The Art of Appropriation

I had a very unique visual experience last week. Bizarre coincidence is the only way to describe it. I get together with my friend Philip Taylor on a regular basis. Phil is an 85 year old Philadelphia photographer who had a 40 year career as a Lithographic printer. He is a treasure trove of printing and photographic knowledge, and we spend several hours a couple times a month discussing photo books and the history of photography. So last Thursday Philip happened to bring along a folder of random images from postcards, newspaper clippings, etc that he had collected over the years. One item that interested me was an issue of National Wildlife magazine from 1998 that contained a photograph taken by a good friend of his, Ernie Volpe. Volpe was the grand prize winner in the magazine's 1997 Photo Contest for his image of a sparrow gingerly perched on a shard of broken glass framed perfectly within an old weathered window pane.

Ernie Volpe  (1997)

The image from the magazine is signed, "To Philip- A very dear friend who always believed... Ernie Volpe '97 "  Philip told me that Volpe was a house painter by trade who loved photographing birds. For this shot he created a bird blind in his back yard. The broken window is from his garage where he kept his bird seed and the birds would come and go out of the window to steal seeds from inside the garage. Volpe waited patiently for hours to get this shot. Several years later Ernie Volpe died after a miserable struggle with cancer at the age of 45. The pain of the loss of a friend is still evident in Philip's voice as he tells the story and the memento of this signed image means a great deal to Philip on an emotional level.

Now enter the bizarre... the very next night I attended the juried art show "Drawn From Nature" at the John James Audubon nature center in Audubon, Pa. I had a photograph in the show and a couple friends of mine also had work in the show. I couldn't get out of work early that night, so I had to frantically rush out to Audubon to get there before the opening ended at 8 o'clock. I got there 15 minutes before the show closed and quickly walked around while I caught my breath. As I made my way around the maze of typical art show fabric partitions my jaw dropped to the floor when I saw this painting by Victoria DeMarco-Schumann.

Victoria DeMarco-Schumann (2010)

I was stunned. I called Philip on my cell phone as I drove home to tell him what I had just seen. I called another friend to re-tell the story. I just couldn't get over the random coincidence of seeing these two images on consecutive nights. What are the chances of this happening ?  This stayed on my mind throughout the weekend, and I went back to the exhibit on Sunday to photograph the painting and just see it again to make sure it was real. It is a direct copy of Volpe's photograph, with the obvious addition of the cutesy kitty face and the dragonfly. There are also some small changes to the glass shard details, but otherwise the painting is a direct appropriation of the photograph.

I am not going to go into a discussion of copyright here. I'm not a lawyer, and I know next to nothing about copyright law. I do know it is very complicated with lot's of gray areas and levels of interpretation. When big name photographers have work appropriated by big name painters the disputes typically end up in  lengthy and expensive legal battles. ( Recall the Shepard Fairey vs. Mannie Garcia/AP entanglement over the Obama  Hope poster ) The only thing I will say about copyright is  that DeMarco-Schumann chose to sign her painting with the copyright symbol, which I find very interesting. How many paintings do you see with a copyright symbol next to the signature ? The submission guidelines for this exhibit state... "Works copied in whole or in part from paintings, reproductions, or photographs by other artists will not be accepted."

I posted a thread about this topic over on Flak Photo Network, and it has generated some really excellent comments. Lots of photographers relating stories about their own work being appropriated, or citing cases and legal histories surrounding copyright issues and settlements. Another great read on this subject, besides the Obama Hope poster, is the story behind Susan Meiselas' Molotov Man photograph. There is a link to an article from Harpers Magazine on the FPN thread. Good stuff.

The question that still haunts me is... what is the appropriate action to take when confronted with something like this?  Report it to the art show? Confront the artist? Just let it go?  I can't notify the original photographer because he is dead. This is a small time art show, but these shows are still important to the artists who invest time and money to submit their work. The painting had a price tag of $1600. I would be shocked if someone paid that much money for it. So I am inclined to just let this ride as a weird experience, but I would also love to discuss this directly with DeMarco-Schumann someday to hear her thoughts about artistic process and creative stream of conscious. For all I know, maybe she knew Ernie Volpe, and this is a tribute piece in his memory. I can't make a moral judgement on her work process unless I hear her complete side of the story, but she was clearly wrong in submitting the work to a juried exhibit as her own original work.