« Happy 20th Birthday, Photoshop | Main | Open Mike: Uh-oh »

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I really don't see a controversy here. The subjects and the viewpoints may be the same, but that's where it ends. Burdeny has his own consistent style, and in fact I prefer his style to Leong's.

Every day press photographers take nearly identical photos and we don't hear cries of plagiarism. And when a photographer goes as far as making celestial calculations to recreate "Moonrise Over Hernandez", we call that an homage, not a forgery.

Give a thousand monkeys cameras, and sooner or later they'll recreate your favorite photograph.


You're spot on. I took a shot of a sunset back in '76, and stap me vitals, if a gazillion squalid, plagiaristic low-lives didn't do exactly the same thereafter and pretend they'd thought of it first.

Never mind. I've had an idea about photoshopping a landscape into a sort of alien surreality of shimmering, unlikely dynamic rangy-ness ... thingy, which is going to put me right on the map commercially, and no mistake.

Hm. Let me offer you an additional example from literature: Hemingway. When he started writing his stuff, it was innovative. But with so many people following in his tracks, it is very difficult to see what is innovative in using that style for a novel.

Awfully similar and copying for ART photos would be unethical at best. Travel brochures etc. could be appropriate. When I returned from Europe my shots of the Statue of David, the Leaning tower, etc. were identical to everyone I continue to see. There is one obvious angle for this stuff.
There were other shots of a village on a hilltop in France and the museum in Valencia that I had never seen photos of before I got there and mine were identical to the photos I see now. BUT I think the thinking here is the style and essence is copied, not the subject and angle.

PS. Funny. Apropos your comment that photography differs from art: even without consciously thinking about it, I immediately found an example in another field that Susan Sontag said was not art as such.

(Yeah, been reading On Photography. On and off, I have to say. :))

While I wouldn't personally be interested in showing something so similar to other photographers, I think this is much ado about nothing. You can't "steal" an angle of view or perspective. Interesting locations and structures don't change their looks for each photographer that shoots them.

I actually like the newer photos better, in fact.

It's all very strange. I've watched landscape photographers "stalk" other name-brand photographers and poach the same shots, carefully using the same tripod holes. I've been approached twice by folks with scrapbooks full of favorite images and asked if I knew where "this one" was taken. No, I wasn't flattered when one of the images was mine. I've even been asked if I knew what time of day this shot (pointing to their iPhone) was taken. This guy had found the shot and now wanted to get the copy just right.

And... I've watched photographers with an original idea park their vehicles some distance away and drop into deep forests and ravines as they sneak back to get an unencumbered shot. I know photographers who, after finding their shot, have marched through foregrounds, filing them with footprints.

I love how the gallery installations were the same. Common vantage points are one thing but building a show to look the same is something else.

Seriously, much ado about nothing. The first series of "proof" shows images from very, very popular tourist locations. Leong's images aren't groundbreaking for any of them.
The second series of "proof" just adds to the YGBSM (you've gotta me [stuffin'] me) factor. I've got shots of bamboo from the forest in Japan too. Perhaps Leong was copying me!
Very, very weak "evidence". Photographers need to get over themselves. It's one thing if the image was downloaded then presented as one's own, but this?

The "crime" is not in photographing, displaying, or describing something in the same way as someone before, it's the attempt to pass off the work as an original thought or perception and then try and take credit for that thought or perception as original. That's just sleazy, and I think, the very definition of plagiarism.

FWIW, on the rare occasion when I go photographing with friends, I'm often surprised by how different our photos end up being despite the fact that we were standing within a few feet of each other.

That said, I can certainly understand why Leong is unhappy with Burdeny's alleged appropriations because, to my eye, most of his "originals" don't fare so well in comparison to Burdeny's "copies."

We see this sort of stuff all around us. Slot canyons - save me please! Arches National Park - OH Lord!! not again. Yosimite, Kolemanskorp, the list goes on. Pick any iconic location and fliker it - you'll be deluged with an avalanche of images - too many of which look like they were taken by the same photographer standing in the same place. As to Mr. Burdney - only he know's for sure whether he consciously copied those images. He's still innocent until proven guilty - though that has little if anything to do with public opinion. Now if you'll excuse me, I live in Vancouver and I'm off to the gallery to see his show.

There's nothing wrong about photographing scenes/objects photographed by others. Nature cannot be copyrighted. Copying is the ultimate form of flattery and often in photography the original is better than the copy. I prefer Sze Tsung Leong's pyramid shot.

long time reader, first time speaker... at these days of Flickr and such, every little piece of original thought is immidiatly cloned and amplified through a banality-producer apparatus of the largest scale. thus, the "originality-to-cliche" cycle is faster than it ever was. this process has a strong impact on photography as an artistic medium by driving the art aspiring photographer to search deeper in his soul. this must be a good thing.

When you say 'art' in the last paragraph, I assume you mean something like 'everything else' as opposed to implying that which photography is incapable of -- being art, that is.

I disagree with this paragraph I think at least to the extent that I believe thinking 'interchangeably' is a useful thing to do for clarification -- comparing and contrasting photography with other mediums.

For example, going back to Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, his uncredited appropriation of James Harvey's commercial packaging design: this is considered an epoch making innovation. Why? And what is different and bad about the Burdeny copycat case? You could say that Burdeny's copies are superior to Warhol's, at least in terms of their verisimilitude. Well maybe accuracy is a better word.

I don't think the Burdeny case is a good one for this comparison because the copying is so all encompassing, extending as you say to "paraphrasing" the statement of another artist.

But in general, I think the Warhol case is useful *particularly* for photography (which in a fundamental way is the making of copies.) The extent to which the "art world" as revised by Warhol's case makes us think about the background, motivation, meaning and context of photographs seems to me to be the extent to which real innovation is allowed to thrive.

I'm sure you're aware that Arthur Danto was spurred into writing "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace" by his experience with the Brillo Boxes. The Wikipedia article about him seems like a good gloss of these ideas:


I once corresponded with an individual who recreated famous landscape photographs down to the last detail. As far as I know that was his only interest in photography. He thought that mimicking great work would ensure that his photographs would also be good.

As a hobby that seems reasonable I guess. Maybe he was just in step with the times.

This is one of the reasons why I am experimenting with putting Chinese calligraphy on my photos besides that this is the vision I have: no one can copy them :-)


The manufacturers of digital camers could build in files of well known sites and photos of them. Then, using something like face recognition technology, the camera could detect that you are trying to take a picture of the same scene and replace the image on the LCD with a big red circle with a slash through it - or just lock the shutter.

It looks to me that Burdeny's work is highly derivative. I have no doubt that he was conscious that he was repeating what other's had done before him. To me this completely diminishes his work and strips it of any original thought. the works are so close that any attempt to portray the work as his own conception should laughed at by galleries.

That's Burdeny. But you also said, Mike, "This is yet another way in which photography is different than art".

Here I beg to differ. There are countless examples of derivative styles in the art world, from 16th century Dutch Landscape artists to Picasso and Braque in the cubist movement to dozens of artists working throughout the 20th century up to today. There are those that create and innovate, and there are those like Burdeny who just imitate.

The Louvre is full of coypists who sell their paintings for big money. Perhaps the photo community needs to make patrons aware of originals versus copyists.
The New York shows of young photogs who rip off and show appropriated ad photos from the 1960s selling for huge sums is a case in point.
Caveat Emptor. If they're stupid enough to buy it, shame on them.

Was that last line meant to be provocative? I expect so, having been reading your prose for the last two years.

By "art" I am assuming you mean painting and, if so, then I suggest there is much more to be said. There are many modern "painters" whose work is indistinguishable from several other painters.

You seem to be suggesting that art has to be difficult, and I guess my paragraph above goes along with this, but it ain't necessarilly so.

I can't imagine what Burdeny's justification was as it must have been apparent to him that his copying would be revealed.

Some of the subjects I feel are different enough that if I had only seen that one, I would have just thought it was just a case of too many cameras, too few landmarks. Seeing the whole string of them together makes me wonder though.

Either way, I still find it far less upsetting than Richard Prince's photos of other people's photos.

The post-processing looks totally different :)


It's like image stalking.

"Seriously, much ado about nothing."

You obviously copied Jim, who also said it was "much ado about nothing." For shame!


If the photos are really the same then I am going blind. I've looked at some of the "copied" photos (but none of the text). I see, possibly due to too much sitting in darkened room looking at computer screens all day, a different picture every time. For example, the pyramid picture above is taken from a different angle horizontally, different angle vertically, different colour toning, different horizon, different framing. The only thing that is the same is the subject. Who was Sze Tsung Leong copying when he took his picture? Or are there no previous pictures/engraving/daguerrotypes of this pyramid from roughly this compass direction?
On a lighter note I'd like to thank Mike for pointing me in the direction of a lot of great photo books.

Antelope Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Antelope Canyon.

I've looked over the series and don't see any case for copyright infringement. You copyright your photo, not the subject. Yes there are similarities in some, more in some cases, less in others. I have taken photos of commonly photographed subjects only to later see similar photographs made by others. I have hung exhibits in much the same manner as the two shown in Part II. Actually it was done the the gallery not me. It seems that it is fairly normal to hang images in a row at eye level. I suspect because it makes it easier to look at them. I accept your requirements of skill and creativity but I have problems with the notion that "Art" must be original when it comes to photography particularly if you are including subject matter in the definition of originality. Since (with the exception of studio photography where the photographer controls every detail) what we photograph is pre-existing. That is particularly true of landscape photographers. At best we can choose our viewpoint from what's available, the time of day, season, etc. but the subject matter is never "ours". It is just there. If you can go to locations where I've made photos and shoot a slightly different view that makes a better photo, more power to you.

Ditto. Tim got in ahead of me. The POV of the 2 pyramid photos is significantly different, and to my eye, Burdeny's version is a stronger photo. No one can close off anything from further work just by saying, I was here first. Maybe they should leave a "Killroy was Here" on the side of the pyramid?

I walked into a gallery and saw one of my photos hanging on the wall. I was shocked; it felt like an out of body experience. It was identical to my photo except for one thing: my photo was vertical and the one on the wall was horizontal. Other than that they were so similar that it was hard for me to get it out of my mind that I had been ripped off. Possibly he had seen my photo, but in the end I had to admit that more likely we both took the obvious shot from the obvious location at the obvious time of day.

Of course that was only one coincidence. The number of similar photos presented in the article is bizarre.

"But you also said, Mike, 'This is yet another way in which photography is different than art'. Here I beg to differ. There are countless examples of derivative styles in the art world"

I guess you're right, at that.


There is a lot of uncriticial thinking going on here. Sure, if you go to the same landmarks you will probably get similar looking shots, but why do so many similar looking shots from very different places end up in the same show? Why do both photographers choose to include similar images from places with no obvious connection (San Francisco, Egypt, Paris and Japan)? If you told me to set up a show with shots from each of the same localities (not exact locations) I can guarantee that at the very most there might be one of the same subject. To have multiple images that look similar in the same show is way beyond coincidence.

The fact that the photos aren't exact copies doesn't stop them from being copies and when you see them framed and hung in a similar way it becomes clear that the entire show was copied, not just any particular piece. It may not be plagiarism in a legal sense, but it is hardly something to be proud of for either the gallery or the artist.

Paul Ewins,


What's funny is that it seems to me that doing this must be much more work than just going out and shooting good pictures.

I picked this story up on Jörg Colberg's blog a few days ago (http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2010/02/way_too_similar.html).

I'd just like to know what the hell David Burdeny was thinking. In defense of Richard Prince's "appropriation art" (boy, that's a combination of words I never thought I'd ever type) the entire concept, offensive (to me) though it might be, was about the appropriation of iconic images. He (claims he) was making a point. Maybe he was. This guy copied an idea and then justified it by saying that everybody does it, and that he was being "singled out".

To quote Colberg, "WTF?"

It seems to me he tried to keep it all just different enough to keep the heat off his back, but failed in the end. Everyone has done well in excusing the photographic copies away, which genuinely are legitimate, I suppose, but those too are just "different enough" aren't they? But the rest? No way.

It's one thing to try to recreate something to figure out how the original artist did it, which I suspect is probably the case here, but to surpass and then show in a gallery? That's just wrong.

What puzzles me is the following: To complete this show, Burdeny had to go on a journey around the world, in the footsteps of Leong. This must have taken months, if not years.

It he was recreating the work of somebody else for such a long time: What did that do to him? There are people rephotographing Atget, but the time passed makes this seem different to me. It must be a truly awkward
feeling to go on a trip like Burdeny.

@Bill: The bamboo was Burdeny's evidence, not Leong's.

David Bram made a similar statement (involving different photographers) back in 2006.

I'm sure this has happened since the 2nd camera was built, and will continue to happen in the future.

First I was surprised how similar the pictures are. But when I saw the pictures taken in Japan (the only sights I actually know) I ended up thinking "so what?". The torii and the rocks in the sea are VERY popular spots and I have seen pictures like that about a hundred times. So that got me thinking:
A motif or even an angle can't be owned by one photographer. If the motifs would be very rare and one person would copy every single one of another photographer... well, that wouldn't be nice. But to me the art in photography is more about HOW you see (and then show) a scenery, not about WHAT you see.

Of course showing the same sceneries like another photographer in the same way like another photographer does it in ones exhibition is a very strange behaviour. At that point he should at least confess that he was "inspired" by that photographer.

Just to drive home the point that painting, sculpture etc. can be as derivative as photography, see software like Dynamic Auto-Painter http://www.mediachance.com/dap/index.html, where you load a photo and it churns out a Benson, Cezanne, Klimt, Monet etc.

I don't see it as a huge problem unless someone is literally mimicking much of another photographer's work. I have a particular maternity shot that is a fairly original concept from what I've seen on deviant and I've had several people email to ask about shooting something similar. I think it's pretty nice to be asked, but have always felt it's just a matter of time before the idea just gets copied whether I want it to or not.

But for scenic pictures, I think it's even less of a big deal. There are some places where there may only be a few spots to shoot from if you know what you are doing. I was shooting an old mill by a river and when I got done climbing to the spot I looked over and another photographer was already ten feet away shooting in the same relative spot. As for the above example, I probably would have shot something similar walking up to that myself (shooting with the "subject" a bit off center and using some neg space is pretty common)and I've never seen either one of those images before.

I agree that if you are copying everything about someone, from their work to the way the show it; then it's a problem.

Isn't it striking that so much effort went in to copying such uninteresting work?

David Burdeny does tip his hand when he says:

"...my position is, these are fairly common tourist locations [...] So in a sense I’m taking things where basically, there might as well be a ‘scenic viewpoint’ sign. There are hundreds of copies of pretty much the same viewpoint.”

Regardless of the issue of copying another photographer's perspective, motivation, etc., Burdeny does show how really lazy he is about taking pictures.

Come on, get off the beaten path; explore; find something different in the same subject. Only a tourist picture-taker starts with "taking" images from the parking lot.


There is no need to muddy the waters with what appears to be a case of simple plagiarism--either that or Burdney is a clumsy conceptual artist. Richard Prince's appropriations of, say, Sam Abell's Marlborough man or Warhol's Brillo Box have what Danto calls "aboutness." Burdney's argument that his photos do too really stretches credulity, especially as their "aboutness" has only become clear by way of his alibi.

I think Photosynth will show people how many similar photographs are out there. This will specially be true when you look at famous landmarks. So plagiarism will be hard to prove unless all one photographers images follow another photographers images. God help you if you search up Mount Rundle in Banff.

As the saying goes, "Amateurs copy but professionals steal." Richard Prince, being a consummate professional, would have simply snipped-up Leong's prints and "re-imagined" their presentation, making several orders of magnitude more cash in the process.

I like Burdeny's work and enjoy looking at it, but I had not spent too much time thinking about his post-processing methods until I saw Mike's second link. The Shirahige Shrine torii gate in Lake Biwa is a cliche topic, but here Burdeny has done something a bit different by removing the background entirely. Do a Google search for the shrine name and torri, and other images will come up. One example is:


In many cases the mountains on the other side of the lake appear on the horizon.
(I also wonder if he uses the same background for the "Meoto iwa" at Futami that is listed on the same page. They are rather similar. If so, how would that affect this conversation?)


If you give a cat a fish, he will have a meal.

If you teach a cat to fish, he will empty your aquarium.

One more point.

William Smithey mentions above photographers who will alter a scene to prevent other photographers from taking the same or similar pictures. I have heard a similar tale in Japan, although sadly in that case the image was of a flowering tree. In order to prevent others in a photo group from taking the same shot, the first photographer literally snapped the branch off. The quest for a unique vision is wonderful, but it should not be destructive.

I think Burdeny did a visually better interpretation of every single scene that he was accused of copying. So he visited the same place, maybe even with the knowledge of Leong and other's work, but he saw something quite different and thus produced something quite different. I'd buy a Burdeny any day over a Leong.

"Every photograph has to be unique" must be fairly close to "every photograph must show the truth". Have we not understood anything yet in those 150+ years?

About 40 years ago I took a photo of Winslow church (England), from the end of Church street. It has never been published or even seen by many people, yet since I took it I have seen many different "copies", some taken 40 or 60 years before my shot.

Sometimes there is only one place to take the shot, to avoid the power station in the background or so as not to be standing in a busy road or underwater or because there is something in the way.

None of the comparison pairs of photos are close enough to justify the claims of copying. In the shots of the Bent Pyramid the viewpoints are tens of yards apart horizontally, and some distance vertically. The shots aren't even the same shape.

David Burdeny choose the same topic for a series of photos as someone else. That's all.

This whole "controversy" is itself a plagiarism; specifically, of the case of the woman who copied Walker Evans photographs and passed them off as her own. Isn't it?

Sherri Levine. I'd say they're different, although there are some similar issues. Levine, like Richard Prince, was implicitly arguing re-contextualization.


As in David Comdico's comment, Burdeny appears to be doing a kind of conceptual art: everyone copies, these particular works look like copies, so I will make copies of their copies in order to do an irony on the copy/original schtick. Maybe we should regard Burdeny's work as a "photographic copy" (an irony?) on critical or cultural theory. Much of what I've come across over the years as "conceptual art" has always struck me as cultural theory that has not come out of the closet yet. I suppose Burdeny's comments will probably find themselves posted on websites devoted to f**king hiptsers.

As an aside, perhaps it is the case that so much of photography has great deal in common with alot of sex in that both are organized around the twin poles of novelty and bordeom: first time, Wow!; second time, oh, not that, again.

David Burdeny, find your own damn landmarks.

Maybe Burdeny's art is the emulation? Perhaps he is not a photography-artist as much as he is a concept or even performance-artist! (ok, now to remove my tongue from my cheek).

I found it interesting that, when I had a preference for one image over the other in a pair, I always preferred the original to the "plagarized" one.

Burdeny's work was not presented as an appropriation, but, implicitly, as his "vision." Well, it seems to be a vision that he got from somebody else's book, and forgot to mention it. Richard Prince, whose work I do not like, never tried to hide the fact that somebody else shot the Marlboro man, and his presentation of his Marlboro man, when you see it, takes on a completely different feel than the originals -- especially in this time of anti-smoking fervor. I still don't like it, but he's got an argument.

Burdeny's work, on the other hand, really seems to me like plagiarism. Plagiarism in writing, by the way, is not limited to the lifting of paragraphs word-for-word; it includes rewriting stretches of argument or discussion, in ways that are close enough that they couldn't be accident or based on similar research. That's what Burdeny did -- he apparently didn't do the research, didn't find the sites, but simply "rewrote" the ideas of somebody else.

I find it fascinating (if I'm correct in this perception) that Burdeny's defenders seem to have a "camera-based" aesthetic (his pictures are "better" somehow than the ones copied.) The photos are so close that I can only conclude that this is because Burdeny's are more conventionally exposed, with more conventionally correct tonal ranges -- and are often sharper.

The people who disdain what he did seem to argue from a more difficult "vision" based viewpoint -- that you digest the images, and conclude that there is no original vision in Burdeny's products.

The former group would seem to implicitly argue that if you show up with a camera and get the technique right - Antelope Canyon -- that you've made "art." The latter group, to which I belong, would reject that.

About the art thing. There has been plagiarism in art (painting), but it has nothing to do with derivative art or homages. There was a woman artist in the late 50s who repainted some famous abstractions in a slightly different way and in different colors, but there was little question about what she'd done. Again, her excellent technique made no difference. because the vision was inauthentic.


I think you are overlooking the Kodak Picture Spot signs in the foreground which the photographers did not include in their shots.

I think Burdeny is pretty cool. In my view a modern emulation of Warhols concept of the eternal return of the same.

Cool! I am aware of Elger Esser's work (and like it very much), but had not heard of Sze Tsung Leong. Now I have a new photographer to chase down and admire. Thank you.

P.S. I agree there is something problematic with what Burdeny is doing, but anything I might want to say robert e said, and said better than I could. I will say, though, that I was struck by how similar are the styles of Esser and Leong.

Your essay and mentioning of Erich Haas did trigger a memory of Hans Haas, an underwater photographer and pioneer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Hass

Yes, what was a revolution at one time becomes mainstream. Nevertheless the invention shines.
But if you were on the forefront at one point of time: How do you evolve? Hans Haas is a good example because his passion for film/picture did push him to become an environmentalist and scientist.

It might become an interesting subject for your blog.

Taken as a complete series, this is a clear instance of intellectual copyright infringement. If Leong were to sue he would lose neither case nor face.

Interesting update from Jim (Conscientius)

He decided to mail some photogs and ask their opinion. Interesting reactions!


I get the feeling this issue is bigger for those that watch art then for those that create art.

What a storm in a teacup (did someone say that already? I noticed "much ado about nothing" was taken).

I looked at all the examples. Most of them are far from identical. And in most cases I liked Burdeny's more. He's not copying, he's improving.

I tell my students: nothing is original. But you can take something and make it uniquely your own. (I think a lot of photographers, designers, etc. can be blamed for NOT doing that!)
Also, haven't painters been painting the same scenes for hundreds of years?
I spent a few days on a Greek island. In the subsequent years, I saw hundreds of similar images by other photographers that I shot (an island is only so big, you know!) If I ever return, I will try to take images in a way that have never been taken before.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007