Isn't this just visual sampling?

There was a bit of internet uproar (aka bloggers being bloggers) about a stolen/copyright-infringed Obama portrait from the campaign that was turned into a poster that was then widely printed and sold around the time of his inauguration. It all settled as the news spread that all the posters and financial gains were made by enterprising poster printers and street sellers cashing in on Obama-mania around the Inauguration, not the artist. The matter was pretty well left at that.

Having not heard of him or his work before the Obama thing, I wasn’t ever expecting to hear of him again. Except now it seems Shepard Fairey does this ‘appropriating other people’s work’ caper regularly. Now fresh news of an image of young Chinese soldiers turned into a similarly styled poster by Ed Nachtrieb who says, ‘Shepard Fairey ripped off my picture first’.

This time around, the issue has been percolating and I’m trying to work out exactly where I stand on art appropriation in the modern day and what conventions or courtesies should be afforded to the originating artist. It’s certainly not a new issue, even Picasso said, “Bad artists copy, good artist steal.” Without appropriation, whole artistic movements would have been restricted to just one guy.

I keep coming back to the question, “Are photographers more prissy about their work than other artist?” or perhaps, “WHY are photographers more prissy about their work than other artists?” I’ll keep the religious debate over ‘real photography’ meaning film and vintage equipment for another post, except to say that the only ones fighting that one are snooty amateurs. This is an issue of copyrights and use of an image.

I see the issue of music samples, famously brought to court by the music industry suing rap and hiphop artists in the last decades, as analogous to what photographers have been doing since near the inception of the form. Somehow, it’s fine to photograph a dead bird on the edge of a fountain with sorrowful cherub statues looking down, but in the case of Fairey, taking an image, selectively cropping, squashing and posterizing in creation of a new piece, isn’t.

There is no right of recourse against a photographer including the sculptor’s artistic expression in the new work but translating an element of a photograph into a graphic image is disallowed. Declared replicas of famous paintings (and I’m not talking about devious forgeries) are frowned upon, presumably to protect the artistic expression of the originating artist but this sanctity isn’t afforded to the photographer’s victim while it is applied to the photograph taken. It all seems a little uneven.

I’m not particularly bothered by Shepard Fairey’s pieces, I think they can be protected as true art, fair use, and even political statements. On the other hand, I wouldn’t appreciate any of my images on Flickr taken, processed and printed on t-shirts in or near their entirety. I’d worry less if it were not the entire image, or if I were notified of the intent or show the result before publication. Is it time for copyright terms on photographs to be reviewed in a post-Photoshop world? Is attribution, without prior notification, enough?

Am I just being prissy too?

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