Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adventures in ownership

My father-in-law is named Adrian but the family calls him Gump. It began as a cute name for the grandkids to use, then spread to everyone. My first night in Maine two weeks ago I tagged along with Gump to visit a neighbor who was going through hard times. Reggie was 94 —that's 140 in Maine years— and beginning to slow down a bit. But the real trouble was his wife. Her Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where she had become a walking fire hazard, so he'd decided that next week they'd separate. He'd keep the house. She'd go into an inflammable group home. He was depressed. She was calm but oblivious. I thought they'd make a nice portrait sitting in their living room so I asked if they minded. "Sure," said Reggie.

The one that got away. Finders keepers

No sooner had I taken a photo than Gump plucked it out of the camera and offered it to the couple. Now I had a problem. Whose photo was it? Normally this isn't an issue for photographers. When a person takes a photo that person is the owner. That's why it's called "taking" a photo. But with the Instax it's a bit different. The only record that exists is a small 3 x 4 object. Like anything else in the world it's up for grabs. Finders keepers.

So it was theirs now. I decided to take another. Then Gump shot one of me with the couple (above). And I took one of the cat. And another interior shot from further back. After a minute there were five Instax photos sitting on their counter and I didn't feel like I owned any of them. Which was fine. They'd be happy with the photos. They deserved them. But it really brought home to me the idea that authorship of a photo might not automatically equate to ownership. What killed me was that my first photo of the couple was a fantastic shot. They had beautiful expressions and the scene was completely natural. I had a strong desire to own it, but I wound up leaving it with along with the others. I'll never see any of them again.

A few days later I had the Instax at the Brochu family reunion. Instant photos are kid flypaper. As soon as the camera spits one out every kid nearby wants to try birthing their own. I passed the camera around but then I had to reclaim it. The big kid pile was just too tempting and I had to shoot it. The problem was each kid I shot wanted to see the result. They'd grab the photo, shake it, stick it in a pocket, and that's the last I'd see of the thing. I managed to look at a few before they disappeared, and some were wonderful. I'd love to own them, and in theory I guess I do. But as a practical matter it's the opposite. In Instax photography as well as in land use possession is nine tenths of the law.

Several weeks ago Joni Kabana ran into this situation when she made a portrait of author Cheryl Strayed. Afterward she gave Strayed a few prints. Who owned them at that point I'm not sure. Kabana owned the copyright, but Strayed was pretty sure the prints belonged to her. After all, there they were sitting on her desk like the pens she owned and the paperclips she owned. So when the New York Times asked for an author portrait to accompany an interview, she sent along one of these photos. Then all hell broke loose. The NYT turned the photo into a silhouette. Kabana's credit was lost. A stink was raised. In the end they decided that a photo should probably be treated differently than a paperclip.

Silhouette of Cheryl Strayed based on a photo by Joni Kabana

Unless it's an Instax photo. Or, perhaps, an old scrapbook memento. At the Brochu family reunion, Tab's aunt Lucy set out 20 old photo albums on a table. She was tired of keeping them and offered them up to everyone. We could open up the sleeves and pick and choose singles. Even inlaws like myself. Many photos were pedestrian, about what you'd find in most family albums. But as with any unsorted collection, tucked here and there were some absolute nuggets. I took roughly 10. The negatives are long lost. Only one copy of each exists in the world. I suppose I own them now.

A mysterious picture from one of Lucy's old albums

Back in Skowhegan a few days later I stumbled on the hidden studio/gallery of Steve Leakos. It was right on Main Street —marked by a small ticket booth with a mannequin— but somehow I'd never noticed it before. I rang the bell and Leakos let me into his cluttered space chock full of paintings, boxes, circus displays, and antiques. It was technically a gallery but not much had ever sold, and after talking to him for a while I began to understand why. He made no effort to market it. I was his first visitor in a few days.

Empire Grill, Skowhegan, Maine, by S.P. Leakos
w/ handmade proof of ownership attached

Leakos makes what the art world colorfully terms outsider art. He is self taught and occupies his own private universe. Not only is he unknown in art circles, he's unknown in Skowhegan and proud of it. Not even the students at the famous Skowhegan School of Art know about him, and that's fine by him. Snobby kids, he has better things to do. Like paint, which is what he's devoted most of his time to for the past 60 years. He knows his works are masterpieces and they're priced accordingly. And if the world doesn't realize his genius, tough shit for them.

I'm no expert but I have to say I liked his paintings. They showed quite a bit of skill. But in the art world that's only half the battle. You're not going to get anywhere keeping all that stuff in a basement. I tried to explain this to Leakos but he'd already settled the issue in his mind. We went round and round in circles discussing how his art fit into the broader scheme. He knew there was a disconnect but he didn't know how to solve it. Didn't even want to. Leakos was 76 and seemed happy, but his outlook was laced with a strong tinge of bitterness. He'd given up the idea of anyone taking an interest. He was on his own and knew it. Of course this was all familiar territory for me as I'd wondered about all of these issues in relation to my own art. If there is a divide between creation and promotion I lean toward Leakos' side of it. But to what end? Standing in his studio crammed with old boxes and half-finished paintings gave me an unsettled feeling.

By this time I'd resolved the Instax ownership dynamics, so when I asked Leakos for a portrait I offered to make an extra for him. Easy, I said. It's an instant photo. I stood him in an doorwat, shot two, then gave him the choice to keep whichever he wanted. He liked the first one best. On the bottom of it he carefully wrote the date and my name for his records.

But after a moment he demurred. On second thought he decided he didn't have room for any more stuff, not even a little snapshot. He handed both photos back to me but not before snipping off the handwritten caption on the first. There I was holding nine tenths of a photo. Legally.

Steve Leakos in his Skowhegan studio/gallery

The folk myth is that certain tribes are opposed to photography on the grounds that taking a picture of someone steals their soul. Of course we know that's not really true. But the thing is, it actually is true. Photographers are soul snatchers.

Maybe a better way to say that is that a portrait is a collaborative endeavor. Any snatcher requires a snatchee. I don't speak for everyone but for my own photography I have the sense that portraits should be owned 50/50. I think any person in a portrait should have some control over how that image is used, and I think the photographer should also have some control. This works great in my own little world since I don't take many portraits. I may physically possess the negative but in a way we both own the idea of the photo. And if someone doesn't want a certain picture made public or used in a certain way, that's fine. I'm not out to offend anyone.

As for the broader photo world, control is a bit tougher to sort out. Not only can any image online be reproduced easily and without limit, a good proportion of them actually are. Reproductions are the lifeblood of Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and many other sites, often with authorship information removed or indirectly referenced. Tracking down ownership is a headache.

In fact the very idea of "ownership" online isn't very simple. Asking who "owns" the photos on a personal Pinterest board is a bit like asking who owns the heartthrob posters tacked to a teenager's wall. If a poster was torn down would the original photographer require compensation? Or the teenager? What about the photographer who makes a screengrab of someone else's "property" (Umbrico, Rickard, etc). The reproduction has exactly the same pixels as the original. Who owns which? Or what about Michael Wolf using a camera in the "real" world to photograph an image on a computer screen? Has he somehow claimed ownership of the image? As I said, a headache. With Instax it's much simpler. One object exists. Someone owns nine tenths of it. Done.

Fruit Display, Skowhegan State Fair

The following Friday at the Skowhegan State Fair I found a nice subject in the goat barn. The goats were tied to a circular ride, the fence had some red cowboy hats tied to it, and the ride operator was the spitting image of Travis Bickle. It would've made a dreamy photo. But a sign on the fence said "$5 Per Photo". I guess I could've paid my money and shot him but I didn't. The sign soured my mood. It meant that goatherd Bickle owned every photo taken of him. It wasn't even 50/50. I don't know if the guy was a photo scholar or what but he really made me think. What if I shot an Instax photo and gave it to him instead of $5? Or turned around and charged him $5 since presumably that's what it was worth and there was only one which I clearly owned? What if I paid him $5 and then reproduced the photo several times on Tumblr? What if I offered him $2.50 for a photo with control over its use?

The goat barn got me thinking, and thinking is the death of shooting. So I didn't wind up with many good photos from the fair. I spent most of the time watching cow teams pull a sled full of cinderblocks, thinking about ownership.

When I came home Gump was hot for a boat ride. It was dusk. We had the dog along. It seemed ripe for a photo op so I brought along the Instax and a beer. Pretty soon we were doing 50 down the center of the lake. The boat had two small headlights up front which scattered mixed light on the spray from below. The dog was frantic. The sun was sideways in the sky. It had all the visual fixings. I ripped off several Instax pictures but unfortunately each one sucked. I don't know what it was. I just couldn't find my juju.

Instax, boat, dog, and just a hint of juju

It was dark by the time we pulled the boat in and I figured I was done shooting for the day. I lodged my camera in the bedroom, then went outside to help Gump move a life-size fiberglass horse statue to its place near the porch. I don't know why we'd waited until dark but anyway. The horse was bolted to a large sheet of plywood sitting in the bed of his pickup. We needed to lift it and carry about 50 feet, but first we had to clear some gravel away from the house and level a spot. Gump grabbed a shovel while I stood opposite the horse from him and slightly lower. I glanced over at Gump and Holy Crap! There was the photo! Horse legs, his legs, and a shovel all juxtaposed in confusing lighting. It had Instax written all over it. But Fuck, no Camera! I had to let that one go. Losers weepers.

The next day we visited Gump's temple and this time I was sure to bring a camera.

Gump's temple near Kingfield, Maine

This is the mysterious project in the Maine woods which I wrote about last summer. No one but Gump really understands what it is or what it's for. I use the word temple because it looks vaguely spiritual and I'm not sure what else to call it. But I'm not certain what it is. The only certainty is that it's a constant work in progress.

Machu Picchu, photo by Culture Focus

Since my last visit Gump had been to Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru to get a sense of how past civilizations had tackled structures like his. Based on that research he'd created a drivable stone foyer into the basin, deepened the interior, and widened the surrounding plateau by several acres. Once he finishes burying the electric lines the plan is to host a country music festival this fall (ironically his insurance prohibits "rock" concerts). Maybe a few weddings. A backdrop for portraits. The possibilities are many.

I think Gump's general guiding principle is to build something that can't be found anywhere else. There's only one temple like his. He owns it and it can't be reproduced. And nowadays there aren't many things that can be said about.

(More recent Instax photos of Maine here)

1 comment:

Yassine said...

Very thought provoking. I think ownership gets often overlooked when dealing with digital files. When taking photos at family gatherings I don't even think about who gets to have the photos, I automatically send copies to everyone in the photo. it all changes with the instax, where I often find myself in a kind of a bargain with the people in the photo. Who gets to keep the photo, do I give it to them ? ( when dealing with instant photos there is a general feeling of " you took a photo of me , and there it is right here, so why should I wait to have a copy?") or should I scan it and send them the digital file , which feels a bit unfair as it is not the same at all as having the actual instax photograph?