Monday, November 24, 2014

Working from Photos

There has been a recent discussion on the Quiltart list about creating artwork from photos, both one's own and photos from other people. What started this discussion were some of the prizewinners from this year's Houston Quilt Show that were obviously copied from photos. This piece was taken very directly from Dorothea Lange's photo of the migrant mother, from the dustbowl era. The quilt artist did not violate any copyright since the photo is in the public domain, but nevertheless, many of us were surprised that it was awarded a prize in a category for original artwork. Similarly, this piece is a very faithful copy of a painting. The quilt artist obtained permission from the painter to copy the painting. Googling found the original painting and it is a detail for detail copy.  In our online discussion no one is questioning the artists' legal rights to use other artists' works as their source material, but many, including myself, are disappointed that these copies were first, accepted in categories that clearly called for original work and second, that they won awards.

Artists may, of course, do whatever the law allows them to do in regards to where they find their images, but one has to wonder why one artist chooses to copy the work of another. (and that includes someone else's photo) I find it hard to think I would get a lot of satisfaction out of that kind of work. Yes, copying of master works is a popular exercise for art students, but it is understood that this is an exercise and not your personal work.

So--what about photos? Working with photos is common in the art quilt world. Some quilt artists actually print a photo on fabric and then stitch right over it. Some painstakingly copy a beautiful photo, detail by detail. Some use a photo as a starting point and abstract and rethink the composition. For me, I use my own photos, never anyone else's, and sometimes I follow the composition fairly closely and sometimes I use only the parts I want to emphasize and that work as part of my own vision. Here are a couple of recent works, drawn from photos taken on our Spain trip.

This one is a fairly straightforward interpretation of the photo I took on the steps of the Prado.

The second is this small piece, depicting pomegranates, as they grow on a tree.

An abstracted image, using this photo of a pomegranate tree I took at the Alhambra as reference.

Would I try to render a photograph as realistically as possible in fabric? No. I don't see the point in that. That image already exists as a photograph and unless I can bring something new and personal to it I don't know why I would want to simply copy it. The bird, above, is close, I know, but I still feel I have brought something new, at least to me, to it.  Or maybe not.

As far as the discussion about the unoriginal/original quilt pieces in Houston, there was no agreement. Some folks think the fact that they were so skillfully copied is reason enough to give them a prize! Others of us are shaking our heads and thinking this represents a low point in any efforts to bring attention and respect to our art form. It is always, I guess, in any medium, the case that hobbyists and serious artists mingle and no one, not even the artists, knows which is which until these kinds of discussions come up.  I once saw an awfully cleverly reproduced painting of the Last Supper at the State Fair. It had a blue ribbon on it. Sigh....


  1. Thanks for this - it needed saying. I always tell students that the least interesting thing they can do with a photograph is to try to copy it. They key word is interpretation - and you have interpreted the photographs very successfully in the examples of your own work. Yes being able to produce a faithful copy shows skill, but nothing more, just craft skills - maybe more difficult than copying a quilt from a pattern in a book, but still, not original and not art. But people are dazzled by this kind of skill and yes it shouldn't happen where original work is called for but it does: I'm not sure if this is true in the US, but over here relatively few quilt judges have art training or significant art knowledge, so it is not unsurprising!

  2. I don't really have an opinion about the categorization for the quilt show. But I sure do have one about your work. That bird is amazing. I'd love to be able to do that kind of adaptation. You are very talented.

  3. I'm in your camp on this Terry- only use your own photographs and that way you can simply forget about copyright issues! These quilts you showed from Houston might legally be used if they are out of copyright, but morally? Nope. And how can they submit- and WIN- for a piece that is based on someone else work- clearly both are talented enough to do their own thing! Glad Im not on Quiltart to be embroiled in this month's fight to the death...

  4. This is something I've wondered about for a long time. I don't have anything particularly insightful to add, and haven't been following the discussion on the quiltart list, but I think it's pretty interesting. Has there been any discussion about differences between quilt shows and art shows and whether you see the same thing in gallery shows or juried SAQA type shows? Houston seems to occupy a peculiar place on that continuum- I mean, it's clearly a quilt show as opposed to a gallery show, but it's definitely an "arty" quilt show- I mean a show where there are lots of different art quilt categories and they're clearly trying to encourage artistry not just construction (although worksmanship is obviously critical too).

  5. Maybe you should contact Kary from Houston and begin a dialogue....
    Jill Hoddick

  6. Interesting article and comment. I have not been following the discussion either, but I appreciate the concept of a continuum ...and then there are the traditional pieced quilts which can be artistic through use of color, etc. It will be interesting to see if there are efforts to define and set standards. I think something copied as exactly as these two examples appear to be does seem to be re-defining (or ignoring) "original." I don't question using a photograph for inspiration as you do, Terry, especially since it is your own photo. Even the darling bird is only similar, clearly not copied. Keep up the good work. :)

  7. I see and hear and agree with your frustration here, Terry. Copying is still copying and not original unless the artist re-interprets the piece in their own way and in that sense it becomes original. Using your own photos isn't copying but using a visual reference that you created to create your own work.
    Love your birds!

  8. I have followed the discussion because I have found it very interesting. I am not at even a fraction the caliber that many others are, but I love the art quilt world. I agree with you Terry, and I have seen that the discussion has moved to copyrights which really isn't a part of the disagreement in my opinion. Personally for me, it is a let down. I understand studio work and copying to learn a skill set, but when submitting for a large show like this, it should not be allowed. They are clearly derivative of other artists' work. If it was a derivative of a photograph or painting they made themselves, that would be completely different. That is akin to creating a series and working through a process. Your quilts are yours entirely, and only derivative of a snapshot that you saw through your own eyes, captured in a picture. I don't know how I feel about photos on quilts, I am kind of over that, but I know that some people are taking that to another level and if it is their own work and constructed in an original way (and entered into one of these large shows), I accept that entirely. I own a quilt from Carol Bryer Fallert-Gentry that is of a tulip (it is on her site), that is over 10yrs old. She photographed a tulip field, but for the quilt focused in on the center. Tulips have been done, but her perspective from her own photo made it an original. Initially you'd look at it and see a flower's middle, but further studying you'd see it is a tulip. She printed the photo on fabric for the backing. Honestly for prizes that are offered at shows like Houston, if the perspective isn't completely different derivative from the original (the original not being the first artist), then I don't think it should be allowed for a prize. The rules need to be very clear. With techniques today, the original painting or photograph can be blown up to the point where it becomes a "painting by numbers" piece. Which is unfortunately how I view those two quilts that were discussed. Like I said, I was let down when I saw them.

  9. Wow. I wrote a good comment and I think it got eaten by the net web. :(

    I guess the short version is:

    Copying anything isn't original.
    I like your bird.

  10. As usual your work is extraordinary and wonderful. Regarding the use of art work, I do understand the difference. I was thinking about the old paint-by-number works that were so popular back in the 69s and 70s. There would be great art works broken down into a paint-by-number piece and people would post them on their walls. I remember seeing them in fair exhibits (4-H, etc). And the work itself of the quilting is incredible. But is that copying different from students copying the masters work and displaying it in their homes? The school might have a student show of these works as well? It is a good discussion.

  11. I have used my own photos as inspiration and recently saw two photos by friends that I thought interesting enough to ask each if I could use her photo as an inspiration. One painting is finished and the only thing that is like the photo is that there is a hippopotamus in it. The other won't be copied either, but the idea or the colors will be used. Both photographers gave permission.
    I couldn't copy someone else's work and call it original - it is obviously a reproduction in a different medium.


  12. I agree that maybe those artists that used someone else photos shouldn't have won a prize in the original category. Shaking my head, too.