When one photographer takes ideas from another or references some famous image in his own work, the inevitable reaction is negative. No, make that apocalyptic. Artists and commercial image-makers wring their hands about the incipient loss of copyright protection. Critics decry of the end of artistic originality.

I don’t see the crisis. In fact, I can’t get myself very worked up about the matter at all. Sometimes copying is good. Sometimes it works.

Last April we covered the controversy surrounding the cover photo of Vanity Fair’s special “Green Issue,” shot by Annie Leibovitz. Women’s Wear Daily had “outed” the image as a copy, setting industry tongues wagging. WWD reporter Jeff Bercovici wrote that “a spokeswoman for the magazine acknowledged…that the cover photo of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Al Gore…was ‘inspired’ by ‘Ballet Society,’ a 1948 portrait by Irving Penn of George Balanchine and three collaborators.”

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I tried to get indignant about this purposeful rip-off, but I couldn’t — precisely because it was so purposeful. “The composition of the two photos is virtually identical, down to the leafy garland on Roberts’s head,” wrote Bercovici. I certainly didn’t think that Leibovitz was trying to get away with anything underhanded. The idea of quoting Penn’s picture seemed like a playful, inside joke aimed at people who would recognize it as such. For those who didn’t get it, the image was still engaging. At any rate, I prefer references to Penn over more covers shots of Paris Hilton against seamless any day of the week.

Part of the issue here is Leibovitz herself: extraordinarily successful, very famous, and therefore a target for jealous photographers and critics who hope to bring her reputation down a notch or two.

Then, too, the media lately has become hyper-sensitized to the issue of plagiarism, following the revelations about New York Times reporter Jayson Blair‘s outright copying in 2003. The most recent plagiarist sensation was Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was found to have sections strikingly similar to books by writer Megan F. McCafferty. Unfortunately, even respected writers, such as historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, were caught in the dragnet of zealous plagiarism cops in academia and made to do penance by the media for infractions that were neither very important nor intentional.

Amid the frenzy to punish plagiarists, however, it’s easy to forget that ideas themselves are hardly sacred, that referencing and copying are time-honored literary and artistic devices. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which in turn was related to Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe. If you want to see how painters and other artists copy from each other, well, go to a museum.

If you want to see how photographers copy, you can also go to the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago this summer to see a fun and illuminating exhibition called “Under the Influence.” In it, Edelman showcases a number of images that make reference to other images. Sometimes this is done in outright ways, as in Duane Michals‘s 1965 image “Magritte with Hat;” sometimes the reference is inferred rather than stated, as in Michael Kenna‘s 1992 image “The Rouge, Study 1, Dearborn, MI,” which is a stylish nod to the industrial landscapes of Charles Sheeler. Photographers Shelby Lee Adams and Gordon Parks both re-do Grant Wood‘s painting “American Gothic.” And yes, Annie Leibovitz is there with her 1994 portrait of Martina Navratilova, a remake of Lewis Hine‘s famous “Powerhouse Mechanic” image.

“Copying in one way or another is part of photography and art,” says Edelman. “For those of us who deal with art on a daily basis, it’s a fact of life. There’s so little that could truly be called original. Some artists may think they work in a vacuum and believe that whatever they do is unique, but to one extent or another everyone is influenced by other work.”

Her show excludes contemporary art photographers, like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, who appropriate styles and re-photograph images in order to comment on culture. The images she chose were closer to homages, and that is part of the point she wanted to make with the show. “Some artists are simply more willing than others to admit that they copy ideas and reference imagery,” she says. “In my experience, photographers tend to be more forthright about it.”

Referencing or copying another picture isn’t necessarily the same as stealing someone else’s intellectual property. While some people may see Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair cover as a kind of theft, it could also be seen as a tribute to Penn; imitation, after all, really can be a form of flattery.

Maybe all copying should be labeled as such. The WWD article complained that Vanity Fair didn’t mention the reference to Penn anywhere in the issue.
That would probably soothe the sensibilities of most of the offended readers, but I’m not sure we should start footnoting every picture in every magazine. Footnotes just aren’t very fun.

More important, I think such labeling would belittle the language of photography. The August issue of Vanity Fair has a harrowing photo essay by James Nachtwey showing the effects that American use of Agent Orange has had on generations of Vietnamese. The opening image — of a mother bathing her legless 14-year-old son — is a distinct echo of W. Eugene Smith‘s famous 1972 image of a Japanese mother bathing her own daughter, born with deformities caused by mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay. Nachtwey’s picture is more meaningful for the artful borrowing. At least I haven’t seen any complaints about it.
— David Schonauer is Editor of American Photo magazine. He can be reached at Comment on this story in our Forums.