Déjà vu: The Ongoing Saga Surrounding Richard Prince

Remember not too long ago when everyone was talking about professional appropriator Richard Prince, and his Gagosian show Richard Prince: New Portraits? Yeah, well – here we go again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the many people who had their work appropriated by Prince in his ‘Instagram’ show has finally filed a lawsuit. Photographer Donald Graham is suing not only Prince, but also the Gagosian Gallery and Larry Gagosian himself, for the unauthorised usage of one of his photographs. The image in question is that of a Rastafarian man smoking; a black-and-white photo which Graham took in 1996. It was, the lawsuit states, taken during a two-week trip in 1996 when the artist took many photographs of the Rastafarian community in Jamaica. The image, titled ‘Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, Jamaica‘, was first published in 1998 in a magazine called Communication Arts.

How to credit a work: "Rastafarian Smoking a Joint" © 1997 Donald Graham. #PrinceofAppropriation

A photo posted by Donald Graham (@donaldgrahamphotography) on

Before we get into the specifics of the lawsuit – let’s refresh, shall we? Prince’s New Portraits opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York from September through October of 2014. The show featured 37 inkjet prints of images that Prince called “screen saves”: pictures blown up and made to look like Instagram posts, to which Prince added some verbose comments and emojis. The 37 images were sold at the New York branch of the Frieze art fair, some for sums as high as $100,000. People began asking questions about the value and validity of the exercise, and some of those whose images had been appropriated – such as Suicide Girls member Doe Derre – confirmed that they had not been asked for permission to use the images. Despite several parties expressing having been taken aback by the whole situation, no one indicated any intentions to sue – until now.

We know that from February 2015, there were reports of Graham having sent cease-and-desist letters to Richard Prince and the Gagosian Gallery, asking that reproductions of his work be removed from display. Neither then nor now have either the gallery or Gagosian issued a comment about the situation. On December 30, 2015, Donald Graham – a renowned photographer in his own right – brought a federal lawsuit against Prince, Gagosian, and the gallery; as afore mentioned. The complaint details the modifications made to the image, such as some minor cropping, and goes on to implore that the modifications weren’t such that Prince’s appropriated piece warrants being called an original work.

880 Installation view of Richard Prince: New Portraits, September 19-October 25, 2014.
Gagosian Gallery 976 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10075. © Richard Prince.
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Photography by Robert McKeever.

There are some other bits and pieces: like how Prince responded to Graham’s upset wife on Twitter. The comment has since been deleted, but is reported to have said: “You can have your photo back. I don’t want it. You can have all the credit in the world” Those sentiments by Prince don’t seem to have stood the test of time, however, as a more recent comment of his reads: “U want fame? Take mine. Only thing that counts is good art. All the everything else is bullshit.” That statement is accompanied by an image of Prince’s appropriation of Graham’s photograph.

As far as those in the know are concerned, Prince may not find himself in another open-and-shut lawsuit which can be palmed off with a payout, this time. This lawsuit has some important differences from those before it, such as that brought by French photographer Patrick Cariou, who at the time of his case had not made any fine art prints of his own works. Graham has done, and that’s the kicker. Graham’s infringement case looks specifically at market impact – an important facet considering Graham only sells his work as prints.

881Richard Prince (left) and Larry Gagosian (right), via ArtInfo.

There’s a whole lot of complicated jargon I could walk you though in regards to this lawsuit, and the moral implications of appropriation in general. It’s a hot topic, and people have varying and passionate opinions on the practice in art, although I think few would deny it’s legitimacy when practiced with slightly more grace and effort than Richard Prince cares to take. But I think the most pertinent commentary on this lawsuit speaks for itself, and goes towards clarifying a lot of the murky waters surrounding it. It is a comment made by Prince himself – that which is included in the filing. In an interview with Russh Magazine in 2011, Prince had this to say: “Copyright has never interested me. For most of my life I owned half a stereo so there was no point in suing me, but that’s changed now and it’s interesting … So, sometimes it’s better not to be successful and well known and you can get away with much more. I knew what I was stealing 30 years ago but it didn’t matter because no one cared, no one was paying any attention.”

Well, I think it’s safe to say that now we’re all paying attention.

Installation view, ‘Richard Prince: New Portraits’ (2014), Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Photo Courtesy of Sean Fader. Via Hyperallergic.

Photo Courtesy of Bryan Luna/SELECTISM.COM

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