Two recent legal developments, the first not very interesting and the second very:
First, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and Rick Norsigian et al. have settled their lawsuits over what have become known as the "Uncle Earl" photos. To recap: hoofbeats were heard; zebras were postulated; random sundry supposed zebra experts were trotted out in support of the zebra hypothesis; adroit (if unwarranted to the point of being fraudulent) PR, making the story into a Story, was spread liberally around the culture. Actual equine experts begged to differ; the actual horse was found, and found to be nothing but a horse; everybody sued everybody else; and the case was settled but nobody gets to hear exactly how, beyond the fact that the zebra guy can't continue claiming the horse was a zebra.
The interesting things I learned were: 1. It's not art unless the experts say it is; 2. negatives aren't actually worth much; 3. if you make a nice heartwarming story that follows an accepted sappy narrative familiar to the public, and attach a preposterous enough number to it, people will eat it up; and 4. we probably have a real problem with reporting in this country, since way too many news outlets are content to repeat appealing stories uncritically even though they're untrue.
And the saddest thing about this case? Mr. Norsigian apparently still believes that the negatives are the long-lost work of Ansel Adams. On the one hand, this gets him (although not necessarily his lawyers and advisors) off the hook for deliberate, cynical fraud, but on the other hand, it indicates that he's probably deluded—in my opinion. Can't let go of the lottery dream?
(I'll note in passing that Norsigian did win the reductio ad Hitlerum.)
Second, Richard "A Cheeky Fellow" Prince lost a Fair Use lawsuit. Holy smokes, Batman, there's still a little justice in the world and a little sanity in the courts! This will be appealed, but...well, all right.
Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor lays out the whole story in admirable detail, so I'll let you read about it there. The short synopsis: Richard Prince, the infamous second-worst appropriator of other peoples' photographs (the first-worst—shall I say "in my opinion" again?—is Sherrie Levine, who made same-size, unaltered duplicates of Walker Evans photos and exhibited and sold them as her "artwork"—she was allegedly commenting on the nature of appropriation, or something like that)...I'll begin again: Richard Prince, most famous for rephotographing a Marlboro Man ad and for some unfathomable reason deeply beloved of deep-pockets Consumers of Art, had a show of artworks derived from a number of Patrick Cariou photographs from Cariou's book Yes Rasta. Cariou sued everybody concerned, and won.
Most amazing quote from the decision (I'm highlighting this from Rob's highlights):
Defendants [Prince et al.] assert that Cariou’s Photos are mere compilations of facts concerning Rastafarians and the Jamaican landscape, arranged with minimum creativity in a manner typical of their genre, and that the Photos are therefore not protectable as a matter of law, despite Plaintiff’s extensive testimony about the creative choices he made in taking, processing, developing, and selecting them. Unfortunately for Defendants, it has been a matter of settled law for well over one hundred years that creative photographs are worthy of copyright protection even when they depict real people and natural environments.
So if photos are mere compilations of facts arranged with minimum creativity, why didn't Richard Prince just go take his own? Hasn't he got minimum creativity?
As for appropriation art in general: it was interesting as a idea—I can see the point of the Marlboro Man piece—well, one, anyway. About as interesting as deconstructing an episode of "The Partridge Family" or an old Lawrence Welk broadcast. Sometimes it's cultural commentary via recontextualization; sometimes it's just stealing. Either way it's very '70s. Time to cut it out and move on.
(Thanks to many readers, including Stan Banos)
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by latent_image: "Finally, the Prince has no clothes."