Hilton Als was, ironically, spot on: young photographers have a lot of freedom. In his write-up of the Yale M.F.A 2015 exhibition Lovely Dark: Yale MFA 2015 Photography at Danziger Gallery in New York Als writes, “The M.F.A. photography [students’] … excitement had something to do with their freedom: they could make or remake photography any way they wanted.” This is hardly a new freedom. Appropriation as a photographic practice has been around since the 1980s when photographers like Barbara Krueger or Sherry Levine, influenced by postmodernism, began photographing previously produced images. These photographers attempted to challenge, or “deconstruct,” modernist artistic traditions that envision the artist as a sole genius. Instead, they claimed that all the visual resources of our world have already been exhausted. As art historian and critic Douglas Crimp explains, these photographers challenge “photography’s claims to originality, showing those claims for the fiction that they are, showing photography to be always a representation, always-already-seen.”
Fair. There is nothing new under the sun. But what maybe was a pointed critique of an over-saturated visual culture thirty or so years ago, has in 2015, turned into a nearly parasitic practice of blind and thoughtless regurgitation. Take for example, photographer and Yale graduate Zak Arctander, whose work was featured in Als’ New Yorker write up. His piece, titled “Cheeks,” features an “altered” version of an image of model Hari Nef produced by Arabelle Sicardi and Tayler Smith for their 2014 collaborative exhibition Most Important Ugly. Arctander did not contact either Sicardi nor Smith, nor did he disclose the original source of his image with the gallery’s proprietor. When Sicardi called out Arctander’s appropriation, James Danziger of Danziger Gallery was the only one willing to reply: “I feel that [Arctander’s image] falls well within what would be considered legitimate appropriation and transformative use.”
Danziger is referencing the “fair use” clause under the 1976 Copyright Act that protects copyrighted material from harmful re-use. Under the legal clause, copyrighted material can be used fairly only if the purpose of the new work in question is in some way “transformative.” In order to be considered transformative, a new work must alter or comment on the meaning or character of the previous work. Derivative works, or works which merely adapt copyrighted material without added commentary, are not considered transformative.
I could endlessly question whether Arctander’s image should be considered either “transformative” or “derivative,” or even with which schema we should judged an art work’s “transformative” potential. But these questions would eschew the more perverse reality of appropriative photography and artistic recognition: men are often hailed for their thievery while women are often forgotten by history. What’s most unsettling about Arctander’s “Cheeks” isn’t even it’s unoriginality (I can’t for the life of me see how his black and white conversion and graffiti layering, which I know takes all of ten minutes to do on Photoshop, in any way comments or alters or adds or betters Sircardi’s and Smith’s original exploration of anxiety and queer marginalization). Rather I am more irked by the linage his image reeks of: infamous dood-artists Ryder Ripps and Richard Prince, that get a lot of cultural and financial capital from ripping off images made by women. Arctander is a gallery represented, Ivy-League educated photographer with a fruitful and promising career, while Sicardi and Smith are two independent creatives who must now outrage to gain rightful recognition. At the end of the day, who will receive credit where it is due? Who will get to reap the benefits of their labor?