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Of Copyrights and Copyrights

Perhaps this is one lens on the current economic mayhem: America’s extraordinary portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz, as collateral for millions of dollars of loans, was reported in today’s New York Times to have “essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until the loans are paid off.” Apparently needing to consolidate mortgages and fend off lawsuits, Ms. Leibovitz put up three townhouses and a country home in Rhinebeck, NY, to secure the loans, along with “ ‘copyrights … photographic negatives … contract rights’ existing or to be created in the future, according to a loan document filed with the City Register’s Office in December.”

I do not know the ins and outs of Ms. Leibovitz’s life, nor do I want to know. But it seems shocking that a gifted photographer’s every snap of the shutter is now tied to the timely repayment of loans (the lender, Art Capital, charges between six and sixteen percent interest). In fact it was just this month that a jury chose her for the ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement.

It reminds me of a very different case of photographic copyright. A number of years ago, after the death of legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, the copyright for his famous 1971 photograph of a young Japanese girl named Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother, a pieta-like composition, was given by Smith’s widow Aileen to Tomoko’s family. Like many in Minamata, Tomoko had suffered from the disastrous impact of mercury poisoning and needed constant care. Upon receipt of the rights to the photograph her family decided to prohibit its future publication, feeling that their privacy had been invaded more than enough during their daughter’s short life. As far as I know this is the only case where rights to a photograph have been given to its subject who then decided to ban the image’s future publication.

It is obviously a very different case than that of Leibovitz where the copyrights of past and present imagery could fall into the hands of an upscale pawnshop. One is left wondering at the different times we live in.

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