Did Bob Dylan Rip Off Classic Photos for His Gagosian Show? See the Evidence

Bob Dylan's "Opium," (2009) next to a photograph by Léon Busy, taken in Vietnam in 1915
(Left: Gagosian Gallery / Right: © Musée Albert Kahn)

Timeand time again folk rock legend Bob Dylan has blatantly borrowed for his lyrics. Christie's auction house acknowledged in 2009 that a handwritten Dylan poem that was up for sale really consisted of words from a song by country crooner HankSnow. Director Martin Scorsese showed in his 2005documentary, "No Direction Home," how Dylan stole the line "Go away from mywindow..." — the immortal opener of his 1964song "It Ain't Me, Babe" — from singer John Jacob Niles. Dylan also purloined text from Japanese writerJunichi Saga's novel "Confessions of a Yakuza" for his 2001 album "Love andTheft." And that's not the only thing Dylan lifted from Asia.

For the current exhibition of Dylan's paintings, "The Asia Series," which runs from September 20 to October 22 at Gagosian's Madison Avenue gallery, the artist painted 18 images — andsome of these are copied from well-known photographs, the New York Times reports. Gagosian claims on its Web site that the show is "a visual reflection on his[Dylan's] travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea," and the "people, streetscenes, architecture, and landscapes" that he encountered there. But some digging on a discussion page at the Dylan fan site Expecting Rain, which furnished the evidence that prompted the New York Timesarticle, reveals that no less than ten pieces in "The Asia Series" may in fact be avisual reflections of Dylan's travels through online photo archives rather than of any personal journey.

As a matter of fact, no less than six photographsin the show are seemingly drawn from a single source: Flickr user Okinawa Soba's photostream. "Imagine my surprise to see at least FIVE or SIX Dylan paintings on the Gallery walls that appear to have been painted from photographs in my personal collection (the originals still in my possession), and posted by me to FLICKR," the user posted on the Expecting Rain message board. Thephotos include a 1900 James Ricalton photo of a Manchu bride and groomin Beijing, a 1923 photograph of a Canton canal crowded with river boats, andcirca 1880 photograph of a Japanese pack horse in front of Mount Fuji. In these instances,Dylan cannot be said to have broken any laws, because the photographs fall in the realm of publicdomain.

But four of the photographs replicated in Dylan's show are, in fact, copyrighted. Two that the singer copied are owned by Magnum Photos — one is a 1998 Bruce Gildenblack-and-white photo of a pair of Yakuza gangsters lighting a cigarette and another is a 1948 HenriCartier-Bresson image of a eunuch in the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi's court. A third,a Dmitri Kessel Life magazine picture titled "Boys Playing Board Game onSidewalk in Front of the Trocadero Hotel" is owned by the Life Archive. A 1915Léon Busy image of a Vietnamese woman that apparently inspired Dylan's 2010 painting"Opium" — the work used to promote the Gagosian show — has a 2008 copyright owned by France's Musée Albert Kahn.

When ARTINFO asked Gagosian for comment on the situation, the gallery provided the same statementit gave the New York Times: "While the composition of some of Bob Dylan'spaintings are based on a variety of sources, including archival, historicimages, the paintings' vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and texturesfound in everyday scenes he observed during his travels."

Dylan's artworks, however, are evidently close copies of the original photographs — few, if any, artistic liberties taken can be discerned, aside from adding color to black-and-white picures. In a statement releasedjust this Monday, Gagosian acknowledged that some of Dylan's paintings are based on archival and historicimages — but it is unclear why the gallery wasn't more careful given its recent, high-profile run-ins with copyright law.

In March of this year, French photographerPatrick Cariou won a lawsuit against Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery (Prince is currently appealing). In the suit, Cariou accused Prince of copying 41 of his photographs of Rastas inJamaica from his 2000 book, "Yes, Rasta," for aDecember 2007 Gagosian show for a series called "Canal Zone." Judge DeborahA. Battsruled that Prince's use of the images was not "transformative" enough to be allowableunder fair use.


It bears mentioning that Prince, whose "Canal Zone" artworks garnered up to $10 millionapiece, and whose appropriations seemed far more "transformative" than Dylan's, wrote the text for the "The Asia Series" catalogue.

Click on the photo gallery at left to see a selection of BobDylan's "Asia Series" paintings at Gagosian Gallery next to the original photographs he copied from.