PHOTOGRAPHY & THE LAW: Then and Now

Posted by Mickey H. Osterreicher — 24 Jan 2012

First, I would like to acknowledge the tremendous response to my first blog. It is always nice to receive positive recognition and feedback and to know that there is an interested audience.

Since my first post it has been another very hectic week as photographic and legal issues collide. NPPA protested the arrest of one of its members, San Diego freelance photojournalist, Edward R. Baier, who was arrested while covering a news story. What was almost as much concern was the seizure of his camera and recordings. After receiving our letter police returned the camera and began an internal investigation of the incident. We also objected to a transit system's website containing language that equated photography with terrorist activities. The objectionable language was immediately taken down.

NPPA also submitted comments in response to a request from the U.S. Copyright Office for suggestions as to how photographers might recover small economic value copyright claims in federal court. At present most claims for photographic infringement cost more to commence than the actual damages sought.

Additionally, in response to NPPA correspondence, the District of Columbia Attorney General has issued revised guidelines for "Street Photography" in our nation's capital after NPPA expressed concern that the prior regulations could have been misinterpreted to the detriment of photojournalists and others taking photographs in Washington.

mickey.JPGOn a lighter note, that also implicates legal, ethical and esthetic concerns, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of two shows at the International Center of Photography (ICP) while in NYC. The first, "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" is a huge show. While I credit Weegee to some degree with my becoming a news photographer and monitoring police scanners in order to get to spot news stories, (this is a photo of me in my car with all my scanners when I was a daily news photographer) seeing so much of his work all at once was almost "overkill."

The 1930's and 40's was a time when an NYPD Press Pass actually allowed the bearer to cross police and fire lines, but for Weegee those lines probably never even existed. Another line that he often crossed with impunity was the "set-up" photo. Today such journalistic misbehavior would bring about immediate dismissal. On the other hand, his relationship with the police was far better than it is for most press photographers today.

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Weegee not only had a reputation for being "prescient" (hence the name Weegee from Ouija board) about being at the right place at the right time but he was a predecessor to Cindy Sherman by appearing in a number of his own photos - standing-in for suspects, detectives and a wide range of characters. Viewing the yellowing, long-gone publications under glass reminded me of a time when not just the newsprint was that color. With his fedora, Speed Graphic, flashgun and ever present stogie, Weegee created the stereotype that news photographers are still trying to live down.

The other show that opened at the ICP was The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet. It was so interesting to note the difference in styles and temperament between the short, squat and flamboyant Arthur Fellig (a/k/a Weegee) and the tall, lanky and almost invisible Grey Villet, whose insightful photos of Richard and Mildred Loving and their family were an oasis of solitude - tucked away in one small room and almost lost among the big brash splash given to Weegee. Their styles of photography were as different as their body types and personalities.

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Villet was able to capture the love shown by an interracial couple whose marriage and courage led to the landmark 1967 US Supreme Court decision in Loving v Virginia, striking down Virginia's anti-miscegenation law and in so doing declaring as unconstitutional all bans on marriage between the races throughout the US. Using only available light Villet documented poignant moments. His photos stand in stark contrast to Fellig's  flash on camera.

Barbara Villet discusses her husbands work at the ICP show, The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet. (Mickey Osterreicher)

Just as interesting as the photos themselves were the way that the respective publications used the pictures. Life Magazine ran what appears to be the least compelling and noncontroversial of Grey's take. Today viewers are lucky to see the "outtakes" which are far more moving. Almost 30 years before, Life Magazine and the NY dailies were not at all squeamish about publishing photos of dead bodies and other carnage captured by Weegee, who then compiled them in a 1945 book aptly titled Naked City. It was truly a wonderful evening of contrasts in black and white on so many levels and made me truly appreciate how the photography and the law have been partners and adversaries for a very long time. 

The NY Times Lens Blog reviewed both shows - Weegee runs through September 2, 2012 so there is plenty of time to see it, while Loving Story only will be up through May 6, 2012. 

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