Friday, May 13, 2011

Appropriation in Photography: III. From Many, One

It is only fair that we begin the third chapter of our journey into the appropriation theme with a Walker Evans photograph. After all, we spent the entire second chapter looking over Sherrie Levine’s and others’ use of Evans’ images in their own art. Today we flip the coin to the other side, studying one of several times that Evans appropriated other artists’ images in his own.

Look at the Penny Picture Display image below. Now imagine yourself on a Savannah street in the 1930’s. Passing a photographer’s studio, you see a window with filled with tiny portraits, probably not thinking much of it. If you were a typical citizen of the times, you would be seeing what was quite commonplace for the period. You may not even have slowed your pace as you moved from the bright shimmering summer heat to the next patch of cool shade beneath the oaks in one of Savannah’s many urban squares.

Penny Picture Display, Savannah, Georgia
Walker Evans, 1936 (1)
Walker Evans however saw what most did not: that the window was its own thing, a compilation of the life force of some 100 individuals compressed into a single inanimate package. Capturing the collective images brings the many into one.

As the ultimate observer John Szarkowski said of the image in his seminal book, Looking at Photographs,
“It is an unabridged catalog of American physiognomy, costume, and style, a kind of composite self-portrait bearing on the questions of who Americans thought they were in 1936 – and a humorous tribute to the unintentioned honesty of the photographer and his sitters. It is also a remarkable and original picture, unlike the photographer’s window, it demands interpretation.” (2)

Certainly Evans appropriated the work of the anonymous studio photographer whose window he so memorably captured. The spirit of what he did however would seem to have been much different than Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Evans’ classic pieces.

An excellent preamble for the next several examples of From Many, One comes from a surprising source: a 1989 book, Mindfulness, by Ellen J. Langer. We read,
“I recently attended a lecture by photographer Joel Meyerowitz. To my surprise his lecture was about mindfulness. He did not call it that, but to me his talk was a lesson in how to stay open to experience…Meyerowitz also described the amateur photographers who flock to the Grand Canyon. Arriving at the rim of this famous landmark, they shuffle about, searching for a sign that says "shoot here." With one pre-set image labeled GRAND CANYON in their minds, blinding them to what lies below, they search for the one and only "right" spot to stand. In advising his audience that there is no such spot and that they could search instead for whatever was "meaningful" to them, Meyerowitz was encouraging a mindful approach applicable to far more than photography.” (3)

Most of us who say we pursue photography as an art form go out of our way to find the unique perspective on what we see that makes what we capture an art photograph rather than a snapshot. Not everyone however has that intent. Just go to Flickr and search for images of the Taj Mahal. How many of them appear to have been taken from exactly the same spot? The scene may as well have a big yellow and red sign with a Kodak logo that says “Picture Point.” It is as if one image has been replicated hundreds of times, with the only differences being the details of the sky and the focal length of the lens.

Noting this lemming-like behavior, Corrine Vionnet has taken advantage of all these images of essentially the same scene. She appropriated dozens of images from Flickr taken by different individuals at popular "shoot here" spots. She then cropped and scaled them to similar dimensions and created a composite in Photoshop.

From the series Photo Opportunities, 2005-2010
Copyright Corinne Vionnet (4)

Perhaps you saw the exhibit of Vionnet’s Photo Opportunities series at the Wm Turner Gallery’s final show last October. Here is what Jerry Cullum had to say in BURNAWAY about Vionnet’s Mount Fuji image,
“In one of her compositions, the distant Mount Fuji glows like an image from a Hokusai print, while a swarm of ghostly, hypothetical foregrounds float dimly in the image’s lower third, creating a dream-like gestalt of all the Japans that Fuji has symbolized.”

Migrate now to Vionnet’s website and seek out her image of the British Parliament and Big Ben. Look under Photo Opportunities. Found it? It is easy to imagine yourself in a JMW Turner painting with the requisite Turner atmospherics. We feel comfortable with the Vionnet composites partly because they have a distinctly familiar Turner-esque feel to them. Partly, too, they are agreeable because they are of well-known scenes but are just mysterious enough to merit a second look.

Turner did indeed paint the Houses of Parliament, but his focus was on the incandescent orange of the flames of the disastrous 1834 fire that destroyed the buildings. For a more sedate comparison of Vionnet’s Parliament creation, find Monet’s early 20th century series of the same subject. Several of the Impressionist works have the same sense of warm, enveloping fog that Vionnet assembled into a cohesive whole from disparate parts.

Four views from four times and one shoreline, Lake Tenaya, 2002
Copyright Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe (5)
In the High Museum’s current Point of View exhibit, curated by Danielle Avram who we met in Random Radiance a few weeks ago, we find an interesting twist on the “shoot here” syndrome. Rather than forming a single mosaic from multiple tiles, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe have taken a different approach. They have a large body of work in which they capture panoramic views of well-known Southwestern and Western vistas. The “well-known” label is crucial to their concept, for they intentionally walk the steps of giants that have gone before them. These giants – Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and the very early Western landscape photographers - captured the initial iconic shots that the crowds in Meyerowitz’s “shoot here” scene have tried so diligently to emulate. Klett and Wolfe overlay their contemporary panoramas with classic images appropriated from the masters, giving a sort of fruit cake of jumbled images identical in place but separated in time, capture medium, and artist’s interpretation. They provide us with a unique mélange of the contemporary with the classic.

By the way, if you’ve missed the Point of View exhibit, a visit may be worthwhile before it closes in early June. While classical favorites from the High’s collection are there, I found a few pleasant surprises from lesser-known artists that piqued my interest. It would have been nice though to hear or read more details about the links between the images on the wall that allowed their assemblage into a Point of View. Danielle Avram tells me that wall space for explanatory text is limited by museum policy and that a lot had to remain unsaid. Too bad.

Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006-2011
Copyright Penelope Umbrico (6)
Penelope Umbrico, in an ongoing series begun in 2006, also uses the seeming inexhaustible well of Flickr. She assembles massive numbers of images of the sun into single monolithic prints. She dips deeply into the cloud of the Internet to grasp the pedestrian and mold it into the unique. She says,
“I think it's peculiar that the sun, the quintessential life giver, constant in our lives, symbol of enlightenment, spirituality, eternity, all things unreachable and ephemeral, omnipotent provider of warmth, optimism and vitamin D, and so universally photographed, finds expression on the internet, the most virtual of spaces equally infinite but within a closed electrical circuit. Looking into this cool electronic space one finds a virtual window onto the natural world.” (6)

The Aperture Foundation says that Umbrico’s approach addresses issues of “whether or not the growing volume of images we view online fosters a critical visual literacy.” Aperture has indicated their approval the new literacy that Umberto has illuminated by releasing a newly published monograph of her work.

Perhaps you could use the term “anonymous appropriation” for Vionnet’s and Umbrico’s work. From a Fair Use standpoint Vionnet succeeds because her overlap procedure renders each individual image inseparable from the whole. Umbrico’s approach effectively skirts appropriation issues because the suns are usually only a small portion of the original image and are so similar that it would be difficult to trace any individual sun back to its original image. These examples would seem to be almost the exact opposite of Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs portrait we saw in our last journey into appropriation.

So you want to try your own hand at starting with many and ending up with one, but don’t want to crank up Photoshop? Try going here for a fun few minutes merging many faces into a single generic one. Or, if are in a rather anthropologic mood, see the difference between perceived beauty in the 1940s and now. Both of these sites have academic science roots, so it is instructive realize how science and art come together in the composite images we are considering.

We’ve learned through the examples in this article that not all appropriation in photography has the confrontational, in your face, character that we saw for Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine in the first two articles in this series. An anonymous, benign approach can create appealing images that draw you in rather than push you back.

Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.
  1. Source:
  2. Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973, p. 116
  3. Langer, Ellen J., Mindfulness. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1989, pp. 117-118
  4. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. Source: