Story of a Photograph: Blurred Lines

Daido Moriyama

Following on my SOAP series –  (Story of a Photograph)

Number 13: Blurred Lines

The Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama is famous for many aspects of his photography; one of those aspects is about how he sometimes appropriates photographs. By that, I mean that he sometimes takes images of already existing photographs; say in a magazine or newspaper, and then re-publishes it again, maybe altered from the original colour shot to a black and white image for instance… So my question is – is this OK? And at what point is the line draw; what is deemed fair-use, and what is blatant copyright infringement?

The answer to that question isn’t as clear as we may think.

If you were to take a photograph of an already existing image (unchanged) and re-publish it in a photo-book of your own without referencing the original photographer, then that, on the face of it, seems wrong. But what about taking a shot of a gallery window where photographs are displayed; so that not only is there somebody else’s photograph in your image, but also other elements – say, the window frame, a chair, people stood in the background? Your image has then become something else, seemingly something original in its own right.

What about taking a photograph of a photo-book, showing not only the original photograph but also a hand, as I have done here? In this case, Moriyama’s shot of a road-safety poster; meaning the original image has now been appropriated twice.

What about photographing a passing bus on which there is a film-poster? (containing a photographic image).

What about magazine covers, vinyl record sleeves and advertising posters amongst other things?


There are many other examples such as these that I could mention, but for the sake of brevity I will leave it there. Back in the 1960/70’s it would seem that issues over copyright weren’t the mine-field that they are today, allowing people such as Moriyama and Andy Warhol to use appropiated imagery freely and unhindered. Warhol’s famous vivid silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe were based on a publicity-photo for the 1953 movie – Niagara, for example. Warhol is no longer around to defend himself, and although Moriyama is, he is now a much beloved octogenarian icon who people seem reluctant to take to task about this. I guess I would consider myself of this mindset; I don’t believe Moyiyama was maliciously trying to steal other people’s work, he was I feel, just scratching an artistic-itch.

Roger and fellow players

I mention all this now because I too recently took a photograph that could be said to fall into this realm. I was flicking through a newspaper one day when I saw a photograph of some famous tennis players, dressed in smart suit and tie, strolling along the platform of an atmospherical-lit subway/tube station; ostensibly on their way to an awards ceremony of some sort. I don’t have the paper anymore, but from memory there was Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, probably Rafael Nadal, and possibly a couple of others; it seems unlikely that they had all decided to travel together via public transport to the event, so it was most probably a publicity stunt of some kind. Maybe that was what attracted me to the image, that it was in essence an improbable situation.

So anyway, I took a photograph of the newspaper, put it into Lightroom and started to play around with the image; I had already cropped out the heads whilst taking the image, choosing to focus in on the hands and legs. Once in LR I converted the shot to BW, added some grain, blew out the highlights, and generally manipulated it as much as I could whilst still retaining the bulk of what made the original shot so intriguing to me… Yet, still I feel slightly uncomfortable about using the image, it still feels wrong somehow; is this just my tendency towards honesty rising to the surface? Is it right that I should feel guilty of appropriation? The image is very different to the original after all.

The world of copyright and appropriation is a hazy one, things are not obviously black and white, always cut and dry; it seems to me that there is a blurred area where ownership and creative-intent overlap to the point that things become… something else.