How one man made millions photographing other people’s work
Ever heard of the American
thief painter and photographer Richard Prince. It’s highly likely that you haven’t, but it might be worth remembering the name in case he starts following you on Instagram.
In a gallery exhibition titled “New Portraits,” which ran at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC from September through October 2014, Prince displayed 38 portraits featuring photos taken from his Instagram feeds — other people’s images, and without permission.
The large 48×65-inch works, some of which sold for $100,000, featured a screenshot of the original photo as it appeared on Instagram and a short message posted by Prince himself as the last comment on each one.
Abused a loophole
My first reaction to reading this was, WTF! How can someone get away with using other people’s images, without either paying for them in the first place, or offering a royalty after the fact. Imagine how you’d feel if one of your images was lifted straight off Twitter or Facebook, and sold for a tidy profit that would put food on your table for the next couple of years.
I regularly post some of my best work (often without a watermark) on Social Media sites, as it helps to boost my brand, get my name out there and increase engagement with my followers. Obviously I’m all too aware of the so-called Agreements that we make when we sign up to these services (though none of us actually read through them, do we), but I have to make a calculated decision: is the monetary value of this image worth more than the social and marketing value it brings to Photography by Matthew James? Nor have I ever heard any stories of Facebook selling personal images for capital gain, though I can’t deny it probably hasn’t happened at some point in time.
My point is, the owners of Instagram and Co. aren’t to blame here – it’s the cheeky bastard who abused a loophole and got filthy rich.
It’s not the first time the controversial artist has caused a storm. In 2014, the artist currently known as Prince settled a multi-year legal battle with photographer Patrick Cariou. Prince’s usage of Cariou’s photos – one of which sold for a staggering $2.5m – was determined to be Copyright Infringement back in 2011, but an appeals court overturned the ruling in 2013, calling the appropriation “fair use.”
So let’s take a step back and see what’s going on inside this man’s head. In the mid-1970s, Prince was an aspiring painter who earned a living by clipping articles from magazines for staff writers at Time-Life Inc. When he was finished at the end of the day, what remained were the advertisements, featuring gleaming luxury goods and impossibly perfect models. Both fascinated and repulsed by these ubiquitous images, the artist began rephotographing them, using a repertoire of strategies (such as blurring, cropping, and enlarging) to intensify their original artifice. In so doing, Prince undermined the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the images, revealing them as hallucinatory fictions of society’s desires.
The Marlboro Cowboy
OK, so that sounds pretty cool; he makes a copy (his own photograph) of a copy (the advertisement) of a myth (whatever bullshit the advert is pedalling). Perhaps his most famous rephotograph was that of the Marlboro Cowboy – an image that originally conjured up thoughts of the macho American. Prince’s version was displayed in several museums throughout the US, particularly the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
“It’s simply plagiarism,” says the creator of the original photograph, Sam Abell. “My picture of the cowboy would never appear at the Guggenheim Museum, nor on the cover of their magazine, simply because editorial photography is deemed not worthy. But a copy of it is.
“The artworld has something to answer for.”
My colleague Antoaneta has a different opinion. “The more I read about this guy and the more familiar I get with his art, I have to admit, I start to respect and even admire him. I mean, he is making millions by photographing photographs!”
Good artists copy, great artists steal
Prince had very little experience with photography, but he has said in interviews that all he needed was a subject; the medium would follow, whether it be paint and brush or camera and film. He compared his new method of searching out interesting advertisements to “beachcombing.” Pop culture became the focus of his work and his first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewellery. Prince describes his experience of
stealing appropriation as thus:
“At first it was pretty reckless. Re-photographing someone else’s photograph, making a new picture effortlessly. Making the exposure, looking through the lens and clicking, felt like an unwelling… a whole new history without the old one. It absolutely destroyed any associations I had experienced with putting things together. And, of course, the whole thing about the naturalness of the film’s ability to appropriate. I always thought it had a lot to do with having a chip on your shoulder.” [For the record, the word unwelling does not exist]
Accepting Richard Prince as an artist or not doesn’t really make a difference for him, since his work has been exhibited in some of the most prestigious museums in the world, and he’s worth billions of dollars. But it makes one think that art is not only in talent, it’s also in seizing other people’s talent. I’ll leave it up to you to judge.
To quote Picasso – ’Good artists copy, great artists steal.’