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Photographer Sends Cease and Desist Letters to Richard Prince and Gagosian

Donald Graham's original image and Richard Prince's artwork featuring the image on Instagram. (images courtesy Donald Graham)
Donald Graham’s original image and Richard Prince’s artwork featuring the image on Instagram. (images courtesy Donald Graham)

Richard Prince’s New Portraits exhibition closed last October, but the saga of his appropriated images, all taken with little alteration from the Instagram social media service, is having new legal repercussions. Hyperallergic has learned that a lawyer representing photographer Donald Graham has mailed cease and desist letters to Prince and the Gagosian Gallery over the unauthorized use of his photograph titled “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, Jamaica.” The letters, which Hyperallergic was not able to obtain, reputedly ask Gagosian and Prince to stop exhibiting and/or distributing the Prince work and any other materials containing unauthorized reproductions of Graham’s work

The image used by Prince was culled from the social media account of Jay Kirton, aka @rastajay92, who uploaded Graham’s image on May 5, 2014. The comment by Richard Prince that appears on the artwork exhibited at Gagosian — “Canal Zinian da lam jam” — is no longer posted on the Instagram post, while another, emoji-filled comment by @bigl14 appears. The Prince artwork features 128 “likes,” while the original post now has 150. While the copyright for the image resides with the artist, we reached out to Kirton to ask why he uploaded the image without accreditation. He has not responded to our request for comment.

Real Bongo Nyah man a real Congo Nyah ✊ repost @indigoochild

A photo posted by Jay Kirton A.K.A Ka Assante (@rastajay92) on

The image used by Prince is not the first photograph of a Rastafarian to land the appropriation artist in legal trouble. Photographer Patrick Cariou sued Prince for the unauthorized use of images from his Yes Rasta series, which focused on portraits of Rastafarians. While Cariou scored an initial legal victory, the ruling was later reversed and settled out of court.

It’s worth noting that in his original press release for the New Portraits exhibition, Prince had this to say about his use of Rastafarians in the Canal Zone series:

I don’t want to talk about where the Rastas came from.
Like most images I work with they weren’t mine. I didn’t know anything about Rastas. I didn’t know anything about their culture or how they lived. I had plenty of time to find out. What I went with was the attraction. I liked their dreads. The way they were dressed … gym shorts and flip-flops. Their look and lifestyle gave off a vibe of freedom. Maybe I’m wrong about the freedom but I don’t give a shit about being wrong.

After the New Portraits exhibition opened, a new press release was sent out that contained a single statement:

All images are subject to copyright. Gallery approval must be granted prior to reproduction.

When Hyperallergic reached out to Gagosian Gallery for permission to use images for an October 8, 2014 review they did not respond to our requests.

In an Instagram post four months ago, Graham uploaded an image of the Prince exhibition with the following caption: “Appropriated Exhibit. The only way you’d know my work was a part of this display is…well, that’s just it, you wouldn’t know. #PrinceofAppropriation.”

In another post the photographer, clearly angry at the Gagosian artist, uploaded his Rastafarian image with the words: “How to credit a work: ‘Rastafarian Smoking a Joint’ © 1997 Donald Graham.#PrinceofAppropriation.”

Graham is an internationally acclaimed photographer who has worked both in the commercial and fine art fields. His photographs appear in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography. “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, Jamaica” is in the collection of well-known photography collector Henry Buhl of the Buhl Foundation.

Graham, speaking through his attorney, Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento — who is an artist, blogger (including for this publication), and well-known commentator on copyright issues in the art world — stated:

It is sacrosanct and a fundamental part of the core fabric of American society and culture that every individual’s original work and livelihood is entitled to be protected from the unauthorized use and appropriation by corporations or individuals. This principle, embodied in the copyright law, is something that is profoundly meaningful to me and more importantly, is absolutely critical and necessary for the artistic community to which I am honored to belong. It is a principle that I, along with many others, intend to lend my voice, integrity and passion to strongly upholding.

Gagosian Gallery has not responded to our request for comment on this matter.

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