certain people’s work, the knowledge of what people are doing travels at light speed. Everybody draws from each other, and every once in a while, somebody gets singled out.” Where to begin?

What self-respecting, serious artist who is aware of someone else’s work would simply produce a copy or something that looks very similar? That’s a mind-blowing assertion! In my many interactions with photographers, covering the full range from students to very well-respected masters, I have never come across anyone who’d approach her or his work that way! Never. In fact, what serious artists are trying to do is to create work that stands out, work that presents the genuine voice of an accomplished, unique artist. As a critic, that’s what I am looking for in art!

Make no mistake, I do understand how art works very well, and unlike many other people I am much more forgiving about artists being influenced by other artists. That is how art works, which is why I don’t think the question “too similar?” always has a simple answer. Art lives in a climate where artists see other work and react to it. But for a photographer to pretend that art is basically just a bunch of people ripping each other off knowingly? Again, here’s the quote: “People appropriate other people’s images.” What the fuck?

Maybe Sonnabend gallery co-director Jason Ysenburg sums it up best when he says “He kind of copies quite few different photographers […] He has studied his artists, and seen what would work well.”

Update (16 Feb 2010): Of course, at the end of the day, the question of whether the images are in fact too similar or not comes down to assertions. They either are or they aren’t. If you look at the comments underneath PDN’s post, you can see how some people think they are, and other think they are not; and of course, there’s the complication with the landmarks in there. You can’t measure visual similarity like you can measure a temperature. This is the reason behind my earlier “too similar” post. Burdeny’s reaction to all of this still has me puzzled. It is one thing to point out that there are landmarks etc. and that artists are influenced by other artists, but it’s quite another to say that “People appropriate other people’s images.” I just can’t get over that. And it points to an answer to the question I mentioned in my “too similar” post: “the way I started to approach this topic is to see whether there are two distinct artists with unique artistic visions”.