One of the topics that comes up over and over in photography forums is the subject of graffiti and whether its legal or ethical to photograph it. After all even if the practice of graffiti is illegal the artwork is still protected by copyright. Usually the issue is not the act of photographing but perhaps the sale of such images.
That said, photographing or documenting graffiti is no different than photographing other subjects in public places such as sculpture, signs or logos. For commercial usage image buyers tend to err on the side of caution – no trademarks, logos, signs etc. They want images free and clear of any potential complications. Photojournalism on the other hand strives to show how things really and would not attempt to edit out such marks except in an attempt not to glorify gang tags perhaps. This might be a publications stance not to show certain types of graffiti.
In the art world, if you are selling images of public art, legal or illegal, the rule of thumb should be that the art in question is show in its environment. Tightly framing a shot of individual graffiti or even a public sculpture makes it more likely to seem like an attempt to make a copy of said art. This seems different than showing the work in context of the environment its found in as part of the scenery.
To outright claim that one can’t shoot graffiti gets ridiculous. Imagine, I want to take a picture of a train car. Oh no, someone sprayed it with spray paint. I guess I’ll go shoot something else. At what point do you consider it art? One line of spray paint? A entire mural?
How about this? I want to take a picture of Time’s Square. Oh no, someone put up a billboard. I guess I’ll find some place that isn’t covered with logos and signs. Maybe some street photography. Oh no that guy has a Nike shirt on. I guess he is off limits.
Documentary photographers like Walker Evans, have a long tradition of photographing signs and advertisements of the era in which they worked. I prefer to think of it as documenting. Graffiti is usually temporary and can become a historic reference. I think of my childhood thoughts of NYC in the bankrupt years when movies like “The Warriors” and “Escape from NY” depicted NYC as a hell hole and graffiti strewn subway cars created the mood of a lawless environment.
The above image of graffiti on a beach in Maui was part of my effort to strip away the travel brochure fakery and show that vacation destinations are real places with the same problems people face everywhere.
This image appears in my art book “The Last Resort” and is available on Blurb – http://www.blurb.com/b/5052770-the-last-resort
All in all photographers probably should question less about what they can and can not shoot and rather focus on whether the subject is compelling enough to be worthy of bringing attention to it. To often photographers aim their camera as what they think they are suppose to be shooting instead of developing a unique eye and showing us what the rest of us missed.
Bonus: Artist Mick Victor captures the ‘chaotic order’ of an urban landscape. The film comes from director Roman Arriola and the production company SnowGlobe Studios.