21 July 2010

Coincidence vs. Inspiration vs. Plagarism vs. Theft

Earlier this year photographers engaged in another heated round of the unending debate over originality in photography. All the arts are vexed by this in differing degrees, but it causes photographers a special measure of anxiety. The basic problem is that we are all working with the same raw materials, the world as it appears before our lenses, and everyone is drawn to the most striking subjects. There would seem to be, by definition, a very finite number of "most striking subjects." But let's not get into theoretics just now.

The most recent debate centered on the work of two photographers, Sze Tsung Leong and David Burdeny. The LA Times rehearses the details (see also here), but the basics are: Leong finds out Burdeny is selling prints that look a lot like his, but for just $10k each instead of $25k, thus both ripping off his work and undercutting him on price. So Leong cries theft and starts breathing heavy about a lawsuit.

Sze Tsung Leong, 2007

David Burdeny, 2009

Now, if you think these look like cheap tourist snapshots, with burnt-out skies and a Kodak Picture Spot perspective, you'll get no argument from me. Or from Burdeny, who purposely shot from tourist spots. "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." He says of this pyramid photo, "It just so happens that that's the only pyramid that you can photograph with a tripod without some very expensive permits."

But it's also a fact that there are a number of these very similar shots shared between Leong's "Horizons" gallery exhibit in NY and Burdeny's later "Sacred and Secular" gallery show in Vancouver. Leong's lawyers are also pointing out (through credit card records) that Burdeny purchased a catalog of Leong's exhibit at the Yossi Milo NY gallery on March 6, 2009, several months before arranging his exhibit at the Kostuik gallery in Vancouver. Also, the owner of the Kostuik gallery had previously tried to persuade Leong to show his work there, but he refused.

I think most people see a direct connection between Burdeny's work and Leong's. Burdeny has admitted everything but that (though naturally, being targeted for a suit tends to curb candor).

    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.

Some say statements like this, and work like this, go to far. Other photographers are more empathetic, due to the near impossibility of producing truly original work, free of influence from other artists and not repeating their subjects. Some have even pounced on Leong for pot/kettle hypocrisy, noting specific photographers he's "flattered" with imitation, and also suggesting he should not feel singled out, since Burdeny draws on several other photographers (like Elger Esser) just as specifically.

This has also tipped off another round of work-to-work comparisons between other photographers (comparisons with Sebastiao Salgado here and here) just to show this is far from an isolated case. A comparison of Simon Roberts and Peter Bialobrzeski is just as revealing (here and here), and back in 2006 David Bram noted several photographers who were imitating Michael Kenna. These examples could probably be multiplied indefinitely, if anyone had the stomach for it. The superb Geoff Dyer wrote a book a few years ago on the reiteration of subjects in photography. No one is free from influence. As Leong himself has said, "In photography, you see a lot of quotation. Every photograph has traces of past photographers."

There is no question that none of this is illegal. Even blatant photographic plagiarism is not illegal. Photos can be copyrighted, but landmarks cannot. Every photograph of that pyramid is an equally protected creative work in the eyes of the law. Leong is considering a suit for "civil conspiracy to infringe copyright and appropriate his artistic expression." Right. This is not likely to go anywhere legally, but it will probably damage Burdeny's reputation, which is (let's be honest) what justifies most of the price of a fine art photograph.

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