Friday, September 23, 2011


Thanks to Wiebke Dittmer again. Here's a 1950 photograph by Dmitri Kessel:

and here's another Bob Dylan painting from the Asia Series:

The most striking thing is that Dylan has not merely used a photograph to inspire a painting: he has taken the photographer's shot composition and copied it exactly. He hasn't painted the group from any kind of different angle, or changed what he puts along the top edge, or either side edge, or the bottom edge of the picture. He's replicated everything as closely as possible. That may be a (very self-enriching) game he's playing with his followers, but it's not a very imaginative approach to painting. It may not be plagiarism but it's surely copying rather a lot.


  1. Surely whatever definition of plagiarism you use, this is it: worse, without the copyright owner's consent, this is the most egregious infringement - in English law for sure (see Baumann v Fussell [1978] RPC 485), and I guess in most other countries' copyright laws. I hope he did get any necessary permission!

  2. Kieran9:46 pm

    I bet he even used tracing paper!

    These things are good if a chap is learning how to paint, but as an exhibition of so-called art? It's a little rich.

    If it wasn't Bob Dylan...

  3. Anonymous5:11 am

    This was posted on Expecting Rain yesterday:
    Looks like bobs been trawling the net for 'inspiration':

    "To interested parties posting on "The Asia Series" discussion boards. I found this comment thread via the stats page on my Flickr Account. My Asian photostream had gotten quite a few hits from this discussion board, so I checked things out to see why.

    Imagine my surprise to see at least FIVE or SIX Dylan paintings on the Gallery walls that appear to have been painted from photographs in my personal collection (the originals still in my possession), and posted by me to FLICKr. In any case, the images shown in the Gallery examples all appear to be "derivative works" based on vintage photographs (owned, posted, or published by myself and others), and not on any photos of his own creation while in Asia.

    Also note that the images in question are based on commercial prints and glass slides from the 19th and early-20th Century, and more than one photo was made at that time. However, the fact that so many of them appear in the few Gallery shots provided seems to say that the odds point to the five or six in question being appropriated from my "one source" Flickr archive.

    The catalog has about 100 pages. I would be curious to see ALL of the exhibition paintings. For the moment, seeing the amount of paintings based on my posted images in just the few Gallery shots offered, I suspect many more, and am left wondering if Dylan "raided" my easy-access Flickr pages and Asian Sets as a one-stop shopping spot for photos on which to base his paintings.

    If so, and in his defense, all of the original Asian Photos I own and have posted are PUBLIC DOMAIN images. Their appearance on my photostream comes with automatic "Creative Commons" permission for anyone to use them for decorative or illustrative Blog and Website use, AND for conversion to artworks or other craft interpretations. Thousands of people have already done that, including many like Dylan who converted the photos of nice paintings.

    However, while Dylan had broken no laws, he seems to have violated a common "social ethic" that for most of us in the graphics world involves giving credit for sources of inspiration, or direct credit for material upon which a "derivative work" is based. As I have not seen the catalog or any fine print contained therein (which might credit his inspirational source-images), I will cease comment on the nebulous concept of "ethics" and "uncredited appropriations"

    From My Flickr Asian Sets, seen in Dylan's GAGOSIAN GALLERY examples :






    (6) (This Priest is common, and can be found elsewhere, as well)

    Thanks to all for your discussion about this. I await the catalog !

    --- Okinawa Soba

  4. As an image its compostion is much beter than Opium but that 's down to Kesssel.

    Its difficult to see, but the paint application looks better too, and Dylan has an easily recognizable style, which is difficult to achieve.

    I dont have any problem with his using photographs as long as Kessel gets credit. Francis Bacon did it all the time and was very secretive about it.

  5. ps

    wouldn't copyright apply to photgraphic reproduction only?

  6. pps

    did kessel get permission from the men to take their photo?

    was he infringeing their right to privacy?

  7. ppps
    do their descendents deserve a piece of the action?


  8. BrownsvilleGirl8:34 pm

    I would say there is another one here:

    The man in middle of the picture was Guangxu, who was the second to last emperor in China's Qing Dynasty, also in Chiese history.
    Unfortunately other than that, I couldn't get further information about the exact time and place this picture was taken.

    (sorry I could't find a large aclear image of Bob's painting but you can see it vaguely from this shot:

  9. Anonymous12:08 am

    Looks like somebody's got some 'splainin to do. Use of overhead projector gets an A+. Underestimation of fans' use of Interweb (sic)? Also A+.

  10. Anonymous4:36 am

    Heres another one from the Brazil Series:

  11. Anonymous7:00 am

    Here a few copies.,%20Eugene/22441-Delacroix,%20Eugene.jpg
    There are dozens more like these.

  12. Anonymous, thanks for posting all those links to distinguished art works of the past - a useful antidote to all those people who jump up and down over-excitedly about Dylan's "plagiarism"!

  13. What's disturbing here isn't the use of photos in which copyright has expired or which the owner has licensed under a commons licence. That's on a par with using old tunes, and it's surely part of the artistic process. Making a copy of a photograph that is still in copyright is taking advantage of the photographer's work, something which the photographer might wish to be paid for - Kessel made his living from photography, Jacob Aue Sobol (whose work has also been copied by Dylan, noted in a comment on this blog) still does make his living from photography, and I hope he is being compensated for the use of his work. And the paintings are copies in the eyes of the law, not some sort of transformational work.

    In many countries of the world, including I believe the US (under the Visual Artists' Rights Act) the creator of the image has the right to be identified as such. Plagiarism might be mitigated by acknowledgement, but the law requires it in this sort of situation: in any event, Dylan doesn't seem to have given any sort of acknowledgement.

  14. Anonymous7:52 pm

    It's not about a painter working from a photograph...nor about the copyright laws and the original photographers' heirs. Hello?

    This is about the gallery touting these paintings as original works and a quote from the artist himself that they are based on his real life experiences traveling Asia. And its about the MOMA curator emeritus saying the same things.

  15. Several of Bob's recent paintings are obviously based on photographs, often quite well-known ones, such as Bruce Gilden's Yakuza cig-lighting shot:

    You're right to raise this as an issue, that Bob is not being inspired by these photographs but is doing pretty much straight copies. A bit like he did with some of the tracks on 'Good As I Been To You', you could say.

    I wonder how the photographers feel. Flattered, maybe. I also wonder how Bob feels about this plagiarism question in general, all the way from Love & Theft, through Chronicles, etc. All these revelations mounting up. Much as I love Bob, my guess is that his attitude, roughly translated, would be: I don't give a fuck.

    I'm not so much interested in what the legalities are in the case of these photos/paintings; as someone pointed out, above, that's really a side issue, what actually counts is a case of ethics and social contract. But Bob's history suggests he's happy to ride rough-shod over such issues.

    All in all, it is a shame. His paintings seem, to my untutored eye, quite aesthetically pleasing. And as someone pointed out recently, would people be so hard on them if they weren't by Dylan? But ultimately I'd rather Bob concentrated his creative energies on writing some new songs, preferably better songs than (most of) the ones on his last 2 albums.

  16. Anonymous10:37 am

    @John, no, as a photogapher you don't feel flattered if your permission was not asked, nor as photographer being given the credits:

  17. I was so surprised that I had to post it also. I suppose that he’s Bob Dylan, so he can get away with it. And really, it has just made everyone talk about his exhibit more, which probably will not hurt his sales.

  18. How we react to Mr D's 'borrowing' depends on the answer we give to the almost biblical question 'Who do we think Mr Dylan is ? (he is an entertainer, not an artist)
    On the other hand, the unanswerable question 'Who does he think, we are ? becomes clearer by his every move, namely we're a herd of brainless 'customers' free to be ripped off by what we hold very dearly : beauty, freedom, authenticity, identity ; he is not the first to exploit for his own profit the commodification of an esthetic experience.
    To do it in such a blatant way adds insult tot injury, the millionnaire who scrapes his own meal and wants to be feted for it.

  19. I'm reading a book right now titled *My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture* (Susan D. Blum). On p. 41, she quotes Suzanne Vega as saying, "I am trying to imagine a Bob Dylan album with footnotes, asterisks, ibid.'s and nifty little anecdotes about the origins of each song. It's not going to happen. He's never pretended to be an academic, or even a nice guy. He is more likely to present himself as, well, a thief. Renegade, outlaw, artist. That's why we are passionate about him." (Source: "The Ballad of Henry Timrod," New York Times, September 17, 2006, Sec. 4, p. 15)

  20. But he has given us notes of that kind. Look at his sleevenotes to the album World Gone Wrong.

  21. Anonymous3:31 am

    Here's what I see as a very well thought out review of Dylan's paintings. And note that you might be wondering if the review was written before the blatantly obvious dawned on many people.
    Of course the painting were based on photographs, there isn't any attempt made to disguise that. The Opium painting was clearly antique from the get go, and the style of clothing and other visual clues date many of the other paintings as well.
    They aren't straight copies, they aren't traced, the drawing is clearly freehand, many of the images are cropped and simplified in other ways. Personally I find the selection of subject, the choice of colours and the handling of the paint pleasing, not the least bit ugly.
    I wouldn't say Dylan should quit his day job (insert the obvious cat calls here), but a few years ago when I first got wind of Dylan painting, I never expected the results to be as good as they are.
    I'd also say the guy with the tumblir account is loving all the attention his public domain photos have generated. As if posting a gallery of pictures is more credible than making paintings from them.
    The question to ask is, "Would Dylan trade one of his own paintings for a sofa?"
    Unlike Warhol's famous photo based works numbering in the 1000's, at least Dylan executed the finished work. Warhol was more of an executive producer with assistants doing much and in many cases all of the work.

    Patrick Ford

  22. Thanks Patrick: but a couple of the things you claim are simply not true. In several cases - and for all I know, in more than a couple - he hasn't cropped in different ways but has followed the shot composition decided upon and created by the photographer. And you say "Of course the painting were based on photographs, there isn't any attempt made to disguise that": but most certainly there was an attempt to disguise that, even if it could be described as part of his game-playing, since he knew he'd have his sources detected. The fact remains that the gallery claimed that the paintings were of what he saw on his travels in Asia, and Dylan starts answering the question about the sources of his inspiration - in an interview conducted for the exhibition catalogue - by saying that he mostly paints from real life. And then when the gallery was challenged about the claim, they put out a pathetic revised statement saying that, well, the colours of the paintings were inspired by his Asia travels. Weasel words.

    I'm not jumping up and down yelling "Plagiarism!" but I do say there's been a lot of dishonesty about all this very expensive Art Product.

    And if people are going to defend his copying of photographs, as they have, by saying that other painters have done and do the same thing, then they can't reasonably criticise Warhol for having a workshop full of people turning out his paintings - and he was upfront about it: he called it The Factory - because other painters have done that too. The Old Masters had teams of assistants painting in the boring bits.

  23. Anonymous6:48 pm

    Michael, Sure some of the paintings retain the exact proportions of the photographs, some don't. The opium painting has a different crop the men gambling on the street looks exact. And in music close copies are not at all unusual with Dylan when covering folk music this goes back to House of the Rising Sun, and no doubt far before.
    When I say no attempt was made to disguise he was working from photos I mean there was no attempt made in the paintings themselves to disguise the fact they were made from photos. Many of the photos are well known, and obviously period pieces. The promotional statements are another matter. I haven't seen the related interview with Dylan.
    I'd agree with your comments about Warhol, although I'm not a fan.
    As for copies in general I make no large distinction between copies made from life or from photos, people who do in most instances aren't familiar with a full range of art and the various methods employed by artists.
    Again I'm not saying Dylan is a great painter, but he is bringing something to the work in the way he's executed the paintings, and they are better than I ever would have expected, but I have no desire to own a book collecting them. That said the paintings aren't just dreadful things which Dylan has brought nothing personal to. How bad could they be? Have you ever seen Ron Woods paintings?
    Chronicles is the one thing which I might find hard to defend, but to tell the truth I haven't looked into it closely enough to see if there is any method involved, and how extensive the swipes are. It would seem to me it's mostly Dylan taking turns of phrase he likes, and applying them to events from his history or fabricated history.
    That isn't very different from the very thing he's been doing for a long time in lyric and music. You know this better than anyone else and I suspect if the early songs were scrutinized even more carefully than you already have they would prove to be every bit as much word collage as are his later songs.

    Patrick Ford

  24. Anonymous5:28 am

    I am a painter. I base many of my paintings on photographs, or at least use them for reference. I take my own photos...feeling that regardless of copyright laws, anything less would be a compromise of artistic integrity.

  25. Many artists and painters have copied others to create. Picasso would go to the Louvre and paint reproductions of other artists famous paintings. Monet, Cezanne, Matisse all did the same thing. Many look just like the original.

    All the great Italian painters copied each other all the time. Many make exact replicas of the original.

    It is part of art history. Nothing new here. Those that are ripping Dylan for it don't know art history.

  26. Dear D10S
    Yes, we've had this argument before, but you dismiss other people's positions too easily. Those artists who went to the Louvre and copied were doing so (a) openly, in a public gallery, and (b) because they were serious about practising their art: it was the centre of everything for them. The Italians, as you say, copied each other. It was a fair exchange: it was even-handed. Precious little of this can reasonably be said of Dylan's use of those photographs.

  27. Anonymous8:18 pm

    painting photographs is totaly different, it has always been done and actually more conceptual and poetical that just photo-realist photo or realist painting.

    Its like making a documentation into poetry! -eat the documents...

    like gerard ritchter paintings of news photos of dead RAF members. ect.

  28. Michael, I'm so glad to have found your blog. I'm a huge fan of Dylan and have read most of the bios written about him, etc. His painting is odd - to copy as he is - but what the heck. Perhaps it is relaxing for him. If so, I'm all for it.

  29. Great discussion. Art History is filled with copying, borrowing, imitating, stealing ect. But any artist employs Dylan's method on Dylan copyright material and y'all better lawyer up. Dylan aint so quiet when the tables are turned. It's more haves and have-nots with his possessions.
    Bad artists steal and get caught. Great Artists steal and get away with the loot!!

  30. Anonymous9:41 pm

    Folks how do you all feel about Andy Warhol's famous painting which were actually copies of someones photograph. Those paintings now are selling for over 30M while I am sure the family of the folks in those photographs are getting nothing. How come those families dont go after his estate.