Visual Appropriation

Model Aly F shot in Seattle. I scanned a couple vintage postcards and added the elements on top of the photo, with a pulpy texture to hold it together.

Appropriation in the art world is a fact of life.  Every time someone:

-gets an idea from a movie, tv show, lecture, song, other piece of visual art

-creates a work that features a pop culture character, for example drawing a picture of the X-Men, or a character from religion/ myth/ shared culture (Jesus, Zeus, Dracula)

-samples a sound from another recording, or a visual reference from a film or tv show

there is some level of appropriation, or “borrowing something to recontextualize it”. Why this is controversial in some types of art and not others is a big mystery to me. I don’t know anyone who decries movies for basing films off of books or fairy tales. Disney built its empire on appropriation, not bland old Mickey Mouse.

Olive + key
The original image by me, featuring Glass Olive, hair by Vicky Buge and makeup by Claudia Aguilera
collage by Tomek Dakiniewicz featuring part of my original image

Appropriation is a technique I probably couldn’t live without. Sometimes it definitely is about building works on the shoulders of giants- for example, in music, you could capture the spirits of Jimmy Hendrix and John Bonham by sampling their sounds and making them part of your band, if only for one song. Most of the time it’s about making use of pieces that I simply could not replicate. I cannot find a giant cockroach to menace a model and I can’t draw one, so appropriation is the only way to get the image to work.

Mosh battles a giant cockroach. Cockroach image came from a Smithsonian site which I projected on the wall.
A sample from my “Foto Fables” series, which was about 75% appropriated imagery and 25% parts I photographed on my own. The background to this harpy image was from a wall scroll I photographed at the Phoenix Art Museum, and the eagle wings were from a statue in downtown Chandler- so even the parts I shot were appropriated from the works of other artists.

One of my favorite works of appropriation by others is the early 80s film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin. Martin interacts with old film clips and the noir tale is built around the pieces.

Model Glass Olive, bodypaint and background image by Jamie Graden, hair by Vicky Buge. Another creative use of the projector, which used art by the bodypainter projected against a wall. One could argue that a huge chunk of this photo is Jamie’s painting.

It’s incredibly common in music and illustration, and collage is completely about appropriation, but many photographers jealously guard their ideas and secrets and look down on the technique. The only kind of appropriation I dislike is the unimaginative time- the very literal use of an idea, like Led Zepplin playing Robert Johnson songs and calling them their own, or repetitious monotony, like comics artist Greg Land reusing the same images of glam women over and over. There is no substitute for imagination, honesty and hard work.


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I'm a multimedia artist in Phoenix, AZ. Main Site - Instagram @primordialcreative + twitter @dbmillerphoto

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