Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Princess and the Paparazzo: A Compelling and Important New Anthology On Ethical Photography

by Alastair Johnston

Daniel Girardin and Christian Pirker CONTROVERSIES; A Legal and Ethical History of Photography, Actes Sud/Musée de l'Elysée (Lausanne 2012, 312 pp., hardback, ISBN: 978-2-7427-9700-4 : 45 Euro)

Photography has always been controversial. First it was not considered an art, then its uses were questioned, and as it became a dominant part of our culture, battles were fought over aspects of its ethics and legality in a variety of contexts. (Most recently, on 4 December 2012 the New York Post published a front-page photo of a man on the tracks about to be hit by a subway train that raises ethical questions.) This book, the catalogue of a show at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, reproduces and discusses many of the photographs exhibited. Consequently it provides the opportunity for a more thorough understanding of the show than might have been experienced and absorbed in a museum walk-through. Girardin is the exhibition's curator and his co-author Pirker is a Swiss lawyer who specializes in business and art law, and also collects photographs.

The book then is a discussion of how our taste and legal freedoms applied to photography have evolved since 1839. Images of naked children and dead people are two of the major battlegrounds in this history. Some photos were published for decades and then suddenly became illegal to view, while others were secret for a long time until they finally came to light. The adolescents of David Hamilton were celebrated in popular paperbacks like Dreams of a Young Girl (Collins, 1971) but today there would be outrage if they appeared in a magazine. Two photographers snuck into the bedroom of Bismarck in 1898, hours after his death, propped up his head on the pillows and took a photo which they then tried to sell to the papers. The family heard about it and acted swiftly: the negatives were confiscated and the photographers jailed (They had been offered the equivalent of $300,000 in today's money). But a copy survived and the image finally appeared in 1952 in a Frankfurter newspaper.

Remember this macabre joke? When Princess Diana died in August 1997, someone asked, Did you hear Diana was on the radio?


   Yes, and all over the dashboard.

We know this because the crazed paparazzi in pursuit rushed into the tunnel to photograph the dying occupants of her limousine. When the photographers were charged with homicide, involuntary injury and failure to assist a person in danger, the very newspapers who were willing to shell out millions of dollars for their invasive photos of celebrities turned against them. But then a decade after they were acquitted, a photo of Diana dying appeared in the Italian press. This public lust never ends. Just this year there was the famous case of the paparazzo up a tree who snapped the topless Duchess of Cambridge for a French magazine. I didn't see the picture but assume her breasts look like others I have seen, and ironically the royal couple were next recorded in the South Pacific where they were greeted by topless natives at the airport!

Since its inception, manipulation of photography has been used to sway us. It's now common to doctor images in Photoshop, to remove unwanted parts, to extend pictures, to graft on parts of other images. Two of the most famous images of the roll-film era were staged: Robert Capa's "Death of a Republican Soldier," 1936, and Robert Doisneau's "Kissing Couple at City Hall," 1950, which respectively convey the horror of war and the power of love. I felt cheated when I discovered that Bill Brandt had staged the images in his "A Night in London" series (1938). He so wanted to be as good as Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson that he couldn't wait for the "decisive moment," so set it up. Doisneau, too, hired actors to pose for his picture, though the Capa mystery has never been fully explained.

Quite often there's no controversy until someone stirs things up. In 2007 the Blue Noses collective staged an exhibit in Paris, including a photo of two Russian police officers kissing, called "The Era of Mercy, 2005." The Russian Minister of Culture moved to ban the image as a "disgrace to Russia." The Gallery sued for defamation and the image went viral.

A bizarre recent turn of events in photo censorship involves smoking. Under French law certain photos of Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge Gainsbourg can only be published after retouching to remove their cigarettes. Sartre sans Gauloises, c'est incroyable!! Serge mis en nue? Sacre bleu d'Iliac! This is Stalinism! -- and yes the book does include a shot of Stalin accompanied by Molotov, Yezhov and others plus the same photo with the unfortunate Yezhov removed. (Yezhov was put in charge of the purges of the late 30s but when he was replaced by Beria he himself was tortured and executed. Moral: Never build a better Guillotine.)

Other doctored photos include the "Raising of the Red Flag on the Reichstag, 2 May 1945." After the famous (re-enacted) photo by Joe Rosenthal of American GIs raising the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima (since replicated by firemen at the site of the World Trade Center attack), the Russians thought it would be a good publicity move to stage a photo of their flag going up over Berlin. Yevgeny Khaldei, a press photographer, was flown to Berlin with a large homemade flag to get the shot. He photographed it in several locations, most notably over the Reichstag. But back in Moscow a small problem arose: the officer holding the flag clearly had watches on both wrists, an undeniable sign of looting. The photo was retouched before Tass published it.

There are plenty of shocking images in this book, from Nazi concentration camps to an American one (Abu Ghraib). The horrors of Bergen-Belsen were photographed by the British Army in April 1945, before the end of the war, but they believed that if the photos were published it might lead the Germans to try to cover up their atrocities or speed up mass-murder to cover their crimes. Also, the book asks, can you really depict the unspeakable in a photo and how does that alter our perception of it? As a macabre sidelight there is a shot of Lee Miller in Hitler's bathtub. (I wonder if this was hung next to Gary Gross' image of Brooke Shields in the bath?)

Walter Benjamin wrote that "a photograph is technically reproducible indefinitely," so why should an excellent posthumous print from a photographer's original negative be considered a fake? Obviously there is the fetish value of the vintage print at stake here: a Diane Arbus photo printed by her sells for hundreds of thousands (her "Viva at Home" sold at Sotheby's for $194,500 in December 2011) while for a (relative) pittance you can get a reprint (Arbus's iconic "Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.," a Neil Selkirk print, sold at Phillips de Pury, New York on October 2, 2012 for $74,500.). The same goes for many other artists like August Sander or Edward Weston. You can get a good deal on a Lee Friedlander print of an E.J. Bellocq glass plate whereas a Berenice Abbot print of an Atget plate will cost you twice as much.

In the case of Man Ray a collector spent a fortune ($2.3 million) on vintage prints that had impeccable provenance but turned out to be later prints. Not only did the collector get his money back but the prints were destroyed. However this calls into question the authenticity of dozens of similar excellent Man Ray prints now in museums. And there was a case in the US where Walter Rosenblum (who had control of the Hine archive) was printing Lewis Hine photos on old paper and adding the Hine studio stamp to the back to make them appear vintage. The slump in the value of Hine's exemplary work makes an interesting footnote to this story.

One segment I found informative concerned the work of Lehnert and Landrock. Before the First World War the Bohemian Lehnert practiced photography in Tunisia, documenting Arab life. He and Landrock lived in Cairo in the late twenties, and pursued a vision of Orientalism with Pictorialist postcards which they manufactured and sold through their firm, Orient Kunst Verlag in Leipzig. As you may know Islam forbids representation of religious figures. So how curious it is to see a 1998 Iranian poster claiming to be a portrait of the young Mohammed the Prophet of Islam. The image, it says, "is from the brush of a Christian monk, the original being currently conserved in a museum in Rum." I don't know who drank the rum, or the Scriptural Kool-Aid here, but it is based on a Rudolf Lehnert photo. One supposes the Iranians inserted the Christian monk to get around the proscription.

The saddest image in here (for me) is Frank Fournier's portrait of Omayra Sanchez, taken in Armero, Columbia, in 1985. A volcano erupted: there was a mudslide that killed 24,000 people. Young Omayra was trapped in a collapsed building. There was no crane to lift the heavy metal beams that had trapped her and crushed her legs. Frank Fournier took the photo of her as the world's media filmed her impossible plight and watched her die. His portrait won the World Press Photo prize in 1986. The catalogue notes, "For some, the mediatisation [sic] of Omayra's death was obscene. It illustrates the mercantile spiral in which information is trapped today, the escalation to which it is obliged, between sensationalism and voyeurism." Fournier made the ethical decision to take the picture in the hopes he could raise awareness about the lack of preparedness and denounce the shortcomings of some governments in dealing with disasters which have often been predicted. But the book argues "the commercial aestheticization of suffering and misery" (a charge leveled against Sebastião Salgado) is merely a rephrasing of the artist's attempt to create an aesthetic in their work, to reach the public, which can be seen going back to Dorothea Lange, who was booted out of the FSA for staging her photos of the misery of migrant farmworkers. It posits that true documentary photography has to reject any sense of aesthetics or style in order to be neutral.

The images involved in many famous legal cases are included here: Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ"; Art Rogers' "Puppies" (appropriated by Jeff Koons); the screaming naked Vietnamese girl, photographed by Nick Ut in 1972, her skin scorched by Napalm, can never be forgotten. A news photo of the execution of Kurdish rebels in 1979 won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, anonymously. The photographer who had been assigned to cover the execution was afraid to come forward. Once the image was spread around the world the Ayatollahs tried to pin it on someone and arrested and shot a soldier who had been present. Two other photographers who lived outside Iran claimed authorship before the true author, Jahangir Razmi, came forward in 2007 to claim his 1980 Pulitzer Prize.

Copyright laws are discussed with (among others) two famous images: Alberto Korda's 1960 portrait of Che Guevara that today is as much an icon as the Shroud of Turin (Secundo Pia's 1898 photo of the latter is also present); and Richard Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants," 1955, which was the subject of a lawsuit in 1991. An individual sold the photo at Sotheby's for almost 20,000 pounds, saying he had received it from a former editor at Harper's Bazaar. Avedon claimed that though he had given the print to Harper's it was understood that they would have the rights to print the image once, and the copyright and the print would remain his property, even if they did not return it. Harper's lawyer claimed that the submission of the photo implied a transfer of ownership and the court agreed with them. (According to Stephen Perloff, editor of The Photograph Collector, Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants" brought $56,250 -- slightly under low estimate -- at Phillips de Pury, New York on October 2, 2012. But "Dovima with Elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955" went to an absentee U.S. dealer for $266,500, at Christie's the same week. Size matters: the second print was jumbo size, we presume.)

What's missing from this collection? There are at least three photos that never made it to the exhibit: First, "Candy Cigarette" by Sally Mann. This is a sweet image of the photographer's 7-year-old daughter holding a sugar cigarette and standing like a sophisticated adult (or maybe it's just her natural poise given that her mother was always taking her picture). The image appears in Immediate Family but caused such a stir and, with the howls of child abuse from the religious right over Mann's nude photos of her children, left such painful memories that Mann no longer wishes to exhibit or discuss this and similar works.

Then there is "The Wedding of the Diors" by Richard Avedon. For a Christian Dior ad campaign Avedon staged a mock celebrity wedding that included a Jackie Onassis lookalike in the shot. Onassis won an injunction against the company for invasion of her privacy by using a lookalike, so the photo cannot be shown, even though it is not Onassis in the picture. As Piker says, "The winner's point of view in court is not necessarily the right one, but his arguments were more convincing."

Also we learn about the case of Thomas Condon of Cincinnati. He had access to a morgue and staged photos of corpses with a snail, an apple and a key. But unlike Joel-Peter Witkin (who also used body parts in his photography), Condon was found guilty of disturbing the dead and sentenced to 18 months in prison and his photographs can never be shown. (A web search confirms this.)

These missing images therefore define the frontiers of what this book is about. The control of imagery has become a power issue in our society. Two big companies, Corbis and Getty, sell reproduction rights to the millions of photos they control. Often a photo that is in the public domain fetches higher prices for reproduction than a recent image because the extant prints are owned by museums or these photo agencies. And "whoever controls images controls minds," said Bill Gates, owner of Corbis.

Other images missing from the show include the work of David Hamilton who refused to participate. But this book called Controversies has created its own controversy. The Swiss edition of the book also showed Gary Gross's notorious bath-tub photo of Brooke Shields as a child from his booklet Little Women. (The image was made even more controversial after another appropriation artist, Richard Prince, mounted it in its own room at the Tate Gallery in London. Scotland Yard got involved and the picture was prohibited from further public view.)

Also missing from the English-language edition is a nude photo of Maud Hewes by Graham Ovenden, which was legally published in New York in 1992, and included in the exhibition. Their exclusion from the American market edition of the catalogue reinforces the fact that though they have been published, these images can still cause a stir for any number of reasons. The Right Wing Nutjobs in the USA love to get outraged over Guess Jeans ads, and we have to ask, Why are they so upset? If obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, they might be better off gouging out their eyes rather than impose their vision on everyone else.

The book is typeset in a pallid condensed sans serif typeface which is unappealing and hard to read, and there is no index. I give the design a B minus, but this is a compelling and important anthology.

(Note: Current print values mentioned are taken from Alex Novak's e-photo newsletter, published by i Photo Central.)

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