February 18, 2007

Can photographers be plagiarists?

That’s the subject of an interesting illustrated essay on Slate this week.  A father/son team of photographers has been accused of ripping off the work of another shooter–apparently after first calling him for advice on vantage points, film, etc.  The essay talks about ways photographers have played off & riffed on one another’s work over the years, even to the point of reproducing it wholesale (e.g. Sherrie Levine photographing Walker Evans’ famous Depression-era prints–making her an "appropriation artist").  At what point does homage cross the line?  It’s interesting food for thought.

Side note: I do have to ask what, exactly, makes this photo so special?  Maybe if I weren’t totally insecure about what I shoot, I could let this go, but…  I’d like to be enlightened about why a photo like this one is considered gallery-worthy.  It makes me think of that empty plinth getting mistaken for the actual artwork.

Posted by John Nack at 9:07 AM on February 18, 2007


  • John Harrington — 10:22 AM on February 18, 2007

    John —
    One of the fundamental keys of any great image, is “where does your eye travel to”. If your eye enters the image and rests on a hotspot, or can’t figure out where to go, or worse, enters the image and then follows a visual trail right back out of the image, then that’s a problem.
    The thing about this otherwise prosaic image is how your eye travels. Your eye travels into the image from the lower left, via one of the two roadways, and then swirls around in the middle, causing you to fixate – and want to fixate – on the circulation of the roadway.
    Because it’s overcast, and because of the brownish buildint at the point where the roadway hits the bridge whereby your eye returns downward to the spiral again, and further, because the bridge’s black line that is the roadway crossing the river is so small, and moreover, that the white suspension towers blend into the mist, there is little to distract you at the top of the frame.
    Returning to the bottom of the frame – there are little things happening, like the green building lower left that is being constructed, and the patterned crosswalks are interesting, but not distracting, and your eye again just returns to the swirl.
    Further, it’s a construction marvel that people don’t really see, so you’re also looking at it with that sense of insight/surprise.
    I do hope this gives you some insight into the mechanics of the image, and how/why it works. Lastly, it may be a part of a greater exhibit on the marvels of infrastructure, and that could be why the images is complementary to that exhibit.
    [Hey John–thanks for the analysis & feedback. I can see your points, and maybe there’s more to the photo when seen at a larger scale. I was going to link to some hummingbird photos I’d seen in NatGeo recently, but the online versions have almost none of the power of the printed ones. –J.]

  • K.W. Berman — 10:22 AM on February 18, 2007

    Some people believe that in a sense this is no different than when bloggers take information and graphics from other sites and repurpose it on somewhere else without permission. Or, when photographers take photographs from public domain and reprint them and sell them for their own profit. Right or wrong?
    [I’d call both those cases totally wrong. On this blog, incidentally, I often point to others’ work, but I never repurpose more than a sample quote or two (fair use), and I always seek to give attribution to my finds. –J.]

  • Pam — 12:42 PM on February 18, 2007

    Hi John, I love your blog. First time commenting :) I don’t ‘get’ the image either. It looks pedestrian. I’d argue that it’s not even a good photograph if an average joe or jane, or even a joe or jane with a bit of photography know-how, can’t appreciate it without an expert explanation. I guess that’s why they’re geniuses and the rest of us are just hobbyists :)

  • daddydoodaa — 12:43 PM on February 18, 2007

    I don’t know about any technical reasons why the photo is or is not successful, but the City #2 is much more appealing to me than the various night shots.
    In the City #2, I see the bridge as a three dimensional object, as opposed to focussing on the movement of the traffic in night shots (which always have the same color of car lights….). In City #2, the traffic is more of a texture on this enormous structure – it’s tight in the middle and disperses out to the edges, before it’s flung off.
    Almost like an invasion of insects on one of Calder’s Stabiles.
    As to the “homage” issue, every photo is a unique capture of time. For some structures, there might be a “best” time, angle, etc. There are probably thousands of “sucky” shots also. You don’t see artists fighting over those!
    If an artist is honest in what they are trying to convey (ie Marcel Duchamp and his Readymades) that is legitimate. If they’re trying to pull something over on the patron (ie Milli Vanilli) then that is wrong.

  • Marc Pawliger — 9:00 PM on February 18, 2007

    It may also have to do with scale. The Edward Burtynsky exhibit I saw at the Stanford University art museum had all his prints displayed at massive scale – 5 feet on a side was typical. It made the man-made landscapes he is known for take on positively alien demeanor. So it could be the whole presentation as well as the subject matter.

  • Maryland Wedding Photographers — 6:53 AM on February 19, 2007

    There seems to be two different issues. The lay person believes that any thing on the internet is public domain and can be repurposed at will when it is actually copyrighted. I actually had my entire site branding and content. The photographer would not respond so when I went after the ISP with the right language, it was down within a day. http://www.copyscape.com/ is a great site that scans the search engines for similar content.
    As for the images in the slate article, they seem to be influenced by the original but slightly different. Living so close to DC, you see picture after picture of monuments that are basically the same shot. I can not tell you how many pictures I have seen of the Brooklyn Bridge that all look the same.
    [Oh yeah. The Onion once had a great headline, “San Francisco Photographer [Craps] Out Another Bridge Picture.” –J.]
    To say they are plagiarists, that is a bit extreme IMHO. Architectural photography the subject is public domain so I would think going in, you know others are going to take a similar shot.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • Shangara Singh — 11:36 AM on February 19, 2007

    It’s funny how we view things differently. When I looked at the photo, my eye went straight to the hot area at the top and then went down the spiraling road and out at the bottom left. The structure is unusual in that we often see motorways criss-crossing but not making a pleasing swirling image. I think that has an impact. As for the empty plinth, anyone who has seen some Turner Prize contenders will be familiar with the judge’s mentality of what constitutes art in the UK. It’s just a matter of time before someone cuts a digital camera in half, pours some acid over it, mounts it behind glass and has judges drooling over it!
    [How dare you steal my concept??? I was gonna be rich, *rich* I tell you. –J.]

  • pixelzombie — 12:58 PM on February 19, 2007

    i don’t see why that should be gallery material…

  • Ellis Vener — 2:30 PM on February 19, 2007

    let’s see:
    Long exposure at night… yep I’ve done that for archoitectura lphotogrpahs since umm, 1981?
    Did they rip me off? Of did they rip off every photographer since the “T” and “B” shutter settings were first installed on leaf type and focal plane type shutters?
    Maybe we keep seeing that same view as that is the only one available to public access?

  • Shangara Singh — 5:04 AM on February 20, 2007

    J — I probably saved you from becoming poor. Had you realised *your* concept, I’m pretty sure Damien Hirst’s lawyers would’ve taken the shirt of your back!

  • pfong — 5:15 PM on February 20, 2007

    I think that the key idea of Burtinsky’s work is the impact of man on the environment. Viewing his work, I get the sense of an overwhelming industrial landscape. Many photographers would have shot this scene during the magic hour to get beautiful light or at night to get the light trails. Burtynski is not about shooting pretty pictures to romantisice or glamorise the scene. I think it was deliberate that he shot it in very flat unflattering light. His technique is used to service the concept behind his work.
    When I look at a series of his pictures, I say, “Holy crap, this is what we’re doing to our planet”. Oh, and these industrial landcapes are beautiful too, in a brutal terrifying way.
    [I can dig that. –J.]

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