Is the Comp the Cause for Plagiarism?

March 26th, 2010

Denis DarzacqI was asked by Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease to comment on a question on the blog A Photo Editor about the similarities between the CAT Footwear ads and Denis Darzacq’s images from his project La Chute.

I’ve been asked for some thoughts on this series of ads for CAT Earthmovers Footwear shot by photographer Christopher Lane in the UK. For me, this issue brings up many visceral thoughts and emotions because not only am I a fan of the underlying images, but also know some of the photographers (other than Chris) who created them. The ads show a hooded figure jumping in a very industrial setting wearing jeans, sweats, and CAT Earthmovers Footwear.

I write this from two perspectives: one, how far should an artist go when mimicking, or borrowing ideas from other artists. Ultimately what is their responsibility to make an idea their own. Two, what is the responsibility of art directors and creative directors in educating their clients about a comp, and how it should be used to begin the creative process, not conclude it.

I would like to first look at the origin of the idea of jumping in photographs since that is the concept of the images and put it in a modern context. As a photographer, we all look for inspiration in everything around us, including other images by other shooters. As a kid, I was always a fan of the work of Philipe Halsman and his series of jumping portraits. Halsman himself had a fascinating life and was a regular contributor to Life Magazine. I first came across his work as a kid, when I used to take out the Time Life books on photography as a long term “loan.† There is work was prominent, and impressive, leaving a lasting impression on my subconscious. He is best known for the image of Salvador Dali jumping with water traveling through the frame and a cat flying through the air.

As an artist, though, when we get inspiration we have to then make it our own. I will borrow a seed of an idea, and then see where that creative road takes me. If I am shooting for a client, hopefully I have the room to take the image to a very personal place, a place that would be my work, and not that of the borrowed image. This should happen naturally, the pull of your own vision influences you to make “taste† decisions when creating an image that should in theory transcend the underlying image, no matter how good it is. The artist should be chosen for that reason, they should bring something more to the project, otherwise hire the original artist of the work or if they are dead, make it an homage.

This leads me to the trail of creativity that created the CAT ads. In each case, each artist has put their “physic† perspective and artistic touches to these concepts. The modern seed for this idea is the work of Sam Taylor Woods, a British artist, who has taken the idea of jumping and made it personal, literally. She shoots self portraits of herself floating through space, separated from the Earth, She calls the series “Suspended.† The images evoke a sense of freedom, of life and death and weightlessness. There is an ephemeral quality I can only believe is inspired by the artists’ experience surviving two bouts of cancer.

The next set of images I feel are a variation and an interpretation of Sam’s conceptual theme. Let me add here that themes or concepts cannot be copyrighted; only the execution of the concept is the subject of legal protection. Concepts themselves are free to live in the world for people to make their own.   It is their execution, in legal terms the “look and the feel† of the images that is the subject of protection legally. The artist that created this next set of images has inspired me for years. I first saw her work in an “alt† magazine many years ago and she has continued to produce great images. I have had the pleasure of breaking bread with Julia Fullerton Batton and her husband Kelvin who is also a photographer, in Arles, France.

Julia’s images deal with issues of isolation and alienation. Many of her subjects are teenage girls, relating to the slightly overly polished or greatly bizarre world around them. She has taken this seed of an idea, flying or jumping, and has now used that in her repertoire to fortify her underlying thesis of the world. In her series called “In Between,† she borrowed a general concept and made it her own. In my opinion, you cannot call these images the same from an artistic perspective (or a legal perspective). They exist as a consistent component of Julia’s body of work that delves into the psychological and socioeconomic world of her subjects.

Julia Fullerton-BattenJulia Fullerton-Batten

The last inspiration of mine is a journalistic one. Denis Darzaqu, the French photographer, spent time photographing French Hip Hop dancers in an amazing series called La Chute. The images won a World Press award and were included in the catalog, where I first saw them. I was immediately in love with the jarring flight he had created. Even though they could be viewed as a journalistic document, I also saw them as an original and artistic work of art that was emotionally inspired. My feeling for these images was strong enough to hunt Denis down in Arles to let him just how much I liked the work. They are stunning and I believe they are the true inspiration for the CAT ads. In fact they are so close in look, feel and concept to the ads that I can only think, why did the agency or CAT Earthmover not hire Denis Daraqu to shoot these ads? It stuns me!

Denis DarzacqDenis Darzacq

Having shot for many years myself, I know how these things usually happen: the comp proposed by the design firm or ad agency gets the client stuck on exactly the image they see. How the style of the comp has changed over the years has been interesting. To sell ideas and ultimately get clients, pitches now include literal photographic images instead of the line drawings that agencies used to do when making a pitch. It’s a competitive world out there pitching visual ideas to corporate number pushers that might not understand the vision of the agency pitch. To ensure that the client gets and loves the idea and then hires the agency, art directors are forgoing drawings for stock for “swipe† photographic images.

In Hollywood, this practice is rampant. At the top, Hollywood is a culture of sequel movies and TV shows, remakes, and spin offs. This has transcended into the ad agencies that create the campaigns for the studios and networks, and they “borrow† feverously. Ideas are often derived from a recently spied coffee table book or magazine feature that has inspired an Art Director or Creative Director. Then they create a campaign around the creative work of others. Creative theft might not be as blatant as that though. The images borrowed might just be for the purposes of bringing the client closer to the agencies vision. After all, why use a crappy line drawing when you can use a photograph?

OK, here’s why: because if you put in a particular image into the comp, that’s exactly what you are going to get, that image. Then it becomes plagiarism; you are intentionally trying to match the execution. It never gets expounded upon and it never becomes the vision of the artist you’ve hired. The client will almost always get stuck on the image you put in the comp. It’s corporate culture. I can hear the executive from marketing now, “if it has been approved by the president, that’s exactly what we have to get from the shoot or I’ll get fired!!!†

I’ve had this happen countless times and have had many conversations with my clients about it. If they are stuck on the image in the comp, I will insist they license it from the photographer that shot the original image, in addition to licensing my image. After all, we are now copying the execution of an image by another artist, the “look and feel† in legal terms. Remember, concepts are not copyrightable, only executions are. Wondering if Denis got paid for his inspiration, I contacted him. He told me that CAT originally asked him to shoot the job, but that they could not agree on a price.

I think the agency “painted themselves into a corner† by building a campaign around another artists work and then having the client not wanting to pay the photographer’s price. I believe that the responsibility of the creatives at the very beginning, going into a pitch, is to make sure that the original artist will get some sort of fee for the “inspiration,† if the client chooses not to use them, for whatever reason. This way all parties get the consideration due them.

The other solution is for creatives to think strategically about what comps the client sees and gets to keep after a pitch meeting. Depending on how literally the client perceives the visuals, their direct literal interpretation of the comp can hinder the ultimate creative process by not allowing the chosen photographer to do his or her creative best. Â  Or, even worse it can result in plagiarizing the work of another.

– Michael