Appropriation Art and Walker Evans

Photograph of Barack Obama incorrectly identified as source of Shepard Fairey print

Appropriation Art appears to be the topic du jour. At the Online Photographer, Mike Johnston devoted two posts to what James Danziger had called “the biggest photographic mystery of the 2008 [US] election”: who took the original photograph that Shepard Fairey used as the source for the Obama HOPE prints? [edited for clarity] Reading the first TOP post, James Danziger Finds the Source of ‘HOPE’, my immediate response was: “No way!” Facial expression, eyeline, tilt of the head, curve of the mouth: all different. How could a visually literate person imagine the Obama print was based on that photograph?

The following day, another TOP post, The Actual ‘Hope’ Poster Photographer, revealed that the LazyWeb had found (via Google Image Search) a far more likely source image and that Tom Gralish had identified the photographer as Mannie Garcia, a freelancer who took the picture while working as a stringer for the Associated Press. Tom recapped the whole saga in A Last Word – HOPEfully – and Updates on the Obama Poster Photo Mystery.

Photograph of Barack Obama by Mannie Garcia identified as source of Shepard Fairey print

Although James Danziger obliquely admitted his error, of much greater interest was the completely polarized comment thread on his original post about whether Fairey’s use of the original photograph constituted fair use or plagiarism.

Some commenters saw no problem in Fairey’s reworking of Garcia’s photograph, others argued his print was a derivative work and therefore a breach of copyright, many were appalled at what they termed “theft”, a couple of them linking to a trenchant critique by Mark Vallen titled Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey, which suggests that Fairey has developed a profitable livelihood exclusively based on pilfering the artworks of others.

Apparently the Associated Press believes that Fairey has pilfered their artwork because on February 4, 2009 they issued the following press release:

The Associated Press has determined that the photograph used in the poster is an AP photo and that its use required permission. AP safeguards its assets and looks at these events on a case-by-case basis. We have reached out to Mr. Fairey’s attorney and are in discussions. We hope for an amicable solution.

Mike Johnston contacted Carolyn E. Wright, who wrote the Photographer’s Legal Guide and blogs as Photo Attorney. In response, she wrote a post about the case, summing up her position as: Therefore, would I take this case as an infringement? Yep, in a heartbeat.

Earlier in January TOP had linked to a post titled Richard Prince Sued For–What Else?–Appropriating Photographs, in which Greg Allen described a copyright infringement suit filed against Prince (as well as dealer Larry Gagosian and publisher Rizzoli) by photographer Patrick Cariou, who claims that works in Prince’s Canal Zone exhibition and book are copies of Cariou’s photographs of Rastafarians from Cariou’s book Yes Rasta .

Richard Prince, Back to the Garden, 2008

Richard Prince, Back to the Garden, 2008

Allen argued, I thought persuasively, that Cariou’s lawsuit has little chance of succeeding:

Collaging and reworking and changes in format, size, medium and styles, they’re all transformative creative techniques that were directly addressed in the 2005-6 case, Blanch vs. Koons, where the same court [the US Southern District] found that Jeff Koons did not infringe Andrea Blanch’s copyright when he collaged a pair of legs from her photograph–published in a 2000 issue of Allure magazine–in a painting. Blanch lost on appeal, too.

Prince’s process means his works, like Koons’s, will almost certainly be declared transformative, not derivative works, and as such, they’re fair use, not infringing…

Picasso's mixed media collage, Guitar

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913

As with the Obama HOPE controversy, some commenters at The Online Photographer agreed with Greg Allen’s analysis, others (for example, Zlatko) were outraged:

What Prince does is morally reprehensible. It is like copying someone else’s homework. It was wrong in school. It is wrong in the business world. And it should be wrong in the art world.

I’m not a huge Richard Prince fan but I can see that his work fits comfortably within a tradition of Appropriation art that probably started a long time before Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubist collages of 1912 and 1913. If pressed, I’d probably agree that Fairey’s techniques are sufficiently transformative to constitute fair use. But my opinion counts for a lot less than Carolyn E. Wright’s, so it will be fascinating to see how the Associated Press vs Shepard Fairey dispute is resolved. In any case, I’d argue that Shepard Fairey is a much less interesting artist than Richard Prince.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, Untitled, 1981

After reading all those vehement comments about plagiarism and theft, I couldn’t help asking myself: “If they feel that strongly about Prince and Fairey, how would they react to Sherrie Levine? She simply rephotographs famous photographs, paintings, and drawings then presents the copies as her own (copyrighted) work, with no transformative intervention at all!”

For one of her earliest and best-known “pieces”, Levine copied–from the book Walker Evans: First and Last–the portrait Evans made of Allie Mae Burroughs in Hale County, Alabama in 1936. The photograph, as it appears on page 73 of the Walker Evans book, measures 7.5 x 9.5 inches, the size of a contact print from the original 8 x 10 negative.

I haven’t been able to determine the size of the copy that Levine exhibited but my guess is that she would have printed it exactly the same size. If not, apart from a change in size, there was no collaging or reworking, nor any changes in format, medium, or style. But then, that was Levine’s entire point: to make an exact copy and to claim that copy as her own original (copyrighted) work.

This would be a joke were it not for the fact that After Walker Evans is so widely admired. Astonishingly, the International Center of Photography included Levine in a show last year called Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art:

The issues surrounding postmodernist appropriation, and critiques of authorship and aura, are central to Sherrie Levine’s daring, seminal deconstruction of the modernist myths of originality in many of her refabrications of well-known works by a gallery of male artistic eminences. Levine’s After Walker Evans (1981) is controversial because its principal conceptual strategy goes beyond simple appropriation: it bluntly challenges the authenticity of a work of art, the nature of authorship itself, and the sanctity of copyrighted material. Levine’s rephotographing of Walker Evans’s Farm Security Administration images was a deliberate provocation, both in its straightforward archival referencing, confounding likeness and resemblance, and, more profoundly, in the silent power of its analysis of the somber fetishization of impoverishment. The reference works Levine examines are the iconic images–from portraits to architecture–produced by Evans in the American South among white rural tenant farmers during the Depression. In a single cut, one is able to go from Evans’s documentary photographs, with implications of their ethnographic content writ large, to the very nature of their treatment by Levine as so much archival artifact. In other words, Evans may be the photographer of these works but not the singular author of the social and cultural phenomenon that engendered them. Looming over the field of representation in which the images of the tenant farmers and their families are contained is a cultural Weltanschauung, one which belongs to the archival memory of the American Depression of the 1930s. However, After Walker Evans deviates from this concern by slightly deframing the images within the landscape of modernist originality.

Alternatively, one could regard Levine’s appropriation of Evan’s work as juvenile feminist+postmodernist posturing. For although Levine’s After Walker Evans is hailed for challenging “the sanctity of copyrighted material”, the photograph she appropriated–which Evans took while working for the Farm Security Administration–is in the public domain and can therefore be copied and reproduced without restriction. As already noted, however, Levine claims copyright protection for her rephotographed version.

We’re in a hall of mirrors. In an essay titled An Attempt to Understand the Copy Artists’ Works in Terms of Ethics, Rifat Şahiner writes:

Some of Levine’s works contain the photographs of the works of some famous 19th-century [sic] photographers such as Edward Weston (portraits of his son Neil) and Eliot Porter (the landscapes). She, in her artistic appropriation, challenges the notion of the proprietary nature of the imagination. It is true that Weston created that image, but why should he maintain eternal possession of it? Why should that bit of “ideal” estate be forever turned into a representational sanctuary, fenced off for future use or speculation? The fences are in mind only. Anyone can copy. The troubling question is why won’t people appreciate as an equal the copy of the copy, when they appreciate the original which itself must be a copy?

Şahiner then adds:

To make things even more puzzling, Rosalind Krauss, in her defense of Levine, tells us that Levine’s activity is no more parasitic than Weston’s. He, after all, Krauss concludes, was borrowing the classic forms of order and representation of the past. Moreover, Weston with his camera produced an image, or copy, of something that had been constructed. Thus, Levine’s copy is nothing but the copy of a copy.

Hence, one can conclude that Levine’s photographic replicas challenge the status of the (typically male) artist as mythic genius.

But how is Weston, in alluding to the forms of classical sculpture in his photographs of his son Neil, copying “something that had been constructed”? After all, he’s not photographing a classical sculpture–he’s photographing his son. The explanation, according to Structuralist theory, is that:

the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns, systems, and structures. Some structuralists (and a related school of critics, called the Russian Formalists) propose that ALL narratives can be charted as variations on certain basic universal narrative patterns.

In this way of looking at narratives, the author is canceled out, since the text is a function of a system, not of an individual. The Romantic humanist model holds that the author is the origin of the text, its creator, and hence is the starting point or progenitor of the text. Structuralism argues that any piece of writing, or any signifying system, has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures (langue) that enable them to make any particular sentence (or story)–any parole. Hence the idea that “language speaks us,” rather than that we speak language. We don’t originate language; we inhabit a structure that enables us to speak; what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system. Hence every text, and every sentence we speak or write, is made up of the “already written.”

I’m hardly unsympathetic to the idea that “language speaks us” for, after all, isn’t language the house in which we dwell? Yet even if “what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system”, isn’t it also true that some recombinations are infinitely more beautiful/poignant/disturbing/revealing than others? Or, to put it a different way: all recombinations may be equal, but some are certainly more equal than others.

Şahiner also quotes a remark Levine made in an interview in 1993: It is something artists do all the time unconsciously, working in the style of someone they consider a great master. I just wanted to make that relationship literal.

To the contrary, “working in the style of someone they consider a great master” is something artists do consciously all the time. This is often refered to as working within a particular tradition. Jackson Browne’s song, For a Dancer, describes the process poetically:

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp quotes a well-known letter Mozart wrote to a friend: People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to compositions as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times. Tharp then cites the example of an acquaintance who taught himself the craft of fiction by retyping the stories of his favorite authors. She notes that Raymond Chandler and Marcel Proust followed a similar path.

Chandler believed Hemingway to be the greatest American novelist of his time and he wrote imitations of Hemingway’s style to absorb what he loved about it. Proust went further, spending twelve years translating and annotating the writing of English art historian John Ruskin. He also wrote a series of articles for Le Figaro imitating the styles of such nineteenth-century literary figures as Balzac and Flaubert.

The How We Work entry on writer Ethan Canin makes this process more explicit by linking to Canin’s explanation of how he copied John Cheever paragraphs out to learn what made the man (and his writing tick):

In my creative writing class I decided that I would write like John Cheever, that I would seek those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream. How far superior this raw emotion seemed to me. How much more profound and complex a truth.

In Cheever I found rejuvenation, found his unbridled emotion electrifying. I began typing out some of Cheever’s great paragraphs…

I suppose this was as important an exercise as I have ever performed.

I discovered two things: first, that Cheever’s great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail. Initially, this seemed like a profoundly important discovery to me. I could absolutely engage the fever pitch of emotion that had seduced me into writing in the first place, so long as I balanced it with large amounts of pedestrian observation. I went back to the stories I had written and added detail, surrounded my epiphanies with line after line of small-scale particulars.

But this alone did not make what I’d written much better, and it was here that I made my second, although admittedly in Cheever’s case, unproved discovery: that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.

Citing her own artistic practice, Twyla Tharp describes how as a beginning dancer she studied photographs of the female pioneers of dance: Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham.

I could read their movement vocabulary from those photographs, keeping what was useful to me and ignoring what wasn’t… I was trying to absorb how their bodies worked, taking their movement potential out of their bodies and imprinting it on my own, just as I did every day in class as I worked in the footsteps of great dancers.

Why am I writing at such length about this? Wouldn’t my time and effort be better spent in studying particular Walker Evans photographs and making pictures myself? I guess so. But the disconnect between ideology and actuality in After Walker Evans really bugs me.

  • To illustrate the pernicious influence of copyright Levine used a photograph that is in the public domain;
  • The “unconscious” relationship she wanted to “make literal” is widely understood and has been practiced consciously for centuries;
  • Evans, the photographer she chose as an exemplar of the “(typically male) artist as mythic genius” actively supported and encouraged Helen Levitt: acting as a mentor as she was starting in photography; offering feedback on her portfolio; sharing darkrooms with her; lending her cameras (and, on one occasion, money); introducing her to the right-angle mirror attachment with which she would make many of her celebrated photographs of New York street life; writing the introduction to marvelous eponymous book. In 1948 he described Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson (and himself) as the only photographers with something original to say–hardly a stirling example of the “patriarchal oppressor”.

Ultimately After Walker Evans is neither useful nor enlightening, since the only admirable qualities of the work are those inherent in Evans’s original photograph. Moreover its aesthetic nihilism insults his substantial achievements and demeans the tradition of learning from one’s creative ancestors then integrating those lessons into one’s own practice.

Happily, since irony–as Dave Rogers saysis the fifth fundamental force of the universe anyone wishing to see the work of a truly accomplished appropriation artist need look no further than… Walker Evans.

Disintegrating poster on brick wall for J.C. Lincoln's Sunny South Minstrel show

Walker Evans, Minstrel Showbill, Alabama, 1936

Dry Cleaning advertisment showing tailor's dummy in dress jacket

Walker Evans, Outdoor Advertising Sign, Louisiana, 1935

Torn movie poster showing man and woman embracing and looking camera left

Walker Evans, Torn Movie Poster, Massachusetts, 1931

Snapshots pinned to wall: one of an elderly woman, the other of four children sitting on the ground

Walker Evans, Family Snapshots on Farmhouse Wall, Alabama, 1936

Engraving of middle-aged man viewed through window with plant in lower right

Walker Evans, Political Poster, Massachusetts, 1929

Outdoor furniture store billboard showing family in living room

Walker Evans, Furniture Store Billboard, Alabama, 1936

Hundreds of passport-photo size portraits in a window with the word 'Studio' painted on the glass

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Alabama, 1936

6 Responses to “Appropriation Art and Walker Evans”

  • On February 10th, 2009 at 8:24 am, Rogers Cadenhead wrote:

    I don’t think there’s a moral issue with what Sherrie Levine did. The point of the public domain is that it be freely reused without restriction. If she was claiming the work to be her original creation, that would be dishonest, but she’s clearly and provocatively indicating that it’s a copy and identifying the source.

    The fact that she’s copyrighted her own work is part of the postmodern gag. If she didn’t, it would be less interesting. Her act robs no one else of the ability to derive their own art from Walker Evans’ photographs.

  • On February 10th, 2009 at 3:13 pm, Jonathon Delacour wrote:

    Rogers, I don’t see it as a moral issue either. My objection is that it’s illogical to use a image that is not copyrighted to mount an ideological argument against copyright. You’re right, though, about her own copyright being part of the postmodern gag (if we accept that heavy-handed irony is a gag).

  • On February 17th, 2009 at 5:22 pm, aurelio wrote:

    This strange Borges story will confuse the already confused or it’ll show the transformational effect a “copy” can have, depending on your “reading.”,_Author_of_the_Quixote

    (cut & paste the above links to read & find out about the famous Borges’ story)

    …just read an interview with Levine from ’93. & you can have her words on the subject. (cut & paste &c…..)

    …& I found this interesting website on her Evans work. (cut & paste…)

    I make appropriation art & the notion of the “copy” is fascinating & it has a history that’s as old as art itself. We tend to get puritanical with the argument for “pure” originality. The “art” may be seen when the “copy” creates another idea about the work itself, a new beauty, a doppelganger or even a clone. I think the key is to acknowledge that it’s a copy, a reworking, a collaboration.

    …very thoughtful post, Jonathan.

    thank you, aurelio

    p.s. Jonathan…send me an e-mail & I’d be happy to send you an example of my latest “appropriations.”

  • On February 18th, 2009 at 11:37 am, Kerim Friedman wrote:

    Great essay! You might enjoy reading Derrida’s lecture “Limited Inc a b c . . .” which has been published as a short book. He pokes fun at Searle’s emphasis on “intentionality” by quoting the copyright statement from the cover of Searle’s book.

  • On April 26th, 2009 at 11:23 pm, language hat wrote:

    I’m late to the party, but welcome back — I’m delighted to see you writing again!

  • On April 27th, 2009 at 5:04 am, Jonathon Delacour wrote:

    Thank you. Though I really must write more frequently.