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Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

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

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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?

***update

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?

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

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