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Friday, March 03, 2006

Mike J.'s Photo 101 Manifesto (and Price Increase)

Bravo to Dave Sucsy for his excellent comment.

I have to say I think America is basically hostile to art. The most basic right of an artist is to have his or her work respected rather than molested, left alone rather than appropriated, and appreciated rather than commoditized.

As just one example, consider a campaign that cropped up years ago aimed at adding Ronald Reagan to Mt. Rushmore. True, it was grandstanding. Peoples' and pundits' political reactions ran the gamut, from the suggestion that Mt. Rushmore be dynamited because it's a rascist affront to the Sioux to the obvious motive behind the suggestion in the first place, which was that Reagan deserved be immortalized as one of the country's five greatest presidents.

But what I considered most interesting was that in everything I read about the subject, almost nobody thought to mention that Mt. Rushmore is a sculpture. That is, it's a work of art. The artist, Gutzon Borglum, was a student of Rodin's, and spent the last 14 years of his life on the project. The vision and its realization are his. To an artist, the idea of adding another head to Mt. Rushmore—regardless of whose it might be—is about as respectful to Borglum's art as putting a few more people in the boat in Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware or dripping more paint on a Pollock. It's just plain vandalism.

Read the accounts of Borglum's enraged reactions to having Stone Mountain wrested from his control prior to the Mt. Rushmore project. (If you'd rather not do the research yourself, I'll just mention that it culminated in a high-speed chase with Georgia police shooting at him as he high-tailed it out of the State.) You can hardly go on to imagine he'd be happy at having Mt. Rushmore sullied in any way.

The problem is even more elemental than who owns the art. It's even more important than who gets to use it for what. It really gets down to whether art is to be respected or desecrated.

And the problem, as Dave Sucsy points out, is that if you institutionalize the theft of the labor, the laborers are going to become demoralized and stop working. It's why Communism failed. I may have deleted a rather over-the-top comment I left about screenplays, but the fact is that you've got to be a moron to write screenplays as an art form. The status quo virtually ensures that a) your story will be vandalized wholesale; b) you will be robbed of credit in whole or in part; c) if and when you succeed with a "hit," you will suffer the cynical theft of your work or face a lengthy, debilitating legal contest to claim the payment that is rightfully yours.

Here's a possible simple solution to the current Orphan Amendment problem: change the wording to allow for "reprinting or reproduction for non-profit, non-commercial preservation, anthologizing, or archiving, or scholarly and educational purposes." That would seem to indemnify librarians and archivists while also protecting artists from getting stomped on even worse than they tend to get stomped on now.

In the meantime, I would like to announce a little adjustment in my own artistic practices. I make as "personal artwork" pictures in a style I describe as "Photo 101," circa about 1980: in canonical form, these are 6x9 black-and-white "straight" prints made from Tri-X negatives taken with a 35mm camera, printed out to the clear film edge without cropping, and matted and framed by me or under my direction. Previously, I have sold photographic prints for anywhere from $150 to $350, which is in keeping with the fact that I am neither a major photographer nor a conspicuously good one.

As a consequence of Congress's upcoming so-called "orphan amendment" to the copyright act, however, I find myself compelled to change my practices.

First, I am stating on the public record, by virtue of its appearance here on this dated public-access weblog, that I hereby allow my pictures to be reproduced anywhere and in any appropriate medium, henceforth and forever, if such reproduction is accurate and complete and done to what is considered a good standard in that medium, provided that my name and copyright notice appears with it, and that the purpose of any such use or reproduction is for its enjoyment or appreciation only, and as long as such use is non-profit, non-commercial, and not for purposes of the advertisement or promotion of anything (except, possibly, me);

Second, again on the public record by virtue of its appearance here, that I consider the integrity of any and all such pictures made and owned by me as expressed in the framed original prints to be an indelible and irreductible part of my creative and artistic expression and intent, and I assert that any editing, cropping, remaking, recasting, recoloring, re-interpreting, or the adding of false associations, implications, captions, or cartoon balloons, or any alterations of any kind either physical or conceptual, is a violation of my artistic intention, a slander on me, an assault on my artistic freedom, and an arrogation of my rights of ownership and authorship;

Third, I therefore regretfully raise my price for original framed prints from $350 to $20,000 each. I'm taking this step not because I think my pictures have suddenly gotten really good or anything, but only because I now consider it expedient to add into the cost of original prints the potential future cost of having my pictures stolen from me after first being perfidiously cast as "orphan works." Those costs include mental and emotional anguish and loss of creative energy due to demoralization.

This is going to cut into my print sales, I know. Can't be helped.

Signed, this 4th day of March 2006,
Michael C. Johnston, in Waukesha, Wisconsin


Anonymous Paul Kierstead said...

"institutionalize the theft of the labor", oh come one, give me a break. That is the kind of hype and alarmist rhetoric that got us the ridiculous length copyrights in the first place. You know the dicussion has taken a turn for the worse when a comparsion to communism comes in it; it is only redemmed by the lack of comparsion to the Nazi's.

Do you really, honestly believe this is some scheme cooked up to allow widespread theft and that suddenly the courts, normally very sympathetic to copyright holders, will but casual "I looked but couldn't find it" as due diligence?

No wonder legislation ends up so bad if all parties only take the extreme positions.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Will you give discounts for multiple purchases?

4:01 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

You're not an artist, are you?

No, but here's the plan. For the $20k, I will provide TWO exact duplicates of the framed print. What I recommend is that you donate both to a suitable museum or other non-profit institution, arranging beforehand for them to loan one of the prints back to you indefinitely for the continued enjoyment of yourself and your family. (g)


4:14 PM  
Anonymous Harvey T said...

Atlas just shrugged.

copyright material attributed to Ayn Rand

7:25 PM  
Anonymous dmk said...

Well, you're certainly voting with your feet on the "length of post" question you raised a few days back. Anything but work on the newsletter, hey, Mike?

7:35 PM  
Anonymous SCS_Photography said...

I think this is what you're looking for, Mike:

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Paul Kierstead said...

I am an amateur photographer; I consider myself an artist, but not a terribly good one. However, by day I make my living 100% depending on copyright (software). I am very very aware of the issues. I no more want someone swiping my stuff then the next guy, and my stuff can always be swiped at the lightest click. It doesn't mean I can't recognize the shortcomings of current legislation (or proposed legislation). I expect you probably don't respect my profession in any case, given your tone.

10:14 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

Comparing copyrights and patents isn't neccesarily going to further the argument against 'orphan works.' Patents expire, I think it's 17 years in the US, so that the technology can benefit society at large after the inventor has had a set amount of time to benefit financialy from the invention. So, for example, photos taken in the 80's that were patented would either already be in the public domain, or would be by the end of the year.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

C'mon, y'all, let's retain our senses of humor. Paul, I have immense respect for your profession--I can barely fix Blogger HTML. And the day I get $20K for a print, hell will have reached absolute zero and not even thoughts will move....


9:11 AM  
Anonymous Paul Kierstead said...

Yah, I get passionate about copyrights -- I think they are really broken -- so perhaps I get carried away sometimes; not that this legislation is going to fix things, but I just would like to see some movement. Mostly I would like to see them rolled back to 20 or 30 years, but the well-funded lobbyist are certainly not going to allow that. Maybe they could make an explicit extension program, where works must be reregistered after a period of time.

Speaking of which....if you did not register you works, even if someone does lift it and you sue them, your not going to get much anyway (probably similar to what the new legislation would give you). If you do register it, it would be hard to envision them coming up with a reason not to contact you assuming the piece was identified. If the piece was not identified (either because some intermediary removed the marks/context or they weren't there in the first place), that is a whole different kettle of fish and probably should not be under 'orphaned works'; and I am not so sure it would be covered.

OKOK, enough from me already.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Chetro said...


I really enjoyed your post. And after seeing you are a Waukeshonian (I lived in Pebble Valley from 1973 to 1985) I really got hungry for a Ponza Rotta from Jimmy's Grotto!


4:20 PM  
Blogger Morven said...

Copyright law is a mess. A lot of the problem is that, like most legislation, the rich and powerful get the laws they want passed; Disney couldn't stand the thought of Mickey Mouse falling out of copyright protection, so they got the "Sonny Bono Copyright Extension" bill passed. It wasn't passed for Sonny Bono or his heirs, or for the starving artists out there. Maybe it helps them, but it certainly wasn't the intention.

Now, the big money and power wants to pass an orphaned copyright bill - but not for the sake of those who might actually get some useful, justifiable use out of it, but for the big guys, so they can be more cavalier about little guys' copyrights.

Yes, I'm a cynic.

There WAS something good about the way copyright law in the US used to work, though - you only got protection if you registered, and you only got continued protection if you renewed. This kept stuff that people cared about in copyright, and stuff people didn't care about became public domain.

7:28 PM  

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