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When an artist copies a photograph, who gets the credit?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Yesterday’s L.A. Times ran a charming piece about ant sex by biologist Marlene Zuk:

What ant sex reminds us is that spring can be kind of scary, or at least sobering, particularly for non-humans. Millions of ants, millions of robin eggs, millions of flower seeds, most destined to die before they are even fully grown, and almost all unlikely to reproduce.

Zuk shares a poignant reflection on natural history, and nowadays such things are a rarity in our big news outlets. Read it.

But that’s not why I’m blogging.  Accompanying the piece is a sketch penned by the very talented (and also very deceased) Dugald Stermer:

Giant Carpenter Ant, by Dugald Stermer

The ant looked familiar. It was traced, you see, from one of my original photographs:

Camponotus laevigatus, by Alex Wild

All things considered, I’d prefer to decorate my wall with Mr. Stermer’s version rather than my original field-guidey shot. It’s nice. The script adds a certain NeoVictorian flare.

However, I am not happy.

The sketch could never have existed without my original image nor without my taxonomic expertise in identifying the species. I received no acknowledgement for my part. Somebody else got paid for my efforts, and I got… an excuse to write a blog post, I suppose.  What I mean is, I feel like a chump.

Artists and photographers are, deep down, 90% unoriginal. We borrow each others’ ideas. We forget where they came from. We copy, transpose, modify, build on, and find inspiration from diverse other people. Much of our unoriginality is acceptably divergent, and this is a good thing. Art could not exist at all were all forms of copying verboten.

Yet, some approximations are so close that what could be seen as flattery transposes into parasitism. Stermer’s ant is a direct trace of my work, and as such I find it crosses the ill-defined demarcation between the acceptably inspired and the infringing deviance. It’s a murky boundary, though, and one made all the more frustrating since artists and photographers are in the same economic boat. We should aspire to help each other out, rather than rip each other off.

I should note that this sort of copying happens to me all the time, and I’m never quite sure what to make of it. How much latitude should artists have when copying photographs?

What do you think?


A number of people have questioned how I know it is my own photograph, and that I might just be hallucinating this in order to… what, I’m not sure.

First, and most obviously, I know my photographs. They are my little pixel children, seared into my memory. I recognize them when I see them.

But for you doubters out there, I’ve overlayed the contours of Stermer’s sketch on a 180º mirror of my original:

top: Stermer's sketch; middle: Stermer's sketch contour; bottom: the overlay

See it now?

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. hbird 4:07 pm 04/30/2012

    As an artist and past magazine illustrator and university design instructor, I completely agree with you. It’s getting out of hand. If I were given the assignment to do that illustration of a carpenter ant, I would have found your excellent reference photo — and then found three or four more to work from. From these, I’d develop an accurate composite sketch that would not in any way be identical to any of my reference. Or at least, that’s the way I was taught in college in the late 70′s…

    BTW, professional artist organizations are now cracking down on the blatant copying of photos not taken by the artist, or that the artist does not have rights to or permission to use. I can think of an instance this past year, off the top of my head, where work has been disqualified for an award in an international exhibition due to misuse of a reference photo.

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  2. 2. IncredibleMouse 7:58 pm 04/30/2012

    I do agree acknowledgement would have the proper and respectable protocol, and I would hope for it, though I personally don’t require it. Color me stupid.

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  3. 3. Alex Wild 9:09 pm 04/30/2012

    Thanks for your comments, hbird & IncredibleM.

    I had a lovely phone conversation just now with the L.A. Times. It is not the paper’s fault, anyway- I pin this on the artist, who is deceased, so there is little point in pursuing this. I would have granted permission in any case, and it’s not like there were large sums of money involved.

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  4. 4. hbird 9:52 pm 04/30/2012

    Mr Wild — I’m sorry you weren’t credited; I was a magazine art director for years and proper crediting of photography & illustration was something I was personally concerned about. And I was also a great admirer of Dugald Stermer’s work. BTW, many years ago, an award-winning wildlife photographer wrote to complain to the editors of a national artists’ magazine when he recognized his uncredited photo of a cheetah, blatantly copied by an artist on the cover of an issue. (I can’t remember the medium used or any names involved, not that I’d repeat them here…) But I remember hearing what he wrote was hilarious, and something to the effect of, “I didn’t spend two days in the bush on my knees in cheetah piss, waiting to get that perfect shot, to have some artist not bother to ask my permission or give me credit, much less pay me!” ;-)

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  5. 5. hlgartist 3:48 pm 05/1/2012

    Hate to be a stickler, but semantics are important. “When an artist copies a photograph…” suggests that photography is not an art form and photographers are not artists. A photographic artist can copy other artists artwork as easily and unethically as any other medium. “Artist” is a blanket term (including photographers, illustrators, painters, sculptors, writers, etc…). The thrust of the article is; illustrators (and by extension painters) are making derivative artwork from an original photograph and not giving credit (or more importantly paying for the use). If you mean illustrator then say it, not “artist.”
    In my own situation, my painting mentor/professor (hbird’s comments not withstanding) taught me to paint and draw from life, never from photographs. Want to make an illustration? Go out and observe the world and/or make your own photographs (while you’re at it, since you’re making a photograph why not cut out the middleman and simply make the photograph the final artwork instead of slaving it to another medium). Can’t get to your subject, don’t use another artist’s pluck for making the effort to do it for you. Or at least pay the artist whose work you’re using an agree upon fee.

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  6. 6. HBG_Dave 3:15 pm 05/4/2012

    Interesting and reminds me of the painter who won the Australian award for best landscape by copying a classic Dutch picture:

    As you can see from the article, the artist and judges were unrepentant. If I were an artist, this comment might cause me to spit the dummy:

    “Others scoffed at that notion [i.e. that copying was bad], however, saying the age of appropriation was upon us and artists were referencing each other without any criticism at all.”

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  7. 7. Saffy 8:53 am 05/8/2012

    This sort of thing always worries me – during GCSE art we were encouraged to go through mags and copy the pictures and I made a really lovely drawing of lots of different images I had copied and done some of my own designs with. But then felt that I couldn’t sell the picture even to the school as it contained stuff I had copied – I hadn’t asked permission of the models nor the photographers.

    Even my art teacher thought this abit odd.

    But then I have another issue – what of statues and sculptures? If I take a photo of them? Should I be paying the sculpter some money? Etc… The archetect of a building? The car manufacturer?

    This has personally stifled alot of my projects so when I produce something I prefer to say hey you can use this for your own stuff – try and remember who I am to credit.

    But then I am not relying on my art income for food. I like the idea of creative networks – but alot of people are unaware of the issues of copying or are so afraid of them they will not dare ask for permission. The amount of times I’ve found friends using my photos as profile pics without saying anything!

    So after all that waffle my conclusion is that I have no idea what would be the best thing to do. Creative ideas flow best when there is freedom but that leaves you vunerable to people who really are taking the pee – but more than that as you’ve said you may not remember where the idea came from, the artist may fill it is completely their own creation etc…

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  8. 8. Kcconkey 10:16 am 05/8/2012

    I think you’re very short-sighted if you think you’re the only person who has taken a photo of a carpenter ant that looks in every way exactly like that one. Prejudiced of me as it may sound, all carpenter ants look alike. There must be thousands of photos catching an ant in just that pose, so why are you so convinced the artist traced your photo?

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  9. 9. Alex Wild 3:11 pm 05/8/2012


    You know what looks even more alike than all Carpenter ants?

    All people.

    There are some 1,000 species in the genus Camponotus, and they span a considerably greater range of sizes, shapes, colors and proportions than does our own species. Which is to say, your suspicion that you are being anthropocentrically prejudiced here is correct. In theory, there are a great many more ways to photograph a carpenter ant than there are ways to photograph a human, believe it or not. We just don’t pay them so much attention.

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  10. 10. jackrolanta 12:56 am 05/29/2013

    It’s sickening to see this. Especially this steal a photo trace it thing. As an illustrator I pride myself in being able to draw from mind, with style. Kids think copying a photo is art. I guess its why all those photo copies get them no where. They never make any money. They spend hours and days trying to replicate a photo. No creativeness at all. No skill other than hand eye. The person who copies photos gains nothing. Their work never gets noticed, they never make money for their art, and more than 90 percent of them trace. Dig deeper in art history and you find the old masters used grids, and view finders. But a great talent like Michelangelo and Da Vinci drew from mind. They were creatives and visionaries. Alphonse Mucca is another. These guys didn’t have photos to work from. Their work had life. When you copy a photo and you do it successfully your work cannot be told apart from it. Which makes the entire process pointless. Being an artist is about being a creative. There’s no creative about copying a photo. And today all these people are tracing. So it makes it even more pointless. For some reason people who aren’t artists find it amazing that someone can draw a photo. They don’t realize how silly it is. It’s sad that they even think its interesting. We need to make the shift. Art is about being creative.

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  11. 11. Bartholomew 4:20 pm 08/8/2013

    Saffy raises an original and insightful point, “what of statues and sculptures? If I take a photo of them? Should I be paying the sculpter [sic] some money? Etc… The archetect [sic] of a building? The car manufacturer?”

    Yes, what about a building? Does the author believe that the architect’s building/creation is not art? If he does agree that architecture is art, then does he also believe that a photographer taking a picture of, say, the Empire State building, should credit the architect? If not, why not? If so, well, is he serious?

    That would be too messy, and anyway too inexact. When a painter takes credit for a portrait, he is not saying that he *made* the subject of his portrait! (else, he really should give credit to the person’s parents and, for that matter, God) He is saying that he made the *rendering* itself of his subject. Does the photographer claim that it was actually he himself who sketched the drawing? Then of what, exactly, is he claiming ownership?

    So the sketch artist traced his photograph–i.e. copied his muse too exactly. What is a photograph but an exact tracing of Nature!? Indeed, there is probably more variation (creativity?) between the sketch artist’s rendering and his muse (the photo) than between the photographer’s photo and his (the ant). If the sketch artist has plagiarized his muse, then the photographer doubly so!

    After all, did the author credit Nature or God for the ant itself, the ant’s pose, the lighting, etc.?

    No, of course not. The author would probably say that he is not taking credit for the ant itself, but only his *rendering* of it.

    Good, then the sketch artist is entitled to precisely the same defense.

    Look, once an artist creates a work, that work becomes part of reality and is therefore now a legitimate subject/muse of another’s art.

    Think of it this way. In a movie, you might see a character watching another movie, a classic, that the audience all recognizes. Has the movie-maker ripped off the classic movie maker, presenting that classic movie maker’s work as his own? Of course not. That classic movie has passed from the imagination of its maker into the reality of us all. Now that it is part of our reality, it is something that others can and probably will make into an artwork of their own.

    Only objects can be personal property. Another person’s perception of your personal property does not belong to you. Yes, what they’re perceiving might be yours. That doesn’t make *their* perception of it any less theirs.

    The sketch artist is not re-presenting your work to us as his own. He is presenting his own unique perception of your work to us as his own. That perception is his, not yours. Do you claim that the sketching of your photo is your idea? But it is only for the sketching that he has ever claimed credit. Just as, though the idea of the ant is not yours, the idea of *photographing* it was. And so it is not for the ant that you claimed credit but for your photographing it.

    It is you who have committed a wrong against the sketch artist by attempting to expropriate his sketch, particularly when the man is not around to defend himself.

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