The Photographic Alphabet: R is for Richard Prince
By Erica McGrath
When living in the realm of a social media dominated world nothing is safe from being reposted, re-blogged, re-photographed, and re-appropriated. For artist Richard Prince the concept of appropriation in art has been familiar to him long before social media platforms like Instagram or Tumblr existed.
In the 70’s Prince generated controversy when he created a series of re-photographing and cropping images of Marlboro cigarette ads focusing on the cowboy figure the Marlboro Man. He did little to alter or edit the image besides cropping out the advertisement text and viola, just like that, the appropriated image now belonged to Prince. Prince’s Cowboy photographs eventually sold for millions with no share of the profit going to the photographer Sam Abell who took the original Marlboro ads Prince photographed from.
Prince’s 2014 New Portraits series is compromised of Instagram photos, posted by various people both famous and not, with an ambiguous comment added by Prince beneath the photographs. Prince printed and enlarged the Instagram photos with his added comment on them and displayed them in a gallery. Since then he has faced several copyright infringement lawsuits and a continuous wave of controversy. A single comment is all it took for the image to become his own.
Images can easily be taken and reposted and repurposed without permission over the Internet. With Richard Prince other controversial elements come into play in his artistic endeavors. His most recent work has again stirred up more questions than answers, is re-photography considered a valid art form? How much do you have to edit an already established image to make it your own? What kind of commentary is this on modern society is it beneficial or harmful? Can any image belong to one person? I am unsettled with all these questions. The one thing I feel comfortable with being decisive about in Prince’s actions is that he has decidedly created a new narrative through his appropriation. Maybe a new narrative is art enough. Until, of course, money becomes a factor, and I read that Prince’s Instagram photographs have sold for about $90,000. I continue to be unsettled.
Richard Prince was featured in our Issue #11, VANITY. Read his feature here.