Saturday, 14 April 2012

the ethics of source material and copying photos....

In my last post, I mentioned asking permission to paint a photograph, posted on facebook by a friend, and I thought I'd share my views on my approach, as an artist, to the copyright of others. Apart from the obvious "thou shalt not directly or exactly copy another person's image" copyright laws, and many artists seem to be abysmally ignorant of even these basics, there are no hard and fast rules, so it seems to be up to each artist to navigate their own conscience and come up with an approach they are comfortable with.

Having been involved in an art gallery for the last three years, which held many open exhibitions for artists ranging from beginners and Sunday painters, through serious part time painters to well known professionals, I was able to observe how this is applied in the local art scene. I had to laugh when, in one open exhibition, a flower painting which was an exact replica of a photo from an old National Geographic was submitted; the reason I knew it was that both myself and a friend had painted the same picture as an early training exercise. There is a certain old Standard Bank advert, featured widely in many magazines several years back, of an old wooden stairway seen through an arch... I have seen several copies of this submitted over the years, with no effort to change the smallest detail.

So it seems to me that the ethics of source material is a subject widely ignored or abused by many artists, and I especially blame many art teachers, who instruct their students to bring pictures from magazines to copy... without a thought for educating their students (or themselves) about the copyright issues of the photographers who took the original photos.

In the early stages of producing pieces that are nothing more than learning exercises with no expectation of selling them or showing them in public, this may be fine. But in my experience, this seems to be common practice even amongst those who have gone on to become competent painters concentrating on realism, and regularly exhibiting and selling their work. Anyone who is beyond the 'learning to copy' stage needs to give serious consideration to the ethical use of source material.

As a self taught artist, who then had some lessons with a couple of teachers along the way, I did my share of copying magazine photos before I even became aware of the copyright issues. (And, I might add, I was not informed by any of those early teachers about it.) However, in all good conscience, once I was aware, I felt it was important to establish a set of values to guide my approach to the gathering of source material.

It is evolving all the time, as access to both images and information on the internet grows, but this is what I have arrived at so far....

For me, if I intend to produce a reasonably faithful representation of an image, even if it has painterly touches or slight poetic licence, I either use photos I have taken myself, or ask permission from the photographer. If, however, I am making an entirely original image from a combination of sources, and just need a reference to get a shape accurate, I have no problem with refering to photo on a public source. I have also printed poor "fast draft" copies of photos from the internet, and incorporated cut out portions of them into a collage, but always in such a way that they no longer resemble the original image.

I also draw a line between using images which are more or less straightforward shots of a scene or object, which would have been accessable to anyone else standing there at the same time and place... and those which, in their own right, have been created as artworks by the photographer, using their own distict vision, style, distortion, setup. I feel that, to reproduce such a photo, would be plagiarism, while to use the former as a reference within an image, containing more than just the info on the photo, would be ok.

What many artists seem to assume is that publication of a photo in a magazine or online grants tacit copying rights. This is absolutely not the case, just because it is in the public domain, the original photographer does not relinquish their copyright on the image. I think any of us who regularly posts images on the internet does so with a desire to share and a realisation that the image might be used. I love it if people enjoy my images, and gladly agree when people ask me if they can paint one. It is a matter of courtesy.

For me, where it becomes abuse, is when it is copied, as is, and used in a way that implies it is the original work of the person using it, with no acknowledgement to the original person who saw and captured the image. The photographer in me finds this very annoying. I even recently 'unfriended' someone on facebook because he makes a habit of stealing other peoples images and presenting them as his own. (Lol, normally I wouldn't be intolerant enought to act on that alone, but this guy even gets out of his car in a friend's Game Reserve, gets his kids to photograph him with the wildlife behind him, and posts it in his facebook albums, bragging about his 'farm in Africa'. When he posted a famous image by one of the Bang Bang Club photographers taken before the democratic elections in 1994, of someone burning to death in a 'necklacing' incident, implying that he had taken it recently and putting himself in great danger photographing the violence which is "getting worse by the day" it was the last straw for me.)

But sick loonies aside, with the proliferation of easily copied images on the internet, and easy 'share' buttons on facebook, I guess this is an issue to which we all need to give some consideration... do we acknowledge the original source or carelessly and sometimes unwittingly 'steal' images to share with our friends?

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