In defense of an (un)original aesthetic

My Modern Met has posted a hauntingly beautiful gallery of photos that manages to tease striking originality out of a tired world of copies:

Switzerland-based Corinne Vionnet is our guide to the world’s most famous landmarks, monuments millions have visited before. Her art is created not by acrylic, oil, or watercolor, each piece is made by combining hundreds of tourist photos into one. After conducting an online keyword search and sifting through photo sharing sites, this Swiss/French artist carefully layers 200 to 300 photos on top of one another until she gets her desired result.

You really need to click over to My Modern Met to see this stuff for yourself.  Words alone doesn’t do it justice.  (Vionnet’s own website is here, if you want to look further into her work.)

I first became interested in intellectual property law as a part-time photographer.  I was intrigued by the legal implications of photographing the world around me, including the ever-encroaching restrictions that narrow the subjects “safe” from litigation threats.  Not surprisingly, then, I get pretty excited when the fields of copyright and photography intersect as explicitly as they do in Vionnet’s work.

Vionnet’s pieces — beautiful in their own right — serve as a meditation on the artist within the collective and the unique within the copies.  Her works have an ethereal and timeless aesthetic because they are composed of photos taken by hundreds of people over many years (they are literally ethereal and timeless).  The “originals” (taken by tourists) are simply copies of what everyone else takes, but her “copies” (clearly lovingly composed by Vionnet) are truly original takes on these famous landmarks.  Brilliant.

The article quotes Vionnet’s own summation of this series:

“Why do we always take the same picture, if not to interact with what already exists?,” Vionnet asks. “The photograph proves our presence. And to be true, the picture will be perfectly consistent with the pictures in our collective memory.”

Well said, Vionnet.  This is why our shared, cultural commons is so important.  Artists always have to “take the same picture” in order to “interact with what already exists”.  It is what artists do with their picture that makes them unique, not in some divine ex nihilo sense, but as mirror-holders who call our attention to a part of the larger whole and allow us to see one bit of reality in a new way.

However, artists do not “own” reality any more than their creative fore-bearers — or any of us.  In the slow passage of time, we all receive, create, and relinquish back.  Hopefully, in the words of John Locke, we relinquish “as good as” what we have ourselves received.

To be sure, copyright law is needed to allow Vionnet to enjoy the full fruits of her creative labor.  Nonetheless, take care to remember that, in a very real sense, she does not “own” her works any more than she took the underlying photographs — or than those tourists built the towers, mountains, and waterfalls they themselves copied with their cameras.  Vionnet’s pieces are “out there” now, part of our collective memory.  We can discuss them, critique them, applaud them, reject them, or even build on them.  However brilliant, Vionnet doesn’t “own” them in an absolute metaphysical sense, and she shouldn’t “own” them in an absolute legal sense.

Given the genesis of her work, I doubt that Vionnet would be overassertive with her copy-rights.  (Though one never knows.)  Unfortunately, lots of other people routinely assert “their” divine rights in “their” intellectual property.  As sad as this state of affairs is, one has to laugh a bit.  Just because they have a mirror doesn’t mean that they made the sun.

0 thoughts on “In defense of an (un)original aesthetic

    • Thanks for the heads up, Miles. I’ve fixed the link.
      Vionnet’s use of other people’s photos seems like a pretty clear fair use to me, especially given the Second Circuit’s 2006 analysis in Blanch v. Koons
      But I agree with you that this point is debatable and that, as a practical matter, any of the people whose photos Vionnet appropriated could tie her up in litigation and try to extract money via a settlement. And that, from my perspective, is just one of the things that is so, so wrong about contemporary copyright law.


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