Posted by: sabinabw | September 21, 2010

The Idea of Ownership and the Questions it Poses

During the first class we saw a photo of a prisoner, one who was to be executed and more than likely was.  I could not get that image out of my head since then, because I was constantly thinking about the idea of ownership.  Viewing that photo, the subject claimed the attention of the viewer, not necessarily to make a statement, but rather to capture the moment and more than likely to keep a record of who has been executed in this particular jail; a very useful tool.

Even with portraiture, the question of ownership persists because even though the artist is paid to paint an individual(s), families, etcetera, does he still not technically own the image? How does he not own it because 1 he labored to create it, even if for pay, 2 it is his image/representation of what he sees in front of him, and 3 the more than likely promise of not reproducing the image without the consent of the payer/subject? There honestly is nothing stopping the painter in creating reproductions (besides hurting his reputation). Or does the person who pays for the portrait/image own it simply because he has a monetary investment?; “to ‘have one’s portrait done’ was one of the symbolic acts by which individuals from the rising social classes made their ascent visible to themselves and other and classed themselves among those who enjoyed social status” (Tagg, 36-7).  What makes the monetary investment, along with the social status ascent, more important than the creative/artistic component of portraiture? Why shouldn’t the painter receive just as much ownership as the individual paying/posing for it?

Back to photography for a moment though.  Photos are easier to reproduce than paintings, so even the photographer has the ability to reproduce an image without the consent of the subject.  Therefore, what stops the photographer from reproducing countless amounts of the image after the subject has already paid for what s/he wanted? Who has the ownership of the photograph? The photographer because he labored in taking the photo and then developing it, or does the subject have the right to claim it as their own simply because it is a photo of him/her and had paid for it to be taken?

Today, some of these questions have been resolved, in that no individual who has their photos taken professionally (at least) can have their photo distributed without the subject’s consent.  However, it still makes me question, how did this come about? Did society as a whole decide to create this kind of ‘rule’ or was it at the demand of one disgruntled customer long ago?


  1. In the case of portraits, I do agree with you that the painter and subject both own the image, to varying degrees, depending on the scenario. If the painting was commissioned by the subject, who directed the painter to paint it just so, the image would perhaps belong more to the subject than the painter…but if the painter just saw the subject on the streets and asked the subject to sit for him, the painting could belong a bit more to the painter than the subject? Either way, in every case, I think the image belongs to both parties because it required the both of them to make that particular image a reality. The question of “why shouldn’t the painter receive just as much ownership as the individual paying/posing for it?” is an interesting one — especially the idea that ownership is “received,” as if it was a gift — the implied consciousness and discussion of “ownership” as somewhat tangible here is interesting.

    “Who has ownership of the photograph?” is, again, a different question of “who has ownership of the image?” which I think is a curious one, but again my response would be similar — both the subject and the artist have some ownership, in most cases. Actually, with photography, I think it’s trickier — not only in the case of professional photographs, but what about professional candids/street photographs (forgive me if I’m going on a tangent here)? At least in the US currently, I don’t think there are any laws prohibiting street photographers from using your image as they find appropriate, so long as you are in a public space (correct me if I’m wrong) — say you sitting on a train staring out the window and a photographer takes your picture, which you find on a blog online — could you claim any ownership of that image?

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