Do you ever feel bad about photographing someone else’s art ? This has troubled me in the past, particularly with graffiti and street art. Is there any worth to it?
Is it merely an act of relaying the creation of others to your tribe, in which case there is zero talent in capturing but the act of spreading is already a form of service to the author and others ?
Is is simply a pure act of opportunistic grabbing that creates zero value for anyone ? Or, worse, plagiarism ?
Or is it a form of art just as valid as the original ?
Ask any number of people and you’re likely to get as many replies. And the questioning is not just about graffiti but also architecture, statues, stained glass, paintings, a film set …
My answer to the title question lacks philosophical balance in its resounding NO. No, it isn’t stealing. YES. Yes there is some artistic merit to photographing other people’s work. Here’s why.
First of all, does anyone object to portrait photography ? Fashion photography ?
You can debate whether the photographs in a clothing catalogue are a form of art or not. You can debate whether the summer vacation family shot and the selfie in front of Big Ben are art or not. But no one objects to these types of photographs in the way that photographing graffiti can be criticized. Even the most basic photograph of a human seems preferable to something like the picture above :
But I disagree.
First, let’s settle the question of ownership. There is not an ounce of my DNA or education in either of these pretty ladies. Except for family shots, which are very rarely a significant art form, not one photographer can claim that the model’s qualities have anything to do with him/her. Just like the street art, the Golden Gate and the Taj Mahal, the model is someone else’s doing and creation.
Sure, good pros have their own makeup / clothing / lighting specialists or personal talents, altering the model’s appearance. But this is no different to choosing many aspects of how you photograph someone else’s work. With models as with statues, you can be creative and chose to tell a story, or you can be literal, uninspiring and boring.
It’s the way you choose to photograph the work of art that makes your photograph strong or plagiarist. Just like there’s a different between a Gregory Crewdson portrait setup and a paparazzi shooting Pippa’s hind quarters at a rich dude’s wedding.
Secondly, when it comes to street art, I find there’s another interesting ownership-related argument. One that’s plainly obvious below.
The background here is one of a set of architectural sketches presented on the walls of a big department store in Paris. Then, there’s that big yellow graffito blob on the left. Then, a larger number of tags superimposed on the whole affair. There, you can see two stickers, one of which borrows someone else’s photograph (far left) and the other feels more personal. So what I’m photographing is not anyone’s art but a layering of contributions.
One obvious contribution of the photographer is clarity of meaning (selection from a usually very complex scene). The final result above seems fairly obvious, whereas the scene was a mess.
Another is the creativity you use to add your own layer of meaning. Your own take. The stronger the original art, the more you have to decide to go with the original idea or denounce it. You can photograph something pretty and limit your story to “hey guys and gals, look how pretty (or funny) this statue is”.
But the stronger the declaration in the original art, the more you have to take a stance with respect to the meaning, rather than limit yourself to the appearance of the creation.
This is why photographing works of art is valuable in itself. In many ways, a modeling session is just a gig. Whereas photographing graffiti requires finding and seeing and interpreting and creating your own message from existing material and context. Unlike many photo shoots, there is no recipe for this.
So if you approach this subject as an artist, with consistency in meaning and style, then yes, you’re creating art.
The truth is that the very act of creating a photograph is a lie. Every conscious decision you make before clicking the shutter and during post processing is a personal statement. A denial of reality by your personal biases. That’s why non-photoshoping rules in photo competitions are so very stupid. Framing, exposure time, aperture, exposure compensation, focus point, depth of field, lens rendering, focal length (visual compression), white balance, saturation, … all of these decisions you make are far more extreme departures from reality than the cloning of a road sign.
By refusing photoshoped photographs competition organisers are in essence making your responsible for what you have no control over (the beauty of the model, the power lines on the horizon) and denying you the right to create a visual statement based only on your view points. The right to be an artist. Run away from any competition with such ape-age rules.
What I’m saying is that the conscious act of selecting the various parameters that will determine what the final image will look like are the very definition of creation. Whether the subject is a waterfall, a cute puppy, a graduation ceremony, a stamp, a model, a painting, a statue, a monument, a boat, a car … is irrelevant. Making pictures is creation. The more involved you are in that creation, the less important the subject matter.
Still not convinced ? Have a look a the work described in these links, starting with one of my all time favourite artists, Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Are these guys artists, or wot ?
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