by Jonathan Blaustein

Hello, Controversy. Como estas? We haven’t had a chance to catch up lately. How have you been? Keeping busy, I’m sure.

I’m well, thanks. I made it to Texas and back without getting hassled by the fuzz. It hasn’t been as cold here recently, so I don’t have anything to complain about. I’ve been trying to push the envelope as a writer, but some weeks I just don’t have it in me.

But what about you? I was thinking it might be fun to invite you into the column again this week. Sometimes, it’s tricky to predict your next visit. Like that RJ Shaughnessy dustup. Who knew people would get so worked up because I kinda-liked a book about pretty LA teenagers self-published by a commercial photographer?

Other times, though, it’s not hard to guess. Take Pieter Hugo, for instance. That guy courts you like a horny hedge funder sniffing around an ovulating supermodel. You and Mr. Hugo have dinner together every week, right?

Yes, Pieter Hugo is guaranteed to get people talking. But so is the idea of plagiarism. (Or copying.) Do people actually do that? Ideas are in the air, and everyone’s afraid of getting ripped off. Personally, I’ve never had the stones to ask that guy who did “The Poverty Line” if he saw my work before making his. Too unseemly. What? I just called him out? Shit.

But what about Mr. Hugo? Let’s deflect it back. His new book, “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” is compelling and taut, like everything he does. Super-well-made. It consists of photographs of his friends, made in color and then converted in the computer. He manipulated the channels to make the portraits reflect the damage done to skin by UV rays.

Which is almost exactly the same project done by Cara Phillips a few years back. (To be clear, she used actual UV photography, and he digitally altered. She photographed with eyes closed; he with eyes open.) What happened here? Who made the work first? Did he know of her project? (Or she of his?) If so, did he decide to proceed because it was his right to make whatever he wants to make?

Or is this just another instance of two people having a similar idea around the same time, and then coming to market separately? I’ve seen it before. At Review Santa Fe in ’09, Emily Shur showed me photos of cell phone towers masquerading as trees. The next month, I saw the same idea, done by a German photographer, published in Aperture. Did she abandon the project, knowing she was beat to the punch? I don’t know.

But the book, you say? Well, Controversy, it’s a good one. Super sharp, weird portraits. This guy is a pro, and really knows how to make a picture. The images definitely reference old school photography, like new school wet-plate-collodion. (That filter has to exist somewhere, right?) And some of the subjects’ eyes are totally possessed, referencing back to his Nollywood pictures. The dirty-ish faces also make me think of miners, which in South Africa is an apt reference.

But what about the Elephant in the room? Since these were photographed in Africa, ought we not mention the unmentionable? Mr. Hugo, as you know best, Controversy, is often lambasted for being a white guy who photographs black people, sometimes in unflattering ways. So I can’t omit the fact that in some of these pictures, it appears as if he’s painted his friends in blackface. (If I didn’t say it, someone else would have.)

Of course, I like this book. And I like the pictures. They’re raw and experimental and powerful. Did he cop the idea off of someone else? I don’t know. Am I accusing him? Definitely not.

But in the Internet age, it’s easier to steal or be influenced by ideas than ever before. We’re all inundated all the time. It’s often hard to know when you saw something, forgot it, and then it popped back up in your head later on. Nobody remembers every page they breezed through, or every status update they liked.

Take my Texas Roundup article series, for example. Did I steal the name from that recent photo event, the Texas Photo Roundup? Of course not. Had I ever visited their website? Yeah, a few months ago. Did I remember it when I came up with the name? No. Do I feel bad about it? A little. My apologies.

Bottom Line: Terrific photographs of a project you might have seen before

To Purchase “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


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  1. Visually striking portraits which could probably succeed without the gimmick. At same time, can’t help but think it’s Hugo’s easy peasy attempt at saying, “I just don’t see race,” that incredibly trite saying that rubs people the wrong way- the very people it’s supposed to assuage.

  2. “Mr. Hugo, as you know best, Controversy, is often lambasted for being a white guy who photographs black people, sometimes in unflattering ways.”

    That’s not what he’s lambasted for though. There are plenty of white photographers taking pictures of black people–even unflattering pictures–without controversy. What Hugo has been criticized for is his tendency to depict black people as the exotic Other. If you’re truly interested in having a discussion about Hugo’s photography as it relates to race, then understanding why he’s controversial is crucial.

  3. Jonathan,

    Funny a friend sent me a link Peter’s project when it came out, saying much the same thing. For the record, I began my Ultraviolet series in early 2008 after I came across the process on medi-spa and dermatologists websites while researching my Singular Beauty project. At the time, the only images I had seen that were similar, were 19c “death” daguerreotypes.

    But you bring up an interesting dilemma for photographers working in today’s fine-art photo market. It seems to very much matter who is ‘first” to get an idea to the market. And often the work that gets the most response is the one that is made by the most well-known artist, regardless of which came first or is “better.” But to me, the issue raised here is more about how art photography is marketed and consumed, than about artists copying or stealing ideas.

    I would never be so arrogant to think that Pieter Hugo knows my work. We have never met, and my UV work has not been published except in a few European photo magazines. As a matter of fact, there are two other photographers who did projects using Hugo’s channel manipulation. And I have seen several magazine portraits using the technique. Hugo’s work in much closer in style and subject to those projects than mine.

    But it would be unfair to assume that Hugo has seen any of these portraits. The similarity seems more likely to be the result of advances and adoption of digital camera technologies.

    However the unfortunate fact is, that I will probably have a harder time finding a publisher for my Ultraviolet portraits after the success of Hugo’s project. Even though there is no conceptual overlap in our work.

    This problem is something that all photographers have to contend with, but if you stopped yourself from doing every project that is similar to something someone has already done, you would never take a photo again.


    • Thanks for weighing in Cara, good to hear your view on this.

    • “This problem is something that all photographers have to contend with, but if you stopped yourself from doing every project that is similar to something someone has already done, you would never take a photo again.”

      Worth repeating.

      I always start a project because it interests me and I take pleasure from making interesting (to me) things. I have never once thought “oh no, what if someone has done this before?” I feel that people who complain that a project has done before are either sour grapes, or don’t like to be happy.

    • I worry that photographers are relying too much on “gimmick” when it comes to portraiture. Cara’s work is amazing and it doesn’t come off as a gimmick. Unfortunately, Hugo’s work does.
      IMO the gold standard for “white background portraits” is Avedon’s American West series. I used it as a base for my Death Metal portrait series. I agree that “it’s all been done before” but now it’s up to the photog to make the subject interesting as opposed to “look how clever I am, I’m shooting people with a leaf blower”. I think we’re in the age of the “subject” and have left the age of “technique” behind.
      Hugo’s work did not resonate with me. I didn’t care about the subjects despite the gimmick.

      • I tend to agree with you about subject vs. technique. American West is Avedon’s best work, for me, because they offered empathy and dignity to the subjects presented. Avedon’s technique is strong, but not stronger than the subjects he chooses. For me, that’s crucial. On the other hand, technique interests me because I’m a photographer.
        I once attended an exhibition of Diane Arbus prints. The images were, and still are, very powerful. But I was surprised by the rather poor technical quality of the prints. I’d seen better printmaking from freshmen high schoolers. No effort was made to even spot the prints.
        But what REALLY surprised me was my own reaction. I left thinking to myself, that the amateurish quality of the prints IN NO WAY diminished the exhibition or my admiration of the work itself. The subjects and the images were so compelling, such that they completely negated the relevance of her technical abilities or those that were hired for the printmaking.

        • MANY of Avedon’s subjects would argue with you that they portrayed with “empathy and dignity”, some felt betrayed, actually, and wrote him to tell him how they felt.

          As a viewer though, I personally am heavily drawn to the work because I feel they are an honest portrait of the subject, unflattering as that might be.

          • “that they were portrayed”

            • Yes, it does come down to a question of intention.
              Avedon built a career out of producing flattering images for his clients. I believe American West was intended to serve a very different agenda.
              But what a coup that would be, to make an image that EVERYBODY loves!
              Fortunately, for the American West images to succeed, flattery was not required.

              • amen.

  4. Extremely thoughtful and eloquent response above from Cara.

    I have continued to shoot my project and am currently shopping for a publisher and gallery for Nature Calls. If anyone is interested, they can see the project as it stands now here –

    I’ve been working on this project off and on since 2009, with the most recent images made a few weeks ago which are not yet on my site. Since I don’t make money (at the moment) from my personal or fine art photography, I’ve had to work on this project when there is time with the acknowledgement that may set my timeline behind others. A girl’s gotta make a living.

    I don’t want to make work or not make work because of what other photographers are making or not making. So much of this industry seems to be made up of photographers trying to catch up with trends. The best we can do is be sincere in our intent and approach to image making, and I think it ultimately shows in the work.

    • I often get ideas for other projects while working on something. This actually can be a problem sometimes as I have too many things I start on…

      So, to stop working on a project because one finds someone else has done something similar seems self defeating. You might pass up idea opportunities.

  5. The question for me is are these anything more than stylized portraits? Without more context I can’t see that they are, beyond the cryptic title.

    Cara’s work however comes out of an examination of the beauty-industrial-complex :) and uses the tools of the trade to critique the assumptions and stereotypes. It’s completely thought out.

    Both have a place in the marketplace and artworld but I take one more seriously than the other.

    • The cryptic title is a reference to a Morrissey song. Not that it makes it any less cryptic in reference to the photo project, because while there are a few ways to interpret the song’s lyrics, I don’t see how they apply here. Or maybe Hugo just really likes Morrissey.

    • @robert,

      Ditto to what you said.
      I’m a big fan of Hugo’s work but don’t see anything interesting in them beyond this “look”.

      Def. more depth with Cara’s series.

  6. Striking portraits, though I really don’t get what the artist is trying to say with the collection. It seems style over substance to me.

    • Well, we could start with the fact that this process effectively paints everyone in blackface. Why would a photographer who has already received considerable acclaim (and criticism) for his depiction of certain groups of (Black) Africans create such an essay?

      • Not sure if that technically qualifies as blackface since it’s done in post and there’s no actual paint on the people’s faces. It might sound like splitting hairs but it is the difference between someone impersonating a black person (which is what blackface has been) and making someone look like a black person. The former is a gesture by the person depicted (traditionally a ridiculing gesture) while the latter is something the photographer does to the person. I’m not saying one is better than the other but it’s somewhat different.

        As for the series, I presume Hugo’s trying to say something about racial relations and racial barriers in South Africa. If that’s the case I personally find it a bit simplistic but I’m also not a big fan of his other work.
        And the “who was first” argument is really stupid. Anyone I know who has ever processed a digital file in CameraRaw has played the blackface game (if we want to call it that) since a novice to the program will typically move the sliders to the extremes in a bw conversion in order to see what effect they have. Hugo just seems to be amongst the first to publish such pictures.

        • Ry- I know what “blackface” is. As far as this being an all too easy exercise and “statement” on race- agreed (see first two comments). I think Hugo a brilliant photographer; unfortunately, he really doesn’t even want to consider, let alone address, some of the racial baggage his previous previous work can carry and disseminate- unintentional as it may be.

          • Stan, sorry I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t know what “blackface” is, I just spelled it out in order to make clear where I see the distinction.

            I wouldn’t say he doesn’t want to address it as I’ve read interviews with him talking about it. I guess my problem with his work is that, while he might be fully aware of all the baggage of it and he might even do it intentionally to provoke, the simple fact is that the people who buy such work are much more superficial. And I do not think one can just reject any responsibility for how, i.e. in what context one’s work is viewed.

            • Ry- Totally agree with your last two points. And yes, he’s addressed it- to the extent of denying any and all implications of that baggage- though I don’t think he’s quite fully aware, and obviously not interested, in the extent of those implications.

  7. I like Hugo’s hyena pictures but these are mostly icing and little cake. Indigestion.

  8. a default tool of digitial postproduction overcooked. pun intended. and not really flattering. but the zombie-look is kinda en-vogue now after the vampire hype is fading.
    and o contraire to the images by Cara Phillips, which have both a very sophisticated technical and philisophical basis.

  9. Yawn……………………….wake me when it’s over…

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