Photography and the Law

Among the 54 items in Brooklyn Law School Library’s New Books List dated February 22 is Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography (Call #TR15 .G5713 2012) by Daniel Girardin and Christian Pirker. The book contains a collection of about 75 photos that show that photography is a medium that has provoked controversy since its invention. Each photograph has a complex and often serious story. Whether representing photography as art or as documentary fact, photography has come under attack and engaged discussion both informally and through the courtroom. From the 1840 photo by Hyppolyte Bayard Self Portrait as a Drowned Man to the more recent photos of Abu Ghraib prisoners from 2004, the book shows how photography has provoked legal controversy. It reviews the main cases where photographers have found themselves in court or that have led to the censuring of images.

The authors observe that the issues involved are associated with money, politics, morality (both lay and religious), sexuality or the acknowledgement of the artistic status of the author. The preface references four cases from 2007 that were all related to financial, moral or political matters, similar to those that have appeared throughout the history of photography: the March 2007 case of fashion designer John Galliano whom a Paris tribunal order to pay €200,000 to photographer William Klein for plagiarizing his contact sheet graphic work in an ad campaign; the June 2007 California case of Christoff v. Nestle where a jury awarded the plaintiff $15.6 million on the basis that Nestlé used the plaintiff model’s image without his permission; the September 2007 case where a photograph by Nan Goldin, Klara and Adda Belly Dancing was removed from a British art exhibition for indecency; and the October 2007 case where Alexander Sokolov’s photo Police Officers Kissing was excluded from a Russian gallery on the grounds that the work would be a “disgrace to Russia.”

Many of the pictures contained in the book are well known. The book features works by Michael Light, Oliviero Toscani, Gary Gross, Frank Fournier, Andres Serrano, Annelies Strba, Marc Garanger, Man Ray and Lewis Carroll, among others.