The Use of Someone Else’s Photograph in Your Work
Worry has been quite the topic of conversation today. The QuiltArt List (an online email list for quilters) has been abuzz since someone brought up the subject of this piece at IQF-Houston — and not in a good way.
Many people are familiar with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph from the Great Depression — titled Migrant Mother — from which this piece is inspired. The original poster thought that I had merely printed the picture onto fabric and then thread painted it — therefore saying that it was a gross violation of Dorothea Lange’s copyright.
Well obviously Dorothea Lange’s photograph is in black and white and this is not. My piece is all machine appliquéd from commercial fabrics. It is NOT a colorized version of her photograph that was printed onto one sheet of fabric.
Also, I am clear that this is inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photograph, and if you look it up, you will find that — however famous the photograph is — it is in the public domain and therefore free of copyrights.
I also assure that there was extensive drawing from the original photograph to create this pattern. I make a value painting of all of my pieces that start from a photograph, but photographs rarely ever tell you everything you need to know. There are many details that photographs don’t tell you — like fingers and eyes — and many shadows have to be deepened and highlights have to be brought out. You can obviously and easily posterize any picture in Photoshop, but these patterns will never have the level of detail for which I strive.
Furthermore, since it’s a black and white photograph, the color story is entirely mine.
You can make an argument regarding composition. I understand that. In using Dorothea Lange’s photograph, I used her composition. I did not violate her copyright nor did I break any of the rules of the competitions in which she has been entered.
It’s a decision. A couple of years ago, I researched how to make my work more marketable. One way to do that is to use historical figures as subjects. This means using someone else’s composition — essentially. I don’t always do this, but sometimes I do.
There are people that don’t agree that this should be viewed as art.
It’s interesting. I only find this discussion among quilters. I hung this piece in an art exhibit back in May. Everyone knows its inspiration is a well-known photograph — and no comment was made about whether or not it was art. It was not brought into question whether or not it was eligible for a ribbon. I am sharing this merely to contrast the differences between the two communities.
Is it art? Have I created something that hearkens back to the story Dorothea Lange created — and yet made it my own, using my own medium? Does anyone see the modern era mother who has the same stress as the mother from the Great Depression about caring for her children in times of economic hardship? I suppose the answer will be a personal one to everyone reading this.