Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Ansel Adams as composer

When I heard that some lucky guy in California had bought a load of negatives by renowned photographer Ansel Adams, whose work I have loved for years, in a garage sale for $45, it seemed too good to be true. Now it seems as if it might be. According to AP  The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust is taking legal action to stop the owner of the negatives (but not the copyright) from making reproductions from them and selling them.

It's not, however, a straightforward claim of copyright infringement, because the Trust maintains that they aren't Adams's work. There appears to be evidence that they are the work of one Earl Brooks, a little-known amateur photographer (though he must have been pretty talented to produce something that could be mistaken for an Adams). Even so, the claims for trade mark infringement, false advertising, dilution, unfair competition and who knows what else are easy enough to understand, and no doubt in due course a court will find one way or the other.

What particularly intrigues me is that the Trust says even if the negatives are Adams's work, the prints cannot be sold as his:
Mr. Adams was fond of likening a negative to a composer's score and the prints to its performance — each performance differs in subtle ways," the lawsuit said. "The photographic prints and posters offered for sale by defendants ... are not an Ansel Adams 'performance.'
Indeed. Whenever I  have printed photographs from my own negatives they have come out differing in ways that could never be called "subtle". Mr Adams had infinitely greater darkroom skills than mine, so his subtle differences are immensely important: but whatever market there is for prints made by the great man these days is sure to be small, and the prices stratospheric. The calendars and postcards and posters that we see on sale today are presumably reproduced from prints made by the great man, but I can't conceive of them as an Ansel Adams performance. At best, they are someone else's recording of an Ansel Adams performance, and even if not a bootleg performance then one that doesn't faithfully capture every nuance of the performance itself: that's inherent in the process of recording and reproduction. Like a piece of music - Rhapsody in Blue, say: same period (approximately), same country (wrong coast) - there are different interpretations and different performances, by different conductors, different performers and different orchestras. Like an Ansel Adams performance, there are records of it played by George Gershwin - here on YouTube, with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for which he wrote it, and here in a modern recording in which the composer is present vicariously, by piano roll. I don't think they render otiose recordings by others - but I think that reveals the limitations of Mr Adams's metaphor rather than proving it wrong. There are advantages to being able to use modern technology, whether to record a performance of Rhapsody in Blue or to make a print from an original Adams photograph - and in each case the "performer" can choose to imitate the "composer" instead of giving free rein to their own creativity.

As for prints from the garage sale negatives, the important matter here seems to be their authenticity. If they are Adams negatives, it seems to me to be legitimate to call prints made from them Adams photographs, so long as they are not held out as being the products of his own darkroom. Rhapsody in Blue remains Gershwin's composition whoever plays it, and even if they play it atrociously. And if the negatives cannot be authenticated, surely there is a form of words like "attributed to" which, though they will not keep everyone happy, will at least avoid litigation?

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