Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Remixes, Mashups, and Sampling

My lovely commenters have been poking me in the brain. Thanks!

Imagine, if you will, that in 1995 someone somehow managed to print up a dozen of Ansel Adams's rejected negatives to make a new calendar of "hitherto unseen Adams photographs." The detonation would have been epic. Adams was extremely clear on his process, and those things are not Adams photographs. The rejected negatives are merely an essential part of his artistic process, but are no more Adams Photos than his development tray or his enlarger. The fact that they can be printed makes them negatives, but not Adams Photos. I think there is rather a lot of legal machinery in place to enforce this, at present, but that is beside the point.

Plus, in 1995, Adams had an army of fans who would have exploded with fury.

Consider the written word. There is a long tradition of finishing so-and-so's unfinished novel, or unearthing rejected manuscripts and printing those, of publishing the papers of so-and-so, and so on. Recently we've seen remixes, mainly adding vampires and zombies to Jane Austen's novels. The original authors involved are invariably reliable money-makers, because absolutely nobody is going to publish this second-rate stuff otherwise. Nobody will print Aunt Susie's unfinished novel which Cousin Bill wrote an ending for.

Accordingly, these things tend to be viewed as seedy money grabs, feeding a somewhat base appetite for "content" of a sort in order to cash in.

A common thread here is that the money grubber is seen as taking something very very good, and making something that's not terribly new and not terribly good out of it. Sometimes it is popular but it is rarely good.

Contrariwise, we have have Tom Phillips working away remixing a, by all accounts not very good, novel by W.H. Mallock into sort of poetry and art. This is not, I think, seen as seedy at all, and I dare say as a money-making venture it's been a complete bust. Mallock has exactly no value at the till. What Phillips is doing is transforming something bad in to something better, or at least making a credible swing at it.

Consider, now, music. Musicians have been stealing licks from one another for the entire history of music. They improvise new versions of things. They cover songs. Now they sample and remix and mash-up. They cover things and then sample their own covers and use that to make something new. One of the most wildly sampled things ever, the Amen Break, was pulled off a B-side by a minor 1960s funk band.

In music, the conceit is, as often as not, that you're making something that is either radically new, or at least as good, as what you're lifting. Judgements will be passed if you just do the same old thing, and not as well. If you make something wildly original, you might get a pass if it's sloppy. If you make the same old same old, you damn well better be tight as hell.

This brings us around to authorship.

Is A Humument authored by Phillips or Mallock? Surely the former. There is nothing of Mallock in it, really. Is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Grahame-Smith, or Austen? The bootprints of both are visible. Copyright law surrounding music, as far as this non-lawyer can discern, seems to hew mostly to the obvious standard of "Well, does it sound like so and so's thing, and is that thing more than a few seconds long and hence valuable? If so, you have to pay so and so."

To summarize: we have a general notion that remixes, mashups, and whatnot should be either better than the source material, or very different from it, ideally both; authorship ought be assigned roughly on the basis of how recognizable the original source material is.

Authorship of photography is complicated. Photography is layered.

We have the negative, which is incontrovertibly made by the photographer. It's a physical artifact, and a complete artistic object in its own right. In that sense it resembles a song, or a novel. To remove the sense of authorship, you'd have to cut it up into tiny pieces, they way you sample a song or steal a riff.

On the other hand, we have the body of work. A negative not included in the body of work might be considered the same as a riff that didn't fit the song, a turn of phrase that was edited out. Does "It was the best of times, but it was also a bad time" belong to Dickens? Is "From hell's heart, I shout at thee" Melville? Probably not. I think you can use those phrases freely and without attribution. If you're an idiot.

Is a negative a phrase, or a novel? Is a rejected negative a poorly formed phrase, a dissonant harmony, or is it a second-rate manuscript or song? Both, and neither, I think.

Vivian Maier's negatives are certainly authored by Maier, but there is no body of work at all. Which one matters for authorship? Lange's photos, edited in all senses by Sam Contis, are from negatives authored by Lange but the body of work made from them appears in some ways to fly in the face of Lange's body of work. The book is surely Contis, the negatives just as surely Lange. Nobody, I think, would look at Sam Contis's book and recognize these pictures as distinctly Lange's. They might see a hint of Sally Mann here, and a touch of Walker Evans there, and they'd see a lot of Sam Contis, but I really doubt they'd pick up on any essential Lange-ness.

The conceit is, naturally, that what we are seeing is not recognizable as old, stale, Lange-ness, specifically because it is new, fresh, Lange-ness. I am, um, not convinced. It looks a lot like Sam Contis.

Has Sam Contis written a completely new novel from the second-rate discarded phrases from early drafts of Dickens, or has she made Moby Dick and the Seven Dwarves? Is the book better than the original source material (maybe), or wildly different (probably)? Where does authorship land (ambiguous)?

Photographers are tremendous hoarders, and quite jealous of their negatives (files). Even the trashiest reject must be saved forever and ever, unless you are Bret Weston or P.H. Emerson (or me, but just because I am careless in both senses), and even that reject is mine, mine, my precious you can't have it thief! The law lands on the side of the photographer here. This in turn suggests that one must always grant authorship to the negative-maker, always and always.

I'm not convinced that it's a great idea.

That said, it was kinda shitty that the guy who whipped out the Amen Break died in poverty, so it's possible music's standard of authorship isn't great either.


  1. A bit off topic but came to mind reading this...I was involved in graphics/lithography in London back in the days of “camera ready” artwork. The general consensus in the trade was that films made from customer’s artwork belonged to “the printer”. Once a customer sued a company (not mine) to demand release of the negatives of a book and the case went to court . The judge ruled that the image belonged to the customer but its vehicle (ie negative) belonged to the lithographer…. who promptly cut all the words out of the negs and sent them to the customer in a bin liner.


  2. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 20, 2020 at 12:37 AM

    Very interesting perspective.
    Could I please raise another view as devil’s advocate - not sure if it will clarify or confuse the discussion.
    To continue with the music analogy, one of Ansel Adams’ quotes is his likening of a negative to a score and a photograph to a performance. In music this is accepted. There are regular performances of classical composer’s work, and covers of some songs abound - it seems like almost everyone has had a crack at Cohen’s Hallelujah.
    So what if someone took one of Ansel Adams negatives and made their own print? Assuming a reasonable job was done, would that really be so bad? To the point of authorship, it would be the artist’s print of an Adams negative - assuming the artist could afford to pay for the rights to access it. Having said that, I’m not so sure the idea would hold up under digital. In theory it could work for a Raw file, maybe a JPEG. But one thing I’ve overlooked until now is the copyright. Could that get messy, and therefore shoot this whole thought down?

    1. With the caveat that I see no reason to restrict things to "a reasonable job" sure!

      I have to admit I am on the fence about the Contis book. I think the way we're supposed to understand it is equal parts stupid and disingenuous, but that is at least in part because photography lacks the language to talk about these kinds of things.

      The equivalent happens literally every day in music, and there's no problem. They have a philosophy, languages, and legal structures in place to make sense of the whole thing.

      Increasingly, I feel like I need to actually look at "Day Sleeper" just to see if the result is any good. All this discussion is independent of whether it's any good or not, near as I can tell.

      We are, I think, entering an era where there's likely to be a lot more remixing and mashing up. People are getting tired of taking pictures, and to an extent they've "all been taken" anyways. So what's left?


  3. I loved every silly minute of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" the movie. I never read the book, or saw one of its (many?) filmic adaptations, but I feel the zombie thing was an original addition to the main premise of all-dressed-up rich folks sussing out social mores and the dating scene. I mean those bitches were badass.

  4. Can I just add ... does 'photoland' even have a sense of humor? Or, I dunno, a scintilla of enthusiasm for anything?

    I just did a drive-by of the Mack First Book Awards, um, "short list" (like all but one ain't winners, eh?), and what a snorefest.

    Are these photographers and the jury all depressed or what?

    1. SHIFTERS is awesome, and I rate it 0% likely to actually win. The rest... uh, yeah. I have a half-formed piece on this whole deal in mind. Maybe it'll see the light of day, maybe not.

  5. When a musician samples another musicians work they don't have access to the original master recordings which is the only thing that's really equivalent to a negative or a raw file. So, samples are roughly equivalent to grabbing a jpg off someones website or taking a picture of a print.

    Many musicians who work for record companies don't even own or have legal access to their own master recordings. Many have no say in the mixing or mastering of their own recordings!

    Did the photographers who worked for newspapers or big magazines like Life typically own their negatives or images? What about today? If you are shooting the Olympics for CNN do you typically own the raws and images?

    Isn't it common for news services to require that raws be submitted and they do all the editing in house?

    It's a complicated world.

  6. Jesus motherfucking christ on a bicycle. Now some asshat critic(?) is boldly asserting Lange, as a [relatively] rich woman had little in common with her destitute FSA subjects. Duh.

    1. I found that fascinating. Sam Contis can claim affinity with Dorothea Lange and everyone credulously cuts and pastes that statement. When Lange claims an affinity with Florence Owens, though, we hint darkly that it's impossible and silly.

      Lange and Owens were both women, both mothers, for instance, and in a context where we're not trying to do a hatchet job on Lange, that is plenty to paint a picture of affinity.