Ryan McGinley Lawsuit

Ryan McGinley is being sued by the photographer Janine “Jah Jah” Gordon, who claims that over 150 of his photographs are taken from her work. Gordon’s argument has been backed up by the former New Museum curator Dan Cameron, who wrote “my long-term expertise as a critic and curator gives me, I believe, sufficient authority to say, without hesitation, that Ms. Gordon’s work is completely original, in concept, color, composition and content, and that Ryan McGinley has derived much of his work from her creations.”

McGinley’s lawyers are dismissing the suit on the grounds that the images in question “do not look alike in the slightest,” saying that Gordon is “really complaining that the images share the same fundamental idea.”

Looking through the images in question, and through Gordon’s site, I have two thoughts. On one hand, I think some of the examples of copyright infringement she provided for the lawsuit feel like a pretty far stretch. The guy in a mosh pit (image below) seems particularly weak as what she’s saying is stolen is the body position. Does she really claim the sole rights to photographing someone with outstretched arms? On the other hand, I suspect McGinley is aware of her work and may reference it from time to time. I don’t know any photographer who works in a commercial context – myself included – who doesn’t work with references, and since a number of the images in question come from a campaign that McGinley shot for Levi’s x Opening Ceremony, it seems totally plausible that some of her images were used by McGinley as references for that.

I ran Nan Goldin’s studio for several years, and we often had to deal with case of Nan’s work being copied. There was one case while I was there of a really big commercial photographer referencing several of Nan’s photos. The other photographer settled out of court for a huge sum because I think everyone knew had it gone to court, Nan would have won. The whole thing left a weird taste in my mouth, I think because of my awareness of how commercial shoots are put together (though to be fair the images in question were fairly blatantly copied ). The whole process, starting with the ad agency and moving through to the photographers, requires images to illustrate intention for the shoot, and while those images sometimes belong to the photographer doing the job, they often come from other people’s work.

It’s not just commercial photography that works that way. Nan told me that when she started Larry Clark didn’t like her because he thought she was stealing from him, and McGinley so clearly references Nan, and his work has become a reference for so many artists younger than him. I’m not sure what the line between referencing and stealing is, but referencing is very much a part of photography. How can your eye not be influenced by what you’ve seen?

My feeling is that some – but not all – of these claims of copyright infringement are going to be decided in Gordon’s favor. I think her examples involving the monochromatic color palate (top photo) are reasonably convincing, and if Gordon can prove she did them first then she might get some money. That’s my psychic prediction, but I’m not actually sure what I think of the whole thing. I’m curious to hear what you guys think…

10 Comments

  1. Posted July 20, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Seems utterly without merit. I wouldn’t look at any of the paired images and think they were by the same photographer. Most of the individual ideas that McGinley allegedly ripped off can be found in historical painting anyway, so for me Gordon would have to prove that McGinley stole a unique combination of ideas within a single photograph.

  2. Kerry Pieri
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I would like to see more examples side by side, but by what’s here, this lawsuit seems fairly bogus and perhaps Jah Jah is just displeased with the success McGinley has enjoyed so young.

  3. Chantel Tattoli
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism — By Jonathan Lethem for Harper’s.

    http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387

  4. Gordon Clarke
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I have been following this debacle. These claims are completely without merit. These photos have no likeness at all! Ms. Gordon is putting a “Black Eye” on our industry and
    I don’t appreciate her extraordinary effort to set all of
    us back to the dark ages of art. We are trying to be respected and make a living in this field and she is attempting to make a joke out of our industry! I am pretty disgusted by her in every possible way! Thanks Janine for
    nothing!

  5. gregorylent
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    childish attention-seeking is my take on ms. gordon .. had never heard of her before the lawsuit story

    and by the way, i shot subjects against an open sky decades ago, probably should consider a lawsuit against gordon

  6. Posted July 22, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    reminds me of the video series “everything is a remix”?

    http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/

  7. Posted July 22, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I would have to hear a bit more about her arguments and I would really like to see more comparisons. I do, however, have to agree that if you were to sit most of their work side-by-side I would not confuse them for the same photographer. The other thing I would like, is to know exactly how many other photographers have used similar poses or monochromatic colour schemes in their work, surly Miss Gordan is not the first nor the last (nor is Ryan McGinley).

    It seems more like a calculated attempt for publicity and financial gain.

  8. JD
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Something about the outstretched arms in both photos remind me of the iconic image of the naked girl in Vietnam napalm photo. Could Gordon be referencing that image with her mosh-pit photo? Should Christopher Wain be notified?

  9. lisa oropallo
    Posted July 24, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    From what I understand, judges look at the similarities of the images not the differences. While they share the same idea, the execution appears to be different, and an idea is not copyrightable. The executions are completely different. I can’t imagine that she would win this argument. I’d be interested to see how this all plays out… I can imagine this would send tremendous shock waves throughout advertising.

  10. Posted July 27, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    I think we’re dealing with very subjective terms and there will certainly be two different courts opinions: the law and the public. I don’t know the law so I can’t comment on the legality of the proceedings but as someone that’s worked in both academia and photography, referencing is important as every work of art is part of an endless continuum. Like you said Skye, how can we not be influenced by what we’ve seen?But there still remains a fine line between what we say is referencing and stealing.

    When one looks at an original work, we might say the depth of its character or statement is diverse as it comes from a myriad of references blended together. If I were to write an academic research paper, one that isn’t a critique of another, and all I do is reference that one other paper, it wouldn’t be original, but it also wouldn’t be theft. My work would just be declared unoriginal and irrelevant to the discussion.

    But we don’t have an appropriate way to reference other artists apart from our public acknowledgement of their influence apart from the image. And because there is that level of professional ambiguity, that leaves us with no choice but to settle a dispute in the courts, but only when money is involved as art is also more and more to be considered a commercial good in this age of marketing. Artists don’t belong to any professional organization with established conduct–and we never will.

    Obviously there is no clear answer, but I see this entire situation unfolding as a consequence of our increasing reliance on our legal system to settle personal disputes and the notion that art is more of a commercial good than ever before.

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