Yesterday, the Internet was abuzz over Kathy Griffin’s new photoshoot showing the comedian holding the bloody severed head of Donald Trump. Despite not even being a real severed head, the photo wasn’t particularly popular on either side of the aisle. Especially amongst Presidential offspring from both major parties; both Donald Trump, Jr. and Chelsea Clinton denounced it. Griffin apologized stating that she “went too far,” but she still lost her CNN job over it.
But there’s another controversy — this time about the photographer of the image, Tyler Shields. In a 2016 article that’s been re-discovered, Vice‘s Executive West Coast Editor Jamie Lee Curtis Taete accuses Shields of repeated plagiarism. Taete compiles a number of examples from Shields’ own website, next to images by other photographers that are quite similar.
Some examples are more damning than others. For example, Taete compares this photo with the single sleeve for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero”:
While there is a clear similarity, the eyeball-in-mouth image is a little cliche. A number of similar results show up on google, including this poster for the film The Theatre Bizarre:
A similar image was used in the cult sketch comedy film Tunnel Vision:
Sadly, not all cases are as obviously ambiguous. The similarities between Shields’ photo and Guy Bourdin’s photo are shocking:
The general idea of a woman in lingerie crawling through a mousehole the same — but an idea like this isn’t copyrightable. However, the poses of the women are both similar, as are the high-heels, stockings and underwear.
Or this shot, which is almost a carbon copy of Terry Richardson’s:
Of course — there’s no shame in being influenced by others, nor in commenting on their work. Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. famously adds a moustache to the Mona Lisa. But in that case, the reference is deliberate; Shields denies being aware of Terry Richardson’s work in this interview:
Are you influenced by Terry Richardson? Who are other photographers that you’d consider inspiration?
Tyler Shields: No we have some friends in common and they always tell me we could not be more different. To be honest I don¹t look at other peoples work I only know who terry is because people have asked me if I like his work [sic]
Shields has been accused of plagiarism before; Henry Leutwyler noticed that one of Shields’ was very similar to his own:
Shields responded, offering a backstory behind his photo:
This is one of the most liked and and most shared photos I have ever taken, I first tried to do this photo in 2009 and was not happy with the results, so I shelved it then in 2011 I tried it again and again was un happy so I let the idea go for a while hoping that it would come back around again every time I would meet a ballerina I would ask to see her feet, in 2014 while shooting another ballet project, I finally met someone who I thought would be able to introduce me to the right person to execute it exactly how I wanted, One of the things I realized when I finally got it after 6 years of trying was shooting it on a Hasselblad took it to another level and waiting 6 years was worth it.
However, as Leutwyler told Vice, he didn’t buy it:
He has mentioned that it has taken him years to create this image but an image like this is documentary, not staged, and should not be staged. The picture I took actually happened while I was working backstage on a book for NYC Ballet. Those are real ballerina feet and that is what they looked like after a performance. It was a fairly spontaneous shot in the end.
Google has even been fooled; if you image search for this image by Tyler Shields:
Google thinks it’s this famous image by Helmut Newton:
Taete’s original article has a number of other examples — including some of thematic plagiarism, like how Shields later used Ryan McGinley’s trademark of models falling from the sky as his own. Taete also interviews critics about whether or not Shields’ copying is artistically valid. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but it is a little strange.