Appropriation can be like mining, scraping the surface and seeing what turns up, a form of contemporary archaeology… Or it could be more like plagiarism or outright theft… How you see it depends on where you stand…
Photography is a form of acquisition, of duplication, and of producing surrogates of reality. Susan Sontag suggests that “a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images” and that “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”
In 2018, thanks to the ubiquity of the mobile phone camera, more photographic images were created in a single year than in the entire history of photography! Today we live in a vast sea of images and we’re drowning. Overwhelmed by a daily tsunami of visual stimulation, survival may involve clutching at anything that floats by, attaching ourselves, and clinging to it for dear life. We do it instinctively, out of a sense of self-preservation. Photography has become a matter of identification, of self-affirmation, a way to be somewhere.
As photographers, the concept of originality and authorship has always been important to our survival; but recent practitioners who engage in borrowing other’s images and presenting them as their own, such as Cindy Sherman’s celebrated impersonations of famous artworks, and their subsequent public acceptance, have changed the equation. Her appropriations are not nearly as notorious as Richard Prince’s, who photocopied and stole the advertising poster Marlborough man’s image and then resold it later as his own. That went beyond borrowing; it was a direct ripoff. Of course, It could be said that Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt, was an early example of appropriation and the beginning of a movement. All of these have contributed to the lowering of the bar of authorship… Perhaps today, in the age of mass photo taking, the concept of originality and of reality itself has become obsolete.
*Image at top of page: Dave Wade, Marlborough Country, archival pigment print.