28 Aug The Fat Jewish Joke Thief
Last night my family and I heard an NPR marketplace piece about “The Fat Jewish”, a “comedian” who has become famous on instagram by stealing other people’s work and presenting it, without attribution or context, as if it were his own. I have been hearing about him and his re-posts of other comedians’ work in the last few days because he recently was signed by a big talent rep. Many other comedians are livid because his whole career is built on their work. I have a particular interest in this story because it is connected to the way in which people take advantage of photographers, building instagram accounts like @historyinpics by posting other people’s work without attribution. My mall images are a favorite of click bait sites. Some of these sites attribute the work to me, but most just post them with no attribution, often taking my text, but not including my name.
As an artist I have always had an impulse to make work and to share it. Before the internet took over our brains and communication systems, I would print my photos and bring them to rock shows in order to show them to people. Later, I would turn my color prints into letter books and send them to friends and family. I was always happy to provide my music images to fanzines and didn’t really see it as a means to make a profit. When I drove across the country to shoot in malls, I shot on slide film so it was more difficult for me to share them with others which meant they basically went unseen. I projected the slides at a rock show at Thread Waxing Space in the mid 90’s, and that was it. They went back into their slide case and disappeared into a drawer.
In 2010, I needed to scan some images for a film project, so I borrowed a negative/slide scanner from a friend. While looking for the slides that I was supposed to scan, I came across the mall images, so I popped a few in as well. I posted them to the Rumur facebook page and they really sparked a lot of interest and nostalgia. A few days later, my brother-in-law shared a post of Bruce Davidson subway images and I clicked over to check it out. They had been posted by a site called howtobearetronaut.com. I thought that a site that focused on retro images might be interested in my mall shots, so I sent them an email. A couple of days later, I got an email back saying, “These are really cool, Michael, and we would love to feature them on HtbaR- Thanks Chris”. I didn’t think much of it until about a week later when people started sharing the link with me. When I questioned the site about not letting me know the images had been posted, they told me that they liked to surprise people who submitted work. In the meantime, the images had been picked up by half a dozen blogs and they were flying around the internet at warp speed. Most of them failed to give me credit. At that point, it was almost understandable because most of the people posting them were small blogs that didn’t know any better. I was also happy that anyone was paying attention at all. After making art for nearly 20 years, I had finally connected with a mass audience that appreciated the work for what it was, without anyone trying to sell it to them or convince them of it’s worth.
I quickly threw together a kickstarter campaign to capture the energy so that I could fund the printing of a book. I mailed all of the sites that had shared the work and asked them to re-post with a link to the kickstarter campaign, and most agreed. It once again exploded and my project really took off. All of this was happening at the same time that we were rushing to finish a documentary that was going to premiere at a big film festival. The day before we left for the festival, a designer who had imprints at several publishes came over to talk about publishing the book. Someone had shared one of the web posts with him thinking that he would respond to the work – and he had. His real work focus was designing for high-end clients, and the books were just something he enjoyed doing.
He looked through the slides and then told me that we could make a book with Rizzoli or we could do it with Steidl. He explained that with Rizzoli, it would be in malls and it would be a fine book, and that I would have no trouble getting paid. He suggested that if money was an issue, that we do Rizzoli. He then said that if we did it with Steidl, there may not be money, but that we could make whatever book we wanted with no constraints. He let me know that it also might take a long time to come out. This was a big concern for me as I had to get the book to the kickstarter backers.
I knew that Steidl was the most important photo book company in the world, and I had even filmed a lecture with Gerhard Steidl and Robert Frank at the NYPL. However, I had a chip on my shoulder about the art world and quickly said, let’s do it on Rizzoli. I knew that the work had a populist appeal, and that the Rizzoli book would reach more people. He told me to think about it, and I agreed. The next day I flew to Toronto for the festival. We got in at around noon and after checking in we looked at the schedule. The first film we could go see was called, “How to Make a Book with Steidl”. You can’t make this shit up.
The film itself was fantastic, but more importantly it was clear that to turn down the opportunity to have my book published alongside those of the people like Robert Frank and William Eggleston, who inspired the work, was insane. After the film, I emailed him to say that it had to be Steidl. The next day, kickstarter included my project in their weekly email and I got 100 backers in an hour and I quickly met my goal. This meant that I either had to make a special book just for the backers, or they were going to have to wait for a while.
When the designer had come to my house to discuss the book, he expressed concern about how ubiquitous the images had become on the internet. I quickly pointed out that if they hadn’t gone viral, he wouldn’t be there. It was hard for him to argue with this point because in this moment, it was their ubiquity that was creating value. As I said, there was also a sense of validation in the public response to them. It was empowering to have jumped over the gatekeepers.
The designer really didn’t want to make a special book for the kickstarter backers, so he pushed to get the book into production even though there was a several-year backlog at Steidl. Most of the artists that print with Steidl go to Germany for the production, but since the designer was the “artist” in this case, I was not invited.
When the book was released the work once again exploded on the internet. I had told the publisher that I was going to work to make this happen, but I don’t think they really believed me, and they were woefully unprepared when it did. They printed 3000 books but only sent 500 to the US. One of the articles had an Amazon link with a clicker that tracked how many people bought the book via the link. Within 24 hours it hit 600. It also sold 49 copies of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. My book never reached stores in the US because Amazon sold all the copies before they could get there.
While those articles brought a lot of attention to the work, I was still unable to find a gallery to show the images. Due to my kickstarter campaign, I had to buy 350 books from the publisher and had to pay $20 dollars a book (they wanted $25 but I talked them down…). I had budgeted $7 for my kickstarter and hadn’t figured in foreign orders. I ended up losing a lot of money on the kickstarter campaign. The publisher also never bothered to pay me for the 3000 books they sold. They said they would republish the book the following September, but failed to do so, which was too bad because retronaut re-posted about 80 images in November via mashable. That post got shared 182,000 times and another tumblr blog picked it up and that got shared 85,000 times. The book shot up in value on the internet as people searched for copies to buy.
That January, a friend sent me a link to a site called Brainjet.com that was using my images and my words but not giving me credit. This wasn’t unusual because a lot of sites did that. However, at this point, because the images had become so widely shared and there had been so much press about it, there was no reason that a simple search of “malls 1989” wouldn’t have made it clear whose images they were. I wrote to them asking for attribution and they took them down without responding. However, things are changing, and these sites are evolving. Last week @historyinpics posted another of my mall images. This time they gave me credit. While I’d rather they paid the artists, when they attribute the work there isn’t the same sense of having it stolen. It seems like the uproar about thefatjewish is creating a spotlight on joke stealing as well, and it doesn’t seem like that will be a thriving art form for very long. The images continue to connect, and last winter two of them were included in a show at the Journal Gallery in Brooklyn.
I often ponder the designer’s query about how my images exploded on the internet. At first, it was thrilling to have them noticed. Now it feels a bit more complex. I am still thrilled that people want to engage with them, but I’m frustrated by the idea that other people are profiting from my work. This same feeling was expressed by most of the comics whose work was stolen by thefatjewish. I think that a lot of artists are like me; they simply want to make work and share it. There is really nothing more thrilling than making work on one’s own terms, and having it connect in a deep way. In the end, while there is very little gain that has found it’s way to me, I believe that the images themselves will continue to gain value, because they gain a certain level of iconic status when they become such an integral part of our understanding of the past.