Wednesday, September 9, 2020


Photography is a fever-swamp of copying. It takes only a moment to borrow an idea and create anything from an homage to a reference, to an outright copy. In the worst case, you might have to move a light stand or two.

Your copy might not be any good. You might have the wrong idea entirely and accidentally invent something new, or you might do a slapdash job. Maybe you nail it. None of these is the point, the point is that if you keep your damned eyes open you can see an idea one moment, and take a stab at it in the next.

We have workshops, tours, and fixers. Chernobyl photographs all look the same because there is a standard tour. There's another tour of a Cambodian museum of the Killing Fields, which produces another set of standard photographs. In some cases, we see these standard portfolios being passed off as attempts as "serious work" by "visual anthropologists" or whatever. I've mentioned the standard Lake Urmia photos in the past, which are also apparently the result of fixers/tour operators.

Borrowing ideas happens everywhere, of course. Nowhere else, though, can you attempt your copy literally by pressing one button. This steps up the pace.. a lot. If you're paying attention, and spend a lot of time looking at other people's pictures, you see the same ideas over and over, the same projects, the same visual puns, the same tropes. If you actually pay attention, in the ways that photographers usually do not, you see that everything kind of looks familiar, everything looks like something else. This is normal, this is OK. This is just how it is.

Anyways, the result of this is that photography as a whole can largely be understood in terms of a set of repeated, evolving, ideas rather than as a set of individual flashes of genius. The flashes-of-genius model echoes the great-man approach to photographic history, and is bankrupt for exactly the same reasons. Mostly there are neither flashes nor greats but rather there is a great tumbling river of ideas and photographs, trends evolving into trends, with myriad practitioners of all genders, colors, and sexualities.

Even when one thing does seem a copy of another, how are we to know whether the former copied the latter, or copied some copy of a copy of a copy of the latter? Perhaps they both copied something else. Perhaps both happened to stitch together the two obvious tropes in similar ways, both following the same not-quite-copying evolutionary path? Often there is no way to know, although the large scale trends and evolutions can and should be tracked.

We are seeing another minor scandal in the copying area. Alec Soth was "parachuted in" to Chicago to make some Soth-pix of two neighborhoods in Chicago, one poor and one more or less affluent, to illustrate a NYT opinion piece on how awful poverty is and how glad we are to be affluent. This was, it has been revealed, an obvious and deliberate rip-off of Tonika Johnson's Folded Map Project. I mean, sure, there are resemblances? Alec has attempted to apologize his way out of this and is in the process of learning that this does not work.

It is an article of faith and not untrue that photography, especially photojournalism, has a vocabulary, even a grammar. Having such a thing means that, inevitably, that there will be repeated phrases. That is literally what "having a vocabulary" means. It's not a consequence, it is the definition. It happens that within a genre, like say poverty porn, there is further shared vocabulary, and that in turn shades imperceptibly in to repeated tropes, and finally to outright plagiarism.

The lines are a bit blurry here. There are large grey areas. Where one sees plagiarism, another might see simply a repeated trope. Alec Soth claims to have been completely unware of Tonika Johnson's project. Some say this is perfectly credible, some say it is absurd, and still others say that Alec ought to have researched the field first and would inevitably have found the Folded Map Project. Me? It looks like shared vocabulary and perhaps a shared lack of imagination. Both sets of pictures are dull, thudding, ham-fisted.

But, you know, there's room for opinions here.

In the end, though, so what? Everything in photography is derivative, copied, referenced, and homaged. Truly original work is incredibly rare.

Johnson's project would absolutely not have served the needs of the NYT, which had a narrative already in hand and merely needed a couple of neighborhoods to attach it to. Any pairing of one of a 1000 poor neighborhoods with any one of a 1000 affluent ones would have served. They simply chose Chicago as suitably distant from NYC without being too far into cannibal territory like, say, Minneapolis.

Certainly they could have commissioned her, but why? They just needed a handful of completely standard pictures to go with a few hundred words they had assigned to someone already, and obviously they were going with the established business relationship and the established name.

The argument online goes that Johnson was much more deeply steeped and could have delivered a much more nuanced body of work (looking at her pictures, I am dubious, and they didn't want someone to write) but in the end, who cares? The NYT didn't want a nuanced and powerful body of work. They wanted a half dozen pictures to illustrate a few hundred words for the opinion page. It's all very well telling the Toyota buyer that Maclaren could have delivered a much more powerful car, but the Toyota driver just wants to get the kids to school, pick up some groceries.

An important element of this particular story is that Johnson's work breaks the economic divide down along a north/south divide, which is absolutely integral to the mythology of Chicago. I'm not even sure how true it is any more, but it's absolutely baked in to how Chicago thinks of itself, and it makes perfect sense. The "address twins" of 3915 North Ashland versus 3915 South Ashland is perfect. In Chicago.

It's nonsensical in NYC, and in many other urban centers. Sure, people outside Chicago will "get it" because we've read things and know people from Chicago, but it's not baked in to our urban experience. Neighborhoods are. So the NYC wanted a "rich neighborhood versus poor neighborhood" breakdown, and they sent Alec Soth (who lives a 1 hour flight from Chicago) to go get that.

Is there something to be said here, other than the facile and dubious "Soth ripped off Johnson?" Yes, yes there is.

There's some material on the current vocabulary of poverty porn. About how in the end the poor neighborhoods are remarkably similar in appearence to the more affluent ones (both projects suffer from the problem that you have to read the captions to tell which one you're in), or possibly the inability of either photographer to make a coherent statement. There's a question about how far to push the cherry picking in order to get compelling pictures, and another question as to what extent "black" stands in as a code for "poor" in photographs and projects of this general type.

If you start from the point of view that this thing is a long-standing idea, you could get somewhere. Jacob Riis famously made a project called How the Other Half Lives 130 years ago. While he did not juxtapose pictures of the affluent, their presence is certainly indicated by the use of the word "Other" in his title.

Riis's pictures are far more dynamic than the modern four-square "documentary" look, he uses more interiors, and does not use race as a stand-in for socio-economic status relying more on physical evidence in the frame to carry that water. In contrast, both Soth and Johnson use race as a visual standin for poverty, and are reduced to using unkempt lawns and the occasional boarded up window as non-human indicators of poverty.

At some point in the last 130 years some changes have occurred.

Arguably many of the physical markers of poverty have gone away, and the rest have changed. The reality on the ground has changed: the poor rarely starve for lack of calories, so the sunken face of the starving is no longer available. The poor no longer hang laundry on lines, although the affluent occasionally do. Much of the visible squalor of the truly poor in 1890 is gone, except for the contemporary homeless. Not only have the actual visual markers of poverty have changed, but also the vocabulary we use in America to indicate it has changed.

The haphazardly hung laundry and piles of refuse are gone from the pictures, in their place we have overgrown yards and skin color.

Isn't that more interesting than "I think some emo white guy ripped off some emo black woman's project!"


  1. "copying her trademarked photography series"

    Wait, what?

    1. The web site says "Folded Man (tm)" although obviously the pictures are copyright. The state of Illinois seems to be unaware of Tonika's trademark, however. Possibly she doesn't know that you have to register trademarks.

    2. Oh, it appears she registered at the federal level, which is a little odd. It's not clear that she knows what exactly her mark covers, but, twitter, so one oughtn't to jump to conclusions.

    3. Start here:

      "A trademark is a brand name. A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services."

      Making a good case why the NYTs and similar don't deal with fucking amateurs.

    4. I have no idea what Johnson thinks her mark covers, but what it DOES cover is the phrase "folded map" used in certain contexts.

      I can copy her idea, make similar photos, talk about "address twins" and so on endlessly without touching her intellectual property.

      If I make a photo project about origami made from maps and call it "folded map" I infringe her IP.

      A trademark is kind of a weird thing to have, here.

      Maybe she plans to expand "folded map" into a larger enterprise. Her mark registration calls out education and stuff as well as photos.

    5. I'm guessing she trademarked "Folded Map" in connection with "a photo publishing project", as opposed to "a folded map in your glovebox/backpack/etc." or "any and all photographs of Chicago" or "photographic projects comparing affluent and low-income neighbourhoods in a geographic area, with map of same." Unless the NYT's article was titled "Folded Map" ... um, she got nothing actionable.

      I get why Soth wanted to head off a twitter conflagration of possible extortionate intent.

    6. "Educational and entertainment services, namely, photography exhibits, documentaries, live seminars, panel discussions, workshops, curriculum, and stage plays in the field of urban segregation and socio-economics in US metropolises; providing educational resources, in the nature of guided questions and activities in the field of urban segregation and socio-economics in US metropolises; educational tools in the field of urban segregation and socio-economics in US metropolises."

      As a non-lawyer, I am not sure what the commas mean. Is the whole thing restricted to "the field of urban segregation and socio-economics in US metropolises" or what? If so, then my origami example doesn't apply, unless it's in the field of urban segregation.

      As I say, I have no idea what she thinks is trademarked. On the one hand, the natural assumption is that of course she knows exactly what the mark covers, right? On the other hand, she keeps saying "trademarked photography project" which just doesn't make any sense.

      I dunno.

      It's interesting to me, but I am kind of an IP nerd. I don't see how it matters to anything, though.

  2. Haven't seen the Times article, but when I first read about this I thought the Times editor should have discovered Johnson's project and realized that THAT was the story, sent a reporter to her, run with it.
    I enjoyed Soth's blog back about 14 years ago; doesn't seem he has done anything wrong here, and his mea culpa seems almost excessive.

    1. The times piece is here:

      (well, hopefully that link will work)

      Note that it's part of a longer running series thing and whatnot.

  3. I continue to be perplexed over what things are allowed to be trademarked. I guess I need to get over it. But I got curious and found this "".

    1. Trademarks are definitely a bit funky. Johnson's looks fine to my eye, but I am not a lawyer. I'm just a guy who got IP training from my corporate masters every few years for a long time, so all I have are rules of thumb and guidelines.

  4. I think Soth better hurry and tradmark his lonely men project... before someone snaps it up.

  5. It's tough being a Magnum photographer these days. Glad they never invited me.

  6. Hmph. Well I just trademarked "I'm not a Magnum member, hell, I'm not even on Twitter, so Fuck You all." for educational etc. uses (take note of the 'etc.').

    Publicity apologies and cheques please.