'Teach a man to fish...': PDN (Photo District News) has documented in two articles the curious case of Canadian photo-plagiarist David Burdeny, who has evidently decided to forge a career as an art photographer by, well, by doing exactly what a couple of other art photographers (Sze Tsung Leong and Elger Esser) have done...only a little differently. Not much differently, either.
One example you could excuse; after all, some standpoints and treatments seem "obvious," and it's understandable that, with so many photographers now in the world, motifs will be repeated. But...that much? See both the first article and the follow-up second article for more.
Seems Burdeny even hung his show similarly and used similar language in his artist's statement.
When I was young we used to refer to this as "standing in so-and-so's tripod holes." I once heard a story—probably apocryphal—of photographers with 8x10 view cameras waiting their turn at a famous spot at Point Lobos where Edward Weston made one of his famous pictures.
Not to make too much of this, but this is really one of the major problems of innovation in photography. If you have a really good idea that no one's ever had before, that's great, but the chances are very good that, if they can, people will copy you relentlessly until your original achievement is buried and all but invisible. I think this is what happened to Ernst Haas. He was a very innovative photographer, whose ideas and strategies were new and original at the time he came up with him. But his example showed other photographers how to think the same way and deploy the same tricks, and his achievements were buried under an avalanche of copycatting until it virtually became the normative style of amateur 35mm color slide photography. We don't tend to think of Haas as a great innovator today, but my sense is that he was at the time.
This is yet another way in which photography is different than art, and why applying the same ways of thinking to both, interchangeably, is not quite a fit.
(Thanks to Albano Garcia)
Featured Comment by Gary: "A year ago I'd have tut-tutted with the best of 'em, but I had a sobering experience recently of completing a black-and-white portfolio from several Nazi concentration camps. Only when I'd shot, printed, and edited the material did I chance upon Michael Kenna's Impossible To Forget. I was shocked to discover that I could easily be accused of plagiarism, as so many shots were strikingly similar. As a consequence I've very mixed feelings about my portfolio, and have kept it mainly private for fear of being accused of a crime I genuinely did not commit."
Featured Comment by mani: "I find it fascinating that so many comments under those articles basically say: 'So what—the two guys happened to stand in the same place and take a photograph.' The fact that people interested enough in photography to be reading the article, see the artistic vision inherent in the process as being limited to just pointing a camera at the subject and pressing the shutter. In effect, 'any fool could do it, if they stand in the right place.' The images, the gallery hanging, and not least the blatantly ripped-off accompanying texts are shameful and deeply pitiful at the same time."
Featured Comment by Player: "Ah, yes, 'photographic cover songs.'"
Featured Comment by robert e: "Surely, a consistent half stop difference in exposure counts for something. Plus, Burdeny ripped off Sugimoto as well, which differentiates his work from Leong's.
"Okay, now that I got the jokes out of my system:
"I think mani hit the nail on the head.
"Debating whether, or how much, photographs resemble each other, or ought to, is missing the point. The tripod holes at Yosemite are cliche, but irrelevant. How and why two works of art resemble each other is a little closer to the mark. Whether two artistic projects resemble each other is a little closer yet, but still not quite there.
"The situation Gary describes is a matter of coincidence or synchronicity; either way, it's something quite common throughout the history of many arts (and sciences), and something reasonable and knowledgeable people expect and understand.
"Homage, theft, parody, coincidence and synchrony are all different things, even if they can produce identical results. Intent is everything.
"So, in the first place, taking the two exhibits as a whole, it is clear that something's up. It's not a matter of technical issues or tripod holes. There is clearly conceptual and visionary similarity between the two presentations.
"Were this intended as homage or parody, the artist and exhibitors would have somehow communicated that intent. If it were legitimate artistic engagement and reinterpretation, the intent needs to be known so that we may appreciate the challenge, gauge the accomplishment and try to understand its import.
"I think the denial and obfuscation on the part of the artist and the galleries are telling. That's too bad, because I think the later work is derivative but good—valid (if not particularly important) reinterpretations or syntheses of one or more artists' visions. And they are good photographs.
"Regardless, my non-lawyer eyes see nothing actionable here. There's no crime or economic harm that can be proven. Whatever their motives, artist and exhibitors can hide them behind the idea of artistic license. And they do seem to be hiding.
"But I think there is another matter of ethics, or professional misconduct. In this case, it behooves the professional community—artists, art photographers, curators, galleries, critics, buyers—to assess what's happened and, even if a judgement is impossible, at least declare a general position on such things.
"If I may try to put this in the context of recent TOP discussions: as a matter of strictly photography, this is nothing at all; as a matter of art, it's a bigger deal."