Self-Portrait or Portraiture?
Just a couple days after HBO aired its documentary, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” James “Bobby” Miller filed a $65 million lawsuit involving four photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Miller filed suit against The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Sean Kelly Gallery, Skarstedt Gallery, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (The Guggenheim), and Whitney Museum of American Art. In this action, he is alleging all are representing Mapplethorpe as the artist behind the photographs when Miller is the true artist. Miller also has attached to his complaint a valid Certificate of Copyright Registration issued by the Register of Copyrights.
Miller claims that in 1979 he spent the evening with Mapplethorpe and another friend, Larry Desmedt, that resulted in Miller persuading Mapplethorpe to dress in drag specifically for Miller to photograph him. Miller, also a makeup artist, applied makeup to Mapplethorpe and styled his hair and clothing, along with adjusting the lighting in the studio and operating the camera. However, after the photography session was over, Miller did not take the undeveloped film with him. Instead, Mapplethorpe told Miller his studio assistant would develop the film for Miller, but Miller never received the developed photographs. Therefore, Miller alleges that he is the owner of the copyrights for these photographs. Further, due to claiming the copyright on the four photographs, Miller claims the defendants have violated his rights to reproduce, distribute, and display the images. Miller alleges all of this was done by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation with the knowledge that the photographs were Miller’s creation, as he had advised them several times he was the true artist.
What’s interesting about this case is Miller’s story behind the true copyright. Miller’s claims rest on a night that he spent with two people who cannot corroborate his story because both men are deceased. Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989 and Larry Desmedt (aka Indian Larry) died in 2004. Not only are both men deceased, but also Miller never had possession of the original images and did not leave the studio with the undeveloped film. Miller may have difficulty actually proving he is the true artist behind the four photographs, especially when a likely opposing argument is that the four self-portraits have a similar aesthetic to Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Mapplethorpe had possession of the film the whole time.
In his complaint, Miller mentions that at some point in the night he recorded his conversation with Mapplethorpe. Given the wording of the complaint, it reads as though this recorded conversation occurred earlier in the evening, before the alleged photography session. Unless this recording consists of conversation concerning Miller photographing Mapplethorpe, there does not appear to be proof at the moment that can really back Miller’s claim. Although he submitted a Certificate of Copyright Registration, this does not automatically mean that the court will hold Miller has the copyright to the photographs.
At first glance, this case appears more to be about Miller taking advantage of Mapplethorpe coming into discussion again through the HBO documentary with a story that Miller is the true artist of the four images from a night with two men who are not alive to corroborate the claims. However, with just the complaint to go off of, this could truly turn into a different story depending on what other facts may come to light.