It seems there is a long-standing debate around photographing other people’s work. It’s a simple debate: what exactly is the photographer creating if the photograph includes an object or structure that has been created by someone else?
This debate arises mostly in relation to works that exist in public spaces. The originating works may already be labelled “works of art” or may be labelled “architecture”, “edifice”, “structures”, “building”, “hardscape”, “figure”, “carving”, “casting” or any of many names that don’t necessarily assign an aesthetic value.
And yet all of it was imagined by someone, designed by someone, built by someone and placed on display. Even if the work has another function, such as a building, there was a creative effort expended to provide that space. If a photographer takes an image of it, presents it as their own creation and maybe makes a profit from it, is that right? Disclaimer: this is not a legal review.
You might find this surprising: at the most basic level, no photograph is original. The very act of photography results in an image of something that already exists. So the argument that photographing the creative works of others means the result is not original is moot.
And if no photograph is original, can there ever be a debate about artistic standing, uniqueness or identity?
“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.
It is a creative art.” – Ansel Adams
To find answers, I first looked back at the height of film photography. Photographic compositing and retouching were a part of the photographer’s toolkit as early as the mid-1800’s and certainly routinely in use in the 1900’s. In one often cited example, a portrait of James Dean by Dennis Stock (1955), side by side with the original marked up photograph, shows exactly how much creative vision went into the final image. While not a photograph of other people’s work, per se, it does show how an essentially documentary portrait was artistically enhanced.
One of the kings of artistic enhancement was Ansel Adams. Again, he didn’t photograph other people’s work (unless you regard nature as someone else’s work!), but he is well known for his interpretations of the great landscapes of America. He developed and applied his own darkroom techniques for representing light and shadow in his photographs. No one debates the individual creativity and unique nature of his images. He got it right. They are not factual communication. They are art.
So what about photographing the work of others? I belong to a competitive camera club. Submitted photographs are assessed by trained, independent judges for their technical and creative presentation. Just last night, we received a set of results. One photograph was rated low because it captured a museum scene that had been staged by someone other than the photographer. In a discussion afterward, the owner of the photograph explained why he thought the judges were wrong, and then suggested that, of course, if he had photographed a piece of architecture, such as a sculpture, the decision would have made sense. Apart from the fact that all public scenes are staged by someone else and should therefore not have impacted the rating, I didn’t agree with his comment on architecture.
One of the contemporary fine art architectural photographers I greatly respect, Joel Tjintjelaar, recently offered his view on whether architectural photography is “plagiarism” or “art”. He also reviewed the legal considerations, which actually are very few, and it seems, rightly so.
I agree with his conclusions, which, in a nutshell are that that capture, preparation and presentation of an architectural image can indeed be art, since it can introduce as much (if not more) creative vision than was in the mind of the architect of the structure. He proves his point superbly with the most unmalleable subjects possible – buildings and bridges and urban skylines. You have only to compare a typical photo of New York’s Empire State Building (below left) with one of Joel’s photographs (below right). There is no comparison.
Unless done for historical, documentary or commission purposes, the best architectural photographers try hard to find unique vantage points and unique post-processing finishes for these static structures. The presence of the structure is supportive of the final result; it is not the final result. At most, it provides a foundation (pardon the pun) on which to build.
Let’s jump now to the opposite end of the spectrum: photographing the photographs of others. I’m often at exhibitions and galleries where cellphones are in prominent use, snapping away, and conversations are overheard about sharing these beautiful images with the world “on Facebook”. Laws and court rulings have emerged over the years to clearly define this as illegal and theft. Even if the photographs are altered, the “original” images are protected. They are viewed as the original photographers’ creation.
So then, photographs are legally and ethically original, even if they depict something that by definition can never be original. Interesting.
This opens the door to one last area for consideration. It’s the one I struggle with the most.
I recently decided not to join a photography club outing to a local artist studio. These particular artists have transformed their home and surrounding greenspace, placing a variety of carved and sculpted and constructed structures and objects around the property. Although invited to do so, it simply didn’t feel right to me to photograph these items, even if I hoped to present them in distinctly different, creative ways.
Like photographs, other works of art by individual artists are protected by copyright. Even if they weren’t, I have a hard line when it comes to photographing these creative works. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that the artist’s name and work are so closely related, which is not the case with a building or bridge.
And frankly, I think it’s easier to creatively present a building or bridge than a sculpture, carving or metalwork. I can’t add much to what a sculptor has already done – and I guess I don’t want to.
So as you photograph your next “original” idea, give some thought to the artistic effort already expended to create that scene. Ethically and practically, if you can add something to the presentation, take the shot. If not, silently acknowledge the artistry in front of you, and move on.