#653. Photographing someone else’s art. Is it stealing ?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Oct 06

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 :

  • You have to direct the human being (“push to the right, love, daddy doesn’t fit in the frame”) meaning there is human interaction.
  • You have to “plan” the shot, where as the graffiti was just there on the wall, there’s zero talent in photographing it. No deliberate act of creation.


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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  • Jens says:

    Good question – and some very valid thoughts on the topic, plus some interesting photography to go along with the words.
    To me the question boils down to asking: is the photographer concerned with a new contextualisation of the piece of art? Is the art a *part* of a new artistic/photographic statement? Or is the photographer just copying art onto his sensor?
    BTW, I have this concern also about architecture, contemporary and classic.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Well, come to thing of it, and in the light of Joakim’s comment, below, photographing architecture must be a form of theft too. Wikipedia was found guilty of publishing (with permission) photographs of public monuments (https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/blog/2016/04/supreme-court-wikipedia-violates-copyright-posting-photos-public-art/) Sadly strange world …

      • Jens says:

        As far as the Freedom of Panorama is concerned, the situation in Germany is pretty clear.
        The courts have ruled that anything (art, architecture, …) that is visible from a public space and that is meant to be permanently installed is basically in the public domain and may be photographed and also be used commercially. Christo’s wrapping up the Reichstag Building is a no-go. Any statue on public ground, any building on private ground are a free-for-all, provided the photographer sticks to working unaided (no tripod, no platform lift, no drone …) from publicly accessible property.
        Photographing the very same objects from private property or taking pictures of art that is beyond conventional copyright protection will get you into serious financial trouble in case the owners of the property or indeed the artists themselves decide to sue you.

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    “Is it stealing?”

    Last year the supreme court in Sweden ruled that it is! Actually what they said is that it is forbidden to photograph public art and publish the photos on the internet, both for commercial and non-commercial use.

    Can’t say I have payed that ruling much attention…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Wow, that is crazy !!! That’s ignoring the context of the street art completely. As if seeing a tiny pic on the web reduced the value of the art on the wall … What goes through the minds of these people ???

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I’m lost – someone graffitis a wall, CANNOT sell the image because the wall isn’t his to give to someone else, and before its removed by the local municipal authority or the building’s owner, someone photographing it is “stealing”? I think someone ought to check what’s in the teapots, at the Swedish supreme court. 🙂 If the photographer is stealing, who is he stealing from? – can’t be the “artist”, because by the act of painting on a wall, he’s automatically passing all his property rights in the painting to the building’s owner. And I have serious doubts as to whether the building owner would care if people photographed his building – with or without the painting.

      • pascaljappy says:

        Copyright rights, right ?

        London is full of surprises like that. Take a pic in the street and you might draw unwanted attention from corporate milicia because, somehow, they have been told that the outside of the building is intellectual property of some sort. They’re wrong, obviously, but it doesn’t stop them flexing their muscles. The reality is that most of the dorks in those buildings have primate pea-brain zero-sum gain mentalities and think that, just because you’re enjoying creating something, they’re missing out on something.

      • Joakim Danielson says:

        The ruling concerned statues mostly because the case was based on a collection of photos of statues in the public that was posted on the Swedish wikipedia site.

        I think graffiti is something completely different here since much of it is done anonymously, or signed with some cryptic tag known only by a few, and how can you claim any copyright if you’re anonymous? So photographing or removing graffiti is not illegal at all, unless of course it is art 😉

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    This might be a little off topic but I think it is close enough to squeeze in here.
    Each year, in Feb, I coordinate a regional juried photo expo at our gallery. Entries are open to the public. We have several categories for entries, i.e., nature, portrait, figure study, landscape, cityscape, etc, etc. We do not differentiate between darkroom images and digital images. Our philosophy is that photography is photography and it’s up to you to choose the type you prefer. Our only requirement is that the image must have originated in a camera. We do not accept photograms or images originally created with a scanner.
    But now we are seeing images called digital painting. They originated in a camera but have been altered to the point that they are obviously no longer “photographs”. Or are they?
    The work we have seen is beautiful art and took hours and days of meticulous work to create. But it is not a painting nor is it a photograph.
    How do we treat entries of this type? Are they to be juried alongside all the other photography? Or, do we need to create another category for this type of work? We have always adhered to the philosophy that there is no such thing as an unaltered photograph and we have accepted everything that originated in a camera.
    This is a situation we are going to have to face and a decision needs to be made soon so the programs and entry forms can go out.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Cliff. Very interesting, thank you. Also very tough. I doubt that there’s a correct answer to that. My natural tendency would be to accept those as photographs but create a special category. One for the Caponigros and Uelsmanns and Taylors of this world. That doesn’t solve your problem, though, since you now hove to define the limit between a slightly edited image and a strongly edited one … My guess is that the very existence of the category would encourage photographers to spontaneously submit in the ‘proper’ category, the one thet stand a better chance of winning in. Not failsafe, I suppose 😉

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Surely a bit of give and take would avoid any problems or issues? Think of competitions for artists (eg oil painters) – such as a “portrait prize” – and have a look at the extraordinary range of pictures that are submitted to competitions like that. If we are too rigid, we stamp on creativity.

        Perhaps I’m an anarchist at heart – but rules and rigidity are an open invitation to rebellion, and while some of the things other people do aren’t something I’d follow, I do enjoy the variety and imagination that goes into the photos that drift across this screen.

    • Jens says:

      The question, indeed, is where to draw the line – if indeed lines have to be drawn. Which I doubt.
      The more the photographer tends toward wanting to create art, or is seen as creating art, the further she or he tends to move away to what most of us would call “straight photography”. Cases in point are people like Man Ray, the Becher school, Julia Baier, to name but a very few. Even good old Ansel took things pretty far with Moonrise …, an image that originated in his camera but that he “interpreted” beyond recognition to show what he wanted to convey.
      To the artist it is probably beside the point whether he or she stays true to the medium of photography, just as he or she usually doesn’t care what camera, lens etc were used. To the avid amateur these issues seem to be of more importance. And to some very orthodox amateurs it is out of the question to even manipulate an image’s contrast, saturation, sharpness etc. The Holy Grail is OOC.
      I suggest letting the resulting images and messages of whatever process speak for themselves and not to be too bothered about how they came to be.

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Thank you for your input, pascaljappy. Maybe we can create an “experimental” category to include some types of darkroom work and some of the obviously digital filters and digital painting work. And qualify entries in that category by the rule of thumb that says “if you have to ask, it goes in the regular photography category”. 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      That sounds great. You’ll probably evolve from this to something else in the future, when the fragmentation settles into something more stable. But it’s a good way of starting without alienating no one and it lets photographers self-categorize rather than obey rules from the top.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    I’ve seen this in full effect, I visited a photography exhibition and offered to share my shots in a facebook group and one person literally treated me like a thief

    It ultimately comes down to purpose and usage I think…. (ymmv)

    If you take a wide shot of a gallery wall, showing several paintings, then you’ve a shot of a wall with paintings on it

    If you get in really close with a tight frame on a single art work then you’ve a shot of that

    I see no issue with the former, I can get (but don’t agree with) people being perturbed by the latter

    But much like taping a radio show, I think the legality would be what you do with the recording.

    Play it for friends or for yourself in the car, fine – make 1000 copies and start selling them on eBay, not so fine

    RE street art, I shoot this quite a lot, I’ve only once met the artist who implored me to take pictures. I appreciate that guy isn’t the spokes person for all graffiti artists, but I’d like to think that’s how most of them would respond

    My own personal moral compass (ymmv) works along the lines of revenue.

    If I can see something for free I should be able to shoot and share (but not for my own financial gain) if I have to pay to see it, then perhaps not. (Yes I realise that a lot of galleries have free entry, but don’t want you shooting and sharing)

    You might possibly be able to take a photograph of a printed photograph and do it justice…. but most art (be it a painting, sculpture or even a building) you really have to see it irl to actually experience it, so when we document these things we’re generating interest in the original, we’re not stealing the cachet. IMO / YMMV

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Adam, when photography is off-limits in galleries or museums, it is usually clearly stated as such. In any other case, the artist represented probably doesn’t mind the work being shown widely to the public. There’s no way you can photograph a photograph and sell it as the original. Reflections are one problem, uniformity of focus is another. You’d have to sell pretty small, lousy and cheap knock-offs 😉

      Revenue is one thing, and it is important. I’m also interested in how good it is for your own personal development to photograph other people’s work. To me, if you’re going to produce something worthwhile, it pushes every bit as hard as a landscape, building, face … would. In other terms, I’m all fort it 😉

  • Mark Steven Wade says:

    Searched this topic and landed here because I just uploaded a photo to my site that depicts a concrete painted wall (of a fish with a human face). I rarely make photos like this because I really do feel like this is someone else’s work. In this case, I made an exception.
    I also made every (reasonable) effort to find out who made the painting….to no avail. No signature, and no web research helped. It is a public (assumed graffiti) presentation subject to being photographed. The apparent willful anonymity of the artist is regrettable, but was by not my doing.
    Walking into a museum/gallery has it’s meaning and no one would assume making photos there would be ok.
    In the public sphere it is just different, and unfortunately, the street photographer is becoming more and more under scrutiny for this art form. If an owner of a building claims rights to images of said building and wins….all bets are off. Who owns the rights to photos of the Grand Canyon or of Yosemite?
    The San Diego Zoo prints (on their tickets) guidelines for making photos of the animals that live there. It’s ok for personal use, but no commercial gain will be tolerated. Interesting when you consider that the Zoo enjoys tax-free status, thus being helped by the public.
    It’s always prudent to reasonably investigate whether a location is off limits or limited.

    As time rolls on and more of this unfolds, I just hope street photographers are not strangled out of existence.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Me too, Mark. Your zoo example is very ironic and illustrates how so many companies and organisations view the whole world as a zero-sum game. Others have to lose for them to win. It’s regretable that an organisation that receives public funding should not be more tolerant of other people’s businesses.

      Another reason for me not hesitating to photograph street art is that it tends to disapear quickly. Unless it has been commissioned, it tends to stay there for a while but not forever. Come back a few years later and something else is there. Plus graffiti artists don’t seem to hesitate to aplly their art on someone else’s, most likely wothout permission. We photographers aren’t damaging anything, only preserving memories and interpreting a scene. I hope noone ever condemns us for it.


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