On November 6, I wrote a post about Callie Shell's photographs and the photo essay “The Campaign from Obama’s Point of View” in which I expressed the thought that a reference to Paul Fusco's "R.F.K. Funeral Train" would have been in order. In a situation like this, I half expected a response from the photographer, but there was no reply for a month and a half. Then yesterday I received this e-mail from Callie Shell:
Dear Mr. Danziger,
Your recent blog post concerning my photographs from the Obama campaign has made some assumptions that are incorrect.
Firstly, because Michael George made a comparison of my work to that of Paul Fusco’s, you feel that I appropriated, imitated and ripped-off Mr. Fusco’s work.
Wow, that’s really unfair and wrong.
I began photographing in this manner around 1992 during the presidential campaign - continuing on for the next eight years as a White House photographer. For me it has been a personal project and quite frankly a way to kill time traveling at full speed in motorcades, staff vans, buses, trains, helicopters or airplanes. I have continued this work since 2001 as a contract photographer for TIME.
As I’m sure you are aware Mr. Fusco’s essay was photographed in one day in 1968 and sat unpublished until 2001. The work was virtually unseen until the first exhibit in Perpignan, France in 2000 at Visa pour l’Image.
I am a great fan of his work but I didn’t copy him.
I also didn’t copy Robert Frank’s work from a bus, Lee Friedlander’s from a car or anyone else’s work for that matter.
Many photographers have effectively used a personal vantage point to make photographs, that hardly makes a case for appropriation or theft, as you imply.
Your comments as to the poetic or compositional height of my work as compared to his are well taken even in this apples and oranges comparison.
I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t edit this essay or have any control over it. I didn’t even know it was going to be put up on the site. It is definitely not the edit I would have made.
These photographs are indeed just O.K and to have said they were inspired by Mr. Fusco would have been an insult to his work.
My entire body of work is indeed inspired by the work of Mr. Fusco and many other committed photojournalists from whom I have learned so much from in my career. I feel the body of work I have produced for Time on the 2008 campaign says a lot more than the one site in your discussion.
In the journalistic world you have accused me of plagiarism, something that I don't take casually.
I would ask you to reconsider your initial post.
I wrote this reply:
Thank you for your e-mail. I had some reservations about posting the piece, mostly because I try to take pains not to use my blog to be negative. But as you perhaps realize, I am very close to Paul Fusco and his work and when the similarities were brought to my attention, I did feel somewhat indignant on his behalf.
On re-reading my piece just now, I actually think I was quite careful and measured in what I said, but nevertheless I am happy to hear your side of the story as well as to take you at your word. I will publish your letter right away without any further critique of the work. Would you like to send me a selection of j-pegs of what you feel are some of your best Obama pictures? It would be nice to run some of the pictures that you would personally select.
Lastly, I would be happy to meet in person either at the gallery or at a more convenient place for you.
I have not received a reply. So I took in on myself to look up what I could of Shell's work and reconsider my initial post as requested.
As you can clearly see from the the pictures above and below, Ms. Shell is indeed a talented photographer who reached the heights in her longstanding coverage of Obama himself. With regard to the Fusco point, however, I think she doth protest too much. Neither Frank or Winogrand's pictures have the same photographic perspective or political context to Shell's TIME photo essay whereas Fusco's do. As to the edit being out of her hands, that should be a lesson for every photographer.
I hope one thing readers of this blog have come to see is that I try very hard to use the blog for sharing a love of good photography, not critical dismissal. So while I still stand by my original post on “The Campaign from Obama’s Point of View”, I'm absolutely delighted to share my new appreciation of a larger view of Shell's work and I'd be happy to exhibit a good edit of her work.
On November 17, I did post another of Shell's pictures that I considered a "better" picture and a link to a better selection of her work. Click here and scroll down. But I understand and appreciate her need to address the earlier post.