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October 6th, 2014

Nature Photographer Quits Business, Blaming Copyright Piracy

Photographers have complained plenty about online copyright infringement, but so far, the problem hasn’t driven many to quit the profession, or discontinue posting images online.

Nature photographer Alex Wild says he’s had enough, though. In an essay titled “Bugging out: How rampant online piracy squashed one insect photographer,” Wild says infringement of his work has contributed to his decision to quit photography for a position “less prone to the frustrations of a floundering copyright system.”

Wild asserts in the essay, recently published on arstechnica.com, that “For practical purposes, the Internet has become a copyright-free zone.”

He goes on to provide a long list of unauthorized commercial uses of his work, and describe the futility of his efforts to stop it.  “I send, on average, five takedown notices to Web hosts every day, devoting ten hours per week to infringements. Particularly egregious commercial infringers get invoices,” he says. “Copyright infringement drains my productivity to the point where I create hundreds fewer images each year.” Just ignoring the infringements is a bad option, and so is suing them, for several reasons he explains.  For one, his business competes with “uncredited copies of my own work.” As he explains, “Who wants to pay for an image that is already everywhere?”

Wild concludes by calling for copyright reform that provides “reassurances that the mere act of participating online won’t force [artists] to choose between bankruptcy and chasing infringers through the rabbit hole of ineffective copyright enforcement.” Which is just the kind of reform that photographers’ trade groups have been chasing for years through the rabbit hole of Washington politics.

September 24th, 2014

New Forest Service Directive on Still Photos Worries Reporters, First Amendment Activists

Proposed changes to United States Forest Service rules for photographers and videographers have some first amendment groups concerned that journalists could be required to obtain permits and pay up to $1,500 in fees to photograph within national forests, according to a report by The Oregonian.

The Oregonian quotes first amendment groups and politicians who are expressing concern about a vaguely worded directive, which could be interpreted to require special permits for all uses other than breaking news situations. Other news situations would appear to require a permit, The Oregonian says.

According to current land use requirements, special permits are  required for “use of still photographic equipment on National Forest System lands that takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.”

Special permits are also required currently for the “use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news.”

The proposed directive “would make permanent guidelines for the acceptance and denial for still photography and commercial filming permits in congressionally designated wilderness areas,” according to US government website Federal Register.

The new guidelines for granting a special use permit ask that applicants meet several requirements. Applicants should be promoting wilderness and outdoor activities, be doing work that doesn’t damage the environment or get in the way of the general public, and shouldn’t use vehicles or other machinery, among other requirements.

The Oregonian article stirring up some furor argues that “a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation’s 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.”

Maybe. The Forest Service’s special use requirements appear to be targeted at commercial photographers, not journalists engaged in legitimate news gathering. But The Oregonian report did make one rather interesting point: The maximum fee for permits is $1500, while the maximum potential fine for violating the requirements is $1000. So yes, it’s potentially cheaper to break the rules and pay the fine.

Those who wish to comment on the proposed directive on still photography and commercial filming permits can do so here.

September 12th, 2014

Friday Fun: David Yellen Shoots on Location with a Snapping Turtle and Uninvited Alligator

10_COVERThis month’s PDN cover features Ernie Brown Jr., aka The Turtleman, posing in a swamp with a large, irritated snapping turtle on his knee. For photographer David Yellen, the shoot–to promote Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman–was more harrowing than it looks.

It took place last February on the edge of a swampy pond in northern Florida. Location scouts had certified the pond as alligator-free. But Turtleman announced upon arrival that there was an alligator about. “We called bullshit on him, but he said, ‘See those air bubbles over there? They’re going to start moving.’ And five minutes later we saw the alligator’s eyeballs,” Yellen recounts. Animal wranglers took up their guard with alligator nooses. Turtleman, who specializes in ridding people’s backyards of unwanted reptiles, started diving for the gator. “He was saying, ‘I’m going to get this guy,”” Yellen says. “Luckily, he didn’t. It was a nine- or ten-foot alligator.”

With the alligator lurking around, Yellen struggled to get just the right picture of Turtleman holding the 80-pound snapping turtle. “I kept getting closer, wider, and lower,” Yellen says. “I was really pushing it.” Yellen, who had never worked with a snapping turtle before, didn’t know that large snapping turtles can extend their necks 12 inches or more. Behind him, the animal wranglers, the producer, and eventually Turtleman’s manager issued increasingly urgent warnings for Yellen to “watch out.” He was also looking through a wide angle lens, so he was getting closer to the turtle than he realized. “I thought they were being paranoid,” he says of the worried crew.

Finally the turtle got Yellen’s attention by taking a lunge toward the camera, and missing by not much. The resounding snap of its jaws unnerved Yellen, but he pressed on. “I was like, I don’t care, I’m going to get this. I just didn’t feel like I was getting it. I felt like it needed to be more intense, and I needed to try harder. So I got lower and closer.” He got so low that pond water finally flooded into his waders. “It was disgusting,” he says. With his camera—a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One back—within half an inch of the pond’s surface, he finally got the image he was after. “It’s not an intense stare-down” with the camera, he says. “[Turtleman] is not totally connecting with me. He’s just out there in the wild, and it kind of feels like that.”

August 27th, 2013

Landscape Photographer Edward Burtynsky Explores Another Endangered Resource: Water

Burtynsky-Watermark-Water
Edward Burtynsky, the photographer renowned for his monumental photographs that explore how human activity alters the landscape, has spent the last five years investigating our exploitation of a precious natural resource: Water. Spanning ten countries, “Water” may be his most ambitious project to date. “Over five years, I have explored water in various aspects; distress, control, agriculture, aquaculture, waterfront and source,” Burtynsky explains on the project’s website. Next month, Steidl will publish 114 of the images in a new book, Burtynsky –Water, and exhibitions will open at galleries in North America, Europe and the UK. A documentary about the project, Watermark, co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal, who directed Manufactured Landscapes, an earlier film about Burtynsky’s work, will be shown at the TIFF film festival in Toronto on September 6.

The film was shot in 5K high-definition video, to capture the details in his aerial views and landscapes: a ritual swim by worshippers in India’s Ganges River, an enormous dam in China, leather tanneries pumping water in Bangladesh, a suburban development sprawling across former desert in Arizona, dryland farming in Spain.

Even when seen on a computer screen, the trailer looks pretty great:

WATERMARK – Trailer from Flowers Gallery on Vimeo.

(You can also see the trailer on Vimeo.)

“Water” opens at Nicholas Metiver Gallery in Toronto on September 5. Other shows of Burtynsky’s work, including images from his project on water, open at Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City on September 19. You can view more of the images and see a full list of exhibitions on Burtynsky’s website here.

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April 2nd, 2013

Video Pick: One Family Business Copes with Climate Change

The team of Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele have long been using multimedia and video to get beyond statistics and portray the stories of individuals around the world whose lives are affected by climate change. The four new films in their Facing Climate Change are about people in the Pacific Northwest adapting to rising sea levels and atmospheric change. The films premiered this year at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival and are currently being shown around the country on a nationwide tour.

Their film “Oyster Farmers, Facing Climate Change” uses dramatic underwater footage, documentary photography and video, music and interviews to tell the story of Kathleen Nisbet and her father, Dave, who have for years farmed oysters in Washington’s Willapa Bay. Recently, however, oyster larvae and young oysters have been dying at an alarming rate because of the acidity of local waters, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide. The problem is particularly acute off the Northwest coast. The Nisbets’ solution:  moving some of their business to Hawaii, where there is less ocean upswell, and thus the acidity in the water is increasing less rapidly.

Drummond and Steele had many partners in the making of the new films, including the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington and Washington State Department of Ecology, and they received major funding from Nau’s Grant for Change and several other funders. You can read about the making of the film on Drummond and Steele’s blog, bdsjs.com/blog. You can view all the videos at bdsjs.com/facing-climate-change/ and on Vimeo.

February 27th, 2013

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day With a Look at Conservation Photography

Today the conservation organization Polar Bears International is celebrating International Polar Bear Day, a day of action and awareness that encourages people to think about their carbon footprint and the steps they can take to reduce their impact on climate change and the loss of arctic ice.

In honor of International Polar Bear Day we thought we’d highlight the work of a pair of photographers we’ve had the opportunity to interview in recent years: Paul Nicklen and Florian Schulz. Each of them has photographed polar bears and other arctic animals, and they are leading voices in the effort to conserve arctic ecosystems.

Below is our 2009 interview with Paul Nicklen about his book Polar Obsession. When we published the interview in 2009, we also featured a handful of his photographs from the book on our “PDN Photo of the Day” blog, which you can check out here. Since we published it, it’s become one of the most popular and shared posts ever on “PDN Photo of the Day.”

More recently we spoke with German photographer Florian Schulz about his book To the Arctic, about photographing in some of the remotest places on earth, and about working as a conservation photographer.

Happy International Polar Bear Day!

A Pretty Picture Isn’t Enough: An Interview with Paul Nicklen

This interview first appeared on PDNOnline on November 20, 2009.

After beginning his career as a biologist, Paul Nicklen quit his job for the Canadian government and dedicated himself to wildlife photography. Nicklen grew up in the only non-Inuit family in a small Inuit community on Baffin Island, in the remote Nunavut territory in northern Canada. There he developed an appreciation for and knowledge of the arctic that fed his photographic work.

In 1994, while struggling to make money as a young photographer, Nicklen wrote a proposal to the Nunavut territorial government asking for funding to begin a book project documenting wildlife in the arctic and Antarctica. The government cut him a check for $8,000.

For the next 15 years, first as a freelancer and then as a National Geographic photographer, Nicklen worked to document nearly every species of wildlife in the polar regions, while never losing sight of that first proposal. “When I’m mentoring young photographers, I tell them to think of some major project all their stories can fall under, so you can have an identity some day, and do a book and all that,” Nicklen says. National Geographic Focal Point recently released Nicklen’s book, aptly titled Polar Obsession. It’s the realization of a decade and a half making pictures in some of the harshest and most remote regions of the world.

But as Paul Nicklen told PDN, beautiful pictures aren’t enough to capture the attention of audiences during this critical time for polar ecosystems.

PDN: What do you hope the book conveys to readers?

Paul Nicklen: Being a biologist for so many years and working so hard to collect data, I felt so helpless with these data sets that we worked so hard to bring back to the government. We were really slow at sharing the data and having other scientists share their data with us. Eventually, [after establishing a photography career] I did some scientific stories for Geographic, and then one day I did an article that was more of an emotional plea to the readers of Geographic. I actually thought it was going to bomb. I was very surprised that it was ranked as the number one story in Geographic that year through their readership survey, and it was ranked as the highest [readership survey] score in the last 17 years at National Geographic, so that gave me the confidence that I had found a formula of reaching out to people.

What the book does and what the article did is just to let people know how connected the animals and species are to an icy polar existence. I had a very respected scientist say to me: If we lose ice, we lose an ecosystem. Ice is like the soil in the ground. One piece of multiyear ice has 300 species of microorganisms in it. When the sun returns to the arctic in the spring, you get the big phytoplankton blooms under the ice, all this algae growing, you get the copepods and amphipods feeding on that, which makes up the biggest biomass in the arctic ecosystem. You’ve got the arctic cod feeding on that, you’ve got the seals feeding on the cod, you’ve got the whales feeding on the cod, and then you’ve got of course the polar bears feeding on the seals. This chain all the way through is tied to the ice.

When there’s a bad ice year, those copepods and amphipods are severely affected. The original projections were that the arctic was going to be ice-free by 2100. Now they say the arctic is going to be completely free of ice in the next 7-15 years, and so the projections have been off, its accelerating at a much faster rate than we ever thought. Were all getting caught off guard by how quickly its disappearing.

PDN: When you began this work, were you at all aware of these concerns?

PN: No, not at all. When I first started in photography in 1994, that was around the time that game farms really broke onto the market and you could go photograph snow leopards and rent a wolverine and a black bear and grizzly all in one day for $500. Because of my science background and my biology training and my passion for the polar regions, I thought, The more people that [go to game farms], the better, the more I need to go up and shoot the habitat and show the interconnectivity between the species and the ice. So I gambled and it paid off. I shot hard for those 7 years. Then 2002 rolls around and thats when we started to get the first cries that things were changing in the arctic. I went on some scientific trips, and then by 2004 people were saying were in serious trouble. I felt lucky to already have a really big body of work at that point. Ive photographed every species in the arctic and most of the species in Antarctica now. So I was lucky to be on top of it.

PDN: Once that information started to come to light, did it change your work or your goals, or what you did with your photographs?

PN: Yes and no. I started out in photography as a pretty picture photographer. I just wanted to shoot beautiful pictures of beautiful creatures sitting in the polar regions. But that left me feeling really empty in my work. Then luckily I met [wildlife photographers] Flip Nicklin and Joel Sartore and they both mentored me, and really taught me the power of telling a story. I realized you don’t need a lot of different pictures, you can still have the candy, and then you just need a few pictures of ice and copepods to show people how its all tied together. I don’t need hundreds of pictures of people taking ice core samples. One quote from a scientist will cover all of that type of photography. So I’m again coming from the angle of celebrating the life in the arctic and saying this is what we stand to lose unless we change our ways.

PDN: Are you making more of an effort now to find ways to do be an advocate for climate change issues?

PN: I allow [all the scientists that I work with] to use my photography at no charge. The best scientists I’ve worked with were the worst communicators, by far. My goal is to bridge the gap between good scientific research and the public. These scientists are out there speaking and showing all these really bad pictures, they’re showing PowerPoint presentations of these pie charts and I think that people are glazing over. So I’m like, Why don’t you insert a few pictures to keep them entertained and then hit them with the pie charts and the graphs?

I speak as much as possible. It’s a decent way to make a living and its also really getting the message out there. I spoke to Dow Chemicals; I spoke to a bunch of ad agencies, to Microsoft and Apple; I spoke to Frito-Lay, PepsiCo. At the end of the Frito-Lay talk I got a standing ovation, and the CEO got up and said, “I’m buying 1000 copies of your book and giving it to all upper management in my company.” You just start to get the message out there any way you can.

PDN: Do you have an agent for your speaking engagements or does National Geographic set them up?

PN: I’m with the speakers bureau here at Geographic and I book my own gig the odd time. I like it because on the [Geographic speaker] Web page it talks about photographers with environmental messages, and I don’t shy away from that. I’m not trying to do these high-paying motivational speeches, I’m coming in with a message and if people don’t want to hear it they wont enjoy my talk. I had one complaint yesterday with someone saying my talk was entertaining but it was just a little too environmental. And it wasn’t even that environmental, but people just don’t want to hear it. People are busy; they’ve got their kids, their spouses, their Blackberries and cell phones going off, and its just one more thing to have to worry about.

PDN: How have the downturns in the economy and the magazine market affected what you do?

PN: It hasn’t affected me financially, maybe because I’m shooting global warming issues and polar regions. I think I’ve had my best stock year ever. But what has really hurt what I’m doing and what message were trying to get out there, is as soon as the economy tanks, climate change drops way down the list. Almost all the decisions people make are financially based [in a bad economy]. So I feel that my message is falling more on deaf ears.

PDN: How has photographic technology influenced your work?

PN: It’s just huge. I was on a story in 2004 for Geographic diving in the fastest ocean currents in the world, really technical diving, and to go down with multiple film housings and multiple strobes—when you shoot underwater strobes you have to shoot manual exposure, TTL just does not work underwater—and my project wasn’t going well. I talked to Kathy Moran, my editor, and she said, I can see you’re trying, it looks really difficult, but you’re not getting it, you’re just missing it. Right then I went and bought two brand new, expensive [Canon] EOS 1D film cameras, and I thought I’ll just buy a digital [Canon] 1D Mark II just to have on the side so I can start dabbling. Well those film bodies never came out of their boxes. I paid $3000 each and I sold them on eBay for $200 each and I’ve never looked back. That was in 2004. Now I can put a camera in my housing, put in a 16MB card that will shoot 500 frames. I’ve got [the equivalent of] 15 rolls of film underwater without having to go back up and change film, and I can instantly see what my lights are doing, I can instantly check my histogram.

When I did the leopard seal story [published in the book], all of a sudden I’m having an encounter with this animal that’s feeding me penguins, it’s the most magical encounter I’ve ever had with an animal, and if I had film I would have shot 35 frames, I would have lost most of those to bad exposure or other things, and I would have turned my back on that animal and ended that encounter. Swim away from an animal like that, you end the encounter. So here I am, I was able to shoot 15 “rolls” on my first dive with a leopard seal and I ended up shooting that entire assignment in four days. Normally an assignment is 12 weeks. So that’s what digital has done for me. And in the underwater world its very dark, and now I can switch to 1000 ISO. On one of my assignments [I was hand-holding], doing ten second exposures at night underwater and just sitting on the bottom. I never would have considered doing anything like that with film.

PDN: What advice would you give to young people who are interested in photographing wildlife as a career?

PN: I would tell them to get really used to the idea of rejection. Start off high. Shoot something you are really proud of. Send it to someone where you want it [published]. When they send you a rejection letter, send it to three more people who are next on the ladder, and if you get rejections from them send it to 90 more people, until someone picks it up.

People get so emotional in this business and they get the first rejection letter and the negative thoughts start to run through their heads. It takes a lot of patience, because no one else is going to believe in you until you build up that portfolio. You have to keep hammering away.

Don’t quit your day job until you have all of the equipment that you need and enough money to travel. I quit my government job, announced to the world that I was a professional photographer and I had saved 60 thousand dollars. Within one year of running my business I was flat broke and had not sold a picture. It took me three years before I was breaking even in my business, six years before I was making a profit, and then I got lucky to get into the Geographic system. Know that its going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, by far.

PDN: Has the majority of your work been self-assigned or have you done it on assignment?

PN: The first six years of my career were freelance, just shooting all my own personal stock, trying to get noticed by National Geographic. I did a bunch of stories for Canadian Geographic and Equinox and other magazines, but I wanted the big yellow monster. In 2001 I got my first assignment with Geographic and then they assigned the next two after that, and then the last eight have been my proposals.

PDN: How many projects are you able to do in a year?

PN: I’ve been shooting for [National Geographic] for eight years and I’ve shot 11 projects, so 1.3, I would say. And that’s pretty busy. You’re not [spending] a lot of time in the field but you have a lot of research time, you’re doing lectures, you’re editing, you’re at home buying and fixing gear trying to get ready for the trips.

PDN: Are there other organizations that you work for, or do your Geographic assignments eat up all of your time?

PN: I just did an assignment not too long ago for New York Times Magazine. That’s about it, and that was a real push for me, I had to squeeze them in one week between Geographic lectures and traveling. I’m really a bit of a recluse. When I’m not shooting I like to put my camera away, I like to hide it. You need down time and my dream is to fly my airplane. I bought an airplane five years ago and it sat in my driveway for those five years and I finally got to fly it this summer.

I’m also associated with the International League of Conservation Photographers. I do work with them, lecture with them and go on their RAVES, (Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions), so I go try and help their cause as well. I’m busier than I want to be, but the snowball started to roll on its own and I cant run from it at this stage. If I’m tired and exhausted and working hard, that’s it, you’ve got to keep going.

November 14th, 2012

The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos

© Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

At a time of cost cutting for media budgets, lots of news organizations imagine that user-generated content can fill the void. But the recent failure of crowd-sourced news photos of Hurricane Sandy, and the shortage of coverage of other climate change-fueled disasters around the world, demonstrate how far we are from truly democratizing the medium of photography. Photographers worry that the lowering of technological barriers means “everyone’s a photographer now,” but in fact, the number of people who can take and share news photos is still limited by economics, infrastructure and geography.

Now that news organizations have quit crowd-sourcing instantaneous images of the approaching storm, we are seeing enterprising professional photojournalists who are focused less on flooded tunnels and wrecked cars, and have been seeking out the less obvious stories behind the slow process of rebuilding, rehousing the displaced, and supporting those underserved by relief efforts. (The New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson’s November 2 coverage of people coping without power, elevators, heat or  a sense of security on the upper floors of public housing projects is one example.)

Among the critics of the media’s immediate response to the storm, photographer Kenneth Jarecke  and Prison Photography’s Pete Brook  (who gathered a round-up of storm coverage) seem most irked by the poor quality of many of the images editors chose to publish (by professionals commissioned to shoot on iPhones and by amateurs).  “Most of the photographs are REALLY bad,” Jarecke wrote. “It’s history. It changes people’s lives. You’re not allowed to make excuses or drop the ball, but sadly most of you did.”

As a New Yorker who was seeking up-to-date information about friends and loved ones the day after the storm made landfall, I’ll forgive esthetic lapses in favor of timely and useful information. The problem was, amateur photographers don’t seem to know how to write captions, and they lack  journalistic instincts.

(more…)

October 29th, 2012

PPE 2012: James Balog on Using Art to Alter Perception About the Environment

As the Northeast braces for Hurricane Sandy to make landfall this evening, with schools and offices—including PDN‘s—closed in preparation, it seems an appropriate time to recap photographer James Balog‘s keynote address this past Saturday at Photo Plus Conference + Expo. Balog’s talk covered his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) project, which shows through time-lapse video the recession of 27 glaciers around the northern hemisphere, from Greenland to Iceland to Alaska to Montana and Nepal. The time-lapses are remarkable: viewers the recent spike in the earth’s temperature manifested in the shrinking of massive glaciers over the course of just a few years. Balog also introduced and screened a documentary about the EIS project, called “Chasing Ice” (see the trailer here).

Balog has dedicated his life and career to photographing the environment and nature, and his talk was more focused on how humans are changing the planet than on photography. But it did present the photographers in the audience with some insights into how photographic tools can be used to change public opinion and into how one photographer is accomplishing that task.

“Art in combination with science has proven to be effective” in shifting the public understanding, Balog noted in explaining his methods and thinking. “We are visual witnesses. [Cameras] are not just tools, they are vital parts of the sensory apparatus of the human race.” Indeed the EIS time lapses, enabled by digital camera technology, have allowed Balog and his team to show us something we could never have otherwise seen.

Balog was a budding scientist when he decided he was more interested in photography than in statistics and crunching numbers, he recalled. As a young adult he “realized that one of the pivotal issues of our era is the intersection of humans and nature,” and his work has focused on “probing that boundary,” he explained.

The EIS project grew from assignments from National Geographic and the New Yorker to photograph glaciers. Through those assignments Balog discovered a way to visualize the idea that humans “are changing the basic operating system of the earth” by burning hydrocarbons, and that that reality could be understood through looking at the planet’s ice. Glaciers serve as barometers and thermometers for the planet, Balog noted, and “everyone knows what happens when ice melts.”

When he launched the EIS project five years ago, Balog and his team created digital camera systems with custom-made timers and solar panels that would capture an image of a glacier every 1/2 hour during daylight hours. Those systems were mounted in modified Pelican cases and trekked into remote areas around the planet to record the changes to some of the most massive glaciers in the world. The results of the project address the “need to introduce more understanding of the truth” of how humans are changing the basic functioning of the earth.

During his talk Balog noted that “Chasing Ice” has been sent several times to President Obama, and to every member of Congress. The film will open in 24 theaters nationwide in November, expanding to more theaters if the public response is positive. Balog also said the EIS group is engaging with the Evangelical Creation Care movement to spread the word about the project and film among that group, which is dedicated to preserving the environment. A book of Balog’s glacier photographs, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, was also released last month from Rizzoli.

Balog envisions the EIS project going on indefinitely, he noted. He also spoke about a new non-profit organization he is establishing called Earth Vision Trust, which will look to fund other people’s environmental projects through fellowships.

September 14th, 2012

PDN Video Pick: Chasing The Light (With the New Nikon D600)

Wildlife photographer Florian Schulz, who we profiled in the August 2012 issue of PDN, was asked by Nikon to put the recently released D600 through its paces. Schulz was the first photographer to test the camera in the field. He and his brother, filmmaker Salomon Schulz, produced this short film, titled “Chasing the Light.”

NIKON – CHASING THE LIGHT from Florian Schulz on Vimeo.

Related: Photokina 2012: Nikon Debuts Smaller, 24.3MP Full-Frame D600 DSLR for Photo Enthusiasts

August 13th, 2012

Self-Proclaimed Photo Montage Virtuoso Is Sued for Stealing Photos

©Thomas Barbèy. “Rhinal Congestion”

Muench Photography and Mountain Light Photography have filed a copyright infringement claim against a Las Vegas-based photomontage artist for unauthorized use of two of their photographs.

The artist, Thomas Barbèy, creates surrealistic photomontages. According to his Tumblr page, he uses  images that he shoots on his travels all over the world. He claims inspiration from René Magritte, M.C. Escher, and Roger Dean, and says, “I’m constantly asked about how I do [the montages], I would like to think that the pictures can be appreciated without any real knowledge of their technical virtuosity. The visionary inspiration and imagination is not a technical skill learned in school but rather to my personal belief a gift from God.”

And theft of other people’s photographs, allegedly.

©Muench Photography. “El Capitan in Winter, Yosemite National Park”

“He claimed he took all of these images himself, and he clearly doesn’t,” says Marc Muench, one of the plaintiffs, who is suing Barbèy in a federal court in Los Angeles.

“The claims in this lawsuit have no merit whatsoever,” says Barbèy’s attorney, Charles Harder.

According to the lawsuit, Barbèy created an image that he titled “Rhinal Congestion” (it shows multiple rhinos in a snowscape) using an image by Muench called “El Capitan in Winter, Yosemite National Park.” Muench’s image appeared in 1993 in a book called National Parks of America (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company). He also registered the image with the US Copyright Office that same year.

The lawsuit also alleges that Barbèy used a photograph called “Quadruple Falls at Dawn, Glacier National Park,” shot by the late Galen Rowell of Mountain Light Photography, to create a photo montage titled “Pitcher Books.” Rowell’s “Quadruple Falls” image was first published in 1997. Mountain Light registered the image with the US Copyright Office in 2009.

Barbèy sells his prints through his own gallery in Hawaii, as well as through an online retailer called Artifacts Gallery. “Pitcher Books” and “Rhinal Congestion” are priced at $1500 each on the Artifacts Gallery Web site.

Charles Harder says that his client’s use of the Muench and Mountain Light images is protected by “the legal doctrine of transformative use, as well as the doctrines of fair use and de minimis use.” The lawsuit tries to pre-empt a fair use defense by saying that Barbèy’s images do not “criticize, comment on, or otherwise refer the viewer to” the Muench  and Mountain Light photographs.

©Thomas Barbèy. “Pitcher Books”

Harder also says that the statute of limitations applies in this case. He is suggesting, in other words, that Muench and Mountain Light didn’t bring their claim to court soon enough, so it will be dismissed.

Harder says there were “very minimal sale of the works at issue, so even if there was liability (which there is not), damages would be nominal.”

That might be the case for the Mountain Light image, which was registered after the alleged infringement, making Mountain Light eligible for actual damages only. But the Muench image was registered prior to the alleged infringement. So if a court holds Barbèy liable for infringement, Muench would be eligible for statutory damages.

Mountain Light’s operations manager was not immediately available for comment.

©Mountain Light Photography. “Quadruple Falls at Dawn, Glacier National Park, Montana”