Is the World a Better or Worse Place Aesthetically With the Art of Richard Prince in It? Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Going Down Droste, originally uploaded by Pisco Bandito.

A lot of thrashing about has been taking place in the internet over the past few days over unauthorized use of digital imagery. Scoble wrote a post up about it and says, “steal my content, please.” Mashable has a post out regarding a recent YouTube take down request for a Web 2.0 video published by The Richter Scales. The video in question, by the way, used at least one unauthorized photograph of mine, specifically a photo of Om Malik.

My response to this unauthorized use of my imagery? Who gives a shit? I certainly don’t. More specifically though my response is, would the world be a better or worse place aesthetically speaking with artists like Richard Prince in it.

Who is Richard Prince you ask? Richard Prince is a world acclaimed artist who has built his art by remixing imagery from popular advertising campaigns. Yes, imagery which he does not hold copyright over. You can read more about the work of Prince over here at the New York Times in the article If the Copy Is an Artwork, Then What’s the Original? So what does Prince do? He takes photographs of photos by other photographers, blows them up huge like and without crediting any original photographer he produces and publishes his art. I say more power to him. Thanks by the way Ryan for the heads up on the Richard Prince article.

More to the point. Would the world be a better or a worse place off aesthetically speaking with the Beastles in it? Who are the Beastles? The Beastles are a band that a few years back did an incredible job remixing tracks from the Beatles and the Beastie Boys. The result is incredible — I’m glad I got the tracks off the internet when I did because good luck finding the tracks now. With songs like Whatcha Want, Lady?, Mother Nature’s Rump, and I Feel Fine Right Now, the Beastles brought a new cutting edge feel to the Beatles and in the process created some remarkable art.

It’s unfortunate that today when you go to their website to hear their fantastic remixes that you get the following message: “These mash-ups were made for fun, and as a demonstration of my remixing abilities. They are currently unavailable on this website.”

Check out the photo at the top of this post. It’s outstanding! It’s also a remix of one of my photos. Here’s the original. While I received credit as part of the remix I’m much more satisfied that the photograph above was produced. That something that I made inspired someone to make something even more creative than my original. In the same way that I was pleased to see that The Richter Scales used some of my imagery in their own attempt to exercise their own creativity.

Our time on this earth is too short to get petty and spend hours worrying about people who might steal our imagery. When my imagery is used as part of someone else’s creative process I don’t get jealous or proprietary, I get excited. I get excited that even beyond my own art I’ve contributed to even more art on this earth. While it’s always nice to be credited I’m not going to let this spoil the party if I don’t.

Certainly a “I’m taking my ball and going home,” sort of attitude where you limit the exposure of your photographs or watermark the hell out of everything is one approach. That’s not my approach though.

My friend Scott Richard painted one of my photographs. Check it out, it’s amazing. Here’s his painting and here’s my original. My friend Kathy Johnson painted another one of my photographs. The original is here. I love this stuff. I love that my stuff is used this way.

And I do actually think that the world is better off with Richard Prince and his amazing work in it than if he were to be shut down. To me, the internet ought to be about tearing down walls in the name of creativity, not erecting new ones. So if the Richter Scales or anyone else wants to use my photos as part of their own creative process, go for it. I won’t let this get in the way of my own creative process which is focused more on building large collections of photographs and in building a collection of 500,000 finished photographs before I die. I’ve only ever told one publication that they couldn’t use my photographs, and that’s Valleywag. I got tired of them making up lies and printing them and so I didn’t want to contribute to the crap that they spew anymore.

Certainly there are cases where clear, large and very full copyright violations take place that probably shouldn’t. But there are many, many other cases of limited and questionable minor infringement that should probably be let go.

If you put your stuff up on the internet at some point it may be used by others. My advice is to stop worrying about it and learn to love the bomb.

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16 Comments

  1. Keith says:

    To clarify a portion of your article:

    The Beastles are not, in fact, a band. Rather, the Beastles albums are the product of dj BC, a Boston-based DJ who’s been putting out some of the best mashups (that I’ve been able to find) for years.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thanks for the clarification Keith and I’m personally glad that dj BC makes his art irrespective of the copyright of the artists that he remixes.

  3. When I googled “Richar Prince Marlboro”, this is the first article I got.

    He never created that photograph, and his “copy” sold for $1,248,000, while the real photog behind got nothing (well he got paid probably when he took that pic)

    all the other examples that you mentioned, probably involves copying onto another medium (aka, using your photo as an inspiration :)) or releasing the work free of charge. Further, since it is not your/my primary money making job, you/me don’t feel the pinch as much.

    imagine the angst of the ones whose work Richard simply copies (photo of photo?!). where does creativity/inspiration end and where does blatant copying begin?!

  4. -gary says:

    I’m confused. It’s ok for Prince to profit from his “work”, but you threw quite a fit when _rebekka’s photos were taken from Flickr. Would it have been ok with you if they had taken a screenshot (a digital picture of a picture) and sold the results?

    That’s splitting some very fine hairs in my book.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    I’m confused. It’s ok for Prince to profit from his “work”, but you threw quite a fit when _rebekka’s photos were taken from Flickr. Would it have been ok with you if they had taken a screenshot (a digital picture of a picture) and sold the results?

    Gary, I see Prince’s work within a body of work. He does not simply take an image and reproduce it. He dramatically re-engineers the image blowing it up to epic proportion and uses it in concert with a larger body of work providing his own take on commercialization in society.

    This is far different than someone simply taking an image and profiting from it without adding anything to the creative conversation.

    Using the imagery of popular culture to remix art is fine in my book. A producer making exact duplicate copies without any redeeming creative value is not ok in my book.

    I do not think that copyright should be applied as black and white. I think you have to look at the infringement within context. To me, the video by the Richter Scales is fine. Richard Prince’s work is fine. The Beastle’s project is fine. Still I would not support direct commercial reproductions of an artist’s work by another with the profit of selling fine art prints being the only motivation behind the infringement.

  6. jacek says:

    With this one passionate post you just made me rethink my whole attitude towards ownership of my own pictures. Thank you. I have been asserting a Creative Commons license that stipulates attribution, no commercial use and no derivatives. It is that last point that you just eloquently changed for me. You are absolutely right – me being protective over ownership right of (my insignificant) snapshots is silly. Contribution (even potential one) to others ability to create, riff and improve, is so much more important. My picture taking is in no comparison to your work but if you can have this attitude, I can certainly too. So my CC will now say: BY-NC-SA.

  7. Todd says:

    I’m going to agree with Ahivanand above. It’s easy for your to say take it, because creating art isn’t the way you earn money, and therefore easy to have that attitude. You don’t have to raise funds for your vision, spending years toiling away in obscurity, or whatever artists “do” before they’re financially successful.

    While, I’m sure if all money was removed from the art production process and every artist, including those who are successful like Picaso, would result in loosing a lot of the quality stuff. Many artists do it for the love, but removing fiscal dollars these days, would definitely impact the process, the result, the product. I guess the question is, where do you draw the line between taking it and mixing it, using a likeness of the original?

    It’s questions like these that the music industry is trying to draw the lines. Even an unknown band performing a cover song is supposed to pay. Usually this is done by the clubs who have live performing musicians paying into a pool of money that is distributed to musciaians. Maybe photography/art/video etc. should be no different?

    And regarding the guy who used your photo in a mashup video. I don’t know how he can claim to own the copyright to that if he’s not free and clear legally with every asset involved in it. Just as a movie maker isn’t clear if they don’t have the rights released to all music, photos, etc…

    Anyway, what do I know? Nothing, probably.

  8. You’re welcome for the heads-up, even if I’m not an anti-copyright zealot, haha. I share more than 99.9 percent of professional photographers. Sometimes it’s shrewd, a lot of times it’s fun, but it’s not an ethos. If it’s an honor for someone you like your work enough to take it for free, it’s a much greater honor if they’re willing to pay because they want what you can do better than others, instead of whatever was free and in easy reach.

  9. Keith says:

    I understand you point, Thomas. The world is a much more fun place when everything changes hands. At the same time, how would you feel if someone downloaded all your photos, converted them to HDR, and started selling them all as fine art prints (and throw in the kicker that you didn’t get credit). I am a DJ, and I play out my own remixes of Offspring, The Verve, and Rage Against the Machine tracks just like mashups. BUT, I the credit isn’t taken away from those artists. EVERYONE knows who they are. I totally agree that its a case by case basis, but unfortunately some people really profit from others’ TRUE hard work.

  10. Hey I like the remix but love the original. Great photography!

  11. Minx0r says:

    With the world being very different today, our traditional systems are collapsing. Instant transactions, freely available content, a massive demand ‘for more’, the digital world is an unstable place.

    Something as simple as this case, artists and ‘leeching’, clearly shows that we dont live in a time where traditionally you would pay for someones work, or give them credit.

    Today we live until our net cuts, then all hell lets lose!

    We need to embrace our human kind, we all share one thing (apart from blogging and pretending we have a voice that is heard), the supposed ‘love’ for life.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wow, Thomas. Hypocritical much? (see _rebekka)

  13. Anonymous says:

    oh thomas. deleting comments that point out how much of a hypocrite you are just because it’s someone you used to be bosom buddies with and how are at odds. remember how your underpants got in a twirl with that whole _rebekka controversy? when you get down to it, it’s the same exact issue: one entity appropriates a photographer’s work for their own commercial means. thomas hawk = hypocrite.

  14. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anonymous, I haven’t deleted any comments. Sometimes people delete their own comments though.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Your hubris is amazing. I guess when you aren’t living off your art it doesn’t matter. And that Prince guy getting famous and rich for photographing the work of other photographers isn’t art. It’s theft and unoriginal.

  16. Caitlin Burke says:

    “Our time on this earth is too short to get petty and spend hours worrying about people who might steal our imagery. When my imagery is used as part of someone else’s creative process I don’t get jealous or proprietary, I get excited.”

    Awesome. Then use – and recommend to people who share this view – a Creative Commons license that specifically licenses this use.

    “I do not think that copyright should be applied as black and white. I think you have to look at the infringement within context.”

    There are tests for copyright infringement, but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re talking about. What you’re talking about is saying that some uses of copyright don’t matter as much. You already license at least some of your own images with Creative Commons – why not take this opportunity to explain why you chose that license on Flickr rather than acting like copyright itself no longer matters all that much?