Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Owns a Photograph?

When I take home a vintage photograph from an antiques fair, I am filled with questions. They are not unlike the questions I asked myself the summer's day that I drove home with a recently stray cat from an SPCA shelter in Concord, New Hampshire:

What life did I interrupt by stepping forward and saying "I will take it"...

Whose earlier claims of ownership did I presume I could actually cancel...

What could I do to make a home for something that until recently had had another home, another routine of days, another geography...

In exchange for so little -- a verbal pledge, a modest sum of dollars -- I emerged in each case with sole responsibility for something in whose creation I had played no part.

Ownership is nothing simple.

For example, I am at the mercy of the man pictured in this photograph. I do not know whether or not he had known ahead of time that the picture was being taken. I do not know whether he was happy for someone later to have a reminder of that day he had sat on the hillside, weapon at rest on his knees. That man has a claim to this photograph that I could never presume to contest.

Likewise I am at the mercy of the person who took the photograph. That individual is the creator. Artistry of some kind accounts for the slant of the landscape, the stand of the trees against the sky, the way the tints and colors of the man who is sitting with his weapon almost blend into the rocks.

I am even indebted to the woman who sold me the photograph. There had to have been from the first a willingness on her part to give up all claims to the image. Why else display it? Then there had been a moment of sizing me up, taking my measure as it were. I would have had no recourse if she had wanted to wait for another offer.

Lastly I owe something to the person years from now whose job it will be to sort among the possessions of my life and determine what to make of this image. No testimony of provenance will make it appear valuable in any public way. There is a chance that underneath the sorting and weighing there will come to someone an interior question: "What could I do to make a home for something that until now has had this other home, this other routine of days, this geography..."

There is a chance that a relative or friend will say to the others, "I will take it."

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