Rodney Smith Scolds PDN About March Cover Image

Shortly after we published our Lighting issue, in which we featured Cade Martin’s use of HMI lights to shoot the Starbuck’s Tazo tea campaign, photographer Rodney Smith cried foul. He sent us an e-mail saying that many people had contacted him to say they thought Martin’s work, including the image we ran on our cover, copied Smith’s work.

Smith directed us to a post on his blog in which he had written, “What I’m really not sure about, is why someone would applaud or even hire a vision that is by it’s [sic] very nature ‘second-rate.’” Smith didn’t name Martin or PDN specifically, but his blog post went on to say: “I realize that there is always much in life to imitate and the urge to do so is enormous, yet I also realize that to be original one has to look deep within themselves and find what no one else can copy, a very private voice.” The post appears with an image by Smith of a woman sitting in a fancy house in streams of sunlight, surrounded by teacups.

Smith also told PDN that Starbucks had contacted him about shooting for the campaign, though he couldn’t remember when.

The question Smith seems to be posing on his blog is: How could PDN have featured work that shares similar propping and subject matter as an image created previously? The answer is: We hadn’t seen Smith’s image. We know a lot of Smith’s black-and-white work, but hadn’t seen—or at least didn’t remember—the work that Martin’s resembles.  So, if we had see Smith’s images first, would we have asked Martin to explain the lighting techniques he used to create another model-with-teacups image?  Probably not.

In the plethora of images that surround us daily, we are constantly seeing projects, photo stories and campaigns that resemble works we’ve seen before. Comparison is inevitable, and we tend to privilege whichever example we saw first, and ignore the one we saw later. And at a time when ad agencies and clients are cautious of greenlighting any idea that isn’t tried and tested, photographers who manage to squeeze something fresh and inventive to their depiction of familiar themes and visual symbols are more likely to grab our attention.

We’re frequently sent pairs (or trios) of similar-looking photo projects by outraged readers who think they’re clear-cut examples of copyright infringement. But these similarities rarely rise to the legal definition of infringement, because the subject of a photograph isn’t protected by copyright law.  Recently an appeals court judged who ruled against a photographer in an infringement case expressed sympathy with “the frustration of photographers …whose works are afforded a limited copyright because they are comprised substantially of unprotected content.” As the Supreme Court has stated, “copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.”  Inventing new photographic material whole cloth, without reference or regard to the models of the past – from Rembrandt to the latest photography show – is nearly impossible in photography, and it would produce aridly self-referential work. The creativity of photographers who “build freely” on models from the past helps their work stand out, and push the medium forward.

Martin wouldn’t respond to our request for comment, beyond saying that he’s proud of his contribution to the campaign and the accolades it’s received. We appreciate that he gave so much time to sharing techniques and lighting advice, both with to and with our readers.

* Photos, above: © PDN/photo by Cade Martin (left); © Rodney Smith (right).

Related Article:

Lighting Recipe: Cade Martin’s Whimsical Advertising Work

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34 Responses to “Rodney Smith Scolds PDN About March Cover Image”

  1. Neil Snape Says:

    Both are good, neither are second rate, neither are really unique. If photographers stopped reproducing what they have seen before, there would be almost no pictures to make.
    If it really is plagiarism then Rodney Smith should give him credit in his ability to reproduce the said original at such a high level.

    Personally I find the Alice in Wonderland style wonderfully done by Tim Walker, who everyone is copying these days.

  2. Carl Baxter Says:

    With all due respect Neil I think that Rodney shouldn’t give him credit at all.

    Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattering I totally disagree with this quote : I think imitation is the laziest way to do our work, what’s the value of us photographers if we are going to be copying our works among us?

    How about taking the idea of the cups and doing something completely different, something that’s not similar to what Smith has done?? that’s inspiration taking the idea of the tea cup lady to another idea that doesn’t shares the elements that make it similar to the other one?

    In the end we are supposedly hired because we have our way to see the world, not because we can make slight changes to someone’s else ideas.

  3. john hryniuk Says:

    Get over yourself Rodney Smith…. everything has been done before. ” Never copy another photographers work only improve upon it. ” was a mantra taught to me by a great photographer.

  4. Cynthia Wood Says:

    Carl, your response is predicated on the assumption that Cade Martin was aware of and familiar with Rodney Smith’s image.

    In this day and age, when there are a gazillion photographers producing a bazillion images, both as professionals and as amateurs or hobbyists, it would be absolutely ludicrous to assume that one photographer has seen the work of another – unless, perhaps, we are talking about an iconic image that one would be extremely hard-pressed to deny having seen/prior knowledge of (e.g., something along the lines of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” image).

  5. Bill Wassmann Says:

    The two photographs are similar but one does not copy the other. Every designer keeps a “swipe” file,not to steal but to get inspiration and get the juices flowing. Writers read other writer’s books. There is nothing truly new in the world.

  6. Ed Says:

    Please, Rodney Smith claiming ownership to the idea of a woman sitting in voluminous dress surrounded by tea cups is ludicrous. You put 10 people in a room and ask them to come up with an idea for the same campaign and 9 out of 10 will come up with concepts very similar to both those guys. Why? Because surrounding women in beautiful dresses in large estates in some surreal setting is as old as when the Masters started painting.

    It’s not a copy because it’s practically impossible to copy unless that is your sole intent, because I am not you and you are not me. We will see the same scene differently, and that is why your images will always look different from my images even though we shot from the same location and used the same lighting and camera settings.

    To be fair to the photographer who shot the image for the campaign is that it’s probably not his concept anyway, but that of an agency creative director so if there’s any criticism it would be in “you can’t get more creative than that?”.

  7. Shahab Says:

    I agree with Ed. The PDN cover is hardly a copy at all.

  8. Eye Roll Says:

    What a douche. I guess he’s the first person to take a photo with a woman and a bunch of tea cups. HE must have invented even the idea of tea cups. Just another bitter and angry photographer, doesn’t the industry have enough of those.

  9. brandon s warren Says:

    Ideas can’t be claimed or copyrighted to bad for him. Ive seen ideas I have drawn in journals as a kid be made into pictures by others then me, even now –

    everything under the sun has been done. – king solomon.

  10. Nate Benson Says:

    If photographers and content creators spent as much time on their work and honing their talent as they did complaining about being ripped off then the internet side of the industry would be much better off.

    Are these photos similar in concept? Yep.
    Is this, as Ed correctly pointed out, a relatively mainstream concept? Yep.

    It’s one thing if we’re talking about a legitimate copyright infringement, but these images are just similar concepts, nothing more.

  11. Synthetic Tone Says:

    Same concept… yes. Same result… no. They are different enough that it is not a copy. Actually, the PDN cover was done much better IMHO. Nobody pose a homeless man near a light pole please. I’ve already shot this concept.

  12. Liam Strain Says:

    It would be one thing if the Art Director for the shoot had provided Smith’s photo to Martin and asked him to reproduce the concept… but the much more likely scenario is the art director or creative director provided a sketch or written description of the scene and told Martin to have at it.

    I don’t see any evidence of foul anything here, except perhaps an industry wide lack of creativity.

    Further, for the purposes of PDN’s usage, even if they had been aware of Smith’s images, the article was talking abou the lighting used for the published campaign – still very much on topic despite the recycled idea. Non story, and non-infringement in my non-attorney opinion.

  13. Tim Skipper Says:

    I think people forget that all creative endeavors are a copy in some fashion or form. Everyone creates from a well pool of images, words, and sounds that float around in our imagination. Maybe this old verse from the Bible is right:

    “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
    Ecclesiastes 1:9

  14. Richard Morava Says:

    I say BOTH images are influenced by the 1984 Steve Perry music video for the song “Oh Sherry.”

  15. Len Carsillo Says:

    Hey Rodney…want some cheese with that wine? The only “foul” here, is your attitude…I guess I won’t be shooting anymore sandy beaches at sunrise or sunset. I wouldn’t want anyone “copying” me! SHEEZE…GET A LIFE!

  16. Matt Says:

    seems to me that Starbucks wanted to use that image and Smith either didn’t want it to be used or never contacted them back or asked too much money to so they ran the design by Martin and he created it.

  17. Lisa Says:

    With the sheer number of people who live on this planet, it’s hard to have an original idea. Proof is in Hollywood — even movies that were bad the first time around are being remade.

    However, I can understand the photographer’s point of view. Though, it would seem to me that his “original idea” stems from something that I believe I recall seeing in a Disney film entitled “Alice in Wonderland” when I was younger (minus the rays of light). I think it’s probably more coincidence than copycat.

    And your statement “the subject of a photograph isn’t protected by copyright law” and the following definition — while correct in a technical sense — has been challenged somewhat successfully. David LaChapelle sued Rhianna for copying his “style” and the judge denied the motion to dismiss — ultimately LaChapelle received a handsome settlement. There’s another story (in PetaPixel’s archives) about risking copyright infringement if you take a photo that has similar elements to another’s photo (paraphrased). There’s dichotomy in having an idea/style and expressing it in photos, and more courts are finding in favor of the originator if there’s too much of a similarity in the challenged image. This sort of situation is just going to get worse in the future — it’s going to be nearly impossible for people to distinguish between “inspiration” and “copying”. And that’s unfortunate.

  18. Originality? | Kenny Braun Says:

    […] What’s fresh and what’s not? […]

  19. Originality | Kenny Braun Says:

    […] What’s fresh and new and what’s old and borrowed? […]

  20. Randy Says:

    Shooting below the subject vs. even with the subject.
    Emphasizing the floor pattern vs. emphasizing the subject feet
    Light from behind vs. side lighting.
    Pink vs. Blue.
    Stairs vs. flat floor.

    So…is every photo with cups and women a copy? Because I saw this suspicious Folgers advertisement…

  21. PDN versus Rodney Smith | the intrepid photographer Says:

    […] Original article here […]

  22. Andy Kopietz Says:

    You mean to tell me that this image wasn’t conceived out of art direction from the client? That this image was solely the idea of the photographer? That Starbucks gave him complete license to execute his vision on behalf of their entire campaign? Perhaps the creative team who hired him to visualize the campaign is more at fault than the photographer.

  23. Georgie Says:

    To me it sounds just like Apple vs Samsung deal. “he said apple sue him” “Ahh it has coffee cups and a girl in it”. Like many above said if there was no reproductions there would be nothing to photograph. Honestly I dont even see the relation between two photographs. Like the photographers have the ability to express their view on the world through pictures and images people “who by the way are smarter that artists give them credit” see an image based on their view on the world. Get over it and keep photographing.

  24. Max Savant Says:

    “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Picasso

  25. Weekly Wrap-up, March 25th-29th | Chris Crisman Photography Says:

    […]  – PDN Pulse has a very interesting read on Photographer Rodney Smith’s reaction to their Mar… […]

  26. Nik Says:

    Seriously, what’s wrong with (some of) you people? These pictures have nothing in common except a woman, a tea cup and (maybe) the dress (which isn’t even very similar). Shall this guy now sue everyone who takes a picture of a woman holding a tea cup or what? Seriously, you really should think about how stupid this fuss actually is.

  27. Jim Says:

    I attended a workshop on Copyright given by the APA a few months ago in Hollywood. Many examples of very similar works were shown, including some works of Jill Greenberg that were knocked-off almost to minute detail, except for differences in lighting, which was the key. The fact is that concepts are not copyrightable, only the execution of the concept, and even that can be difficult to decide in court. The two images shown here are similar, yes, but I doubt you’d find a lawyer who would be willing to sue for copyright violation.

  28. Frank Zimmermann Says:

    i agree with what Andy Kopietz comment about where the idea originated. i ? Smiths fuzzy memory about when he was contacted about the campaign and those specifics.
    i image googled -Teacup, women, mansion and the most interesting result was a drawing of a women with a teacup on her head. There two images did not turn up ? These two are similar but not the “same” they both convey very different “feel”.

  29. JG Says:

    Just did Google image search
    “surrounded by tea cups teacups”
    = no images of someone surrounded by
    teacups as in above two photos…
    so where’s proof that this is NOT original idea…?

    And as to all the “Everything that can be invented has been invented” comments in this thread:

  30. Photog Accuses PDN of Using a 'Second-Rate' Imitation on Their March Cover Says:

    […] or not, the magazine’s editors didn’t hesitate to respond to the accusations in a post of their own. After explaining that Smith reached out to them privately via e-mail, they go on to say that, in […]

  31. AK Says:

    As JG said – who is to say that Martin ever even saw Smith’s photo? I’m consistently researching product and conceptual photography, and this is the first I’ve seen of it. Get. Over. Yourself. Everything is an imitation of something.

  32. Tesha Wheeler Says:

    I imagine myself enjoying tea the way Smith portrayed…sitting barefoot with simple attire and having fun, maybe even goofing off with the teapot on my head. That is totally the feel of enjoying tea that I want. NOT in a bulky dress on a set of stairs (not comfy at all!) looking pretentious. If thats their model and target audience of who should enjoy their tea, I’m not a fan…and I bet I am not alone. I think Starbucks/TAZO got this one all wrong.

  33. Cade Martin Brews a Little Controversy & Whimsy with Tazo Tea Says:

    […] its critics though. Photographer Rodney Smith claims the PDN cover image from the campaign is a copy of his own work. Yet, in such a visually inundated society, is it possible for all things to be completely […]

  34. Safi Says:

    I don’t agree with a lot of the posts. I believe some posters may be unaware of Smith’s work. I recognize three Rodney Smith pictures in the one above by Cade Martin. Also, several of the pictures on Cade Martin’s website have an uncanny resemblance to some other Rodney Smith iconic pictures as well. To me it appears to be a rip off. With that said it’s a rather good rip off. I’d liken it to a really well made fake watch.