Plagiarism in photography

Peter Bialobrzeski, Shanghai, 2001 (#57). Bottom: H. & D. Zielske, Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, 2002. Screen grab from Slate.
Top: Peter Bialobrzeski, Shanghai, 2001 (#57). Bottom: H. & D. Zielske, Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, 2002. Screen grab from Slate.

In the article “Can Photographers Be Plagiarists: The Case of the Nanpu Bridge,” writer David Segal raises the question of whether photographers can plagiarize. He shows and describes two very similar photographs of a bridge at night, and attributes them similarity based on their “luminous, Blade Runner-like glow” – or in less adorned English, their long exposure – and proceeds to highlight other, past cases of accused plagiarism in photography. Worth a look.

Walter Benjamin traversed this ground.

The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.

Fragments of what? Reality, in Benjamin’s writing; but “reality” in our perception is not composed merely of that before us.

Reality as a concept is not objective or naïve; it is coalesced memory applied to our immediate surroundings. Without the aid of our past experiences, “reality” would be a worthless concept. I see a cactus; I remember having been stung by it. I see a bridge; I wonder what it would look like at night.

Consider for a moment the colloquial use of “realistic” – “Let’s be realistic.” The speaker is not asking you to analyze the objective nature of the things being discussed; he is asking you to apply the cynicism of collective experience to your idealistic proposal.

Realism is subjective. How, then, can it be judged by an objective ruler? How can one photographer’s capture of “reality” be more true, or more original, than another’s?

(Or, to take a veer into deconstruction: if you consider reality objective, then how can two photographs of the same constant be differing values?)

Yes, the argument could be made that one photograph came before the other, and is thus more worthy of praise. Little is new under the sun. Only the briefest window exists in which a photograph of something has never been made.

Writing in Harper’s, Jonathan Lethem voiced a reasoned critique of copyright in an article entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence”:

Is an intellectual or creative offering truly novel, or have we just forgotten a worthy precursor?

He covers most facets of the issue – including “cryptomnesia,” a term to describe the tendency of authors throughout time to read a book and then unconsciously regurgitate its theme or ideas in new format, without conscious plagiarism; the human mind rarely forgets on a permanent basis, but blends and chops and amalgamates past experiences into seemingly new ideas.

The real question, to my mind – why would you want to consciously copy someone’s photograph? Unless you are more able or willing to fiscally exploit the photograph than its creator, as with Koons/dogs, you don’t stand to gain much of anything. If you found an Eggleston photograph in a book, it’s pretty damned likely that your audience will recognize any particularly skillful reproduction of it. And only so many photographers can be “commenting on the nature of originality” – Sherry Levine did it, folks.

Little is new under the sun.

The real challenge of photography is in being unique. How many art students majored in photography? How many Flickr users are there? How many Americans go home after work and take macro photographs of ladybugs on the lawn?

Plagiarism in photography: not if, or how – but why?

It’s been voiced – and if I can remember by whom, or when, a link will be forthcoming by Mike Johnston – that photographers have two stages of development. In the first: you strive to emulate other photographers. The second: you strive to differentiate yourself from other photographers.

The Zielskes were misguided. Photographic plagiarism is pointless, particularly now.

(Thanks to Mike Johnston for the Slate link, too.)

10 responses to “Plagiarism in photography

  1. Great post.

    This is such a great topic to think about. I guess there’s no way to know if you and someone else have the same artistic eye, though.

    Either way, killer blog!


  2. Hey Chris,
    good to see you’re still thinking critically. Anyways, I really think you would enjoy reading “The Little Book of Plagiarism.” It’s by a UChicago law professor. Sorry I can’t remember his name right now. He has some interesting things to say about the topic of visual journalism. and the law surrounding it.

  3. In commercial photography, I think that many clients push photographers into shots that sometimes can border on “plagiarism.” For the most part, though, I believe that ideas can’t really be protected. Unless the photo was taken from the same position in space at the exact same time, it’s different. If you’re not trying to pass it as someone else’s work, no foul. The way to get noticed, however, is to be unique… So, I agree – what’s the point in plagiarizing anyhow…

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  7. Really great post, it got me thinking.

  8. Люди, подскажите, куда сейчас вкладывать деньги. Сейчас все лежит в банке, под смешной процент. Зато кредиты у нас несмешные. Где сейчас можно хотя бы сохранить свои накопления? Я неплохо получаю, но в такой ситуации ощущение, что плыву против течения. Еще детей воспитать надо. Какие-то биржи, биткоины не рассматриваю, нет времени в этом копаться, да и лохотрон – хуже банка.

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