Exercise 2.4: Is appropriation appropriate?

Google Street View is a fascinating tool – at its most practical I use it to find potential parking spaces before I leave for unfamiliar locations. As a lawyer I used it as part of my due diligence, to check whether properties had been extended or altered in any way. As a photographer I have used it to check out potential locations for shoots, although it has its limitations in that it only extends to roads (plus ski slops and amusement parks!)

I enjoy the work of Henner (1) and Wolf (2): it has the sense of capturing the unaware that early street photographers such as Walker Evans were striving for. It is pure voyeurism and in that sense it has all the ethical implications of representing an unaware subject, but in terms of appropriation from another source I don’t believe that the work is any less interesting or worthy of consideration because it comes from a digital image rather than from “real life”. Art isn’t about the effort put in by the artist, it is about what the viewer can gain from consideration of the work.

Separate to the question of artistic merit, there are without a doubt copyright/licencing issues related to the use of imagery produced by someone else. Where the source is Google Earth one feels instinctively that the appropriate isn’t significant; Google makes the imagery freely available and its use by artists is in no way undermining Google’s income stream from genuinely commercial uses of the database. To an extent this reaction is emotional – “stealing” from a commercial giant is different to stealing from an individual. Henner’s work “Less Americains” presents a more interesting quandary; he uses Robert Frank’s original images but removes the people and other significant subjects so that a strange and almost comical collection of objects are left. The work examines how we look at an image; as features are removed, others come into focus. Somoroff’s “Absence of Subject” (3) takes a similar approach although to my mind the effect is much more significant in identifying a subject through background alone. Yet both present an ethical question about the alteration of another’s work. Each identifies the original artist which it could be argued is sufficient, and from my vague recollections of copyright law I suspect these works are sufficiently transformative to amount to new work and therefore not breach copyright laws, but nevertheless I feel slightly uncomfortable about mutilating someone else’s work without their consent.

Recently I saw an article about Marina Amaral, who colours historic black and white photographs. (4) In a sense this is not transforming the work, it is making it more real – allowing a new generation to properly connect with the original images. To my mind the original photographer should be credited and asked for consent, if known, but I feel that the validity of the work is so significant that it outweighs most concerns about copyright. It may seem trivial, but I was amazed by the impact that sensitively colouring up these images had on my interpretation of them. They are no longer nostalgic relics of the past but real people with real lives.

Using someone else’s work in a largely unchanged state presents yet another different question. For my fourth assignment of I&P I photographed an album of postcards, inserting my own images into some of the gaps. The postcards were the work of another artist who I did not credit (I suspect they were not credited on the postcard in any event). The assembling of those postcards into the album was the work of someone else who was unknown and uncredited. I didn’t feel remotely uncomfortable about that, I suspect because the postcards were commercial artefacts which had already been purchased and therefore I don’t feel that I was exploiting anyone. The arrangement in the album, whilst arguably a work of art in its own right, was carried out by an unknown person who had the chosen to get rid of the album, which I feel gave me the right to use it. Yet these are not clear cut rules and I think each situation should be considered individually and within the scope of the law.

Featured image: “Farmer’s daughter” (2007) Michael Somoroff

(1) “No Man’s Land” (2011-2013): http://www.mishkahenner.com/ (accessed 18th July 2017)

(2) “Street View”: http://photomichaelwolf.com/#asoue/1 (accessed 18th July 2017)

(3) https://www.lensculture.com/articles/michael-somoroff-absence-of-subject#slideshow (accessed 18th July 2017)

(4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/entertainment-arts-40523826/the-colourist-changing-the-appearance-of-historical-photos (accessed 18th July 2017)


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