Photographer of Marlboro Ads Exhibits Photos Richard Prince Copied

Photographer of Marlboro Ads Exhibits Photos Richard Prince Copied

Richard Prince, the controversial and often-sued appropriation artist, first achieved fame in the 1990s with his “Untitled (Cowboy)” series, for which he re-photographed ads for Marlboro cigarettes. While some photographers who worked on the campaign have complained about Prince getting rich on their images, photographer Norm Clasen is taking a new approach. He is now exhibiting the cowboy images he shot for Marlboro in the 1980s at M+B Gallery in Los Angeles. The show, which opens tomorrow, will be on display at the same time that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is exhibiting Prince’s “Untitled (Cowboy).”

Clasen says his show, cleverly called “Titled (Cowboy)” as a dig at Prince, is his effort to give credit to the sources of Prince’s work. He also hopes to stir a discussion about copyright, the fair use clause and protection for photographers.

He first learned eight years ago that Prince was selling rephotographs of images that Clasen and other photographers had shot for Marlboro—and that some of the rephotographs were fetching more than $3 million at auction. “I thought it was a practical joke,” Clasen says. Curators, critics and collectors view Prince’s cowboy images as “deconstructing the iconography of the American West.” Clasen says, “He came up with sort of a social statement, and got away with it.”

Last year, Clasen says, “It just dawned on me how much work [ad agency] Leo Burnett and the various photographers…had put into this campaign.” He shot his ad assignments on film, following real cowboys who had been selected and cast for the ads, and spent long days shooting on location. He explains, “I thought of all the pride the cowboys, the agency, the photographers put into this, and then for someone to sit in their living room and take a picture of it, crop part of it out and sell it for a million dollars, finally sort of got to me. I thought: If this isn’t morally, ethically and legally wrong, what is?”

Norm Clasen photo, “Mission Ridge, Polson, MT” 1988

Norm Clasen, “Mission Ridge, Polson, MT” 1988.

At the M+B Gallery show, he is selling limited editions of images he shot between 1978 and 1991. He says he will donate some proceeds from the sale to American Photographic Artists to support their work on copyright reform. “I’m really hoping I can spur an educational moment with photographers and artists and writers all over the country, to see if we can’t make these laws more powerful to protect us.”

Richard Prince, “Untitled (Cowboy),” 1999

Richard Prince, “Untitled (Cowboy)” 1999.

Clasen acknowledges that he doesn’t own the copyright to the images: He shot them under work-for-hire agreements with Philip Morris, as did all the other photographers who shot for the campaign. At the time, he says, “I was very fairly compensated by Leo Burnett” for his work and the copyright to his images, “and in those golden days of advertising, photographers were well compensated.” He adds, “I wasn’t educated enough myself,” and notes, “I never thought stuff like this would ever happen. I think all photographers have to take a look at this example, and find a better way to protect themselves.” (Clasen won’t discuss details of his communications with Philip Morris about the show. Philip Morris has never pursued legal action against Prince.)

In particular, Clasen would like a discussion about interpretations of the fair use exception of the Copyright Act. In 2013, a Federal appeals court ruled that Prince’s appropriation of several of Patrick Cariou’s photos for a series of paintings Prince called “Canal Zone” were covered under the fair use exception. (Prince later settled with Cariou over other photos he copied to make the series.)

“I’m rounding 80. I’m saying to myself: What do I want out of all this?” Clasen says. “I want to say: Let’s make it better for all photographers. If someone doesn’t do something, people are going to pick up on what he [Prince] is doing, say, ‘I can do that,’ and it’ll be out of control.”

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Photographer of Marlboro Ads Exhibits Photos Richard Prince Copied