More on Pirkle: Plagiarism & Truth

The question of what is and isn’t plagiarism has been aired considerably in recent months, particularly over the use made by Shepard Fairey in his posters of Obama.  There’s also a link to Pirkle Jones, whose recent death was the subject of my previous post.

As Mark Vallen  pointed out in his article Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey in December 2007, Fairey took an image of an anonymous Black Panther from Jones and RuthMarion Baruch‘s 1960 essay on the Black Panthers, degraded it both tonally and by the addition of a couple of inappropriate graphics and made it into ‘his’ street poster. As Vallen puts it:

Pirkle Jones gave us a compassionate image that served the cause of African-American dignity and liberation, while Fairey gave us a stolen and regurgitated image stripped of all historical meaning and refashioned to serve only one purpose – the advancement of Fairey’s career.

For Jones, taking a photograph was a political act (and we often forget that his mentor Ansel Adams was very much involved in a part of the environmental movement – as well as his more clearly political work on the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar.)

Funnily enough, the first time I recall meeting the unforgettable name of Pirkle Jones was in an essay by a student in which she pointed out a remarkable similarity between one of his images and an earlier picture by another photographer – I think Lewis Hine – showing a worker weilding a hammer. I think this was however not plagiarism but simply two photographers coming to a very similar solution when faced by the same subject matter. It’s something that happens fairly regularly in photography.

Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch’s work also became controversial in another way in 1964, when they exhibited a joint project on the sad decline of the northern Californian town of Walnut Grove. As you can read on Howie’s Home Page, things appear to have been not quite what they seemed.

In fact the truth about Walnut Grove is more complex than this article suggests. You can find out more about it on various web sites including Wikipedia,  a history page from the local Chamber of Commerce and various sites giving local statistics such as City-data. It is interesting to see that the population there now is more or less exactly the same as it was in 1961, though of course its composition may well be very different.  Another article on Jones and Baruch describes it as “a small, racially diverse community that was displaced by a freeway.”

The site about the film of his life, Seven Decades Photographed, as well as the pictures of Walnut Grove linked above, also has pictures on the other pages, for example the ‘Press’ page has pictures of the Black Panthers. There is also a trailer for the film, but since this is a 712Mb Quicktime file very few will have the bandwidth to download it!

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