The Validity Of Appropriation Vs. Copyright In Photography

Posted by David Ozanich — 5 Apr 2011


For those who have been following the headline-making copyright suit between French photographer Patrick Cariou and the artist/photographer Richard Prince, the Observer has a thoughtful analysis from an owner of one of these "unlawful" artworks. He says the "court ruling misses the point." Is that true? Possibly (and I even think most likely yes). But first, a little background on what exactly appropriation is:

Though I don't believe [Richard Prince] invented "appropriation," he is definitely the most successful practitioner of the technique. It entails taking an image from one place, and creating a work of art by changing its context. Hard to believe, but that's all he did in many cases, and in so doing, he carved out his own place in art history, as well as disrupting traditional definitions of what constitutes "photography." This because his "Cowboy" photographs are just pictures of existing Marlboro ads, and his "Girlfriends" are just re-photographed pictures of pages in biker magazines. So his photographs are pictures of pictures; He's carved his place in art history for that. He gives them new meaning by making us see them out of their original context, which is the thread that holds all his work together: cowboys, girlfriends and what came next.

The works in question are from Prince's 2008 series "Canal Zone" which lifts images from Cariou's book "Yes Rasta." The author of the piece, Adam Lindemann, owns of eight paintings from this series that sold. When the ruling came down, it said that any display of the works was unlawful. So what does that mean for Lindemann? He says "possession is 9/10s of the law" so he doesn't seem to concerned that the art police are going to be busting down his front door anytime soon.

But what of Cariou?

A few days ago, I spoke to Patrick Cariou. He said that he was never offered any settlement money by Prince or his gallery before, during or after the show. He felt that that the artist had exhibited "arrogance, an overwhelming sense of power, and plain laziness."

The Frenchman was clever to hold out in court, his damages will be substantial and they will be decided on May 6.

But, I wondered: What of his subject matter, the poor Jamaicans living up in the hills. Did they get a modeling fee? Did they give consent to the publication of their likeness for profit? What, if anything, were they paid, and shouldn't they be entitled to some share of the suit proceeds? Well, Mr. Cariou agreed, he said "absolutely they are, and if I get anything, they will." It irks him that the images were used out of context, "he (Prince) made them look like zombies, it's a racist piece of art." He summarized his views for me: "Hell, No. Fuck Prince, Fuck Gagosian".

Overall this decision is a win for copyright owners but I fear that ultimately it will have a chilling affect on art and creativity in general. As Lindemann sums up, "If, as Pablo Picasso (paraphrasing T.S. Eliot) is oft quoted as saying, "Good artists borrow but great artists steal," then there is no doubt that Mr. Prince is a great one, since he has stolen successfully for years."

Read the who essay, with much more detail and background, here.

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