Rip-Off or Artistic Assimilation?
This photograph of Michael C. Hall, star of the Showtime series Dexter, appeared in Entertainment Weekly last year. It was photographed by Michael Muller. By itself, given the nature of the show, it seems pretty much designed as you might expect. The ethically conflicted serial killer with doleful look and blood on his hands. But, there’s a story here: the concept behind the photograph is not an original idea. It’s an almost exact duplicate of a photograph that Annie Leibovitz took of rock legend Pete Townshend of The Who during a cover shoot for Rolling Stone after a concert in 1980.
It’s rather striking how the Muller photo duplicates the Leibovitz photo down to the placement of the band-aid, and the lighting in the background.
What’s also interesting is that the Muller photo was run with no mention of it being influenced by Leibovitz’s photo. Perhaps it was an homage in Muller’s mind.
While it is well understood that artists barrow from each other in all sorts of ways – and that’s perfectly acceptable – this seemed to me as a knock-off for a very specific reason: it takes the design and meaning of the first photo by Leibovitz and completely alters it in a way that doesn’t add to the original at all. It actually detracts from it. It crosses a line between art and marketing that I feel should remain uncrossed.
The Muller photo is a public relations shot. Meant to sell the show. It lifts the graphic power and mixture of violence, innocence, pain and exhaustion of Liebovitz’s photo and uses it to sell a show about a conflicted serial killer. But, it sucks the meaing out of it. Liebowitz’s shot of Pete Townshend was spontaneous, taken after a 1980 performance in Oakland, CA by The Who, during which Townshend cut his hand on his guitar doing one of his famous cartwheel arm swings on stage. It wasn’t an entirely undesigned shoot, as Townshend explained in 2004, a bit of serendipity and embellishment by Leibovitz was empployed (the technique that made her famous):
By the time we got to start taking pictures, the blood was badly congealed, Annie got me to swing my arm afresh to generate more blood.
Then she actually found some fake blood and added a little to create the runny effect. But, I have to say, my hand was a fucking mess before she started to embellish it.
While Townshend is aware that the Leibovitz approach of employing “embellishment” is an issue, he seems to think that it didn’t cross the line. And, I have to agree. It’s not photo-journalism exactly. But, it is still very real. And very powerful.
While I don’t object to artist riffing on the work of others, it’s not entirely clear that the Muller photograph is doing anything except riding on the back of a much greater photograph. Are we that bereft of ideas? I don’t think so.