Monday, March 28, 2011

Visual Culture Monday: The Quick and the Dead

Here are a couple of things to look for this week in the world of images, starting with a bit of shameless self-promotion. 

1. Speed and Splinters

A.F. Van Order's portrait of rider Arthur Mitchell
 I thought I'd would call attention to a nice piece in the April issue of Smithsonian magazine...I think it's nice, anyway, since I wrote it. It's about one Ashley Frank Van Order, a photographer and motorcycle racing promoter who made some really astonishing pictures of young men participating in what might have been the most gruesome sport that America ever loved.

Harley-Davidson team rider Harry Crandall
 In the first decade of the 20th century, shortly after the Hendee Manufacturing Company introduced the Indian motorcycle (followed, a year later, by Harley Davidson), young men began racing the new machines. At first they competed on horse-race tracks and bicycle velodromes, but around 1908 some smart guys out in Los Angeles starting building big tracks meant especially for racing motorcycles. The tracks were made out of lengths of rough-cut lumber (better for traction) and banked very steeply--like, up to 60 degrees. the early racing motorcycles were esentially bicycles with englnes--the had to be towed behind other motorcycles to get them started, and as for stopping, well, that wasn't much of a concern--brakes were not included on the machines. Riders would whip around the tracks, propelled by gasoline and centrifugal forces, reaching speeds of more than a hundred miles an hour. And when they crashed, which was far too often, they died miserable deaths and horrible wounds from hundreds of splinters. Naturally, crowds flocked to see this happen.

The era was recorded by a few filmmakers, but it was A.F. Van Order who documented the sport best, with a large-format camera on glass plate negatives. He made action photos and wonderful portraits of the brave riders who risked everything. After his death in 1954, Van Order's negatives were more or less forgotten, and  and my research for the piece took me to Southern California, where I tracked down his relatives and learned about the time in America when horses gave way to horsepower. There should be a movie.

2. Post-Mortem Publicity

The heirs of Milton Greene, who made this famous photo of Marilyn in 1954, were among those who went to battle with the Monroe Estate.
 The New York Times has a terrific Op Ed piece today called concerning the issue of post-mortem right of publicity. The writer, Ray D. Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School, does a superb job of clarifying this bizarre and shaky piece of law. (I've been sputtering about the issue for a few years now, and I almost always get myself tongue-tied when I try to explain it, so I encourage you to look at Madoff's piece.)

I first caught wind of post-mortem right of publicity when I wrote about a trial a few years back in California. The heirs of several photographers who had famously photographed Marilyn Monroe had gone to court to fight the Monroe Estate, which was and is legendary for asserting authority over the star's image and name. The essential question here is to what extent a dead person's image is considered private property. There is no federal right of publicity, so each state makes its own. California, home to many movie stars, passed a so-called post-mortem right of publicity law decades ago, giving the estates  the right to control the images and name of people even after they died. The backers of the law cited the need to protect dead celebrities from being exploited, but in reality the post-mortem right of publicity often paves the way for exploitation. The Monroe estate, run by a company in Indiana called CMG, has churched out all sorts of tacky Monroe merchandise. So a celebrity who has been dead for for nearly 50 years--who is part of the common cultural history of America--has become a business monopoly, a property controlled by a voracious company that has never minded stepping over copyright law to get what it wants. Which is money.

To the shock of many, the heirs of the photographers who went to battle against the Monroe estate back in 2007 triumphed in court; CMG then lobbied lawmakers in California to pass a new statute that would enable it to reassert it's control over the star's image and name. A state senator from Santa Monica duly got the new law passed. The attorney for the photographers then claimed that the new California law was beside the point, because though Monroe died in California she was in fact a legal resident of New York, which has no post-mortem right of publicity law. Yeah, it's complicated. Madoff argues that congress should enact a federal law that makes it clear that a person's name or image can be controlled for only a relatively short number of years after the celebrity's death. (Sort of like copyright law.) Even if there's a congressman who wants to wade into this issue, getting any law like Madoff suggests passed would be very difficult, considering the lobbying that would go on.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the link to Ray D. Madoff's Op Ed piece in The New York Times. As a musician, and photographer, I try to keep informed on copyright law, and have become somewhat alarmed with the handling (and marketing) of some of my favorite performer's estates. I agree with Mr. Madoff, a federal law that is clear, and with a limited time of post-mortem publicity rights is what is needed, and frankly, the right thing to do.