TRIBUTE OR THEFT?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORD “APPROPRIATION” HAS BECOME A PERMANENT PART OF THE ACTIVE VOCABULARY OF VISUAL ARTS, and I am never consistently sure how I feel about it.
Like the term “found object”, things labeled as “appropriated” from other works seem to cast a shadow over photography, or over its potential for originality. Can the artist ever really produce a thing that is completely new? And if so, does it make him dishonest to re-use something that’s been any part of someone else’s work? Can you generate an image that shows, for example, a frame from a motion picture that someone else directed? How about a random glimpse of a frozen moment from a television show? Are those who admire a painting in a gallery and snap an image of it plagiarists? Additionally, the entire web-era issue of intellectual property complicates the question even further. Even if a photographer’s motives in “appropriating” are artistically pure, is he/she creating a tribute….or perpetrating a theft?
I have seldom dipped my toe into this particular swamp, mostly since I want to create work that is as personally unique as possible. I certainly love the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, but I don’t like to think that it’s because I’m too weak to walk under my own power. So let’s analyze an instance in which I try to straddle both sides of the tribute/theft debate.
What you see here is a most particular exercise with a very specially selected image. The original picture, as seen within the page frame, is an illustration from The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Andy Carr, a book designed to train the reader’s eye to see in less conventional ways, to examine the gulf between conception and perception. The authors, Andy Carr and Michael Wood, have deliberately set forth a series of exercises created to force photographers to develop alternatives method of seeing. What I glean from this is that they don’t want to hold any single photographic approach as sacred….perhaps even those they themselves put forward as artists.
The composite image seen here is an attempt to take Michael Wood’s beautiful picture, a minimalist shot which shows a single orange leaf balanced on a ledge, and imagine what kind of picture might be a visual sequel to it. I used a Lensbaby Sweet 35 optic to keep the original photo’s sharp focus on his leaf, which, as it trails down the stream of added orange potpourri pieces, transitions to softness….as if, in a dream, the leaves might be seeming to erupt out of the page. So, if you’re keeping score, the starting photograph is shown in the context of the book in which it originally appeared, with added objects that I have arranged for a new overall photo-creation of my own. Please note that in every single posting of this picture, I have given specific credit to the original artists/authors, and represented it as an appropriation, the use of elements not my own for a re-imaging that is my own. I would never seek credit for the original Wood image: it did serve, of course, as a springboard for something else. And, if at some time, I am asked by said creator to remove any and all traces of my composite from public platforms, I would acquiesce immediately.
Ever since Warhol began making silkscreens of photographs shot by other artists, which he then showed as Warhol “works”, this argument has mostly led to…..more arguments. And, as stated, I seldom find myself in this particular playpen. It’s simply too tough to be sure of all my motivations.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LEGEND HAS IT THAT ORSON WELLES, STAYING FOR A WHILE AS A GUEST AT PETER BOGDANOVICH’S HOME AROUND 1970, convinced him that the small Texas town he wanted to portray in the bleak drama The Last Picture Show would be “too charming” if shot in color. Bogdanovich went with the starkly toned palette of black and white, and you know the rest. Eight Oscar nominations, two wins, and an honored slot in cinema history.
Bogdanovich made an artistic decision to make something “uglier” in order to make it “real”.
For me, this idea has always been like swimming against the current, since, as a kid, I was influenced initially by scenic photographers, then, somewhat later, photojournalists, who seek a completely different end product. I tend to default to the idea of making things look pretty. Even today, me knowing the impact of recording things as they are, warts and all, is one thing, while me, deliberately manipulating an image in order to change or amplify its darker elements is a stretch. It’s not something I instinctively bend toward.
Still, some stories are told in capture and others are revealed in processing, and while photography is interpretation as well as mere recording, I like to take a crack at changing the context of a picture, to make its parts add up to something drastically different. A few years ago, the parking garage near my job looked out at a massive construction project. My parking slot was situated such that I was about three floors up in the air, peering through the open wall of the garage to easily take in a panoramic view of the entire length of the new building’s emerging structure. I soon got into the habit of getting to work about fifteen minutes early so I could hop out and snap whatever activity I could catch.
The finished building eventually smoothed into something acceptably serviceable, if bland, but, with its raw skeleton mounting day by day, an immense feeling of grim, awful power was climbing out of that place. It couldn’t be seen in color, especially not in the benign, golden light of early morning. This thing was appearing to my eye as a sinewy, dark life force, inevitable, dreadful……an impression I would have to achieve through a complete reworking of tone and texture. I decided to use High Dynamic Range processing, not to merely rescue detail lost in highly contrasted nooks, but to intensify every grain, granule and hobnail of the building, to render it in a surreal, slightly hellish aspect. To make it “ugly” on purpose…..or, more exactly, to my purpose.
Playing at changing the emotional feel of a picture isn’t native to me, so I am always grateful when this part of my brain rouses from sleep and demands to be exercised. The persistent (and false) notion of photography since its inception is that it shows the world as it is, a lie which is debunked with every willful act of picture-taking. No less than painting, the photo image is both document and statement, truth and distortion.
It never has to settle for being mere reality, nor could it claim to be.
And that is its seductive pull.