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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Instagram Image Brings Artist Legal Déjà Vu

MANHATTAN (CN) - Millionaire appropriation artist Richard Prince finds himself in a familiar situation - fighting with his gallery against a copyright lawsuit over images of Rastafarian men - with a twist for the social media age.

In the latest case, Los Angeles-based photographer Donald Graham sued Prince over his series "New Portraits," based on blown-up and re-purposed Instagram posts that the influential Gagosian Gallery exhibited early last year.

Since his "Marlboro Man" series from the early 1980s, Prince has mined sexually charged images from various pop-cultural mediums for his own work.

The Instagram exhibit followed that trend in his career by adding his own comments to photographs posted on the image-sharing site, including pictures of goth pin-ups from the softcore porn site Suicide Girls and Graham's "Rastafarian Smoking A Joint," a close-up shot of a shirtless, Jamaican man toking marijuana.

The Suicide Girls retaliated by selling their own versions of Prince's canvases at a steep discount, lightly altering the exact composition of Prince's $90,000 canvases and hawking them for a $90 donation that they promised would go to charity instead of a "rich gallery," ArtNet reported.

Graham, on the other hand, is seeking another kind of revenge with a lawsuit that is bringing déjà vu to the legal community.

In almost every respect, Graham's intellectual property theft claims mirror those brought by Paris-based photographer Patrick Cariou almost a decade ago.

In late 2007, Prince and Gagosian exhibited a series of works based on Cariou's "Yes, Rasta," an out-of-print book documenting the photographer's decade-long trip to Jamaica's remote mountains and villages.

Prince superimposed gas masks, guitars and painted blotches over Cariou's Rastafarian subjects without permission, inspiring a lawsuit a year after his show opened.

In 2013, the New York-based Second Circuit issued a landmark ruling establishing new rules that relaxed the standards for an artist's work to qualify as transformative use.

Judge Barrington Parker, who wrote the opinion, found that all but five of the 30 works that Cariou challenged clearly qualified as fair use.

"Where Cariou's serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of Rastafarians and their surrounding environs, Prince's crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative," Parker wrote.

Cariou and Prince reached a confidential settlement over the remaining five photographs in dispute before the courts made any determination.

On Friday, Prince's lawyers called Graham's lawsuit little more than an attempt to "re-litigate" the Cariou case.

In a 30-page legal brief, Prince's lawyer Joshua Schiller put his client in the tradition of a "long line of artists - including Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Sherry Levine, and Jeff Koons - who have expressed themselves 'by reference to the works of others.'"

Schiller emphasized in a phone interview that he is no art historian himself, and he hesitated before offering his own interpretations of what viewers should get from his client's Instagram series.

"He's showing us looking at ourselves through social media," he said.

Speaking of his own reaction, Schiller said that Prince's images have "perverse" and "seductively sexual" undercurrents, but others can decide whether to interpret the works as commentary, satire or dramatization.

"That's what a work of art does, it speaks in different ways to different people," Schiller said, attributing the quotation to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Graham's attorney, Christopher Davis of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his lawsuit, however, Davis emphasized that his client's photographs were not easy to come by.

"Mr. Graham worked fervently to convince the Rastafarians that became the subjects of his photographs that his purposes were artistic and to overcome an inherent distrust due to his 'outsider' status," the 17-page complaint states.

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