Inspiration and imitation

In our continuing discussion of copyright, imitation and inspiration, I’ve decided to throw in my two cents. Hi, I’m Chris, one of the developers here at crowdSPRING. While I may spend most of my days making and breaking portions of our site, I did manage (and still try) to dedicate a small portion of my time to photography, among other things.

Back in my school days, the first images that really struck me were those of Ansel Adams. Perhaps because of my time spent camping and wandering the wilderness, his ability to capture the shear splendor of nature is, well… impressive. And to think he did it with early 1900’s view cameras and photographic plates, not to mention hiking through the wilderness, lugging that equipment. It’s simply inspiring. I know his work had an influence on me. While I never deliberately tried to imitate it, I definitely kept it in mind.

Earlier this week, Angeline and I were discussing our appreciation for photo artists who do their work in the lens – the ability to get the framing, exposure, composition, and expression of their scene or subject without any further tweaking or treatment in the darkroom or editing software. In his early work, Adams had no choice in this matter. It was all or nothing.

Wired recently ran a bit about another photographer, Mike Stimpson, who recreates famous photographs with Legos. Much of these prints had little or no post-exposure treatment. What’s really fascinating is how his use of everyday materials, when photographed in close proximity, loose their everyday appearance and become part of the scene. Also, the ability to work in small scale and get realistic, large scale results is no small feat.

The question here is, of course, is he creating original works of art, or is he just imitating? There’s no question he is drawing inspiration for his subjects from other artists’ work. It’s the execution that’s the difference. By virtue of the materials, size, equipment and budget, he cannot copy these famous works exactly. But that may well be part of the motivation. The lego figures add a sense of humor and, more importantly, artistic distance from their inspiration.

So where is the line? I’m not sure anyone can really say. Take Andy Warhol‘s Campbell Soup Cans (1962).

Andy Warhol, \" width=

There is no doubt he intended to imitate the popular culinary icon, but that was part of his motivation. He repurposed everyday, cultural iconography and presented it as art and as a commentary on life, which, as some would argue, is the real function of art.

A similar and more recent example is the blog Garfield Minus Garfield in which blogger slash artist Dan Walsh scans single strips of Garfield comics and painstakingly removes the title character. What’s left is a rather depressing picture of a man, Jon Arbuckle, in somewhat darkly humorous and unsettling conversations with himself. At first reading you would assume that Jim Davis would be up in arms about this, but he and his publisher have actually approved and are planning on printing a book of the altered strips. Davis is even a fan of the blog.

Personally, I think the line can be drawn when art is imitated for commercial profit. Take Nike‘s campaign for the 2005 Major Threat skateboarding tour. Whether or not any licensing or money has changed hands, they explicitly copied the cover of Minor Threat‘s first EP, changing very little, to promote what is essentially a product marketing tour.

This particular album cover is fairly well known and has been imitated before (see Rancid’s 1995 release, …And Out Come the Wolves), but primarily out of tribute or respect. The error on Nike’s part was not obtaining permission to copy the artwork beforehand. Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye was admittedly perturbed and Nike issued a formal apology after the fact and promised to dispose of any version of the piece. Does this make it right?

Photographers definitely straddle this line. They take photos of real life. Whether staged or spontaneous, their subjects exist before and after the shutter falls. I like to think a photograph becomes art in how it’s viewed. The framing, perspective, exposure and composition come together at that moment, through the photographer’s eye, to create something unique. So does the line get crossed when the motivation behind art changes? Do those who imitate out of respect and adoration, or out of a need to express something about society break the rules? Or is it those who copy to help market their new product or campaign?