Richard Prince’s exhibit at the famous Frieze Art Fair in New York City, 2015 was a simple one. Thirty-eight photos, mostly portraits, blown up to six-foot-tall prints with a stylized set of social-media-style comments printed under each one. A fair few of them sold at the Fair, mostly to the rather extravagant tune of $90,000 a piece.
Pretty good profit, for an “artist” whose only contribution to the works was to add a comment at the bottom of each photo with his own username appended.
Every one of his images came from Instagram, the photo-sharing website, and every one, so far as we know, came without the knowledge or consent of the subject and photographer. Prince makes no claim otherwise. The photographs each even have their original username still attached, displayed as part of the exhibit.
All of the photos he chose were already popular on Instagram, many with likes into the five digits, which was probably a way of hedging his bets for their success as commercial art. He screen-capped each one, mostly selfies of women, many in “sexually charged poses,” blew them up to 6×4, and replaced any original captions with his own.
“Enjoyed the ride today. Let’s do it again. Richard,” is the fake comment under 22-year-old songwriter Sky Ferriera’s selfie. (Side note: Prince is 65.) If Ferriera had an answering comment, or if she even knew about the inclusion of her image in his exhibit before it went public, we’ll never know.
According to DIY Photography, what he’s done in this exhibit is legal. He used publicly posted photographs to make “transformative art” even though all he altered were the comments. It’s not his first dance with copyright law, either. In 2013, he was sued by photographer Patrick Cariou for reproducing his photos for Prince’s show Art in America reported at the time. Cariou initially won that lawsuit, but Prince won on appeal with a verdict that a photograph of a photograph (Or in the current case, a screen shot of a photograph) did not violate the original copyright.
He may think of himself as another Warhol, but selfies are not soup cans. His fellow artists aren’t impressed, and neither are his non-consenting subjects, though none have yet announced a desire to pursue this in court. But if your selfie had sold for $90,000, wouldn’t you want a cut?
Featured image: via Richard Prince.