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Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (2)

Bruce Gilden, "Asakasa, Japan," 1998. From his Magnum blog. Photograph copyright © by Bruce Gilden.

Bruce Gilden, “Asakasa, Japan,” 1998. From his Magnum blog. Photograph copyright © by Bruce Gilden.

Before I begin, a correction. In my first post on this subject, I wrote, “most if not all of [Dylan’s ‘Asia Series’ paintings] are based on identifiable photographs not of Dylan’s making — none of them recent, but at least some of which remain under copyright protection.” Apologies for the less than careful phrasing. In fact, one of the photographs in question is relatively recent — Bruce Gilden’s “Asakasa, Japan,” 1998. And at least four of them enjoy copyrighted status: not only Gilden’s but images by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dmitri Kessel, and Jacob Aue Sobol. The rest, at least as identified so far, are either anonymous or old to enough that they’ve entered the public domain. — A. D. C.

The tempest in a teapot presently raging over Bob Dylan’s basing some of the paintings in his “Asia Series” on photographs made by others has, it seems to me, raised three legitimate questions regarding his method:

  1. Did Dylan in fact use other people’s photographs as jumping-off points for at least some of these acrylics on canvas?
  2. Did he thus falsely represent (or participate consensually in the representation of) these works as resulting from his own direct observations during his travels in Asia?
  3. Did he violate anyone’s copyright by using copyrighted images as source material?

Let’s start with the fact that, inarguably, Dylan based many if not all of the paintings currently on view at Gagosian Gallery on photographs. (Click here for seven side-by-side comparisons, from ArtInfo.) In addition to the evidence accumulated by his fans and others, proving this beyond any doubt, the Magnum Agency has announced that Dylan paid a licensing fee to them, presumably for his use of three images — by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, and Jacob Aue Sobol — made by photographers whose work that picture agency represents. (Magnum hasn’t disclosed whether Dylan paid those fees before this contretemps arose, or after the fact.) It seems likely that Dylan has licensed rights to any other copyrighted images he used in the same way, such as one of gamblers on the street by Dmitri Kessel.

So the evidence confirms that yes, Dylan made paintings premised on photographs created by others. It also shows that any legal obligations have been fulfilled in regard to his working from these photographs. If the necessary rights got licensed, even if retroactively so, I see no basis here for charges of copyright violation.

The evidence also demonstrates, incontrovertibly, that Dylan or his representatives approved promotional material from the Gagosian Gallery asserting forthrightly that these representational images resulted from Dylan’s personal experiences in Asia. To quote the original press release, this “visual journal” would include “first-hand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” That promo material now been substantially revised, as follows:

Dylan’s drawings and paintings are marked by the same constant drive for renewal that characterizes his legendary music. He often draws and paints while on tour, and his motifs bear corresponding impressions of different environments and people. A keen observer, Dylan is inspired by everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious.

The Asia Series, a visual reflection on his travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea, comprises people, street scenes, architecture, and landscapes, which can be clearly identified by title and specific cultural details, such as Mae Ling, CockfightThe Bridge, and Hunan Province. Conversely, there are more cryptic paintings of personalities and situations, such Big Brother and Opium, or LeBelle Cascade [sic], which looks like a riff on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe but which is, in fact, a scenographic tourist photo-opportunity in a Tokyo amusement arcade.

Bob Dylan, "Opium," 2009, left; Léon Busy, untitled, Vietnam, 1915, right.

Bob Dylan, “Opium,” 2009, left; Léon Busy, untitled, Vietnam, 1915, right.

Now, anyone with a sense of history should realize the improbability of Dylan encountering a female opium smoker in a 19th-century setting wearing 19th-century garb. And anyone who knows even a little bit about the act of painting must recognize the unlikeliness of Dylan and his road crew transporting wet 36″x48″ canvases on the “Never-Ending Tour,” or of Bob setting up his easel at a cockfight or in a Yakuza hangout and asking his subjects to hold those poses. He’s not a plein-air landscapist. If he paints while he travels, it’s most probably on paper with watercolors. In short, even had he witnessed these moments in person, he’d have rendered them on canvas not on the spot, but from memory.

Or from sketches. Dylan sketches on a regular basis, has done so for decades. Which would mean that easel paintings on canvas depicting human subjects seen during his travels would at the very least derive from sketches. Painting from one’s own sketches has a pedigree that goes back almost as far as the medium of painting itself; the classic education of a graphic artist treated life drawing as the core skill underlying all else, even when it elevated painting above all media. Hard to imagine anyone objecting to that, had it been revealed as his process. Nor if it turned out that he’d used photographs he generated himself.

There’s undeniably a difference between painting from sketches or photos you made of real-life scenes you yourself observed and painting from someone else’s sketches, or someone else’s photographs. Just as there’s a difference between witnessing and bearing witness, there’s a difference between direct, firsthand observation and response — no matter how creative and accomplished — to the observations of others, not unlike the distinction in law between eyewitness testimony and hearsay. So asserting, á là Goya, “Yo lo vi (I saw this),” as the Spaniard did in his etching series “The Disasters of War,” stakes out a position akin to Whitman’s “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.”

Bob Dylan, "The Asia Series," catalogues, 2011

Bob Dylan, “The Asia Series,” catalogues, 2011

Did Dylan make that claim? By my lights, he did. He or his representatives approved the Gagosian hype quoted above. And, in an interview with Dylan that’s included in the exhibition catalog, he responds as follows when asked whether he paints from sketches or photographs:

I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work. What I’m trying to bring out in complex scenes, landscapes, or personality clashes, I do it in a lot of different ways. I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible.

Now that’s evasive, to say the least. He doesn’t say he doesn’t paint from photographs. It could even be taken to mean that he considers painting from photographs somehow equivalent to “real people, real street scenes,” and all of them “tangible” variants of “real life” — as distinct, presumably from painting from one’s imagination. Be that as it may, he’s informed enough about contemporary practice in the arts, as I argued in my previous post on this subject, that he can’t plead ignorance of the fact that neither the general audience nor the knowledgeable audience nor professionals in the visual arts consider painting “from real life” in any way synonymous with painting from other people’s photos.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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9 comments to Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (2)

  • Mr. Coleman,

    The controversy may be, as you say, a “tempest in a teapot” , but your last paragraph makes an anthill out of a molehill as you badly (which is uncharacteristic of you) parse Mr. Dylan’s statement with your rhetorical sieve.

    • Photographs including human figures that aren’t simulacra (sculptures, mannikins, dolls) represent “real people.” But the photographs themselves aren’t real people; they’re images of real people. Photographs of people on the street (those that aren’t staged, anyhow) represent “real street scenes,” but they aren’t real street scenes; they’re images of real street scenes.

      A photograph of a real person or a real street scene is “tangible,” technically speaking — capable of being perceived, especially by the sense of touch — but hardly tangible in the way that a real person or a real street scene is tangible when you stand physically in its presence.

      So when a professional wordsmith like Dylan gets asked whether he paints from sketches or photographs and answers “I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes . . . it has to start with something tangible,” he’s clearly making a distinction between painting from sketches or photographs he didn’t make himself and painting from real life. He’s asserting that his work begins with direct, personal, eyes-on sensory encounter with his subjects (as distinct from direct, personal, eyes-on sensory encounter with photographs of things he’s never actually seen).

      I see no other reasonable way to interpret his reply. Which, based on the evidence, is at the very least deliberately misleading, at worst an outright lie.

  • Mark Jacobs

    Re: Your correction:

    Copyright for Leon Busy’s 1915 autochrome “Tonkin” commissioned by Albert Kahn and photographed in July or August, 1915 is claimed by the Musee Albert Kahn in Paris. See: http://www.albertkahn.co.uk/photos/Indochina/Vietnam_4.jpg

    As an aside, it is not at all certain that the woman in the photo is an opium smoker herself. As David Okuefuna pointed out in his book The Wonderful World Of Albert Kahn (2008), the woman may have been a concubine of an affluent opium smoker.

    • A claim of copyright isn’t synonymous with actual legal ownership of copyright.

      Under French copyright law, work passes into the public domain 70 years after the maker’s death. I can’t find any online information about Busy, but unless he lived past 1940 his work is now copyright-free.

      Museums commonly put their copyright notices on images of works in their collections. See, for example, this image of “Retrospect,” a painting by Manierre Dawson, an American painter. Dated 1913, it entered the public domain some time ago. Presumably MoMA required the site’s publishers to include this notice, in return for usage rights for the image. Since MoMA owns the original, they can charge for reproduction rights. But the work itself is not copyrighted any longer.

      I’d assume that an opium smoker wealthy enough to keep a concubine would be generous enough to share his intoxicant with his lover. But that’s not a certainty.

  • Mark Jacobs

    Okuefuna gives Busy’s life’s dates as being 1894-1950. However, the Musee Albert Kahn as being 1894-1951.

    • If that’s the case, then he made this 1915 photo at a very young age. But the image would still be copyrighted under French law. However, that copyright would not be owned by the Musée Albert Kahn (unless Busy or his estate formally assigned his copyright to that institution).

      Otherwise, copyright and subsidiary-rights licensing rights are owned by Busy’s heirs and assigns. In France, as here, ownership of a physical copy of a work does not equate with ownership of copyright.

  • He should be put on trial (ala-Dali) with the maximum penalty of expulsion from whatever movement he is supposed to belong to (Post-Raebenism?). Now that would be a show that would sell out and it would certainly further advance his artistic infamy.

  • this is all so hilarious. There is no plagiarism; dylan paid for some rights; other things were public domain. So he paints from photos at times? don’t buy the painting. I think Homeland Stupidity should follow him around wherever he goes and tape everything he does and everyword he speaks. Etc. They don’t do anything anyway. if I want to paint from a photo that is public domain, I will. But because he is famous he is in some trouble that some people want to create for him. He’s not dumb. He has attorneys. He paid what he had to pay. He is under no obligation beyond that. And he is smart enough to know that people aware of old photos KNOW he painted from them. Is J. Edgar Hoover still alive watching Dylan? As soon as I saw them I knew where he got some of the images. You people are talking like this was a mystery that someone just discovered. I hope he goes to prison according to “French Law” laughs.

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