We were introduced to the dispute between Susan Meiselas and Joy Garnet over Garnet’s apparent use of Meiselas’ work albeit in another medium and after significant reframing of “The Molotov Man”.
Although ultimately Susan Meiselas did not sue Garnett it led to questions being asked about what appropriation of others work, if any, should be considered acceptable. Appropriation is not a new phenomena – Sherrie Levine reproduced work by Walker Evans and in doing so raised the thorny question over the voice of the author. Today, appropriation is a widespread practice leading to questions around whether a photograph is ever a finished work. As William Mitchell explains as follows:
“The power of digital technology is to open up images to multiplicity, open-endedness and indeterminacy, could result in fictions that yielded new forms of understanding.”
Discussions on the forum this week were wide-ranging from those who simply did not think it acceptable for others to appropriate images to some that saw it as open season given that no image can be considered original – that all photographs have already been taken. Victor Burgin for example said:
“There is no point in making any new images.”
This might be a little disappointing for those of us that feel we still have a story to tell.
We were introduced to a large number of photographers engaging in different practises of appropriation. I was interested in the work of Joachim Schmid who takes a thematic approach to collating images. He has spent many years acquiring images (that he calls “found images”) from flea markets and searching for abandoned images in people’s rubbish.
He explains that:
“We all, more or less, take the same pictures and we don’t really think about that and we don’t learn how to do that at school and our parents don’t tell us, but somehow, we all end up taking the same pictures. I’m fascinated by that.”
The work of the hugely successful Robert Prince, who was the first photographer to sell an image for over $1m, has many critics. Prince took the professional work of Jim Braddy, who had taken a series of images of an American cowboy advertising Marlborough cigarettes, and cropped and refocused them.
Prince claims that “was not about stealing . . . more about claiming . . . I was the Director.” However, many disagree.
I also found the work of Penelope Umbrico very inspiring. She defends her appropriation strategy in her work “Suns from Sunsets from Flickr” (2006) as follows:
“I only use a tiny fragment of each image. The sun is often less than 5% of a much larger picture. What I end up with is not at all recognisable in relation to its original source. My cropping eliminates the point of view of the photographer and no context remains.”
The practice of remixing is less relevant to my practice although I was able to create some acknowledged clips for my teaser this week that was helpful. Having said that, I plan to take my own video to use in future productions of this type.
In summary, I remain sceptical about the ethics of appropriation and remixing but am realistic enough to understand it is a reality of the modern digital age. I think acknowledgement of the originator’s work should be given. On the other hand I am inspired by some of the work introduced this week and can see an interest for me in, for example, collecting and re-presenting collections of images about my home town of Tetbury for archival purposes.
Garnet, J and Meiselas, S (2007) On the Rights of the Molotov Man, Harpers Magazine
Mitchell, W J (1994) The Reconfiguted Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, MIT Press, Cambridge
In academic life of course, we give appropriation another name – plagiarism. As you rightly say there are ethical issues involved – hiding behind the Barthes trope that nothing is original reflects, in my view, a poverty of imagination and a fundamental lack of ability. Patterson makes the point that the camera looks both ways and although we may point our cameras at the same subject it is the beliefs, passion and the sheer expertise of the photographer that makes the image. Anyone can chop and paste another’s image but you cannot chop and paste a soul.
I think this is why I have been struggling with appropriation however I can now see some creative opportunities even if I don’t choose to use them.