For Cubs, Error Mars Mural

The first line of this Associated Press story is perfect:

“Even by the standards of the woeful Chicago Cubs, this was an unusual error.”

The AP was right. Last month the team revealed that a 1927 photograph of Charles Lindbergh included in a new mural at Wrigley Field was actually an image of the famous aviator at Comiskey Park, then the home of the Chicago White Sox.

From the AP:

Team spokesman Julian Green said the photograph of the triumphant Lindbergh was incorrectly labeled as photographs were gathered to mark the anniversary season. The mistake was first noticed by a blogger and the Cubs soon concluded that the scene depicted the South Side home of the White Sox, not the North Side home of the Cubs.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the caption of an image of Franklin D. Roosevelt at Wrigley Field–taken before he was elected–describes him as the President. “We are now reviewing all of the photos,” Green told the AP.

These errors shouldn’t spark outrage, but it’s disappointing to see a franchise with such rich, interesting history neglect to fact check. Doing so may take time and effort, but it will end up preventing situations like this one.

Photo Research: Now A Presidential Issue

Recently, an exhibit opened at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” features the former president’s paintings of world leaders. Among many others, there are portraits of Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac, and Hamid Karzai. But, as several news outlets pointed out, the oil-on-board paintings seem to be based on images found on the Internet. “It appears as if they are all lazy reproductions of some of the first Google image search results,” Animal New York pointed out.

Now, it’s unclear whether President Bush just Googled the leaders and used the first pictures that popped up. We’ll probably never find out if that’s what really happened. Regardless, the issue made us chuckle a bit. Photo research is what we do every day. Many projects that we work on involve licensing photographs. When the revamped U.S. passport featured new illustrations, it was our job to make sure we tracked down the reference photographs the government artists used to create the fresh artwork. Those kinds of photos must be licensed properly. If not, problems can crop up–sometimes ones you don’t expect.

So if you’re an aspiring artist and in the mood to illustrate a public figure–whether that’s an athlete, movie star, or politician–make sure you know the origin of your reference photograph. If you’d like to sell your painting, just call us. We’re happy to help you through the licensing process–even if you’re not a former president.

When It Comes to Photo Research, Accuracy And Attribution Matter


Our photo researchers spend countless hours tracking down and licensing images from all over the world. It’s their job to make sure whoever shot the photograph receives proper credit, no matter how obscure the photo is. Needless to say, it’s been interesting watching the proliferation of Twitter accounts dedicated to historical photographs. Rebecca Onion of Slate recently tackled the issue. In addition to the fact that many of the feeds—like, for example, @HistoryInPics—feature remarkably similar streams of photographs, some of the accounts seemingly are unconcerned with accuracy and attribution. This, as Onion explains, is quite disturbing:

In recent weeks, the attribution practices and accuracy of these feeds has become a source of consternation around the Web. Gizmodo blogger Matt Novak published a series of posts pointing out that many of the most-retweeted photos (Nikola Tesla as a swimming instructor; JFK and Marilyn Monroe cuddling) are fakes. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal tracked down the proprietors of the most-followed history pic account, @HistoryInPics, and learned that they aren’t much interested in where their images come from (“around the Internet”) or in providing any kind of attribution. Sarah Werner, digital media strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library, posted a heartfelt plea to readers of her blog, asking them to leave the historical pictures accounts behind. The post has had its own share of viral success.

The Internet is an incredible resource for history and photography buffs. There are millions of images and documents available. But sifting through it all isn’t easy, especially when so many sites and social media accounts don’t adhere to rigorous standards. And if certain images are fake or not properly attributed, it’s not just web surfers who suffer. The practice robs photographers of the recognition they deserve.

So, if you enjoy history and you spend time on the Internet, be very careful. It may be fun to peruse something like @HistoryInPics, but you may not be getting what you came for. After all, if the stated purpose of a Twitter feed is to showcase photographs from history, the content on display should be historically accurate.

When Imitation Isn’t The Finest Form Of Flattery

Art by Elizabeth Graeber

Imagine you’re an artist. One day, you find out that another artist had gained acclaim for a painting that looks exactly like one you created many years ago. Then, you learn that that painting sold at auction for nearly six million dollars. How would you react?

For one man, the scenario wasn’t hypothetical. It was bizarrely, painfully real. Simon Parkin of The New Yorker recently told the story of prolific sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss, who watched as British artist Glenn Brown’s “Ornamental Despair,” a work of art clearly derivative of one of Foss’s pieces, fetched $5.7 million in London.

The painting is almost an exact replica of a science-fiction illustration that Foss created for a men’s magazine in the nineteen-seventies, for which he was paid about three hundred and fifty pounds. Brown’s painting was based on a reprint of Foss’s original, featured in a 1990 book collection of the artist’s work. “I knew he copied it from the book because the painting was cropped to fit the page. His version is clearly based on the cropped version,” Foss said.

How did that happen? First, it helps to know that Brown is known for this kind of thing. As Parkin put it: Brown “is a controversial figure in the art world, well known for reinterpretations of other artists’ works that are strikingly close to the originals.”

In the early 1990s, Brown actually—and reportedly, in a sneaky fashion—asked Foss for permission to paint a new version of the illustration. At the time, Foss was working for movie director Stanley Kubrick. “I was commuting up to [Kubrick’s] house every day when my assistant received a letter from Brown,” Foss told Parkin. “He put himself over as a young student who loved my work, and who wanted to create an homage. I scribbled a reply that simply read, ‘Go for it.'”

And the rest, to Foss’s chagrin, is history. Foss, Parkin reported, was only paid about 350 pounds for his initial painting. He didn’t get a cut of the $5.7 million. “What I can’t understand is,” he told Parkin, “who would pay six million dollars for a copy when they can buy the original for a fraction of the price?”

The art market can be completely ludicrous, with the reputation and personality of certain artists causing prices to skyrocket. As a result, lesser known artists like Foss sometimes find themselves getting the short end of the stick. If there’s any consolation, it’s that Foss remains as prolific and passionate as ever—even if his work isn’t making him filthy rich.

Finding Images At The End Of The World

Cellulose nitrate negatives

At PhotoAssist, we specialize in tracking down obscure images. Over the past two decades, we’ve helped secure hundreds of thousands of photographs—but sometimes finding a picture literally requires going to the ends of the Earth.

Last month, the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand announced that it had found century-old negatives. The images were made during the Ross Sea Party, an expedition led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton that lasted from 1914 to 1917. The negatives were in a box inside a hut originally used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who led an Antarctic voyage in the early 1910s.

In the newly released Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake, the title character, played by Ben Stiller, goes on a global mission to track down a missing photographic negative. But even that story isn’t quite as fantastic and unlikely as this one.

It was an amazingly rare find. As the Heritage Trust explained:

The negatives were found in expedition photographer Herbert Ponting’s darkroom and have been painstakingly conserved revealing never before seen Antarctic images.

The Trust’s conservation specialists discovered the clumped together cellulose nitrate negatives in a small box as part of the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project, which has seen more than 10,000 objects conserved at Scott’s Cape Evans hut.

The negatives yielded 22 images, including one of Shackleton’s chief scientist, Alexander Stevens, standing onboard the Aurora. It was an impressive outcome, especially considering the negatives are about 100 years old. (Not to mention the fact that they were stored in brutally cold conditions.)

If anything, the find proves that with ingenuity, and in this case, a little bit of luck, you can make new discoveries in the unlikeliest of places. Even if it means going to the South Pole to do so.


Saluting Art Director Phil Jordan

In our time working with the U.S. Postal Service, we’ve collaborated with some amazing artists and art directors. But few were as prolific and creative as Phil Jordan, who is stepping down from his post after a distinguished career with USPS. In almost a quarter century as an art director, he oversaw the development of hundreds of postage stamps.

The list of stamps he designed is long and varied. Some of his recent stamps include: the 2011 Neon! Celebrate stamp, the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, and the 2013 Civil War: 1863 stamps. We’re especially fond of the uniquely beautiful 2012 Cherry Blossom Centennial stamps. They feature an illustration by Paul Rogers.

Over the years, he worked on several aviation-themed stamps, including the 1997 Classic American Aircraft stamps — for which he meticulously fact-checked the artwork, even counting the number of rivets depicted — and the 2003 First Flight stamp. It was a labor of love for Jordan, an avid glider pilot.

Jordan, who’s from New Bern, North Carolina, and lives in Falls Church, Virginia, has had a long, successful career as a designer. After working for Beveridge and Associates, Inc., for 18 years, he started his own design firm, where he worked with clients such as USAir, IBM, and NASA. A past president of the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington, Jordan has had his work featured in Graphis and Communications Arts.

Phil’s dedication and eye for detail has helped make our mail more attractive and exciting. We wish him the best.

New Yorker & Artist Kadir Nelson Honor Nelson Mandela


Courtesy of The New Yorker

On December 5, South African leader Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. Of the countless moving tributes delivered to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, perhaps none was more vivid than the New Yorker’s. The magazine’s new cover features a portrait of a young Mandela with his right fist raised high in the air. Artist Kadir Nelson, whose work has appeared on several U.S. Postal Service stamps, created the oil painting.

“From looking at the photos of the time, I could see that the energy around him was very strong and that his peers were very much with and behind him,” Nelson told the magazine. “He was clearly a leader. I wanted to make a simple and bold statement about Mandela and his life as a freedom fighter. The raised fist and the simple, stark palette reminded me of posters and anti-apartheid imagery of the nineteen-eighties. This painting is a tribute to the struggle for freedom from all forms of discrimination, and Nelson’s very prominent role as a leader in the anti-apartheid movement.”

Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Kadir on multiple projects for USPS. His work has appeared on the 2009 Anna Julia Cooper and Richard Wright stamps, the 2010 Negro Leagues Baseball stamps, the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, and most recently, this year’s Althea Gibson stamp.

He’s also created album cover art for Drake and Michael Jackson, and recently wrote and illustrated a children’s book about Mandela. The New Yorker cover is another incredible creation. We congratulate Kadir on the achievement!

This entry was posted and tagged Kadir Nelson, Nelson Mandela, Stamps, The New Yorker, U.S. Postal Service on by .

Does Fair Use Protect Parody?


GoldieBlox has one basic mission: to create toys that help girls develop an early interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. To promote its products during the holiday season, the company recently released a video that featured a version of “Girls,” a song by the Beastie Boys. On the surface, the parody–which featured different lyrics than the original–seemed harmless. But the Beastie Boys didn’t view it that way.

After GoldieBlox preemptively filed a lawsuit that claimed the company should indeed be able to use the song in its parody, the rap group wrote an open letter that read in part:

We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering.

As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.

So who wins this argument?

Well, as The Economist pointed out, “GoldieBlox filed a lawsuit commonly used in fair-use proceedings asking for a declarative judgement against the Beastie Boys, to affirm the advertisement’s status as a parody.” Fair use, the article explains, is “designed to allow parody, commentary and analysis that advance academic, political or social purposes.” However, in order to determine whether something qualifies for fair-use protection, a four-part test is administered. That often requires expensive litigation, so before parodying a song, artists usually ask permission.

But does GoldieBlox’s use of “Girls” qualify for fair-use protection? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. On his site, Waxy, Andy Baio summed up the situation well:

Different judges rule differently on similar fair use cases, and circuit courts commonly reverse fair use rulings from district courts on appeal. If even judges can’t agree on fair use, what chance do the rest of us have of understanding it?

In fair use, there’s no silver bullet and exceptions are the norm. Some parodies are fair use, others aren’t. Commercial use can weigh against a fair use ruling, but there are many notable commercial exceptions. Using a substantial amount of the original artwork can hurt your case, other times it doesn’t matter. Damaging the market value of an original artwork can hurt your claim or, as with parodies, it may not matter at all.

In the case of the Beastie Boys vs. GoldieBlox, however, no judgement was needed. Respecting the group’s wishes, the toy company eventually pulled the video, which had amassed 8 million views on YouTube. GoldieBlox even posted a letter addressed to Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond–the two living members of the Beastie Boys–on its website.

“We don’t want to spend our time fighting legal battles,” it read. “We want to inspire the next generation. We want to be good role models. And we want to be your friends.”

What do you think? Was it fair use? Let us know!

The Spy Museum Is On The Move

Of all the organizations PhotoAssist has worked with since our inception, the International Spy Museum might be the most intriguing. In preparation for the museum’s launch, we spent two years tracking down 1,000 photographs, documents, and drawings. The museum, a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Washington, D.C., has been open and going strong for more than a decade.

Last week, some interesting news broke: The Spy Museum is headed to a new location. According to several reports, plans call for the museum to move from its spot on F Street NW to the Carnegie Library. From the Associated Press story:

Museum officials told The Associated Press on Monday they will propose a redevelopment of Washington’s historic Carnegie Library with the city’s convention center authority, Events DC. The project would include new 40,000-square-foot underground space for exhibits and a new glass pavilion to house a District of Columbia visitors center, cafe and museum store.

Peter Earnest, the museum’s executive director and a former CIA agent, said the Spy Museum has outgrown its space since opening in 2002 in downtown Washington.

What’s particularly exciting about the move is that the Spy Museum aims to become a nonprofit organization. That’s the goal of founder Milton Maltz and Malrite Co., the company that owns the museum. “They realize it’s an important institution and want it to go on,” Earnest told the AP. “They think the best way to assure that is to give it to the community.”

The Spy Museum is a fascinating place. It will be interesting to see what its future holds.

Exploring the New-look Postal Museum

When the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery opens on September 22, there’s little doubt both those with a passing interest in stamps and hardcore collectors will be pleased. The 12,000-square foot space, the museum’s web site says, “continually reminds visitors that the history of stamps is intertwined with the history of America.”

It’s an exciting time for the Postal Museum, an organization PhotoAssist has worked closely with over the years. We proudly collaborated on the creation of several exhibits, including multiple Art of the Stamp displays. This week, we got a sneak peak of the Gross Gallery.

To put it simply: it’s very, very cool.

As soon as you walk into the museum’s Historic Lobby—which if you’re visiting Washington, D.C. is located right outside Union Station—you’ll notice a series of massive video screens that will be filled with stamp-related graphics.

Inside, the gallery is split into several sections. The first exhibit you see when you walk in is the World of Stamps. There are dozens of images of oversized stamps on display on video monitors, some of which are hanging from the ceiling. Postal Museum exhibits director Patricia Burke aptly described the display as a “stamp tree.” It’s a great introduction to the Gross Gallery, which full of stamp-related goodies. “You can’t walk in here and say, ‘I don’t know that this is a gallery of stamps,’” Burke said.

Connect With U.S. Stamps is another interesting exhibit. My favorite aspects of the area, which is designed to show how stamp production has evolved over time, are the touchscreen tables visitors can use. Each monitor, which is shaped like a giant rectangular stamp, gives visitors an extensive digital library of stamps to browse through. You can search the huge database—4,000 stamps!—select your favorites, and email the stamp images to yourself to create a virtual collection. There is a great mix of classics and modern stamps to choose from.

The most discerning stamp collectors will love the National Stamp Salon, which features pullout frames that hold stamps and various other items. Also on display in the salon: the Postmaster General’s stamp collection.

And those are just a few of the exhibits at the Gross Gallery. It opens on September 22, and is definitely worth a visit.

This entry was posted and tagged National Stamp Museum, Postal Service, Smithsonian, stamp collecting, Stamps, USPS on by .