One would categorize this situation as a thorny issue:
Though he describes himself as a good friend of hers, the fashion and art photographer David LaChapelle has decided to settle his differences with the pop star Rihanna in a place where friends don’t usually end up: court. Mr. LaChapelle, known for his candy-colored, sexually over-the-top images, claims in a suit filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan that Rihanna helped herself to too many of the images in the recently released video for her sexually over-the-top song “S & M.”
The suit, which asks for at least $1 million in damages, argues that the video is “directly derived from and substantially similar to” photographs he has created and published that show, among other things, a dominatrix walking a chained man on a leash, a woman in latex headgear and another woman (Lady Gaga, to be precise) wearing only screaming headlines. In all, the suit claims, eight of Mr. LaChapelle’s images were used to create scenes in the video, which the suit calls a “willful, wanton and deliberate” infringement of his copyright protections.
It reminded me of Junot Diaz’s comments to a packed audience at the Union Square Barnes and Noble upon the release of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel back in 2007, where a young writer asked about Diaz’s influence or inspiration. Diaz instructed the writer to ‘steal that shit.’ We all laughed hard at that. Diaz seemed to be speaking specifically about mimicing style as a tool for one’s own creative process. Many reviewers compared Diaz to the late David Foster Wallace (well more like Patrick Choimoseau’s Texaco than Infinite Jest, but that’s just splitting literati hairs. Maybe…) And that comparison was assigned to Diaz because of his copious usage of footnotes (like Wallace, but also like Choimoseau, but also like Borges) as part of the novel’s narrative structure. Yet, we have to explore the knotty relationship between appropriation without attribution. Think back to the recently settled case of Shepard Fairey versus the Associate Press, where an image inspired art (and informed a movement) without proper attribution.
Looking at LaChapelle’s images and stills from the ‘S&M‘ video, the similarities are undeniable. Rihanna, who has worked with LaChapelle before, begs the obvious question: why did she not simply work with the director again? Rihanna’s collaborator, director Melina Matsoukas, acknowledges that she is influenced of the work other artists, yet neglects to mention them by name. This is the pair’s second offense. Certainly, we artists look to other artists and mediums from which to draw inspiration, inform and develop our own work, but at what point does it become all out thievery?
On the other side of copying issue lies Kanye West and Hype Williams. As others have charged that the pair has committed the offense of copying another artist, the filmaker Gaspar Noé, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Noé is obviously influenced by the Jean-Luc Godard, who has had decades long influences on some of our most celebrated filmmakers, photographers, artist that include giants like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, established newbies Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, (I’d argue the Joel and Ethan Cohen too) and this guy. Obviously, me too (photography and writing). And I don’t love the West/Williams video, but I immediately recognize the nod to Godard (go back and look at Runaway, too, Godard’s influence is all up in that). Godard was more than likely influenced as we all are by the Lumiere Brothers. Why is it all out copying for West and Williams and not for Noé? Theft is a curious charge to me.
For LaChapelle, I feel RiRi and Matsoukas can’t argue influence when many of the images are nearly identical staging of the photographs. As for McGinley, the influence is evident for ‘Only Girl in The World‘, the staging is suspiciously familiar. How’s that saying go: There’s nothing new under the sun. Right?
I’m not sure what the answer is. As a photographer and writer, I certainly draw influences from multiple mediums. My ridiculous paparrazo project is influenced by Fellini, Godard, hip hop, Nan Goldin, Basquiat, and my contemporaries. My soundtrack in my head when I shoot is Uproot Andy’s El Botellon’s remix (Seriously). I’m certainly influenced by an artist’s aesthetic judgments, but ultimately, I need to determine my own vision for what I wish to show/say. West/Williams video may pay homage to a film director, utilizing a style that everyone and their mother has mimicked for decades, but I can’t say that it’s artistic theft. Derivative and trite is one thing, but copying is a whole ‘nother thesis