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Photographer Takes on Christo Over ‘Running Fence’ Book

A photographer who documented “Running Fences” when the public exhibit blazed a trail through 1976 California claims in a federal complaint that legendary installation artist Christo is improperly taking credit for his work.

MANHATTAN (CN) – A photographer who documented “Running Fences” when the public exhibit blazed a trail through 1976 California claims in a federal complaint that legendary installation artist Christo is improperly taking credit for his work.

Represented by a partner at Cahill Cossu, photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni filed his suit on Nov. 21 in Manhattan, taking aim both at Christo and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Bulgarian artist whose full name is Christo Javacheff designed “Running Fence” with his partner Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. Composed of 240,000 square yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric, 90 miles of steel cable and 2,050 steel poles, the piece was built and then dismantled over a period of two weeks in September 1976, running from near U.S. Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay.

Gorgoni says Christo, a Bulgarian artist whose full name is Christo Javacheff, granted him permission at the time to photograph the project, leading to what Gorgoni describes as “beautiful fine art photographs that also document both the creation of ‘Running Fence’ and those affected by it, including farmers, laborers, and local government officials.”

Noting that Christo had no creative input on his work, Gorgoni says the photos do not qualify as “works made for hire” under federal copyright law.

Indeed, when a publishing house obtained a license to use the photos in the 1978 book “Christo: Running Fence,” Gorgoni says his ownership of the photos was memorialized in writing.

Nearly 30 years later, the complaint says Christo sold materials related to “Running Fence” to the Smithsonian, misrepresenting to the museum that he and Jeanne-Claude “were the sole owners of the copyright to every item in the ‘Running Fence’ collection, including the [Gorgoni] images.”

Noting his occasional residence in Italy, Gorgoni notes that he was not aware at the time that the Smithsonian was displaying his “Running Fence” photographs in an exhibit and in a film that was posted on the museum’s website.

In conjunction with the exhibit, however, the Smithsonian also published a 2010 book on Christo called “Remembering the Running Fence.”

Gorgoni says he was neither credited in the new book nor asked for permission to have his photos appear therein.

When he did finally learn of the book, Gorgoni says a cease-and-desist letter from his attorney led the Smithsonian and University of California Press to suspend sales of the new book.

The Smithsonian also removed the film containing some of Gorgoni’s images from its website, according to the complaint, but the cooperation was allegedly short-lived.

After years of settlement negotiations, Gorgoni says Christo and the Smithsonian have failed to acknowledge his copyright to the images.

“The Smithsonian had subsequently re-posted the film on the Smithsonian’s website,” the 15-page complaint states.

Gorgoni says copies of each of the images also appear on the Smithsonian’s website, which identifies Christo as the owner.

According to Christo’s website, the preparation and installation of “Running Fence” in Sonoma and Marin Counties involved “42 months of collaborative efforts, 18 public hearings, three sessions at the Superior Courts of California, the drafting of a 450-page Environmental Impact Report and the temporary use of the hills, the sky and the ocean at California's Bodega Bay.”

Gorgoni is represented by John Cahill of Cahill Cossu Noh & Robinson.

Other canonical artists whom Gorgoni has documented during their creative processes include Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Willem de Kooning.

Two years after the Smithsonian acquired what it described as “the definitive record of Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76” in 2008, the Washington museum launched “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence,” running from April 2, 2010, through Sept. 26, 2010.

This exhibition was organized by George Gurney, deputy chief curator.

As of press time, the Smithsonian’s website hosts of a gallery of 50 black & white photos, credited to Gorgoni all under the banner of “Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76.”

The Smithsonian declined to comment on the complaint.

Representatives for Christo did not immediate respond to request for comment.

Christo’s website names Wolfgang Volz as the exclusive photographer of his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, having documented their work since 1971.

Gorgoni splits his time between Harlem, New York, and Bomba, Abruzzo, Italy.

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